At 2am I watched a repeat of Nick Clegg’s conference speech in full on the Parliament Channel. The Liberals and the Lib Dems always had a knack of producing leaders who were liked and respected. Jo Grimond, Jeremy Thorpe, David Steel, Paddy Ashdown and Charlie Kennedy were all among the first rank of effective and charismatic parliamentarians of their day (I am not here discussing the merits of their policy positions or extra-parliamentary activities).
But in Menzies Campbell and Nick Clegg the Lib Dems have produced two total duds. Both have the same leaden delivery and both are self evident preeners with an opinion of themselves which far outstrips their talent. I am not sure I have ever seen any conference speech by any leader of any party as devoid of charisma as Nick Clegg’s was yesterday.
You can’t replace charisma, but there are some things which can compensate for its absence. Heartfelt sincerity is the most important of these. That was particularly lacking, too. The only bit of Clegg’s speech that came across as compellingly believable was when he declared that he wanted to be Prime Minister.
I am sure he does. I want to bat at No 3 for England.
But why? There were two areas where the insincerity was so evident that it made my flesh creep. And they were areas where the Lib Dems should be making the running – on Afghanistan and Trident.
On Afghanistan, Clegg started his speech with an attempt to invoke the glib patriotism of The Sun, with a heartfelt tribute to our boys and girls fighting over there. Except they were, of course being let down by the government. They needed more helicopters and equipment to kill Afghans more effectively, (he left out the last phrase).
We should do the job properly or not at all, Clegg declared in a truly pathetic attempt to appease neo-imperialists and anti-imperialists both at the same time. It was a sickeningly cynical bit of politics from someone who was masquerading as a Liberal.
Clegg spent the entire conference attempting to appeal to Thatcherites by proposing cuts in public spending, including in public service pay and pensions. But on the obvious and largest waste of public money he offered only a completely meaningless formula. There should be “No like for like replacement of Trident”, he intoned with a constipated look on his face that was meant to indicate statesmanship. The remarkably small conference audience duly applauded.
“No like for like replacement of Trident”. How can people who are supposed to be thinking Liberals applaud such a transparently meaningless phrase? What a pathetic ducking of the issue. It could mean that the UK retains and pays for a submarine based offshoot of the US nuclear deterrent, but configured differently. It could encompass Brown’s three submarine proposal. It could mean – and this seems to me the most likely meaning – that we should keep and pay for an offshoot of the US based nuclear deterrent but it should not be submarine based. But as with the support for the occupation of Afghanistan, there was no underlying rationale; just a burning desire to try to appeal to all shades of opinion at once.
I shan’t bother to try to deconstruct Clegg’s “Progressive austerity”, which might be the worst political slogan ever conceived. His abandonment of the Lib Dem commitment to abolish univeristy tuition fees is shameful. To pretend that what happens in Scotland is impossible for England is foolish. To prioritise a pointless nuclear deterrent and an imperial war over social progress and mobility is not, in any sense, liberal.
The problem with an increase in the tax threshold to £10,000 is that, while it does lift the low paid out of income tax, it provides precisely the same cash tax cut to everybody earning £10,000 or over. Someone on £10,000 a year will get exactly the same cash boost as the banker on £5 million a year. Both will get a bigger cash boost than someone on £8,000 a year. How is that progressive?
At the last general election the Lib Dems under the excellent Charlie Kennedy offered a viable, radical alternative. At the coming election they will offer Clegg’s carefully crafted attempts not to offend Tory England. As the party has grown, and as the allowances of public money for MPs’ and MEPs’ staff have created a parisitic army of the paid ambitious, the Lib Dems have become merely slaves to the worship of power. I can think of no reason to vote for a party led by Nick Clegg.