I’m very much in the minority of liberals in that I believe Nick Clegg is not even guilty of treason, much less deserving of being hung, drawn and quartered (and there are many people on the left who would volunteer for the job of executioner). Here is a chronological explanation of why Clegg has not actively betrayed Lib Dem supporters, but simply muddled along as best he could during the coalition and actually showing responsible leadership in the aftermath of the election in May 2010.
The results of the election meant Clegg had only one choice. While no party ended up with a clear majority, the message sent was still clear: the British public did not want Labour in power any longer. Therefore, as the leader of the party holding the balance of power, Clegg was honour and duty bound to come to terms with the Tories, the party who received the largest share of seats in the House of Commons. Had he come to terms with Labour, he would have been rightly accused of propping up a moribund government against the clear wishes of the people (as understood under the FPTP system). He did the right thing.
Now, on to the coalition agreement. In their haste to make Clegg a hate figure, many people forget that the entire Lib Dem party voted on whether to approve the terms of the agreement and form a coalition with the Tories. They have been accused of settling for a pathetic number of concessions, but let us not forget that the Lib Dems actually lost seats in the election, and were fortunate to be in the position of having any clout at all. Striking a deal for the non-taxable allowance to be raised to £7500 was pretty good for half a loaf etting the Tories to agree to a referendum for AV was not mere breadcrumbs from their table; it was an impressive concession considering just how deeply opposed the Tories are to PR. As for the tuition fees fiasco – well, in that case Clegg and the Lib Dems’s sin was promising something they knew they could never deliver in making the wholly unrealistic ‘free tuition fees’ pledge part of their manifesto, and later pledging to fight any increases. The criticism they received on this issue was well deserved – if they had to do a U-turn on this, they should have at least demanded £6000 be the absolute cap and not allowed the £9000 loophole, which as anyone could and did predict, became the rule instead of the exception.
Plenty of Lib Dems have made screw ups and done unethical things (Chris Huhne being the latest), yet they have never received the opprobrium Clegg receives. Take David Laws, who, inexplicably, Lib Dem supporters fought a desperate rearguard action for despite the fact he was guilty of outrageous abuse of expenses. His plea that he was desperate to keep his sexuality a secret was not only a poor excuse for his actions, but I felt it was also insulting to his partner. The whole distasteful affair seemed to me to suggest that Laws put his political career at the expense of his personal relationships, sadly typical behaviour for a politician. And then we have Vince Cable, who might very well have put the kibosh on the awful planned takeover of BSkyB by Rupert Murdoch if he had only kept his mouth shut. Whatever you think of the Telegraph’s sting – and I found it dishonest and a danger to constituents’ relationship with their MPs, and the PCC rapped it over the knuckles – it does not alter the fact that what Cable said was unforgivably stupid, and has now made the BSkyB takeover a near certainty. So where were the torches and pitchforks? Where were the baying mobs screaming abuse at Cable for letting them down?
Blaming Clegg for the defeat of AV, while easy and no doubt satisfying, as it removes the need for introspection, is wrong. The real reasons for AV’s defeat are gone over here, by myself and Paperback Rioter. It was hard not to pity the man, as he tried to fight for what he believed in only to be told “Go the fuck away! You’re not wanted here!” by almost the whole of liberaldom. Clegg can’t win – he gets pilloried for allegedly not fighting hard enough for Lib Dem policies by people who fail to grasp the realities and limitations of his position, and he gets pilloried for fighting for the Lib Dem’s Holy Grail – electoral reform.
Prior to the election, a popular Twitter hashtag was #nickcleggsfault. It was created in irony, after the right-wing media led by the Telegraph launched a blatant campaign to smear him when his popularity exploded after the 1st US-style debate. It seems now, that everything still is Nick Clegg’s fault, it’s just the people leading the attack have changed.