Nick Clegg: why I admire Margaret Thatcher

Liberal Democrat leader risks alienating the left of his party in attempt to woo Tory voters.

The Lib Dem leader, Nick Clegg, has expressed his admiration for Margaret Thatcher and aligned himself with traditionally Conservative economic liberalism.

In an interview with the Spectator magazine, he said:

I'm 43 now. I was at university at the height of the Thatcher revolution and I recognise now something I did not at the time: that her victory over a vested interest, the trade unions, was immensely significant.

I don't want to be churlish, that was an immensely important visceral battle for how Britain is governed.

Clegg compared Lib Dem policies on tax to those of the former Conservative chancellor Nigel Lawson. He also said that he would end the UK's Budget deficit entirely through spending cuts, as opposed to the 80 per cent cuts and 20 per cent tax rises proposed by the Conservatives. "If you want the economy to grow, you must stimulate demand," he said.

There are two ways of interpreting his comments. First, he leaves the way open to support the Tories in the event of a hung parliament. Back in January, he said of the Conservatives: "At the moment, of course, the differences are more striking than the synthetic similarities."

While he is still apparently retaining the position of "equidistance" between the two parties established before Christmas, such pointed courting of a core Conservative perspective appears to be an attempt to halt the widespread assumption that Labour is the more natural ally of the "third party".

Second, this could be an attempt to retain votes in constituencies where voters could swing towards the Tories. The prevailing view is that the Lib Dems are most likely to win seats from disillusioned Labour voters who cannot quite bring themselves to vote Conservative.

Such comments show that Clegg is trying to gain votes from across the political spectrum -- perhaps even from old-school Tories who are unenthused about David Cameron.

The problem with trying to please everyone, of course, is that you can't. The Guardian reports that those on the left of the Lib Dems, who make up a majority, are privately threatening rebellion or resignation if Clegg endorses a Conservative Budget.

As the party goes into its spring conference, Clegg would do well to clarify his message.

Follow the New Statesman team on Twitter.

Samira Shackle is a freelance journalist, who tweets @samirashackle. She was formerly a staff writer for the New Statesman.

Photo: Martin Whitfield
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Labour MP for East Lothian Martin Whitfield: "I started an argument and ended up winning an election"

The former primary school teacher still misses home. 

Two months ago, Martin Whitfield was a primary school teacher in Prestonpans, a small town along the coast from Edinburgh. Then he got into an argument. It was a Saturday morning shortly after the snap election had been called, and he and other members of the local Labour party began discussing a rumour that the candidate would be an outsider.

“I started an argument that this was ridiculous, we couldn’t have a candidate helicoptered in,” he recalls. He pointed out that one of the main issues with the Scottish National Party incumbent, the economist and journalist George Kerevan, was that he was seen as an outsider.

“I kept arguing for an hour and a half and people started gently moving away,” he jokes. “About two days later I was still going on, and I thought enough’s enough.” 

He called Iain Gray, the Scottish Labour veteran, who interrupted him. “He said, 'Right Martin, are you going to put up or shut up?’ So I filled in the forms.

"Then I had to have a very interesting conversation with my wife.”

One successful election campaign later, he is sitting in the airy, glass-roofed atrium of Westminster’s Portcullis House. Whitfield has silver hair, glasses, and wears a Labour-red tie with his shirt. He looks every bit the approachable primary school teacher, and sometimes he forgets he isn’t anymore. 

I ask how the school reacted to his election bid, and he begins “I have”, and then corrects himself: “There is a primary four class I had the pleasure to teach.” The children wanted to know everything from where parliament was, to his views on education and independence. He took unpaid leave to campaign. 

“Actually not teaching the children was the hardest thing,” he recalls. “During the campaign I kept bumping into them when I was door-knocking.”

Whitfield was born in Newcastle, in 1965, to Labour-supporting parents. “My entire youth was spent with people who were socialists.”

His father was involved in the Theatre Workshop, founded by the left-wing director Joan Littlewood. “We were part of a community which supported each other and found value in that support in art and in theatre,” he says. “That is hugely important to me.” 

He trained as a lawyer, but grew disillusioned with the profession and retrained as a teacher instead. He and his wife eventually settled in Prestonpans, where they started a family and he “fought like mad” to work at the local school. She works as the marketing manager for the local theatre.

He believes he won his seat – one of the first to be touted as a possible Labour win – thanks to a combination of his local profile, the party’s position on independence and its manifesto, which “played brilliantly everywhere we discussed it”. 

It offered hope, he says: “As far as my doorstep discussion in East Lothian went, some people were for and against Jeremy Corbyn, some people were for and against Kezia Dugdale, but I didn’t find anyone who was against the manifesto.”

Whitfield’s new job will mean long commutes on the East Coast line, but he considers representing the constituency a “massive, massive honour”. When I ask him about East Lothian, he can’t stop talking.

“MPs do tend to say ‘my constituency’s a microcosm’, but it really is Scotland in miniature. We have a fishing industry, crabs and lobsters, the agricultural areas – the agricultural soil is second to none.” The area was also historically home to heavy industry. 

After his first week in Westminster, Whitfield caught the train back to Scotland. “That bit when I got back into East Lothian was lovely moment,” he says. “I was home.”

Julia Rampen is the digital news editor of the New Statesman (previously editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog). She has also been deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines. 

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