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4th February 2011: The day of Nick Clegg’s quiet rebirth


http://www.nickclegg.com/nccom_news_details.aspx?title=Nick_Clegg%3a_Building_a_New_Economy&pPK=54d272f1-39c9-4d00-8a27-5666c0d029c9

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.

Cavalier Cameron taking wrong foreign policy gambles


David Cameron’s globetrotting, self-proclaimed “jobs mission” was apparently intended to both reiterate Chancellor George Osborne’s message that Britain has reopened for business and embrace foreign secretary’s William Hague calls for a new diplomacy that reduced our overreliance on America and sought closer ties with the emerging powers of tomorrow. A new blunt diplomatic style has certainly emerged from the Prime Minister but it is questionable whether or not it shall prove fruitful for the nation’s interests.

In interviews over the course of the trip Cameron has admitted that in coalition it takes longer to get MPs from his own party on board. Perhaps this loss of immediate influence over Conservative MPs has encouraged the new Prime Minister to be more assertive and presidential in speeches, or “frank” as he puts it, so that he can exercise power elsewhere. What Cameron has hurriedly defended as honesty others see as risky brutality. In Turkey he referred to Gaza as a “prison camp” in a shameless attempt to please his hosts and has followed this of course with the more widely publicised criticism of Pakistan’s terror links whilst in India. Cameron appears to have been trying to score easy points with his host nations by verbally attacking their old enemies, whilst apparently forgetting the all seeing eye of modern media and the importance of the UK’s relations with Israel and Pakistan as well as Turkey and India. In the case of Pakistan his comments were particularly misguided as progress was being made and will only ever continue with close cooperation from the Pakistani government and military. Inflammatory comments likely to destabilise a fragile but necessary partnership in security will not serve Britain’s interests, even when the PM insists that his comments only referred to widely known truths.

Cameron’s defence of his behaviour has shown his naivety as a leader and statesman. Repeatedly he has insisted that he would not feel comfortable being dishonest and he sees no reason to not say what he thinks and point out the realities of situations. This sort of answer might please voters at home and indeed it seems that the Prime Minister is more comfortable as leader of the opposition, using his bluntness as a tool for political gain through his “Cameron Direct” meetings. The fact is that even though Cameron has merely stated the widely known reality of situations, diplomacy, particularly when you are seeking to gain from it, requires subtlety and the judgement to pick which issues you are blunt and firm about.

Given that Cameron insisted the whole huge trip, entourage and all, was about securing jobs for British people and markets for recovery, he has missed an enormous opportunity to take a worthwhile gamble instead of being reckless in other areas for reasons of image. I have examined the idea of a “New Politics” on my blog before and whether or not this is something Cameron truly believes in or simply a political tool his first foreign policy tour has been a failure. Firstly if we assume that Cameron uses the idea of a “New Politics” largely as a politic tool, which frankly I do, Cameron has blundered over Afghanistan as well as Pakistan. By committing to a withdrawal date in 2015 he has not only placed an unwanted burden upon the armed forces but started a countdown towards political suicide; in the likely event that the situation on the ground does not permit a total pull out in the time limit he has agreed to, mostly to appease President Obama. Secondly then, if we take the idea of “New Politics” seriously, Cameron missed a perfect, opportune moment to take an inspirational stand against non-renewable energy in the wake of the BP Oil spill and call for a new way forward.

Whilst in America Cameron made a lot of noise about not simply pandering to the Americans anymore, being realistic about the nature of the special relationship, calling us a “junior partner” but insisting he would get a better deal for the UK out of future relations. However what actually happened was that Cameron downplayed the significance of his own nation, abandoned the Scottish legislature, branding their decision to release Megrahi as wrong (whether it was or not, did he need to come down so hard on the Scots?), and failed to defend an oil company vital to thousands of Britons’ interests that is also full of American shareholders, executives and only exists because of the world’s richest nation’s unquenchable thirst for the black gold.

If Cameron was the prophet of “New Politics” he claims to be he would have expressed deep regret at the damage caused by the oil spill and agreed that it was right BP clean it up (whilst insisting it would do no good to destroy BP as a company). He would then have referred to President Obama’s previous description of the spill as a disaster on the level of 9/11 and recognised this as his moment to touch the hearts of the world as Tony Blair did in the wake of that attack and unite two nations across the Atlantic. He would have argued that the tough truth exposed by the spill was that our way of life was dangerous and destructive as well as unsustainable, and therefore required a more urgent solution. He should have appealed to America and Britain’s joint legacy of leading the world against new challenges and offered to support and partner President Obama in pioneering a new generation of renewable, clean energy sources that would provide jobs and investment in the short term and vital energy security in the long run. He would have pointed to his government’s commitment to deficit reduction to show that he believes in sustainability in all areas of government but also urged the President to set aside funds for replacing the dependency on oil with innovative, inspiring new technologies. He should have left America with this message for green jobs and carried it to his meetings with all world leaders as the defining aspect of his diplomacy and insisted green restructuring be closely tied to economic recovery as it continued. This universal, unifying message would have been far more suited to a Prime Minister on his first foreign policy trip and far more inspirational than cheap, undignified point scoring. It would also clearly state Britain was open for the right sort of business; green, sustainable business with jobs that would last, instead of empty promises alongside policies like the immigration cap that rendered them immediately worthless.

All in all Cameron’s first foray into international leadership reinforced some opinions I held of him before and during the election. As a competent government leader on the world stage he does not compare to the gruff efficiency of Gordon Brown and his ideological spending cuts are likely to alienate important economies rather than entice them. His apparent commitment to passionate, inspirational political ventures does also not extend to urgent challenges like climate change, which might just allow Britain to find a place in the world again. His hasty honesty and radical conservative policy are thankfully tempered, albeit loosely at times, by his Liberal coalition partners, but Clegg and co must be careful that crafty Cameron does not amass all the political capital gained by the coalition.