It doesn’t matter what the Lib Dem leader stands for, says Rod Liddle. In the era of X Factor politics, people can decide, on a whim, that he should be Prime Minister
Is Nick Clegg better than Winston Churchill, as a recent opinion poll seemed to suggest? The obvious answer is yes, of course — because Nick is still alive. Winston Churchill died in 1965 and I have the silver commemorative crown coin to prove it, and a very vague memory of standing somewhere crowded in central London with my mum and dad, watching his large coffin being loaded onto some riverboat.
But that is the only area, so far as I can see, where Nick has the edge over Winnie — i.e., he hasn’t yet entirely decomposed. Maybe in 50 years’ time crowds, bereft with grief, will line the streets for the death of Nick Clegg — and in Llantrisant they will begin to fashion his image upon silver coins. Hell, who knows. Winnie was a Liberal once, of course; anything can happen. I don’t know that he was ever quite so bright-eyed and vacant as Nick Clegg, but then the way we value such attributes changes as the years go by.
Bright-eyed and vacant is quite au courant these days, easily on a par with resolute, principled and intelligent; Nick may look and speak like the sort of pretty public schoolboy who has just given up his job in the City to ‘realise his dream’ and reach the semi-finals of Masterchef, where his Moroccan pan-fried lamb on white bean puree just failed to convince the judges. But the problem is, though, people like that sort of stunted and weird ambition these days and I suppose that is not Mr Clegg’s fault.
The elevation of Clegg, you would hope, marks the apogee of the cretinisation of the British electorate, in which the public debate is now pitched at a slightly lower level than that implied in the sorts of questions I used to be asked by my two sons: ‘Dad, what would win in a fight between a tiger and a shark? What would win in a fight between a table and a desk?’ It cannot surely drop lower than this, can it? Clegg’s sole pitch, the only thing which scored him points — ‘at least I’m not them’ — was, nonetheless both accurate and had force. It would have had no less force if it had been issued by a gently cooling bowl of oxtail soup on a plinth, either, and would undoubtedly have contained more substance.
It is true that the electorate is deeply bored with the two main parties, a disillusion which has increased with every election which has passed since 1992 and which is only now beginning to be acknowledged by the Westminster correspondents. Far fewer people voted Labour in the party’s comfortable 2005 win than voted Labour in the near-landslide defeat of 1987. Almost a million more people voted Conservative in that historic, crushing defeat of 1997 than did so in 2005, as the party began to — what’s the word? — ‘revive’.
Some revival, then. The two main parties lost almost one third of their combined votes between 1992 and 2005, and proportionately even more come the Euro elections of last year. But the Liberal Democrats have not been the recipients of this epic and unprecedented desertion — their vote in 2005 was ever so slightly down on that of 1992. The lucky recipient has been early evening tv — far fewer people bother to vote at all — and, more recently, the other parties, the good, the bad, the ugly.
Which is why if it had been Nigel Farage, or Caroline Lucas, or even Nick Griffin plucked from political obscurity and afforded equal time and equal treatment with Brown and Cameron, the consequence would have been pretty much the same, even if none of them resemble a well-bred squirrel. They could have all played the same trick as Clegg, a continual recital of the coda — at least we’re not them — and made the identical allegation that Tory and Labour have been ‘making the same mistakes for 65 years’ so it must be time for a change, folks. Mistakes like defeating fascism, creating a welfare state, liberating the Falklands and winning the cold war, I suppose is what he meant. Or maybe he just meant Suez, the Dangerous Dogs Act and the Motorway Cones Hotline: he didn’t spell it out. He didn’t spell anything out. Therein, I suppose, lies part of his attractiveness to the voters, that and the mistaken impression that he and his troops were unsullied by the expenses scandal.
The Liberal Democrats largely escaped public opprobrium over the expenses scandal — but only, I would venture, because there are comparatively few Lib Dem MPs and a lot of them are comparatively young and thus don’t feel the compulsion to stiff the taxpayer for bath plugs and porno vids, not least because they are terribly earnest and never wash or have sex, apart from Lembit. Even then, Chris Huhne wanted you to pay for his chocolate Hobnobs, Clegg himself claimed the absolute maximum amount for a second home, and there was Lembit, as ever, and his plasma screen tv on which he hoped to watch asteroids hurtling towards earth at your expense. Oh, and I almost forgot, there was Andrew George claiming for the mortgage on a flat inhabited almost exclusively by his rather fruity daughter.
The Lib Dems have attempted to make out that while all parties were affected by the scandal, they were less culpable somehow — and this seems to me a notion which the public have bought. But it is a mistaken perception — they were no different to the rest.
What do they stand for, then? You might argue that it doesn’t matter, because it clearly doesn’t matter to those people who viewed last week’s debate as they watch The X Factor, except without the spite, and have decided that, apropos nothing, Nick is the one for them. On the one issue about which the Lib Dems have been comparatively honest and straightforward these last ten years or so — Europe — they are entirely out of step with the British people, which does not wish to see more powers, and our currency, devolved to the EU.
They are even more out of step on that other vexed issue, immigration; they want an amnesty for illegal immigrants. As one commentator, Leo McKinstry, put it earlier this week (the knives are out now), Clegg and his party are ‘ideological extremists’ on the subject, and an amnesty for illegal immigrants might mean, almost overnight, a further 750,000 people given the right to settle here.
We might accept that all of the parties have been duplicitous on the subject of how we extricate ourselves from financial oblivion, but the Liberal Democrat suggestion that £5 billion of tax cuts could be financed simply through a clampdown on tax avoidance is the most outlandishly insulting of them all. I suppose Nick deserves credit for understanding that an awful lot of people will swallow this sort of guff.
There are genuinely attractive aspects to the Liberal Democrats, ones which have, in the past, tempted me to vote for them. The opposition to the war in Iraq, a previously honest commitment to the redistribution of wealth (now largely jettisoned), a determination to protect our civil liberties from an ever more overbearing state and reform our voting system and, under Charles Kennedy, a commitment to repeal swaths of superfluous legislation. And it has some first-rate politicians within its ranks — Cable, Teather, Laws, Hughes and so on. If these were the reasons people now wished to vote Lib Dem — because they agreed with the principles and priorities of the party — then you might argue with them, if you so wished, but at last open a genuine debate. But there does not seem to be the remotest interest among the general public in doing such a thing; the reason Clegg is popular is because he is not Gordon Brown or David Cameron. There seems to be absolutely nothing more to it than that.
I suppose none of this is Nick Clegg’s fault, even if prior to th
at first prime ministerial debate he appeared to be the least effective leader of our third party since Clement Edward Davies. And there is a certain agreeably rough justice on Brown and, particularly, Cameron in having the ground whipped from beneath their feet in such a peremptory manner. If you spend all your energy targeting a tiny tranche of the population whom you consider to be crucial swing voters, while ignoring entirely your core support, then this is the very least you might expect to happen. But it is not a good thing, surely, to have our general elections conducted on the same terms, and with an identical level of intellectual consideration, as an early round of Pop Idol.