Saturday, 9 May 2015

Clegg deserves our respect for anchoring the Coalition in the centre ground of politics - My Catholic Universe column

Being a columnist for this historic newspaper is a great honour.

One is conscious of the many wonderful writers that have gone before during the more than one hundred and fifty year history of this publication and one constantly tries to aspire to the high standards that are set by my colleagues.

Without a doubt, however, the biggest challenge in maintaining those standards are deadlines.

As I sit here a couple of days out from the general election I know that you, dear reader, will in all likelihood know the result before you read this column (unless you read the excellent electronic version published on a Thursday morning – in which case ‘go out and vote Labour’).

So I have a huge challenge this week. I must try and remain current by commenting on an election, of which I do not know the outcome and of which no one can accurately predict, whilst at the same time not being drawn down the path of getting my piece drastically wrong. It’s not easy.

So rather than write about the result of the general election I shall comment about one of its main protagonists, a man who for the past five years has been ridiculed and vilified by some but who come Friday morning I very much hope is still in a job and having some part to play in the future of our country. Nick Clegg.

As a Labour politician it is spectacularly easy to take shots at Mr Clegg and receive widespread public agreement, very much like a boxer landing a scoring punch with every blow.

After five years every one of us are aware that Nick Clegg ‘lied’ on university tuition fees.

Prior to the 2010 election Mr Clegg signed a pledge being circulated by the National Union of Students which clearly and explicitly read ‘I pledge to vote against any increase in fees in the next parliament and to pressure the government to introduce a fairer alternative’.

We all know what happened next. Not only did Nick Clegg not abide by that pledge he and 26 other Liberal Democrat MP’s actually voted to allow tuition fees to rise to £9,000 per year.

Nick Clegg in particular has been pilloried ever since and whilst some of that criticism is fair many, many people are failing to consider the good work that Mr Clegg and his colleagues have done over the past five years.

When I was growing up I wanted to be a professional footballer, singer, priest and long distance coach driver. As adult life progressed I realised other things, particularly my wife and young family, were more important to me and subconsciously I reviewed and refreshed those childhood ambitions to ones which were relevant to my more mature life and priorities.

In one or two cases my ambitions had to be set aside as unattainable and in others I had to compromise, although secretly I haven’t entirely given up on the idea of coach driving.

Dealing with reality and compromising is what each and every one of us does constantly as adults, as politicans and voters, and as Christians.

That is exactly what Nick Clegg and his colleagues did in 2010.

Despite his popularity during the 2010 leadership debates Nick Clegg was never going to become Prime Minister, he was always going to be at best leader of the third party in British politics.

In an attempt to ensure that as a nation we had a stable government Mr Clegg realised that some of his priorities, but not all, would have to give way to allow the largest party in government the chance to deliver their agenda as well. If you like, true partnership working. That is exactly what Nick Clegg helped to deliver.

In 2010 the Liberal Democrats looked at their own manifesto and stipulated what was most important to them and what they were prepared to forego.

If I take off my party political hat for a moment I must say that the Liberal Democrats should be proud of some of their achievements in office. Let us not forget for one moment that it was the Liberal Democrats that championed free school meals for infant classes, pupil premium for children from disadvantaged backgrounds and increasingly the starting point of income tax for workers.

A Labour government would have been proud to deliver those three initiatives and in compromising on his agenda so should Mr Clegg be.

In actual fact, however, the Liberal Democrats have been more than just a party with a few token policies being thrown into a legislative program. They have been an anchor.

We should be very clear that had a Conservative majority government taken up residence of Downing Street on May 3rd 2010 our country would look very different now. An agenda of swingeing cuts to the public sector that would have been far more severe than those we have seen in the past five years.

In that sense the Liberal Democrats have been very much an anchor to a centrist political approach for which, I would suggest, we should all be grateful.

Mr Clegg has admitted he got it wrong on tuition fees. He did and he has rightly been criticised. Those of us who criticise however have a duty to acknowledge him for what he has achieved.

I have often said in these pages that politics is not easy, it is vastly complicated. This election campaign has not been a classic and much of the responsibility for that is down to political parties seeking to simplify a message in a belief that it appeases an electorate who cannot deal with complexity.

The way that Nick Clegg has been vilified in much of the mainstream media, and exemplified by the frankly awful audience behaviour on the recent BBC Election Leader’s Special Question Time, sadly has shown there is an element of truth to the picture the parties have drawn which at least contributes to the baying for politicians blood.

Just as it is in our faith each and every one of us are far more than one decision. I’m sure that when we meet our maker all of us would hope to be judged on the sum of what we did right and not simply on ‘the one’ mistake.

I very much hope that no matter what happens to Mr Clegg in the early hours of Friday morning his political legacy is judged on the whole contribution he has made to our country.

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