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.

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How can Britain become a nation of homeowners?

David Cameron must unlock the spirit of his postwar predecessors to get the housing market back on track. 

In the 1955 election, Anthony Eden described turning Britain into a “property-owning democracy” as his – and by extension, the Conservative Party’s – overarching mission.

60 years later, what’s changed? Then, as now, an Old Etonian sits in Downing Street. Then, as now, Labour are badly riven between left and right, with their last stay in government widely believed – by their activists at least – to have been a disappointment. Then as now, few commentators seriously believe the Tories will be out of power any time soon.

But as for a property-owning democracy? That’s going less well.

When Eden won in 1955, around a third of people owned their own homes. By the time the Conservative government gave way to Harold Wilson in 1964, 42 per cent of households were owner-occupiers.

That kicked off a long period – from the mid-50s right until the fall of the Berlin Wall – in which home ownership increased, before staying roughly flat at 70 per cent of the population from 1991 to 2001.

But over the course of the next decade, for the first time in over a hundred years, the proportion of owner-occupiers went to into reverse. Just 64 percent of households were owner-occupier in 2011. No-one seriously believes that number will have gone anywhere other than down by the time of the next census in 2021. Most troublingly, in London – which, for the most part, gives us a fairly accurate idea of what the demographics of Britain as a whole will be in 30 years’ time – more than half of households are now renters.

What’s gone wrong?

In short, property prices have shot out of reach of increasing numbers of people. The British housing market increasingly gets a failing grade at “Social Contract 101”: could someone, without a backstop of parental or family capital, entering the workforce today, working full-time, seriously hope to retire in 50 years in their own home with their mortgage paid off?

It’s useful to compare and contrast the policy levers of those two Old Etonians, Eden and Cameron. Cameron, so far, has favoured demand-side solutions: Help to Buy and the new Help to Buy ISA.

To take the second, newer of those two policy innovations first: the Help to Buy ISA. Does it work?

Well, if you are a pre-existing saver – you can’t use the Help to Buy ISA for another tax year. And you have to stop putting money into any existing ISAs. So anyone putting a little aside at the moment – not going to feel the benefit of a Help to Buy ISA.

And anyone solely reliant on a Help to Buy ISA – the most you can benefit from, if you are single, it is an extra three grand from the government. This is not going to shift any houses any time soon.

What it is is a bung for the only working-age demographic to have done well out of the Coalition: dual-earner couples with no children earning above average income.

What about Help to Buy itself? At the margins, Help to Buy is helping some people achieve completions – while driving up the big disincentive to home ownership in the shape of prices – and creating sub-prime style risks for the taxpayer in future.

Eden, in contrast, preferred supply-side policies: his government, like every peacetime government from Baldwin until Thatcher’s it was a housebuilding government.

Why are house prices so high? Because there aren’t enough of them. The sector is over-regulated, underprovided, there isn’t enough housing either for social lets or for buyers. And until today’s Conservatives rediscover the spirit of Eden, that is unlikely to change.

I was at a Conservative party fringe (I was on the far left, both in terms of seating and politics).This is what I said, minus the ums, the ahs, and the moment my screensaver kicked in.

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.