Douglas Alexander: How the Lib Dems did coalition wrong

How different the fate of the Lib Dems could have been if they had begun the coalition with more understanding of government, says the former shadow foreign secretary.

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Let me start with what seems like a confession. On a personal level, I have always quite liked Nick Clegg. There, I’ve said it. Over recent years, I have disagreed profoundly with many of the positions that he and his party adopted under the coalition government – in which, time and time again, he was complicit in targeting the most vulnerable in society. Yet I have never fully understood why the derision directed at him as an individual seemed so often to exceed even the fury directed at his policies. This memoir suggests that Clegg feels the same bafflement.

In person, he has a warmth and humour that have too rarely been on public display in recent years. The first time we talked was as we both queued for tea at the Foreign Office in 2008. I was a cabinet minister at the time and he had only recently become the leader of the Liberal Democrats. I remember thinking, during that first conversation, that if he developed the facility to communicate this easily on television, he would prove a formidable opponent in the subsequent general election. A couple of years later, “Cleggmania” proved that point. His performances in the debates were one of the breakthrough stories of the 2010 election. In the light of what followed, it is hard now to recollect quite how new and exciting Clegg was judged to be at the time by an electorate weary of Labour and unconvinced by the Conservatives.

This memoir is the author’s often painfully honest account of the journey from starting out as a fresh face in politics to becoming a widely scorned former deputy prime minister. What makes it fascinating and readable is that it largely avoids some of the more common features of ministerial memoirs – subtle self-aggrandisement, selective recall and emotional inauthenticity – and reveals instead the pain and bewilderment that have frequently been Clegg’s companions during his career.

This memoir suggests a self-aware man who is still struggling intellectually with the assault on centrist politics under way today and with the collapse of the political project to which he remains devoted. Yet it is far more interesting than that, because it is not merely a self-serving defence of everything he has done – but, equally, it does not offer many answers beyond a vague hope that history’s judgement will be kinder.

Clegg nonetheless writes with candour and insight about the human cost of high office – both to politicians and to their families. His description of the high-wire balancing act of being a minister while trying to raise young kids rang true and brought to mind my diversion from a Council of the European Union meeting in Brussels when my son was unexpectedly born ten weeks early. I admire the way that he chose consistently to shield his children from the madness and the media – and clearly battled daily to be a dad as well as a politician.

And yet, despite his struggles to maintain a degree of normality, he slips too easily into rehearsing familiar tropes about the failures of Westminster and other politicians. If politicians (even defeated ones) want respect from the public, one prerequisite is self-respect. That does not mean arrogance or remaining impervious to the necessary changes in how politics is done. It does, however, mean remaking the case for the importance of politics and not indulging in easy, sometimes misplaced ideas about others’ motivations or capabilities.

If journalism is the first draft of history, this book reads very much like journalism, in the sense that it reveals a man who is still struggling to make sense of the past few years and figure out the future. It leaves the reader with an impression of Clegg as a more attractive human being, if not a more effective politician.

The charge sheet against him is by now well rehearsed – primarily his role as the naive enabler of an ideological Conservative project to shrink the state. Clegg struggles to rebut this case, once again offering the extension of the income-tax threshold in the face of overwhelming evidence that most of its huge costs benefited the rich far more than the poor.

He repeatedly implies that private policy victories were the compensation for public political humiliation. But one is left with a sense of the Tories’ good fortune in securing a coalition partner with so little experience of government and the structures and processes of Whitehall. Indeed, the book reminded me just how little front-line experience Clegg had before he assumed the leadership of his party.

He writes with humility about how he came to learn that symbols and stories matter deeply in politics – but this was hardly news in 2010. If anything, in Labour we had overlearned that lesson by 1997. He is honest about his mistakes, from breaking the pledge on tuition fees to failing to understand political jeopardy and the risks to his reputation involved in putting private deal-making before collective cabinet responsibility and communication to the public.

Yet Clegg seems still not to have grasped what, to me – a witness to years of struggle between Tony Blair and Gordon Brown – is a basic point. In Whitehall battles, institutional power matters. Just imagine how different the fate of the Lib Dems could have been if they had begun the coalition with more understanding of government. Had Clegg become either a great, reforming Liberal home secretary or, say, education secretary, he could have retained a more distinct identity and had an institutional base from which to engage in the inevitable power struggles in the coalition. Instead, it seems, the seductive equivalence of the initial Downing Street “rose garden” press conference soon gave way to a daily battle for agency and relevance.

I, for one, have never considered entering into coalition to be morally or politically unacceptable. It is the terms and the trade-offs that are vital and by which coalitions should be assessed. Clegg’s memoir is a stark and salutary reminder of the ruthlessness of the Conservatives in seeking and retaining power and their certainty about their entitlement to rule. From denying Clegg the right to greet visitors at the door of No 10 to their sabotaging of the AV referendum, his book is littered with examples, big and small, of the Tories’ appetite for power. This is a lesson that my party – amid its present tribulations – would do well to reflect on.

Douglas Alexander was the Labour MP for Paisley and Renfrewshire South (1997-2015) and is now a senior fellow at Harvard University

This article appears in the 29 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, May’s new Tories