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30 March 2017

Nick Clegg: The right-wing press is paralysing the Brexit debate

The former Liberal Democrat leader says the populist resurgence will be defeated by a liberal backlash.

By Nick Clegg

You can’t really have a properly functioning democracy if the powerful are not properly held to account.  But I think it is a concatenation of things. I think this peculiar introverted paralysis in the Labour Party is part of it, but it’s not the only thing.

Firstly, I don’t think you can overstate the significance of Scottish nationalism because Scottish nationalism in effect does – basically decimates the Labour Party and in a sense does the Conservative party’s job for it because it kneecaps the Labour Party.  As long as Scottish nationalism is as dominant as it is, the only way nationally for the Conservatives to feel under any pressure is of course for the Labour Party to beat them in England. I personally think it’s irrelevant who is leader of the Labour Party; I don’t think there’s any way in this day and age that they can beat the Conservatives south of the border.  

Secondly, that in turn would not happen if we didn’t have this insane electoral system. You’re handing one whole swathe of our country hook, line and sinker to one party on half the vote, and then handing the keys to power in Westminster to a party which only got 24 per cent of the eligible vote. If you were a political scientist from Mars you just wouldn’t – it would just beggar belief that we call ourselves a functioning democracy by basically giving a parliamentary majority to the party that can’t even scrape together more than a quarter of the eligible vote nationally.

And then the right-wing press has coalesced around Brexit and have transformed themselves from competitors into, in effect, a sort of political cabal, which has such a paralysing effect on the political debate because it means that you have this kind of almost universal – you have a consistent and homogenous drumbeat from the Telegraph, the Express, the Mail, the Sun and so on, which frames the debate.

If you want to do anything about it, in the long run you can only do something about it if you can do something about some or all of those things. You can faff around as much as you like, and by golly the Labour Party is faffing around at the moment, having endless navel gazing discussions about this form of social democracy or that form of socialism or whether Corbyn’s good or bad at Prime Minister’s Questions. But these are quite big structural forces which I think are pretty immune to whether you have a moderately better parliamentary performer at the head of the Labour Party or not.  

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But vacuums always get filled. For every action there’s always a reaction. I sense it as I go round the country. It is amazing how this Brexit, Trump phase has really mobilised interest in politics; it’s galvanised a lot of people.

Sure we can say a lot of it is the broadsheet educated middle classes. I don’t care. A lot of people are really mobilised and steamed up about politics now who weren’t previously. That will lead somewhere. So I conclude, if in a democracy there is a lot of energy about, it will find an outlet somewhere.  At the moment it’s all a bit dissipated and disorganised and I genuinely have got no clearer crystal ball than anybody else. But I think if we can focus on the ideas and the self-critical challenge that people on the centre-left need to subject themselves to, and that the Labour Party very notably didn’t for five years, things will eventually come right.

Nick Clegg is a former leader of the Liberal Democrats and deputy prime minister

As told to George Eaton

This article appears in the 29 Mar 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Wanted: an opposition