Alex Stephenson questions Nick Clegg’s recent political comeback
On 25th January hundreds of students descended on UCL to hear Nick Clegg give a talk on stopping Brexit. In light of this, you could almost be forgiven for thinking the last seven years hadn’t happened. Through the haze of vintage tinted glasses it was clear: sharp shooting, public school white male politicians are here to save us from their own creation. Cleggmania is back. Of course, not everyone was easily swept up. Despite the largely positive reception, there were allusions from both the audience and Clegg himself to his betrayal of students over tuition fees. However, it has become apparent that this narrative has begun to suit him by drawing focus on an issue he’s dealt with hundreds of times before, at the expense of acknowledging the rest of his legacy. From protest, the visceral rage, to pointed comments at talks, Clegg has been reprimanded for ‘tuition fees’ more than any other politician. It’s because of this that he can so nonchalantly address a hall of students, smiling as the comments are made, knowing he’s heard it all before.
Rather than just tuition fees, then, we should be addressing the rest of his record. From voting for cuts to disability benefits, to the bedroom tax, to foreign wars and the deregulation of fracking, Clegg enabled the hardship 2010-15 held for some of the most vulnerable in our society. With statistics showing homelessness has risen every year since 2010, now up 169%, we should be wary of mollifying the concrete contribution the Lib Dems made to our current situation. Ironically, one of societal issues Clegg correctly identifies – the democratic deficit ongoing throughout the Brexit debate – is an issue of his own creation. Terrible campaigning aside, the failure to tackle the problems apparent through the underfunding of our NHS, police and schools led to the viable scapegoating of immigrants and the ‘us vs them’ resentment that contributed to the Leave victory. The debt the Conservative party feel they owe to Clegg is perhaps illustrated by his recent knighthood. Tuition fees are just one piece of a larger picture which, unfortunately, continues to shape politics today.
With this in mind let us consider Clegg’s contribution to politics post-2017, when he unceremoniously lost his seat to the now disgraced Labour MP Jared O’Mara. Clegg began his talk by explaining why, for the sake of the future of the country, he is still passionately going on about the EU. His opinion on the matter will not be silenced (although quite who is silencing him at a lecture with an audience of 500 remains unclear). This is all well and good. However, a period of introspection might lead him to ask whether he is actually helping the cause he (undoubtedly) cares very passionately about. From dismissing the concerns of a Polish citizen living in the UK by telling her she will just have a few more forms to fill out to describing Jeremy Corbyn’s popularity as due to his ‘cult of personality’, it is clear politics has moved on a lot since Clegg was in office. Economic liberalism is no longer the mainstream. ‘Radical centrism’ is no longer moderate; the Overton window has shifted. With this is mind it becomes apparent his foray into the Brexit debate understandably consists of the same rhetoric that lost the referendum in the first place. Going forward we should be pushing for these considerably influential politicians to make the structural changes that prevent the sort of disillusionment Clegg acknowledged leads to Brexit votes.
So, yes, students should be angry. We were let down on tuition fees and continue to be let down by Clegg’s failure to acknowledge the harm his government caused. Bringing out the old criticisms over our huge debt, criticism he now reflexively swats away, doesn’t do justice to the rest of society let down by the Tory-Lib Dem coalition. Most likely, at the next general election, Clegg will be back. In the meantime, he must acknowledge the rest of his legacy and adopt an approach to Brexit that centres less around book sales and more around addressing people’s legitimate concerns about inequality, the underfunding of public services and empowerment. The two things will go hand in hand.
Featured image: Wikimedia
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