Nick Clegg is not a traitor!
After all, before you can betray a principle you first need to have one. The Clegg generation of politicians are conformists without a cause.
Given that we apparently live in an age of cynicism, mistrust and Wikileaks, there appears to be a remarkable degree of wide-eyed naivety around when it comes to expectations of those in positions of power.
Who do you think has been the more politically naive of late? Was it those who seriously believed that a bit of celebrity glitter from Prince William and the two Davids, Beckham and Cameron, would persuade the FIFA committee men to give the World Cup to England, rather than follow their own interests and give it to Russia, as predicted on spiked? Or is it those who are green enough to scream about the results of the X-Factor, for XXXX’s sake, being ‘rigged’ by Simon Cowell, as if the show was anything more meaningful than an entertaining cash machine for him?
But even in the face of this stiff competition, the prize for political naivety should surely go to those innocent babes-in-arms who are apparently shocked and appalled that Nick Clegg has ‘turned traitor’ by ditching the Liberal Democrats’ election pledge and backing the proposed increase in university tuition fees.
Clegg, leader of the Lib Dems and deputy prime minister in the coalition with Cameron’s Conservatives, may be many things, ‘self-satisfied creep’ and ‘pathetic excuse for a statesman’ being just two possible suggestions. But one thing he is not is a traitor. To be a traitor to a cause, you first need to have one to betray. Clegg, like the other top parliamentarians of the age, is a conformist without a cause.
Less political leader than managerial jobsworth, Clegg has no more principles or party loyalties to guide his actions than a Cowell-like chancer or a FIFA committee placeman. Indeed Clegg is arguably even less to be trusted, since they at least have a clear sense of where their own interests lie and will follow the money with a deep sense of commitment. The Clegg generation of politically rootless, ideologically anchorless leaders are an unstable mixture of opportunism and cluelessness which represents no clear interests and can switch positions and sacrifice ‘core values’ overnight without too much conscience-wrestling.
On the face of it Clegg’s flip-flop on tuition fees does look fairly remarkable. In the May General Election, Clegg – along with other prospective Lib Dem members of parliament – pledged to oppose any increase in the £3000-a-year tuition fees for university students, and to support the eventual abolition of fees altogether. Now he is calling on all Lib Dem MPs to support instead the coalition government’s proposal to increase fees up to a maximum of £9000 a year. From abolishing fees to tripling them certainly represents a stark ‘refinement’ of policy.
However, this u-turn should have come as a shock only to those – many of them supposedly jaundiced journalists – who fell in wide-eyed wonder for the myths of ‘Cleggmania’ in the first place. Remember how, in the spring of the General Election campaign, the Lib Dems were supposed to stand for a new politics of honesty and principle, a fresh approach that would overthrow the discredited order at Westminster? The call to end university tuition fees was presented as the cutting edge of Clegg’s appeal to an idealistic new generation of voters, especially in university towns.
The Lib Dems’ disappointing election results quickly revealed that Cleggmania existed on Planet Media far more than in the real world. Now those who fell for it are expressing their disillusionment with Clegg to anybody who will listen, ie every rolling news programme. They should have known better.
As spiked pointed out before the election, Clegg is part of a new cross-party elite – along with the likes of Cameron and the Milibands – that bears little relation to their predecessors. Today we have parties without politics, empty shells fronted by a leader with a PR machine that can rebrand his media image as readily as an X-Factor celebrity after a bad week. Clegg is not unique in being a non-political politician – see new New Labour leader Ed Miliband boasting about his ‘blank page’ on policy. But the deputy prime minister is an outstanding example of this isolated navel-gazing elite. From his background as a Euro-bureaucrat and a Westminster lobbyist – just five years ago – he has risen to be deputy premier without trace and without noticeably standing for anything in society.
When politicians are not constrained either by principles or by the demands of a movement, anything becomes possible, as Brendan O’Neill pointed out all of eight months ago: ‘In such a climate, when the party is all about the leader and the leader is all about personality and celebrity, leaders like Clegg can easily move to the left, to the right, forwards, backwards, wherever. Unanchored by any real political movement or beliefs, and pushed forward to fill today’s democratic vacuum with a little bit of parliamentary celebrity, the Dear Leaders can make all sorts of weird and unpredicted political leaps.’
Against this background, the Lib Dem leaders’ u-turn on university fees should come as little shock to anybody. Clegg and his allies have few concerns about abandoning their apparent pledges, regardless of what their own MPs or voters might think. For this new breed of politicians democracy is an inconvenience that stops on election day, after which government is nobody’s business but theirs. Hence they formed a coalition that nobody voted for, and then pulled up the Westminster drawbridge by legislating for a five-year parliament.
Vince Cable, the Liberal Democrat cabinet minister now in charge of student fees, spelt out the political elite’s view of the world when asked how he could justify reneging on an election promise. Cable responded, in a tone which suggested it was an idiotic question, that the Lib Dems had not won the election on such promises, but had instead formed a pact to govern with the Conservatives, and that is the pledge that counts now. In other words, an election manifesto only matters for the month before polling day, while a coalition deal is not just until Christmas, it’s for life. The Lib Dem leaders feel more accountable to Cameron in the cabinet room than to voters in the country. So why should they blush about ditching disposable policies they did not much care about in the first place?
This is less of an old-fashioned political betrayal by a party leader, more of a sign of the final emptying out and unravelling of politics as we have known it. Those who want to see an alternative to the current fiasco first need to be clear what they are up against. Naivety about what Clegg and co represent can only undermine the opposition; symptoms include mood swings from delusion through disgust to demoralisation. Leave the fantasies to the kids who phone the X-Factor, or those who were corralled into town squares to watch England’s World Cup ‘triumph’ live on the big screen. It is time for a more grown-up attitude to politics – even among protesting students.
Mick Hume is spiked’s editor-at-large.