Clegg was for cuts to the NHS and aid before he was against them

The Liberal Democrat leader has conveniently forgotten his opposition to ring-fencing in 2010.

Unlike Ed Miliband, Nick Clegg emerged largely unscathed from his appearance on The World At Onebut a notable moment came when he was asked about the forthcoming Spending Review, submissions for which ended today.

Vince Cable recently criticised the coalition's decision to ring-fence spending on the NHS, schools and international development, warning that it had led to "a very unbalanced approach to public spending". He suggested that cuts should be considered in all of these areas after 2015 in order to reduce pressure on "the army, police, local government and skills". 

But Clegg made it clear that he didn't share the Business Secretary's scepticism of ring-fencing. He said:

If you are Vince Cable and you're in a department that doesn't have that ring-fence, and Philip Hammond and others have made it quite clear directly that they're marshalling their arguments about why their department needs to be shielded from savings and others should bear the...that's the nature of this sort of Whitehall argy bargy that you get at this stage. 

Having said that, I fundamentally, I don't think Vince was saying this, but I am absolutely convinced that at a difficult time like this, protecting our NHS spending, protecting spending on schools and honouring our international obligations to developing countries around the world was a big decision, was a controversial decision but I think was the right one to take. 

In response, it's worth noting that that the Deputy PM took a very different line during the 2010 election when he declared:

We’re not entering into this dutch auction about ring-fencing. Good outcomes aren’t determined by drawing a redline around government departmental budgets.

Unlike the Conservatives, who pledged to protect spending on the NHS and international development, the Lib Dems argued that no department should be spared from austerity, with Cable telling the party's 2010 spring conference: "There can be no ring-fencing if we are serious about getting the public finances back on track". As party leader, Clegg supported this approach.

Once installed as Deputy Prime Minister, it appears that he had a change of heart. But if so, he should at least have the decency to admit as much. 

Nick Clegg gestures as he takes questions from journalists after making a speech on immigration on March 22, 2013 in London. Photograph: Getty Images.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

Photo: Getty Images
Show Hide image

Let 2016 be the year that Ireland gives women the right to choose

As we commemorate and celebrate the centenary of the Easter Rising next year, we must remember that while the constitution was hard fought for it cannot be static. 

There is mounting pressure for the Irish government to look into decriminalising abortion. It has been growing since Savita Halappanavar’s death three years ago in a hospital in Galway due to complications during pregnancy. She was refused an abortion because Irish law forbids it. Earlier this month Irish women tweeted the Taoiseach Enda Kenny about their periods using the #repealthe8th in an attempt to bring attention to the issue. Now last Friday, Amnesty International published a letter calling for the decriminalisation of abortion internationally, signed by 838 doctors, most importantly this included some of Ireland’s leading healthcare professionals. This is the perfect time for political parties to commit to holding a referendum on the issue if elected they are elected and form the next government in 2016.

One part of the Irish legislative process I have always been proud of is the use of referendum and bringing serious questions to the electorate. It protects the constitution from changing on political whims or based on the beliefs of whatever party is in government. As such it remains a document of the people, it was after all put to vote before it was instituted in 1937. It also passes issues, which have proved contentious and in other countries have relied on the sympathy of lawmakers, by popular consent. Same sex marriage was legalised in a beautiful display of support, 62% of the electorate came out to vote for equality. Social media was full of pictures of Irish people living abroad going home especially for the referendum.

There has previously been a number referendums on abortion and following Savita’s death, the  Protection of Life during Pregnancy Act 2013 was brought in which allowed abortion if the mother’s life was in danger. It was important and a sensible measure to bring in. However it resulted in serious splits and some contentious situations. Lucinda Creighton defied Fine Gael’s whip and found herself stripped of her ministry and ostracised, leading to the creation of her new party Renua Ireland. Creighton was recently asked if she would agree with aborting baby Hitler. This is the ridiculous side of the debate which doesn’t help either side. Many thought that the 2013 act was too quickly done and not properly explained or understood. A referendum is the best way to avoid this. The question can be explained properly and debated to give people access to more information. Once passed, it is done so with consent from a majority of the electorate and this makes it much more difficult to argue against its legitimacy than if it is forced through. The result is also binding regardless of the current government’s stance, you can have a second vote but you can’t force people to vote the other way.

Public support for legalising or extending abortion rights is there. A RedC poll for Amnesty International in July showed 67 per cent of people thought abortion should be decriminalised while 81 per cent thought it should be allowed in more situations. 45 per cent were in favour of abortion whenever a woman wanted it. It is not an overwhelming figure but if 45 per cent of people believe this should be instituted then they ought to be listened to and the question brought to the country.

Realistically, nothing will be done before the next election which is expected to be held in early 2016. However now is an excellent time for political parties to examine their stance on abortion and look at holding a referendum and making it part of their manifestoes. The new government will then be in a position to announce a new referendum on abortion as soon as they are in power. The last one was held in 2002, meaning that many young people particularly women at the height of their fertility have never actually had a say on this matter.

As we commemorate and celebrate the centenary of the Easter Rising next year, we must remember that while the constitution was hard fought for it cannot be static. The world that its authors inhabited is not the same as the one we live in today. The constitution has changed to bring peace to Northern Ireland, to legalise divorce and same sex marriage, let 2016 be the year it changes to give women the freedom to choose.