Nick Clegg has robbed my party of its soul - he must go now

Those on the left of the party have been treated with contempt as Clegg seeks to transform the Lib Dems into a free market sect.

I am in mourning. In mourning for my once great and principled party which, judging by the past week, believes in very little that it once held dear.

From opposition to nuclear power to being against a replacement for Trident and supporting a 50p tax rate for the highest earners, we’ve seen these and other totemic policies abandoned. It makes me think some commentators are right when they say that Nick Clegg has all but completed his transformation of the Liberal Democrats from a party which was to the left of Labour (or at least New Labour) to one that is now an annex to the Conservative Party. 

I’ve long argued that what Clegg wants to do is turn the Lib Dems into a British version of the German FDP. The free-market FDP wins a very small percentage of the vote but seems to remain permanently in government as a parasitical attachment to the conservative coalition led by Angela Merkel.

That kind of thing must surely not be the aim of the Liberal Democrats. Of course we’re pluralists and believe in working with other parties. But we shouldn’t ignore our own history and rubbish our own principles just so our mnisters can keep their hands on red boxes.

Our history brings up names like Keynes, Beveridge, and Grimond, radical social liberals. And, yes, other names such as Roy Jenkins and Shirley Williams. As councillor and London Assembly Member Stephen Knight reminded us at a fringe put on by Liberal Left at this week’s Liberal Democrat conference, our party is a successor to two fine traditions, not just liberalism but also social democracy. Some would like to wipe the SDP from our history, but others, such as Vince Cable, continue to self-define as social democrats and we will not allow that fine tradition to be forgotten.

But over and above policy matters, what has upset me most this week has been the way some in our party, including Nick Clegg, treat those on the left. We’re belittled, patronised and treated with ridicule. Like embarrassing relatives, we're tolerated but not wanted.

Perhaps the worst example of this came during Clegg’s Q&A session when, before she’d even asked a question, Clegg made belittling comments about my colleague and friend Linda Jack, the chair of Liberal Left and one of the nicest and most principled people in our party.

When Linda did ask a question, she asked Clegg whether people such as her still had a place in the party. Clegg answered by not answering; he just talked about that morning’s economy motion. Any reasonable leader, regardless of whether they agreed with a certain individual, would have said, "Of course you have a place in our party, we’re a broad church". 

He said no such thing, which makes many of us feel like he’d really quite like us to leave the party so the transformation of the Liberal Democrats from a social liberal party to an economic liberal party will be complete.

Well, I have a very clear message for Mr Clegg and his acolytes: we’re going nowhere. As Janice Turner of the Social Liberal Forum said at the Liberal Left fringe, "this is our party too." Of course we’ve done good things in government, from re-linking pensions to earnings, to enacting Equal Marriage, but we’ve also compromised and capitulated too often and acquiesced too much.

So, after three years of biting my tongue, hoping for a better day and defending his leadership, I now call on Nick Clegg to go. What residual respect I had left for him was destroyed this week by the way he and his ilk referred to and dealt with those who dared to disagree with them.

Those of us on the centre-left of our party, who I believe continue to be its mainstream, will, despite it all, continue to fight for what we believe. A couple of years ago, at a Lib Dem conference not long after the coalition was formed, Nick Clegg told delegates, "we’ll never lose our soul."

Sadly, I fear we have.

Mathew Hulbert is a Liberal Democrat borough and parish councillor in Leicestershire

Nick Clegg delivers his speech at the Liberal Democrat conference in Glasgow. Photograph: Getty Images.

Mathew Hulbert is a Liberal Democrat Borough and Parish Councillor in Leicestershire

Photo: Getty
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The UK press’s timid reaction to Brexit is in marked contrast to the satire unleashed on Trump

For the BBC, it seems, to question leaving the EU is to be unpatriotic.

Faced with arguably their biggest political-cum-constitutional ­crisis in half a century, the press on either side of the pond has reacted very differently. Confronting a president who, unlike many predecessors, does not merely covertly dislike the press but rages against its supposed mendacity as a purveyor of “fake news”, the fourth estate in the US has had a pretty successful first 150-odd days of the Trump era. The Washington Post has recovered its Watergate mojo – the bloodhound tenacity that brought down Richard Nixon. The Post’s investigations into links between the Kremlin and Donald Trump’s associates and appointees have yielded the scalp of the former security adviser Michael Flynn and led to Attorney General Jeff Sessions recusing himself from all inquiries into Trump-Russia contacts. Few imagine the story will end there.

Meanwhile, the New York Times has cast off its image as “the grey lady” and come out in sharper colours. Commenting on the James Comey memo in an editorial, the Times raised the possibility that Trump was trying to “obstruct justice”, and called on Washington lawmakers to “uphold the constitution”. Trump’s denunciations of the Times as “failing” have acted as commercial “rocket fuel” for the paper, according to its CEO, Mark Thompson: it gained an “astonishing” 308,000 net digital news subscriptions in the first quarter of 2017.

US-based broadcast organisations such as CNN and ABC, once considered slick or bland, have reacted to Trump’s bullying in forthright style. Political satire is thriving, led by Saturday Night Live, with its devastating impersonations of the president by Alec Baldwin and of his press secretary Sean Spicer by the brilliant Melissa McCarthy.

British press reaction to Brexit – an epic constitutional, political and economic mess-up that probably includes a mind-bogglingly destructive self-ejection from a single market and customs union that took decades to construct, a move pushed through by a far-right faction of the Tory party – has been much more muted. The situation is complicated by the cheerleading for Brexit by most of the British tabloids and the Daily Telegraph. There are stirrings of resistance, but even after an election in which Theresa May spectacularly failed to secure a mandate for her hard Brexit, there is a sense, though the criticism of her has been intense, of the media pussy-footing around a government in disarray – not properly interrogating those who still seem to promise that, in relation to Europe, we can have our cake and eat it.

This is especially the case with the BBC, a state broadcaster that proudly proclaims its independence from the government of the day, protected by the famous “arm’s-length” principle. In the case of Brexit, the BBC invoked its concept of “balance” to give equal airtime and weight to Leavers and Remainers. Fair enough, you might say, but according to the economist Simon Wren-Lewis, it ignored a “near-unanimous view among economists that Brexit would hurt the UK economy in the longer term”.

A similar view of “balance” in the past led the BBC to equate views of ­non-scientific climate contrarians, often linked to the fossil-fuel lobby, with those of leading climate scientists. Many BBC Remainer insiders still feel incensed by what they regard as BBC betrayal over Brexit. Although the referendum of 23 June 2016 said nothing about leaving the single market or the customs union, the Today presenter Justin Webb, in a recent interview with Stuart Rose, put it like this: “Staying in the single market, staying in the customs union – [Leave voters would say] you might as well not be leaving. That fundamental position is a matter of democracy.” For the BBC, it seems, to question Brexit is somehow to be unpatriotic.

You might think that an independent, pro-democratic press would question the attempted use of the arcane and archaic “royal prerogative” to enable the ­bypassing of parliament when it came to triggering Article 50, signalling the UK’s departure from the EU. But when the campaigner Gina Miller’s challenge to the government was upheld by the high court, the three ruling judges were attacked on the front page of the Daily Mail as “enemies of the people”. Thomas Jefferson wrote that he would rather have “newspapers without a government” than “a government without newspapers”. It’s a fair guess he wasn’t thinking of newspapers that would brand the judiciary as “enemies of the people”.

It does seem significant that the United States has a written constitution, encapsulating the separation and balance of powers, and explicitly designed by the Founding Fathers to protect the young republic against tyranny. When James Madison drafted the First Amendment he was clear that freedom of the press should be guaranteed to a much higher degree in the republic than it had been in the colonising power, where for centuries, after all, British monarchs and prime ministers have had no qualms about censoring an unruly media.

By contrast, the United Kingdom remains a hybrid of monarchy and democracy, with no explicit protection of press freedom other than the one provided by the common law. The national impulse to bend the knee before the sovereign, to obey and not question authority, remains strangely powerful in Britain, the land of Henry VIII as well as of George Orwell. That the United Kingdom has slipped 11 places in the World Press Freedom Index in the past four years, down to 40th, has rightly occasioned outrage. Yet, even more awkwardly, the United States is three places lower still, at 43rd. Freedom of the press may not be doing quite as well as we imagine in either country.

Harry Eyres is the author of Horace and Me: Life Lessons from an Ancient Poet (2013)

This article first appeared in the 20 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The new world disorder