Nick Clegg’s shameful U-turn on cuts

The truth continues to ooze out.

Can you guess who said this?

Look, the decision on how we govern this country and how people vote shouldn't be driven by fear of what the markets might do. Let's say there was a Conservative government. Let's say a Conservative government announced, in that sort of macho way: "We're gonna slash public spending by a third, we'll slash this, we'll slash this, we'll do it tomorrow. We have to take early, tough action."

Just imagine the reaction of my constituents in south-west Sheffield. I represent a constituency that has more people working in public services as a proportion of the workforce than any other constituency in the country. Lots of people working in universities, the hospitals and so on.

They have no Conservative councillors. They have no Conservative MPs. There are no Conservative MPs or Conservative councillors as far as the eye can see in South Yorkshire. People like that are going to say: "Who are these people telling us that they are are going to suddenly take our jobs away? What mandate do they have? I didn't vote for them. No one around here voted for them."

I think if we want to go the direction of Greece, where you get real social and industrial unrest, that's the guaranteed way of doing it.

It was, of course, our beloved Deputy Prime Minister, Nick Clegg, leader of the Liberal Democrats and MP for Sheffield Hallam, speaking at an event organised by the Yorkshire Post on 19 March. (You can watch the video of his remarks here.)

So what happened? Why did he drop his opposition to the Tories' "macho" cuts? And when did he stop worrying about the "reaction" of his constituents in Sheffield?

First, Clegg told the Observer's Andrew Rawnsley on 6 June that a conversation with the governor of the Bank of England, Mervyn King, in the wake of the debt crisis in Greece, helped change his mind:

He [King] couldn't have been more emphatic. He said: "If you don't do this, then because of the deterioration of market conditions, it will be even more painful to do it later."

But, as the Guardian reports, at yesterday's Treasury select committee hearing, under questioning from Labour's Chuka Umunna, King revealed that he had said nothing to Clegg during a phone call, on 15 May, that he had not already said in public, most notably at a press conference three days earlier:

I said nothing that was not already in the public domain. In the telephone conversation, I basically repeated what I had said at the press conference . . .

There was nothing I said in that conversation that was different from what I had said in public. When I am needed to give advice, I try to make sure the advice I give is full square in private and in public.

But just as Clegg's "Mervyn made me do it" excuse begins to fall apart -- and, remember, Clegg spoke to King after he had already signed up to the coalition agreement with its "accelerated" deficit reduction programme -- along comes Nick Robinson with his BBC2 documentary Five Days that Changed Britain. Asked by Robinson if he had changed his mind about cuts during the five days of negotiations, Clegg says:

I changed my mind earlier than that . . . Firstly remember between March and the actual general election . . . a financial earthquake occurred on our European doorstep.

Hmm. Yet see Clegg's comments (above) in Yorkshire. Does he sound like a man who is having second thoughts about the Lib Dems' opposition to "early" cuts? Does he give any indication to the audience that he plans to junk the Lib Dems' position on the timing of so-called fiscal consolidation? And did he, at any stage during the election campaign, a month later, even hint that he was going to perform such a sharp U-turn on the biggest election and economic issue of all?

As Chuka Umunna puts it:

If Nick Clegg changed his mind on such an important issue during the election campaign, why did he choose not to share this epiphany with the electorate?

The Liberal Democrats fought the election campaign vehemently opposing the Conservatives' economic policies, and the public deserves a full explanation of when and why Mr Clegg reversed his views on the economy.

Will we get one? No.

UPDATE:

On a side note, the more revelations that emerge about those five days of coalition negotiations, the more I feel like reaching for the late Anthony Sampson's Anatomy of Britain. I mean, should the governor of the Bank of England really be intervening, directly or indirectly, in such important political decisions? Should the head of the civil service, Sir Gus O'Donnell (or "God", as he is nicknamed by colleagues, according to Nick Robinson), have been advising Conservative and Liberal Democrat negotiators in their first meeting with the Cabinet Ooffice "that "the more comprehensive the agreement" between the two parties, the more it would reassure the markets"?

Mehdi Hasan is a contributing writer for the New Statesman and the co-author of Ed: The Milibands and the Making of a Labour Leader. He was the New Statesman's senior editor (politics) from 2009-12.

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The decline of the north's sporting powerhouse

Yorkshire historically acted as a counterweight to the dominance of southern elites, in sport as in politics and culture. Now, things are different.

On a drive between Sheffield and Barnsley, I spotted a striking painting of the Kes poster. Billy Casper’s two-fingered salute covered the wall of a once-popular pub that is now boarded up.

It is almost 50 years since the late Barry Hines wrote A Kestrel for a Knave, the novel that inspired Ken Loach’s 1969 film, and it seems that the defiant, us-against-the-world, stick-it-to-the-man Yorkshireness he commemorated still resonates here. Almost two-thirds of the people of south Yorkshire voted to leave the EU, flicking two fingers up at what they saw as a London-based establishment, detached from life beyond the capital.

But whatever happened to Billy the unlikely lad, and the myriad other northern characters who were once the stars of stage and screen? Like the pitheads that dominated Casper’s tightly knit neighbourhood, they have disappeared from the landscape. The rot set in during the 1980s, when industries were destroyed and communities collapsed, a point eloquently made in Melvyn Bragg’s excellent radio series The Matter of the North.

Yorkshire historically acted as a counterweight to the dominance of southern elites, in sport as in politics and culture. Yet today, we rarely get to hear the voices of Barnsley, Sheffield, Doncaster and Rotherham. And the Yorkshire sporting powerhouse is no more – at least, not as we once knew it.

This should be a matter of national concern. The White Rose county is, after all, the home of the world’s oldest registered football club – Sheffield FC, formed in 1857 – and the first English team to win three successive League titles, Huddersfield Town, in the mid-1920s. Hull City are now Yorkshire’s lone representative in the Premier League.

Howard Wilkinson, the manager of Leeds United when they were crowned champions in 1992, the season before the Premier League was founded, lamented the passing of a less money-obsessed era. “My dad worked at Orgreave,” he said, “the scene of Mrs Thatcher’s greatest hour, bless her. You paid for putting an axe through what is a very strong culture of community and joint responsibility.”

The best-known scene in Loach’s film shows a football match in which Mr Sugden, the PE teacher, played by Brian Glover, comically assumes the role of Bobby Charlton. It was played out on the muddy school fields of Barnsley’s run-down Athersley estate. On a visit to his alma mater a few years ago, David Bradley, who played the scrawny 15-year-old Billy, showed me the goalposts that he had swung from as a reluctant goalkeeper. “You can still see the dint in the crossbar,” he said. When I spoke to him recently, Bradley enthused about his lifelong support for Barnsley FC. “But I’ve not been to the ground over the last season and a half,” he said. “I can’t afford it.”

Bradley is not alone. Many long-standing fans have been priced out. Barnsley is only a Championship side, but for their home encounter with Newcastle last October, their fans had to pay £30 for a ticket.

The English game is rooted in the northern, working-class communities that have borne the brunt of austerity over the past six years. The top leagues – like the EU – are perceived to be out of touch and skewed in favour of the moneyed elites.

Bradley, an ardent Remainer, despaired after the Brexit vote. “They did not know what they were doing. But I can understand why. There’s still a lot of neglect, a lot of deprivation in parts of Barnsley. They feel left behind because they have been left behind.”

It is true that there has been a feel-good factor in Yorkshire following the Rio Olympics; if the county were a country, it would have finished 17th in the international medals table. Yet while millions have been invested in “podium-level athletes”, in the team games that are most relevant to the lives of most Yorkshire folk – football, cricket and rugby league – there is a clear division between sport’s elites and its grass roots. While lucrative TV deals have enriched ruling bodies and top clubs, there has been a large decrease in the number of adults playing any sport in the four years since London staged the Games.

According to figures from Sport England, there are now 67,000 fewer people in Yorkshire involved in sport than there were in 2012. In Doncaster, to take a typical post-industrial White Rose town, there has been a 13 per cent drop in participation – compared with a 0.4 per cent decline nationally.

Attendances at rugby league, the region’s “national sport”, are falling. But cricket, in theory, is thriving, with Yorkshire winning the County Championship in 2014 and 2015. Yet Joe Root, the batsman and poster boy for this renaissance, plays far more games for his country than for his county and was rested from Yorkshire’s 2016 title decider against Middlesex.

“Root’s almost not a Yorkshire player nowadays,” said Stuart Rayner, whose book The War of the White Roses chronicles the club’s fortunes between 1968 and 1986. As a fan back then, I frequently watched Geoffrey Boycott and other local stars at Headingley. My favourite was the England bowler Chris Old, a gritty, defiant, unsung anti-hero in the Billy Casper mould.

When Old made his debut, 13 of the 17-strong Yorkshire squad were registered as working-class professionals. Half a century later, three of the five Yorkshiremen selec­ted for the last Ashes series – Root, Jonny Bairstow and Gary Ballance – were privately educated. “The game of cricket now is played in public schools,” Old told me. “Top players are getting huge amounts of money, but the grass-roots game doesn’t seem to have benefited in any way.”

“In ten years’ time you won’t get a Joe Root,” Rayner said. “If you haven’t seen these top Yorkshire cricketers playing in your backyard and you haven’t got Sky, it will be difficult to get the whole cricket bug. So where is the next generation of Roots going to come from?” Or the next generation of Jessica Ennis-Hills? Three years ago, the Sheffield stadium where she trained and first discovered athletics was closed after cuts to local services.

This article first appeared in the 19 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The Trump era