Beatrix Willimont interviews Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg in light of his visit to UCL.
On the 25th of January, Nick Clegg, former Deputy Prime Minister and former leader of the Liberal Democrats, visited UCL to speak at event inspired by his latest book, ‘How To Stop Brexit’. A passionate pro-remainer, Nick believes that Brexit is not inevitable. The only inevitability, in his view, is that if the UK does leave the EU, it will be highly damaging to Britain, resulting in adverse consequences spanning decades to come. Brexit, if it does happen, will be looked upon by future generations as an historic mistake. For the sake of clarity and brevity, some aspects of the conversation have been lightly edited.
Pi Media: Do you think that, prior to the Brexit referendum, there was a general belief in government that the public would certainly not vote in favour of Brexit?
Nick Clegg: It is definitely true. Of the many tragedies of this whole saga, the one that’s perhaps most telling, like in many tragedies, is the hubris, there was immense hubris from David Cameron and his inner circle, they basically thought that it would be effortlessly won. I spent five years blocking the bonkers idea of having a referendum to basically settle the internal family spat within the conservative party, and I remember it, the conversations with David Cameron where he from time to time would sort of suggest to me that maybe as a coalition we should have a referendum. I remember being struck by how unquestioningly he asserted that it would be won by the remain side.
What do you think is Theresa May’s personal stance on Brexit?
Well I worked with her very closely for half a decade and, without wanting to sound too disobliging, she’s not really someone who has many strong convictions on anything, as far I can make out. She’s a very managerial politician, a competent administrator, but she’s not someone who lives and breathes a sense of political mission or vision at all. The sad thing is that at exactly the time when we need someone in Number 10 who is prepared to take the long view, and sort of distinguish the wood from the trees, we’ve got someone who is actually, in many respects, quite an unimaginative politician, which is why she’s ended up in this ridiculous position of in effect acting like a sort of puppet to the right-wing interests in her own party. A bigger politician, a braver politician would really try and act in the interests of the country, including in the interests of the next generation. I don’t know of any other example in the democratic world, in the modern era, where a mature democracy takes such an abrupt and radical decision about its own future, against the explicit stated wishes of those who have to inhabit that future – the young. The fact that this doesn’t seem to weigh too heavily on her mind I find astonishing.
You have urged voters to join either Labour of the Conservatives in order to fight against Brexit, despite the fact that your own party, the Liberal Democrats, are emphatically pro-remain. What has made you think that the party you used to lead isn’t the best vehicle for achieving change at the moment?
To clarify, I haven’t said that the Liberal Democrats should leave the Liberal Democrats and go and join the Labour or Conservative parties. I’ve said that people who vote for the Labour and Conservative parties anyway, but don’t like Brexit, should turn their passive support for those two parties into more active participation within either party. If a tiny fraction of people who voted remain were to join the conservative party, for instance, you’d outweigh the number of members in that party overnight. If Momentum can engineer this ‘entréeism’ into the Labour party, why can’t remain voters do so in the parties in reverse? I’m not advocating a mass defection from the dear old Liberal Democrats. There are millions of young people who have gravitated to Jeremy Corbyn (from my point of view, inexplicably given how Eurosceptic he is) who really don’t like Brexit, and what I’m saying is they should become more involved. If you’re a member of a political party, you say to your local MP or local party “I’m going to resign my membership unless you change your stance”, I can tell you, having been there, they will sit up and listen.
As we’re sitting in a university, and upon popular request by my peers, I must ask you about tuition fees. A lot of young people continue to feel betrayed by the rise in tuition fees and the significant debt those who attend university will now be burdened with. Do you ever feel that you’re partly to blame for the rise of leftist populism among the young, and the support for Jeremy Corbyn, because you backtracked on one of the promises you made to young people?
I don’t think I can single-handedly be blamed for everything regarding tuition fees, I find that slightly absurd. I don’t want to go over the whole sorry history. I’m afraid I’m not the first and I suspect I’m not the last person to raise expectations on higher education funding – after all it was the Labour party who introduced the damn things and then tripled them, by the way, having said they wouldn’t. Corbyn has raised the expectation that you can get rid of all student debt. Clearly, he’s got no ability to do so. I found myself in the invidious position of being in a government but not fully in charge of it. I didn’t win the election, and it was irrelevant who we went into coalition with, both the Conservative and Labour parties were determined to see fees rise further. So, we tried to mitigate the changes as much as we could. I personally am very, very critical of the changes that the conservatives have introduced, particularly the removal of the grants to cover living expenses for students from poorer backgrounds, which is actually the most regressive thing of all. If you want to distinguish rhetoric from reality, the thing that is most punitive for people from poor families who want to go to university are the upfront living costs. One of the decisions I took in government was to significantly increase the grants given to poorer students to cover living costs and I think converting those into loans, which is what George Osbourne did soon after the coalition, has been a very regressive move. So, in answer to your question, no of course I don’t think I’m single-handedly responsible. Leftist youth movements have been around from the dawn of time, they weren’t invented in 2010.
Do you think young people are as left-wing as they are made out to be?
Well, it depends what you mean by left-wing. Let me give you one little example, if I may. The Labour party manifesto last year was not a particularly progressive manifesto at all, in fact, it was socially quite regressive, it had nothing in it to help the very poorest on this fraught issue of higher education funding. I personally think that Corbyn’s stance on Europe is deeply regressive. I was accused constantly for half a decade by somewhat sanctimonious folk from the left of betraying progressive values. What the Labour party are doing now on Brexit in my view is the greatest betrayal of progressive values this country has seen in a generation. And yet, people will say it’s left-wing; I don’t think it’s remotely left-wing. I don’t think you can build a progressive Britain if you divorce yourself from the EU. It’s always the same in politics as much as it is in life – the language we use to describe each other is often quite separate from the reality.
Are you disillusioned with politics?
Disillusioned is probably not the right word. I’m very worried because I think our capacity to compromise with each other, our ability to look at the evidence and try and act objectively and dispassionately, our ability to reach out to people of different views, is being steadily eroded. I think there is an anger, a purism and a rigidity in the way people now talk about politics. I’m a Liberal Pluralist – I think one of the essences of liberalism, particularly British liberalism, is the idea that you try to accommodate different views in a plural and diverse society. But if you have this kind of politics where everyone on the right thinks they’re completely right, to the exclusion of everything else, and everyone on the left thinks they’re completely right and each sort of sanctimoniously condemns everybody else, you can’t make progress like that. We are a diverse society and we have to work out a way for us, as a mature democracy, to try and encompass those differences, not somehow try and banish the views we don’t like. As this polarisation to the far right and the far-left progresses, I do worry that the traditions of British liberalism are under serious threat.
Many of my peers now feel rather pessimistic about their future prospects in Britain, be they British nationals, or European students having come to the UK to study. How do you think we can act? What is the best thing we can do?
I think you have more power than you think! My great worry is a lot of young people will just shrug their shoulders and go, “Oh well we’ve been shafted again! No one is listening to us; all politicians are the same!” Whereas actually, I think if young people could be more forceful in saying to politicians up and down the country, of different parties: “Look, you cannot go ahead with something which we don’t want, we are the ones who have to live with the consequences of your actions.” Imagine if this summer there were mass youth and student demonstrations in every town and city in this country with placards saying, ‘Not in Our Name!’ or ‘Not in My Name!’. You’d have to be a pretty bone headed MP to not think about that long and hard when you come to cast your vote, as MPs will in the fateful vote this autumn and winter.
As our interview ends, I head to the packed auditorium where the talk is to take place. Whilst it is clearly a chance for him to plug his book, I believe him when he says he is coming from a place of genuine concern and I appreciate his efforts to emphasise the harms of polarisation and the refusal to engage open-mindedly with views that contradict your own.
As I sit in the audience, I continue to wonder about how David Cameron’s government was content to play Russian roulette with the future of the United Kingdom, labouring under the bizarre and false assumption that no one could possibly actually get shot. (Metaphorically, that is.) Going ahead with an event as momentous as a referendum in an attempt to shutdown internal party conflicts and the increasingly vocal far-right belies an arrogance long associated with the establishment that was highly likely more responsible for the result of the referendum than any actual problems resulting from us being members of the EU.
Will Brexit be an historic mistake? Maybe. Should all politicians, regardless of party affiliation, be doing everything is their power to learn from this mess? Definitely. Will they? Probably not.
Nick Clegg’s book ‘How to Stop Brexit’ is out now.