Whatever happened to “I agree with Nick”?
What happened to the t-shirts churned out with that slogan and what happened to the most popular politician since Winston Chuchill?
David Cameron, the Conservatives, the Coalition and the cuts happened. And Nick Clegg’s identity as not only a politically savvy leader, likeable for remembering the names of questioners in the audience, but an ideologically well meaning man, was lost under all the public outcry. As the distinctive voice of his party became ever diluted by its partnership with the Conservatives, so did Clegg’s own progressive world view.
I’ve long championed Clegg on this blog. Frankly it’s been tempting to turn on Britain’s most hated man at times. But it would have been weak and naive to dismiss Clegg for compromising in government. He was absolutely right to enter into coalition. His choice of partner was unavoidable and fair. It was constitutionally correct and right for the British people. Not all of the policies of the Coalition necessarily are though. In fact some, many even, are damn right damaging.
More importantly from a Lib Dem point of view it’s been impossible to reconcile drastic deficit reduction with most of the progressive policies requiring investment in their manifesto. Finally though, today in Rotherham, Clegg delivered a speech daubed with innumerable fingerprints from that manifesto. And it’s the most convincing argument in favour of the government’s economic strategy so far.
Last year when David Cameron embarked on a foreign policy tour, I called on him to use sustainability and green growth as a unifying message to take around the world from Britain. Since then, and his failure to do anything of the sort despite promises of a “jobs mission”, President Obama has announced a focus on clean energy in his State of the Union address. And now Nick Clegg has made the ideological link between environmental and economic sustainability.
Nick Clegg’s speech has the potential to seriously worry Labour. It returns to the more inspirational language he used in the election. It makes a rational argument for a brand new economic model. Nowhere does Clegg make the mistake of saying it will end boom and bust, as Gordon Brown did, but that’s clearly the intention by creating a sustainable foundation for growth and diversifying Britain’s output. He makes it clear the government will plan for growth and eliminating the deficit is merely the means to an end of prolonged growth. The Conservatives, even Chancellor George Osborne, have made such a fetish of cutting that it seemed to be all this government stood for. Clegg reminds people of the future, of an optimistic vision. As with Climate Change, most have neglected to point out the opportunities created by the solution to a serious problem.
The speech will also reassure Lib Dems. To an extent, it reassures me. Clegg’s four pillars of growth are all sensible and recognisably linked to the key points on the front of his election manifesto. Investment over debt, regional balance, hard infrastructure (high speed rail, energy) and soft infrastructure (education and skills). For me the undertone of the speech was that were it not for the deficit and some conflicting priorities with Conservative colleagues, Clegg would be implementing an investment led, green economy alongside new measures for fairness. Fairer tax and better education. Green jobs and better transport.
Clegg ended his speech at the Carbon Capture plant speaking about Carbon Capture and Storage. The government appears to be committing to CCS. And about time to. For a long time the potential for exporting CCS technology, to emerging, gargantuan economies like China already packed with coal power stations, has been enormous. Britain could not only minimise upheaval and expenditure in converting her own energy supplies but make huge profits and create jobs by genuinely affecting the world’s carbon output through pioneering and exporting the technology. Clegg makes the economic case for CCS, but ties it to Climate Change for progressives. This is the way forward: realistic ways of getting emissions down.
However despite shifting the debate wisely to sustainability and articulating the reasons for government economic policy better than anyone so far, Clegg will remain under pressure from Labour. Firstly this speech shall probably wrongly achieve minimal publicity. Secondly, and more importantly, Clegg’s pillars of growth are undermined and contradicted by Coalition policy. They remain mostly on a wish list in the partly fulfilled Lib Dem manifesto. If there’s a commitment to education and “soft” infrastructure, despite the pupil premium it’s hard to justify cuts to universities. High Speed Rail makes slow progress, there’s no solid government money for green energy and jobs. The cuts hit traditionally poorer regions disproportionately hard. Labour should still be able to make the case that yes we want sustainable growth, but you needn’t cut as fast and deep, you needn’t delay all attempts to spark growth, despite a reasoned argument from Clegg about properly targeting spending. And you need growth in order to cut the deficit, sooner not later.
There are loads of good things in this speech I’ve wanted to see for a while. But the bottom line is they don’t go far enough and they’re outweighed by cuts, cultural devastation and unemployment. However if the Coalition pick up Clegg’s argument and Osborne’s Budget contains growth policies in keeping with a futuristic vision, Labour will find it harder to land blows on a plan of long term optimism. And whatever happens, Clegg’s proved his political credentials once more.