Nick Clegg’s performance in the
election campaign’s televised debates promised briefly to stand election projections on their head. The
voters seemed to decide when the crunch came, however, that more was required than a pleasant demeanour and a winning smile.
Election arithmetic, though, came to his aid
and gave him and the Lib Dems another chance to show what they were really made of. Sadly, he seems on
course to demonstrate for a second time that there is no substitute for substance.
Personality and personal relations do of course matter in politics; and it
is certainly true that the personal chemistry- a shared social and educational background perhaps - between Clegg and Cameron
seems to provide a glue that might hold the coalition together for a time. But, if the Lib Dems are to
make a success of government, they need more than goodwill and a conviction that nice people will prevail. They
need a searching analysis of the country’s problems and a hard-headed agenda for resolving them.
That is especially important when they find themselves in bed
with partners who are not only much bigger and nastier than they are but who have a positive surfeit of ideological conviction
and a ruthless determination to make it count. Nick Clegg is simply ill-equipped to stand up to the George
Osbornes of this world. He seems to have gone along with the basic strategy of cutting the deficit, come
what may, without firing a shot.
else to explain the extraordinary spectacle of a supposedly left-of-centre party and its leader tamely endorsing a budget
strategy that is positively perverse and that threatens a re-run of the global recession that similar neo-liberal doctrine
produced less than two years ago? How is it that a financial crisis that failed to become a full-scale
depression only because governments and therefore the taxpayers – and our government and our taxpayers in particular
– bailed out the failed financial institutions has become the launching-pad for savage cuts in public spending and a
punitive scaling back in the role of government?
Why should anyone believe that throwing people out of work, and then cutting the support available to the unemployed,
will somehow set the economy back on its feet? Why should anyone believe that the government’s finances
– including an indebtedness massively increased by the billions spent on the bail-outs - can be restored by ensuring
that tax revenues are depleted because economic activity is flattened?
The government’s determination to give priority to cutting the deficit, at the cost of any other
objective, makes sense only if economic policy is to be deliberately handed over to the perversely irrational.
Our policy-makers seem to be running scared of the “bond vigilantes” – the very people whose irrationality
created our problems in the first place - and to have a naïve faith on the other hand that the “confidence fairy”
will work her magic. It will be interesting to see how long confidence remains in the face of this assault
on common sense and economic reality.
is disappointing that this fairy-tale nonsense is swallowed whole by so many commentators, and that attempts to debunk it
are portrayed as the ravings of the mindless and the angry. It is not – pace Guardian leader-writers
– the duty of coalition ministers to close their ears to argument. There is of course a distinguished and long-standing
intellectual pedigree – from Keynes to Krugman, Stiglitz to Skidelsky - for the view that government’s responsibility
in our situation is to maintain the level of economic activity, so that its own finances as well as those of others are restored
as soon as possible. And, those with a knowledge of economic history will know that George Osborne is all
too faithfully following in the footsteps of those like Herbert Hoover who followed similar policies in 1932 and plunged us
all into depression.
and that hard-won experience are not so easily dismissed. We might have hoped that someone who chose to
lead his party into government might have been better equipped for the task. Nick Clegg is not, sadly,
unique among politicians in seeming almost totally bereft of any understanding of economics but nevertheless convinced of
his fitness to make major decisions about our economic future.
The least we can expect of our senior politicians, surely, is that they will make sure they know enough
to be able to reach their own conclusions on the major issues of the day. It is not enough that these issues
should be debated in the columns of our best-informed journalists. They should be debated at the very heart
of government. What is the point of a coalition if only one voice is heard?
5 July 2010
article was published in the online Guardian on 5 July.