Democracy rules in our interview of the former Deputy Prime Minister, with questions from the floor of Vintage HQ. After 5 years of coalition government what was his biggest triumph or regret and what would he have done if not politics?
Given the current split in the Labour party, could you ever envisage MPs breaking away and forming a new party, as they did in the 80s with the SDP?
(Victoria Murray Browne, Senior Editor)
I think there is huge potential for significant realignment in British politics in the years to come. It won’t happen overnight, it won’t be easy, but the way in which Westminster works is now so out of step with the much more fragmented and volatile political landscape in the country at large that the old, two-party-dominated landscape will at some point have to give way to a more diverse array of choice for the British people. Part of that choice will have to be, in my opinion, a progressive, centre-ground party seeking to keep the country open and tolerant in the face of a lot of the politics of fear that we’re dealing with now. I don’t know how that will happen, but I think it’s very important that, particularly after the Brexit referendum, the politicians of all parties who believe in an open, tolerant Britain should work together more, rather than less.
Which was the most difficult: the first one hundred days of coalition, building the areas of political overlap with the Conservatives, or the last one hundred days re-establishing the differences?
(Sam Coates, Senior Rights Executive)
The first one hundred, by a long way, just because it was such a shock to the Lib Dem system, given that we’d never been in power before, given that we came into government at a time of outright, economic emergency. Westminster was neither used to nor particularly welcoming of a multi-party coalition given that the press on both right and left were very quick to try to put us back in our box. So trying to find your feet, trying to make decisions, trying to keep a level head, and keeping up with everything that’s new in the first one hundred days was tough.
What do you view to be your proudest moment in politics, and what is your biggest regret?
(Tim Broughton, Editorial Director)
My biggest regret, certainly, is not managing to persuade the other parties to bite the bullet, clean up and reform politics. The clapped-out politics we have at Westminster, whether it’s party funding or elections at the House of Lords and so on, is, I think, because the way that we’re governed is so threadbare and beyond its sell-by date. In the wake of the MPs' expenses scandals, I was hopeful that we might actually be able to finally break the log jam. So that’s probably my biggest regret.
I’m proud of lots of things. I’m very proud of some of the things that I put in place to help the smallest children, particularly those from the most disadvantaged backgrounds. It was because of me that we now have in this country, for the first time ever, fifteen hours of free preschool support for two-year-old toddlers from the poorest families. It’s because of the Liberal Democrats that we’ve got huge injections of money through the pupil premium to help kids from the most disadvantaged backgrounds. It’s because of the work I did with David Laws that all toddlers in the first three years of primary school get a healthy meal at lunchtime. Those aren’t in many respects the most glamorous achievements but they’re the kind of achievements that I think will stand the test of time.
...they’re the kind of achievements that I think will stand the test of time
There’s clearly a tight bond between David Cameron and George Osborne. What do you think accounts for that?
(Will Hammond, Editorial Director)
I think what accounts for it beyond anything else, other than personal chemistry, is that their political skills complemented each other. Cameron was a good front man; he was quick on his feet, and he liked the sort of showmanship of politics. He could be funny, he could be charming. He was often too impatient, not prepared to think things through. He could be kind of cavalier in what he did, whereas George Osborne is a complete political junkie. He thinks, breathes, eats politics the whole time and so I think David Cameron came to depend on George Osborne, and in many ways almost came to rely on George Osborne as his political brain. David Cameron was much more gifted than Osborne was at seeking to communicate their approach to the public.
What do you read to relax and what was the last truly great book that you’ve read?
(Will Rycroft, Community Manager)
I read a lot, and I read a lot at night. I only read fiction rather than current affairs books. I love great literature of any description. Right now I’m immersed in My Brilliant Friend by Elena Ferrante, the first instalment of the Neapolitan trilogy. It’s an all-absorbing book about the friendship between two girls growing up in a very poor neighbourhood in Naples. It might be an Italian book but it reminds me a little bit of one of those big, old, doorstop Russian novels which sweep across generations. It’s a big novel with a big heart about some very complex characters and I’m absolutely loving it.
Who are your political heroes and why?
(Rosanna Boscawen, Campaigns Manager)
Well, domestically, I never met him or knew him but Jo Grimond always had a sort of romantic place in my little pantheon of important politicians, just because he was obviously an incredibly civilised, erudite, and also funny liberal who kept the flame of liberalism burning in a time when it might have been extinguished altogether. Internationally, I think for people my age the collapse of the Berlin wall in 1989 was probably the greatest and most important event of our formative years. Some of the heroes of that whole movement of freedom and democracy in Central Eastern Europe include Vaclav Havel, the first president of a democratic Czech Republic. He was a philosopher and a writer, but also a champion of democracy against soviet tyranny. I hugely admire them; they were revolutionaries in the heart of Europe and I almost think they’ve never quite been given the credit they should have been, particularly here in Britain where we sometimes don’t appreciate how significant that revolution in Central Eastern Europe was. And it was very recent, just a few years ago.
If you weren’t a politician, what would you be?
(September Withers, Campaigns Manager)
Possibly a teacher. My mum was a teacher and she taught children with learning difficulties and dyslexia. I’m like every parent; you just see the huge significance of teachers in your own kids’ lives. I think it’s an incredibly noble calling. I’ve no idea whether I’d be any good at it but I’d like to give it a try.
Finally, would you encourage your children to go into politics?
(Anna Redman, Press Officer)
Not very readily, no. It’s a pretty brutal business and I’m like any parent, protective of your kids and you don’t want them to go through painful ups and downs. And you certainly can’t avoid it if you want to be prominent in politics, where you endure quite a lot of slings and arrows. Whilst that’s fine by me, I’m a perfectly thick-skinned character, like any parent I want to protect my children from the slings and arrows of life and I certainly want to protect them from the slings and arrows of political life.
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*THE SUNDAY TIMES BESTSELLER*
Politics has changed. For decades Britain was divided between Left and Right but united in its belief in a two-party state. Now, with nationalism resurgent and mainstream parties in turmoil, stark new divisions define the country and the centre ground is deserted.
As Deputy Prime Minister of Britain’s first coalition government in over fifty years, Nick Clegg witnessed this change from the inside. Here he offers a frank account of his experiences – from his spectacular rise in the 2010 election to a brutal defeat in 2015, from his early years as an MEP in Brussels to the tumultuous fall-out of Britain’s EU referendum – and puts the case for a new politics based on reason and compromise.
He writes candidly about his mistakes, including the controversy around tuition fees, the tense stand-offs within government and the decision to enter coalition with the Conservatives in the first place. He also lifts the lid on the arcane worlds of Westminster and Brussels, the vested interests that suffocate reform, as well as the achievements his party made despite them. Part memoir, part road-map through these tumultuous times, he argues that navigating our future will rely more than ever on collaboration, reforming our political institutions and a renewed belief in the values of liberalism.
Whatever your political persuasion, if you wish to understand politics in Britain today you cannot afford to ignore this book.