In his recently published memoir, Politics: Between the Extremes (Bodley Head, £20), Nick Clegg offers an incisive metaphor for the way the public takes in political life. The voter is akin to someone looking at a zoetrope, the Victorian-era cylinder with slits cut in the side and sequenced images on the inner surface. As the zoetrope is spun, the stills appear as a moving image. Just as the mind of the zoetrope viewer puts two still images together to create motion, the public perception of a politician or party comes down to a handful of snapshots; what happens between those shots is invisible to the public eye.
With the candour that makes Politics such a rewarding read, Clegg suspects his zoetrope consists of the following moments: the first leaders’ debate in April, 2010, and the ensuing “Cleggmania”; the Rose Garden press conference with David Cameron; the tuition fees protest; a spoof YouTube video mocking Clegg’s apology for breaking his tuition fee promise; and finally his resignation speech the morning after last year’s general election. In other words, his story, as the public sees it, “is one of fresh promise at the outset, followed by controversy in the middle and electoral defeat at the end”. It is hardly surprising that Clegg’s time in government is seen as such an unmitigated disaster. The democratic verdict on the Liberal Democrat’s five years in government could not be clearer: the party went from 6.8 million votes and 57 seats in 2010 to 2.4 million votes and eight seats in 2015.
The lukewarm reception which Clegg’s book received on publication demonstrated that the public perception of the former Deputy Prime Minister has hardly changed since his resignation. Interviews and reviews dealt with Clegg not as the important political figure he is, but as a subject of psychological fascination. The Guardian’s interviewer pestered Clegg about his admission that on a trip to the supermarket his son once sang the YouTube song that spoofed his father. Why did he sing it? Did your other sons sing it? What about your wife?
The die was cast almost instantly for Clegg. From the bonhomie between him and Cameron in the Rose Garden (they would both grow to regret that chumminess) to the clumsiness with which the British constitution accommodates two governing parties and the awkward space he occupied as Deputy Prime Minister, a job without the clearly defined territory, team of civil servants and pomp of other senior posts, his complete subservience to the Conservatives was established in the public imagination early on. The Times cartoonist Peter Brookes crystallised that image with his repeated depiction of Cleggers the public school fag, polishing shoes and mopping floors for his superiors David Cameron and George Osborne — “Go and warm the lavatory seat for me, Cleggers old chap!”
Clegg undoubtedly lost control of his own story, but it would be wrong to think of his time in government as a failure. Along the way were victories — some small, others more considerable — for Cleggite liberalism. Beyond the decision to enter into coalition, something that gave the country the stability it so badly needed, there are the numerous Liberal Democrat manifesto promises that are popular with voters and were delivered on while in power. For example, the pupil premium — additional funding for schools for every child on a free school meal — was a longstanding Liberal Democrat policy and was put into practice thanks to the coalition.
Unfortunately for Clegg, he could not write Liberal Democrat achievements into the story of the coalition. The Conservatives ruthlessly took credit for the government’s major achievements, while Clegg’s broken promise on tuition fees — even if coalition reforms mean more students from worse-off backgrounds go to university than ever before — as well as his failure to deliver constitutional reforms dear to the hearts of many Liberal Democrats, overshadowed the pledges he kept. One of the policies Cameron would later say he was proudest of, raising the personal allowance of tax to lessen the tax burden on low-income families, was a Liberal Democrat idea. Another, legalising same-sex marriage, was opposed in the Commons by a majority of Conservative MPs, while just four Liberal Democrats voted against.
Clegg’s significance became clear after he had gone. Last year, with the majority they thought they’d never get, Cameron and Osborne got on with government free of the Liberal Democrats. Their early steps — cuts to tax credits and disability benefit reforms — ended in humiliating climbdowns and the damaging resignation of Iain Duncan Smith as Work and Pensions Secretary. Without their Liberal Democratic colleagues, Cameron and Osborne were too hubristic to govern effectively.
The Liberal Democrats may appear to be a spent force, showing little sign of revival with Tim Farron at the helm, but Britain cannot afford the small-l liberalism Clegg was true to in government to be drowned out by louder voices, now that he is in the wilderness.