By George Cook
Sir Nick Clegg is one of the most recognisable figures in British society. After presiding over an election in which the Liberal Democrats won 57 seats, Clegg was appointed Deputy Prime Minister in a coalition with the Conservatives and became the first leader of the Liberal Democrats to stand at the dispatch box for Prime Minister’s Questions.
During his time as Deputy Prime Minister, Sir Nick Clegg played a pivotal role in passing the Fixed-term Parliaments Act as well as a number of other issues. However, the Lib Dems began to see their popularity fall during their time in coalition and faced great controversy after abandoning their pledge not to raise tuition fees. Subsequently, in the 2015 election, they were reduced to just eight seats forcing Clegg to resign as party leader. After being extremely vocal about his desire to stop Brexit, Clegg lost his Sheffield Hallam seat in the 2017 General Election having represented the constituency for over 12 years.
This interview was a chance to ask him about his experiences as one of the most important politicians in the country, the issues facing students, Brexit and what he’s doing now and hopes to achieve in the future.
In the ten months since last summer’s election, Clegg has been busy working with the think tank Open Reason. Their aim is to “pursue three areas of research and advocacy. One is to participate in the debate about what the future regulation of the internet should look like. The second is some international work promoting evidenced-based reform of punitive drugs laws and the third is to make the case for a change in direction on Brexit”.
His new book is titled How to Stop Brexit, and as Clegg states himself “the clue for what he wants to achieve is in the book’s title”. He believes that “there is now no version of Brexit available to us which is better than actually stopping the juggernaut altogether”, signalling his widely known strong admiration of Europe and the EU itself. After 52% of people voted to leave the European Union, Clegg was clear to assert that their vote does not mean nothing and stated, “what their vote means is that they are now entitled to expect that Brexit will be delivered alongside all the benefits that they were told would accompany Brexit…£350 million for the NHS, no more payments to the EU and a booming jobs market” alongside many others reasons. He added “people didn’t vote for Brexit because it’s a six-letter word, they voted for it because it contained a number of quite specific commitments.” Whilst Mr Clegg wants to stop Brexit, he understands the reasons why people voted to leave the EU and says that these are “perfectly understandable” concerns.
As we approach the one-year anniversary since Article 50 was triggered, Clegg believes there “isn’t a remote chance we will meet the deadline set by the EU”. When or if a deal is finally struck and we know more about what Brexit actually entails, he believes “you should have the freedom in a democracy to change your mind”. However, this is based on a disputed assertion that there will be enough people supportive of Remain to change the result in a second referendum. In the event that there is a vote in Parliament, Clegg is concerned that MPs “would be invited to vote on the long-term future of this country and the long-term future of their constituencies and their constituents without being privy to any of the details, and so as a bare minimum should at that point MPs be put in that situation, they would be entitled to say we should push the pause button.”
With concerns about the negotiation process growing and what progress has actually been made, Clegg says that he is finding it “increasingly embarrassing to go around Europe and try to explain to the Europeans that after all this time, the government is still negotiating with itself rather than seriously negotiating on behalf of the country with the EU 27.” Sir Nick is determined to protect the UK economy and those working-class families who he feels are set to be most affected by Britain’s withdrawal from the European Union, and it is inexplicable that a “so-called Socialist Party would feel comfortable with a course of action that will deeply damage the livelihoods of precisely the working communities they are supposed to represent.”
I was keen to ask Clegg about his time leading the Lib Dems in the Coalition Government between 2010 and 2015. It was apparent that he felt he entered government with ambitions that were unachievable as “there’s only so much you can do in government…and there’s only so many hours in the day and only so many battles you can fight.” This suggests that there were issues he probably tried to resolve as Deputy Prime Minister and policies that he tried to change or implement but felt constrained by his party’s inferior position in government. One of several examples of this was his decision in 2012 to abandon plans to reform the House of Lords after considerable opposition from Conservative MPs. Whilst he seemed to have found his time in government draining, it was evident he also found it an enjoyable and revelatory five years that taught him you need to “pick your priorities carefully.”
After being Deputy Prime Minister and in coalition for five years, Clegg’s party faced a dismal 2015 General Election where they lost 49 seats and saw Clegg resign as party leader. Yet things were set to become more turbulent in his political career. He campaigned strongly to Remain in the EU Referendum and was deeply saddened that despite his greatest efforts, it was not the result he envisaged. In the 2017 General Election, Mr Clegg was ousted by Labour candidate Jared O’Mara, who has subsequently faced controversy over previous statements made online.
It is now ten months since that election, but Clegg stated, “he would not be standing as an MP again any time soon”. Instead, he hopes to focus on a number of different things such as chairing the Social Mobility Foundation, an organisation that helps youngsters from disadvantaged backgrounds, as well as “starting lecturing at some universities in the next few months.” I am sure being taught by Sir Nick Clegg would improve attendance at lectures! He added “I am lucky in the sense that whilst I am passionate about politics, and it was undoubtedly the most stimulating time of my professional life particularly to be in government, I don’t think you should cling onto politics forever and that there are many other important things in life.”
Earlier in the afternoon before this interview took place, it was announced that it was likely the strike by university lecturers would continue adding to the weeks of disruption. Clegg stated, “even students who have some sympathy why the strikes are happening will legitimately feel very concerned that their own education is being disrupted and this is very worrying and very unfair for students across the country.” If the strikes do continue, there are growing concerns that it may affect exams and assessments which will have a big impact on whether final year students will graduate.
He believes that there is a “strong case for the government to underwrite the pension liabilities meaning it could be solved quite quickly.” Despite not committing to his pledge not to raise tuition fees when in coalition, Clegg was concerned about the implications that the pensions dispute could have on higher education.
As we look to the future, Clegg stated, “there are so many challenges ahead for the UK”, but he pointed out that “large numbers of old people are being let down by a dysfunctional social care system in particular, whilst at the same time younger folk are feeling that they’re being shut out from the property market.” He seemed genuinely concerned about the “angry mixture” of resentment between the generations and “trying to heal that divide is probably one of our greatest challenges.”
Sir Nick Clegg was one of the most successful leaders in the history of the Liberal Democrats, and spent several years involved in politics at the highest level. His soft yet powerful and articulate voice for which he became so renowned for was still as evident as it was in his prime in the run-up to the 2010 General Election. And whilst he is not involved in politics for the foreseeable future, Clegg hopes to remain an influential figure in British society. To sum up Sir Nick Clegg’s political roller-coaster in his own words, “bubbles come, and bubbles burst.”