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
Show Hide image

The rise of the green mayor – Sadiq Khan and the politics of clean energy

At an event at Tate Modern, Sadiq Khan pledged to clean up London's act.

On Thursday night, deep in the bowls of Tate Modern’s turbine hall, London Mayor Sadiq Khan renewed his promise to make the capital a world leader in clean energy and air. Yet his focus was as much on people as power plants – in particular, the need for local authorities to lead where central governments will not.

Khan was there to introduce the screening of a new documentary, From the Ashes, about the demise of the American coal industry. As he noted, Britain continues to battle against the legacy of fossil fuels: “In London today we burn very little coal but we are facing new air pollution challenges brought about for different reasons." 

At a time when the world's leaders are struggling to keep international agreements on climate change afloat, what can mayors do? Khan has pledged to buy only hybrid and zero-emissions buses from next year, and is working towards London becoming a zero carbon city.

Khan has, of course, also gained heroic status for being a bête noire of climate-change-denier-in-chief Donald Trump. On the US president's withdrawal from the Paris Agreement, Khan quipped: “If only he had withdrawn from Twitter.” He had more favourable things to say about the former mayor of New York and climate change activist Michael Bloomberg, who Khan said hailed from “the second greatest city in the world.”

Yet behind his humour was a serious point. Local authorities are having to pick up where both countries' central governments are leaving a void – in improving our air and supporting renewable technology and jobs. Most concerning of all, perhaps, is the way that interest groups representing business are slashing away at the regulations which protect public health, and claiming it as a virtue.

In the UK, documents leaked to Greenpeace’s energy desk show that a government-backed initiative considered proposals for reducing EU rules on fire-safety on the very day of the Grenfell Tower fire. The director of this Red Tape Initiative, Nick Tyrone, told the Guardian that these proposals were rejected. Yet government attempts to water down other EU regulations, such as the energy efficiency directive, still stand.

In America, this blame-game is even more highly charged. Republicans have sworn to replace what they describe as Obama’s “war on coal” with a war on regulation. “I am taking historic steps to lift the restrictions on American energy, to reverse government intrusion, and to cancel job-killing regulations,” Trump announced in March. While he has vowed “to promote clean air and clear water,” he has almost simultaneously signed an order to unravel the Clean Water Rule.

This rhetoric is hurting the very people it claims to protect: miners. From the Ashes shows the many ways that the industry harms wider public health, from water contamination, to air pollution. It also makes a strong case that the American coal industry is in terminal decline, regardless of possibile interventions from government or carbon capture.

Charities like Bloomberg can only do so much to pick up the pieces. The foundation, which helped fund the film, now not only helps support job training programs in coal communities after the Trump administration pulled their funding, but in recent weeks it also promised $15m to UN efforts to tackle climate change – again to help cover Trump's withdrawal from Paris Agreement. “I'm a bit worried about how many cards we're going to have to keep adding to the end of the film”, joked Antha Williams, a Bloomberg representative at the screening, with gallows humour.

Hope also lies with local governments and mayors. The publication of the mayor’s own environment strategy is coming “soon”. Speaking in panel discussion after the film, his deputy mayor for environment and energy, Shirley Rodrigues, described the move to a cleaner future as "an inevitable transition".

Confronting the troubled legacies of our fossil fuel past will not be easy. "We have our own experiences here of our coal mining communities being devastated by the closure of their mines," said Khan. But clean air begins with clean politics; maintaining old ways at the price of health is not one any government must pay. 

'From The Ashes' will premiere on National Geograhpic in the United Kingdom at 9pm on Tuesday, June 27th.

India Bourke is an environment writer and editorial assistant at the New Statesman.

0800 7318496