He’s hardly a megalomaniacal tyrant. An opportunist, yes, but is Nick Clegg's unpopularity among liberal Britain today deserved? Despite a soar in popularity in the build up to last year’s general election, Clegg has become one of the most vilified individuals in the UK since taking the Liberal Democrats into coalition with the Conservatives.
During the election campaign, David Cameron issued the “Vote Clegg, Get Brown” warning, reaffirming many people's view that the First Past the Post system of voting is no longer a viable option. Should Clegg get a significant share of the vote, then we will end up with Gordon Brown in charge for another term, was his message. But instead, we ended up with David Cameron in a position where, despite securing a majority vote, he needed support from Clegg for a coalition government to take shape.
So Clegg sold out and jumped into bed with Cameron. Or did he?
Under Clegg, the Lib Dems scooped 23% of the vote (6,836,824 votes). The Conservatives secured 36.1 % (10,726,614 votes). While the Tories won 307 seats with a gain of 97, the Lib Dems secured only 57, losing 5. So despite initial polls indicating Clegg steaming ahead of the competition, the Lib Dems failed to capitalise miserably come the election. One of Clegg’s iron fist promises in his party's manifesto was the need for a referendum on electoral reform, and the 2010 general election highlighted this brilliantly.
Last week, we had our chance to change the electoral system to AV. This was thanks to Clegg taking the step to form a coalition with the sworn enemy. The general election had shown that the Lib Dems were going nowhere fast. First Past the Post had screwed them over, but left the door to a platform of power tantalisingly open. Clegg waited for contact from Gordon Brown and the Labour Party, but they weren't interested. Even if they were, they would have needed to secure the services of Plaid Cymru, the Greens and the SNP at the very least to ensure a coalition. The only realistic choice for the Liberal Democrat party was to force accept a coalition with the Conservatives. Remember Clegg, like all politicians, is an opportunist above all else.
At first glance Clegg had done the inconceivable; sold liberals votes (the majority of whom are left of centre) to Cameron and the Conservatives. Cue uproar from voters and the Lib Dem backbench. The right wing media saw an opportunity themselves to bury the Lib Dems into the ground for good; images and quotes of Cameron and Clegg buddying and joking together like old friends were suddenly everywhere. The left wing media did their fair share too, prophesising doom for anyone who voted for him. And the public fell for it.
Should Nick Clegg be respected? My vote was ‘sold’ to the Tories but I didn’t vote for them to stop Cameron getting into power. I voted for the Liberal Democrats because I agreed with much of their political manifesto. And yes, I have more respect for him now for taking the brave step into government with the people I voted against. Why? Because I know Clegg isn't actually in a position of any governance. After all, the two most important jobs in the cabinet are taken by Tories; George Osborne and Cameron himself. Clegg, the deputy prime minister, is at the mercy of these two and yet he and his Lib Dem colleagues have successfully instated two thirds of their political manifesto and this is expected to rise to around three quarters – more than the Conservatives own has been implemented. Policies such as patients being given the right to choose a GP without geographical constriction, the raising of the basic income tax threshold to £10,000 and the offering of “a week's respite for the one million carers who spend 50 hours every week looking after a sick relative.” - all policies that champion the rights of individuals. Of course, I would have preferred a Labour-Liberal coalition, but Gordon Brown was never interested in any deal.
Many see the rise in tuition fees as an example of Clegg going against his manifesto, but this isn't entirely fair. Manifestos are a plan of what will be instated should a party be voted into power. Policies within a manifesto are symbiotic in relationship, with each a single brick within a larger blueprint. Had the Lib Dems won outright, they could make all those bricks fit together, but they aren't in charge, the Tories are. However, with influence from the Lib Dems the Tory policy has been diluted to ensure those from the poorest families wishing to study at university are in a more financially viable situation. Maintenance grants have increased, and the threshold for the repayment of loans has gone up by £6000. Also, more scholarship programmes are available to those who have excelled in their studies. Those wishing to commit to study now have more incentive to become the best they can be.
And now with the fallout of the failed AV campaign, Nick Clegg has a new pledge. He wants to rebuild the identity of his party within the coalition, as it has been portrayed to the public by the media that now the Tories and the Libs are in cahoots with each other. Clegg has reinforced the fact that “this is a coalition of necessity, not conviction”. Cameron has fought back, however, stating that his party has become “a new and different Conservative party” and he has rubbished the idea that the Liberal Democrats have moderated their policies. This could be a sign that Cameron has realised his party is not too popular with most of Liberal Britain. With a historic victory in Scotland for the SNP, and the implosion of the Liberal seats to just 5 in the Scottish Parliament, Cameron has sensed that he needs to direct antipathy towards his liberal counterpart. As is often the way with politics though, it seems emotionally charged attitudes trumps objective thinking.
However wounded Clegg may be, he has vowed to come out fighting from this. The proposed NHS reforms which would allow hospitals and GP’s more freedom to micro manage budgets and compete for patients and services have been condemned by Clegg, and he has also an ally in Prof. Steve Field who heads the review. With an expert backing him, Clegg has now flexed his muscles in the face of Cameron and has vowed to block the bill unless there is a serious rethink to the reforms. Will the public recognise this act of defiance? And if they do, will it change opinion?
This is just one of many small steps Nick Clegg will have to take in order to get the publics support once again. While he isn’t perfect, we should at least be grateful he is in a position to keep check on the Tories in government. He was punished last week at the polls, and unfortunately the majority of the UK still doesn't see the need for electoral reform and a fairer democracy; something Clegg has long championed. Ironically, First Past the Post got his party into the cabinet, but it's unfortunate his political career and the credibility of the Liberal Democrats may be damaged beyond all recognition.
Public opinion - especially the opinions of those who voted for him - says Clegg sold out. But their vote has actually got the Libs into government. Now while those who voted for him may have been initially sore that he had sold the votes to the Tories, you have to remember that the Liberal Democrats were in dire straits after the election. Although much of their manifesto has been enstated over the past year, their is still an underlying vilification towards Nick Clegg, and this will always tarnish the positives that the Liberal Democrats can still make. Much of this has diverted attention from the facts: "All political thinking for years past has been vitiated in the same way. People can foresee the future only when it coincides with their own wishes, and the most grossly obvious facts can be ignored when they are unwelcome." George Orwell.
Ironically it can pay to be disinterested in things you are interested in so you can take an impartial approach. I’m not saying everyone should heap praise on the man, but I’m arguing he has rescued what might have been wasted votes. The NO2AV vote might have condemned them to a bronze medal in future elections for the foreseeable future, but Cameron is, for now, being kept on a relatively shorter leash than he would like.