Monday, February 20, 2017

politics: between the extremes…

"Politics: Between the Extremes” is the title of Nick Clegg’s book about his experiences as Liberal Democrats’ leader from 2007 and Deputy Prime Minister from 2010 to 2015. I’ve just finished reading it and found it absolutely fascinating (albeit somewhat depressing – given what happened in the 2015 general election and the subsequent EU referendum). I’ve read a fair number of political autobiographies over the years so know that, whatever I might think of an individual’s particular political views, these people all have the ‘gift of the gab’!

Actually, I’ve always thought that Clegg consistently comes across as a sensible, straightforward politician with views that echoed many of my own. Indeed, I voted for the Liberal Democrats at the 2010 General Election. I well remember his impressive performance at the first televised Leaders’ Debate when he made the case for a “new politics” (and pointedly commented “the more they attack each other, the more they sound exactly the same” about Cameron and Brown).
As you might imagine, I wasn’t particularly enamoured by the fact that the LibDems went into coalition with the Tories (rather than Labour), but I was at least thankful that the Tories weren’t in government on their own!
How things have changed…

We now have a Tory government. The LibDems were annihilated in the 2015 election. The Labour Party are in turmoil… and of course, we’re now having struggle with the appalling consequences EU referendum result (or, as Clegg puts it: “one of the greatest acts of national self-immolation in modern times”)!
The book contains LOTS of intriguing insights. There are far too many to list them all, but here is a flavour:
1.       “My own views became steadily more anti-establishment, the longer I was in government”.
2.       “In the end, people follow stories, not policies, in politics... Anyone who wants politics to remain sane and rational must learn to speak to the heart, and not just the head. But above all, if they want to compete with the populists and fear-mongers, liberals have to offer people the most emotionally compelling weapon at their disposal: a story of optimism about the future and faith in the  of politics to bring about positive change”.  
3.       “Political success relies on persuasive storytelling, and public trust in politicians relies on accurate representation of power. But the perception of politics, critical as it is, is quite different from its underlying purpose: changing things for the better”.
4.       “Social media… has transformed the way in which politicians, commentators, advisers, spinners, journalists, activists and other members of the political and media elite speak to each other… It’s as if a whole Petri dish of communication has been created for the few thousand people who follow the daily ins and outs of politics”.
5.       “I have witnessed a distinct shift in press coverage from reporting to opinion, from acting as the public’s witness to acting as participants in politics. Partisan coverage of politics is now the norm”.
6.       “We are governed by a political class that exists not only in a bizarre Westminster world, but also under permanent physical and emotional strain. Politicians in government endure a decision-making process that is antiquated and laborious”.
7.       “We have an arcane and deeply unrepresentative Parliament; it is not only demographically unrepresentative of the public at large, it also bears little resemblance to the democratic will expressed at the ballot box”.
8.       “Our parliamentary system, outdated as it is, reinforces a two-party system, giving the two larger parties a shared, vested interest in maintaining the status quo”.
9.       “The general election of 2015 produced the most unrepresentative result of all:  the Conservatives… only secured 37% of the votes cast – and just 24% of all eligible voters… The LibDems received 299,000 votes per seat won, whereas for the SNP it took just 26,000 votes, the Conservatives 34,000 and Labour 40,000”.
10.   “ In May 2015… they (the Conservative government) took advantage of the disarray of the Labour and Liberal Democrat parties to announce the dismantling of tax-credit support for millions of low-income working families, an assault on Housing Associations, a menacing review of the BBC, a plan to give English MPs different voting rights from other MPs, an intention to limit Freedom of Information rules, a reversal of most support to green-energy companies, and a tax giveaway to dead property millionaires – not to mention an attempt to hold a vote on fox-hunting once again”.
11.   “There is an(other) inescapable conclusion to be drawn from the result of the EU referendum, which should also drive different parties towards a broader progressive alliance: the divisions in the UK are no longer reflected in the divisions between political parties. The referendum revealed a country divided between those – the young, the educated, the metropolitan, black and minority ethnic communities – who feel comfortable with the gyrations of a modern, globalised economy and a diverse society and those – older, with fewer skills and qualifications, especially white working-class voters in the North and the Midlands – who do not. This division bears almost no relation to the traditional left-right axis by which Westminster parties are traditionally organised”.
12.   “Campaign groups like 38 Degrees and have harnessed online technology to become hugely effective lobbying operations, sharing petitions and calls to action on social media, and mobilising people to email their MPs in large numbers. It is an electronic form of direct democracy that kills stone-dead the notion that people are no longer engaged in politics. They are. It’s just that they increasingly view political parties as part of the problem, not the solution”.
13.   “Excessive centralisation disempowers the communities that make up Britain’s modern, plural identity”
14.   “British politics is crying out for wholesale renewal… Reformists in all parties should resolve to work together to renew our politics”.
15.   “In addition to the long-standing moral concern about excessive levels of inequality, there is increasing acceptance of the idea that inequality itself is a significant cause of the very boom and bust that makes the rich richer, the poor poorer, and creates the kind of insecurity upon which populism thrives”.
16.   “It doesn’t help that only 43% of 18-24 year-olds voted in the general election of 2015, compared to 78% of over 65s; nor that the proportion of the UK population aged 65+ is forecast to jump from 17.6% in 2014 to 27.1 in 2064… A new grand bargain between the generations is needed if we are to avoid an increasingly acrimonious tug of war between the young and old, for limited public subsidies at a time of low or stagnant growth”.

Nick Clegg’s book provides a passionate plea for the centre ground of British politics. He writes candidly about the political challenges he faced over the past decade (and his mistakes); he lifts the lid on the arcane worlds of Westminster and Brussels and on the vested interests that suffocate reform. In my view, he’s much better at providing a critical analysis of the political climate in Britain today than in giving us solutions (are there any?). I think the book reflects his frustration and sadness about the current state of British politics… and his own inability to change things.
He concludes by saying:
“But – at some point – political parties that believe in reason over populism, in moderation over the politics of grievance, in compromise over factionalism, will be called upon once again to put the national interest first.
Reason, in the end, will win against unreason”.
Amen to that.  

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