Thursday 9 May 2013

Nick Clegg: “So long, and thanks for all the fish”

Here is the shorter Nick Clegg: “The members of my party are a bunch of romantic amateurs with no interest in winning power. They’ve been useful in the past delivering the leaflets but, now we modernisers have taken over and single-handedly put ourselves in government, they can all fuck off.”

Here is the longer version.

Following the Liberal Democrats’ net loss of councillors in last Thursday’s local elections, Clegg made a dubious claim:
“The Liberal Democrats are on a journey from a party of protest to a party of government.”
This questionable narrative was demolished yesterday in a post on Liberal Democrat Voice by Nigel Lindsay. The idea that the Liberal Democrats were ever a ‘party of protest’ is a myth.

Clegg failed to distinguish between what the party is and the sort of votes it attracts. Yes, the Liberal Democrats attracted protest votes before they entered the coalition government in 2010. Opposition parties usually do. But the Liberal Democrats were never a ‘party of protest’. The party always had comprehensive policies and it ran many local councils, and took part in government in Scotland and Wales, long before Clegg even became an MP.

To dismiss his own party as a ‘party of protest’ is an insult to the many members who built up the party, won elections and took part in administrations throughout the country. But this dishonest historical revisionism is all of a piece with Clegg’s conference speech last September:
“The Liberal Democrats, it was said, are a party of protest, not power. Well two years on, the critics have been confounded. Our mettle has been tested in the toughest of circumstances, and we haven’t been found wanting. We have taken the difficult decisions to reduce the deficit by a quarter and have laid the foundations for a stronger, more balanced economy capable of delivering real and lasting growth. But conference, our task is far from complete, our party’s journey far from over.
“I know that there are some in the party – some in this hall even – who, faced with several more years of spending restraint, would rather turn back than press on. Break our deal with the Conservatives, give up on the Coalition, and present ourselves to the electorate in 2015 as a party unchanged. It’s an alluring prospect in some ways. Gone would be the difficult choices, the hard decisions, the necessary compromises. And gone too would be the vitriol and abuse, from Right and Left, as we work every day to keep this Government anchored in the centre ground.
“But conference, I tell you this. The choice between the party we were, and the party we are becoming, is a false one. The past is gone and it isn’t coming back. If voters want a party of opposition – a “stop the world I want to get off” party – they’ve got plenty of options, but we are not one of them. There’s a better, more meaningful future waiting for us. Not as the third party, but as one of three parties of government.”
To begin with, there is the straw man argument. Precisely who are the party members who want to “turn back”? Who wants a “stop the world I want to get off” party? Clegg never tells us. He can’t because they don’t exist. Sure, Clegg has many critics within the party but none fit this caricature. If you’re going to pick fights with your own members, at least have the decency to take on real people and their actual criticisms with honest arguments.

It gets worse. Later in that conference speech, Clegg told the people on whose shoulders he stands that they were now history:
“Fifty, sixty years ago, before I was born, small groups of Liberal activists would meet up to talk politics and plan their campaigns. Stubborn and principled, they ignored the cynics who mocked them. They simply refused to give up on their dreams. They refused to accept that Liberals would never again be in government. And they refused to accept that Liberalism, that most decent, enlightened and British of creeds, which did so much to shape our past, would not shape our future. We think we’ve got it tough now. But it was much, much tougher in their day. It was only their resolve, their resilience and their unwavering determination that kept the flickering flame of Liberalism alive through our party’s darkest days.
“At our last conference in Gateshead, I urged you to stop looking in the rear view mirror as we journey from the party of opposition that we were, to the party of government we are becoming. But before we head off on the next stage of our journey, I want you to take one last look in that mirror to see how far we’ve come. I tell you what I see.”
“Stop looking in the rear view mirror”? This is patronising advice, to put it mildly. Clegg’s casual dismissal of his membership is reminiscent of the message left by the dolphins in The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, when they departed Planet Earth just before it was demolished to make way for a hyperspace bypass: “So long, and thanks for all the fish”.

If you are a student of this sort of revisionist history and can bear to read a fuller account, may I recommend The Clegg Coup by Jasper Gerard? It is possibly the worst book ever written about contemporary politics (see my review in Liberator #350).

Nothing Gerard wrote was new or original, but his book consolidates Clegg’s revisionist history in one handy volume. All the predictable tendentious claptrap and bald assertions are here – the party has gained power only thanks to an elite that is ‘modern’, ‘bright’ and ‘new’... anyone outside this far-sighted elite is old-fashioned, unrealistic or irresponsible... political wisdom can be found only within the Westminster Bubble... [cont. p.94]

This delusional worldview has its roots in the 1980s. As my Liberator article explained:
The template was set in the mid-1980s during Neil Kinnock’s battles with the hard left in the Labour Party. This stereotype is now regularly applied to all members of all parties, irrespective of its irrelevance. After all, ‘wise leadership vs. irresponsible members’ is a simple narrative, which lazy journalists can wheel out with the minimum of effort whenever there is a difference of opinion within a political party.
But the media are not the chief culprits. The prime movers are the party leaders’ hangers on, cliques of self-appointed ‘insiders’ who believe they can make their leader look ‘strong’ by picking fights and stage-managing battles with the membership.
In the Liberal Democrats, since the days of David Steel and Richard Holme, we have seen successive party leaders’ kitchen cabinets brief the media against their own party members, with wild allegations about ‘dangerous radicals’ and ‘embarrassing policies’. There have also been repeated attempts to dismantle party democracy.
The governing idea behind this behaviour is that there are a select few who know what is best for the rest of us. Party members should simply shut up and deliver the leaflets. But as membership figures plummet in all the mainstream parties, we can see that, without a voice, there is little incentive to carry on delivering.
Elitists try to make their prejudices intellectually respectable by arguing that grassroots campaigning is redundant, and that being ‘modern’ and ‘professional’ means switching to centralised techniques such as phone banks and glossy mailshots. The strong variation in the party’s votes between constituencies with strength on the ground and derelict seats relying solely on a centrally-organised ‘air war’ suggests that this theory has no evidential basis.
The basic problem is that a political elite, sharing the same managerialist agenda, sees a vibrant party membership not as a strength but as a nuisance. Life would be so much easier without them.

Stripped of its rhetoric, what Clegg is saying is the argument of elites down the ages: politics is for the grown-ups and don’t you worry your pretty little heads about it. He keeps repeating this argument because he resembles the villain unmasked at the end of each episode of Scooby Doo. He fears that, if he doesn’t dispose of his members, they will eventually unmask him, when he will say, “And I would have gotten away with it, too, if it hadn’t been for you meddling kids.”

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