The popular perception of Nick Clegg seems to be that he’s either spineless, useless or some kind of Tory Trojan horse. As an illustration of why that might be the case here’s a picture of me from a year and a bit ago grinning obsequiously at Mr Clegg:
This was taken at the launch of the Scottish Liberal Democrat general election campaign in 2010. Behind us was a poster warning that if you vote for the Tories you’ll end up with VAT being increased to 20%. Following the election, the Lib Dem MPs formed a coalition with the Conservatives and voted to hike VAT to 20%.
The MPs also supported the deeper spending cuts that the Conservatives were advocating and that people like me had spent the campaign telling voters were reckless. Many of them voted to increase tuition fees in direct opposition to a pledge that every person in the picture above had signed.
The abiding impression for the public then is that the Liberal Democrats are either too weak, too inexperienced or too unprincipled to fight their corner against the Tories. The reality, from my point of view, is that all of these concessions can be justified in the context of the negotiations that took place following the election.
The VAT hike was broadly progressive due to exemptions for basic goods. It’s a mildly illiberal tax in that it directs expenditure towards exempt goods, but it didn’t place an unavoidable burden on people on low incomes. From a small-l liberal point of view it hardly seems like a red line issue.
The difference between the pace of the deficit reduction proposed by the Conservatives and that proposed by the Lib Dems (and Labour) wasn’t hugely significant in economic terms (although all the parties were keen to talk up the difference during the election campaign).
With hindsight, it seems foolish that all three parties were proposing a speedy reduction in the deficit given that governments across Europe were planning to do the same.
The trebling of tuition fees is the measure that put the most Liberal blood on the carpet. On a personal note, it still bothers me that I signed the pledge to vote against this in spite of my previous (and current) publicly stated belief that tuition fees should be uncapped. If I have a defence it’s that I signed up after repeated requests from the campaigns department and, most probably, late at night following a day’s campaigning. I don’t actually remember doing it. It’s a pledge that I would have broken if I’d found myself in the position that the Lib Dem MPs found themselves in.
“Free tuition” effectively rewards wealthy graduates. In Scotland it does so at the expense of students from low-middle income backgrounds who receive £1500-£2500 less support through loans and grants each year than their counterparts in England. The SNP’s policy is shameful and so is the continued support for it by Liberal Democrats on both sides of the border.
From an informed liberal point of view, conceding these policies was acceptable provided that sufficient was given in return. According to the team of academics who advised the civil service on the coalition negotiations roughly 75% of the Lib Dem manifesto is in the coalition agreement. This compares to c. 60% of the Conservative manifesto (it would be interesting to know the percentage of the Labour manifesto).
Every one of the four main policies printed on the front of the Lib Dem manifesto has been implemented to some extent, including the commitment to take anyone earning less than £10000 out of income tax.
To my mind, Nick Clegg is an effective politician. It would have been easier for the public to see this if the Lib Dems had stuck to promoting positive policies (like the tax policy) rather than scaremongering around relatively minor issues (like the level of tuition fees).