Politics: Between The Extremes, by Nick Clegg

Second paragraph of third chapter:

“This is terribly awkward,” he [David Cameron] admitted. “The thing is … George has for so long had his eye on Dorneywood… He’s very close to me… Would you mind if he used Dorneywood instead of you?” He then proposed that I share the foreign secretary’s traditional grace-and-favour countryside retreat, Chevening, rather than Dorneywood, which was ordinarily used by the number two in government.

Published in 2016, just a year after the catastrophic defeat of the Lib Dems under the author’s leadership in the 2015 election, this is both an apologia and a call to consciousness. Clegg is clear about his mistakes, and in general accepts some share of the blame; though at time of writing, he still didn’t quite grasp how bad the debacle on tuition fees was in terms of betraying the trust of a lot of his own party’s core and new voters; he still didn’t realise how bad a mistake the AV referendum was in the first place, rather than going for proportional representation at local government elections in England and Wales which the Conservatives would likely have accepted; and while he accepted that the austerity narrative was fatal for his own re-election chances, he doesn’t appreciate the Lib Dems’ own role in that. Certainly what pushed me (temporarily) out of the party in 2013, despite having voted for Clegg as leader in 2007, was that Lib Dem ministers seemed to be exulting in the welfare “reforms” that purported to help the disadvantaged by giving them less money, and I could not take that. Come 2015 the Lib Dems needed a good and coherent narrative of what they had achieved in government, did not have it, and are still paying the price.

Those blind spots aside, the book is a very interesting reflection on UK politics as seen from the vantage point of the leader of the minority party in the UK’s first coalition government since 1945. I accept some of his points. First, a centre-left coalition in 2010 would not have worked. The numbers just were not there, and there would have been another election in six months which the Conservatives would have won with a large majority after the economy tanked. Second, of course the Lib Dems in government were never going to get everything they wanted. However, they made some bad strategic choices about what to get, and I think failed to respond to the tactical sneakiness of the Conservative establishment – especially Gove and Osborne. Third, it is the norm rather than the exception for junior coalition partners to lose seats, often a lot of seats, at the next election. (Though perhaps the Lib Dems could have prepared better for this both internally and with external messaging.)

The central message of the book is that the liberal centre of politics still matters, and is deserving of support, in an age of increasing populism. 2016 of course was the year of Brexit and Trump, and populism clearly remains very strong. Although I still count myself a liberal, it’s rather difficult to point to liberal successes since 2016. The Belgian prime minster right now is from the Flemish liberal party, who are currently polling at 8%, with the far-right Vlaams Belang in the lead with three times as much support. (And that’s just figures for Flanders, rather than Belgium as a whole.) The ruling Liberal Party in Canada is currently polling fourteen points behind the Conservatives. Whatever you may try to assert about being right in the long term, it looks like today’s voters are looking to the extremes.

One of the points of Clegg’s book that has dated most since 2016 is the assertion that Labour is unelectable. That was perfectly true under Jeremy Corbyn, whose flaws were manifest, but it’s obviously not true now, when the Tories are desperately claiming that an opinion poll result showing them less than twenty points behind is evidence that they can cling on. Keir Starmer will win next year’s election, and win big. The curious thing is that this is probably also good news for the Lib Dems, who have tended to do well when Labour does well. There is clearly a large-ish group of voters who normally vote for the Conservatives, will never vote Labour, but will vote for the Lib Dems, if they can be persuaded that they don’t need to fear a Labour government. If you plug the current poll numbers into Electoral Calculus, the Lib Dems make substantial gains just on a direct swing from Conservatives to Labour, and tactical voting is likely to magnify that. In the 1997 election, when Labour got a huge majority, the Lib Dems went from 18 to 46 seats, an increase of 156%. To equal that scale of gain next year, they’d need to go to 28 or 29 from the 11 of 2019 (now 15, thanks to by-election gains), and that seems very plausible. It won’t get them into government, but it puts them back in play for a future hung parliament.

Anyway, I read less about UK politics than I used to, but I am very glad I read this. You can get it here.

This was the non-fiction book that had lingered longest on my unread shelves. Next on that pile is Many Grains of Sand, by Liz Castro.

A historic maximum: ex-prime ministers and iar-taoisigh

There are more former British prime minsters alive today than at any time since the office was created in 1721.

Liz Truss, Boris Johnson, Theresa May, David Camero, Gordon Brown, Tony Blair and John Major make a total of seven living PMs since Truss’s resignation on 25 October last year. And from the looks of things, that number is likely to increase before it decreases – Rishi Sunak’s government looks to be in worse health than any of his predecessors.

On two previous occasions there have been six living ex-Prime Ministers.

Between the end of Sir Robert Peel’s first term, on 8 April 1835, and the death of Henry Addington on 15 February 1844, there were six living ex-prime ministers: Addington (whose time at the top was decades previously, 1801-1804), Viscount Goderich, the Duke of Wellington, Earl Grey (he of the tea), Lord Melbourne and Robert Peel. Though in fact Melbourne had a second term from 1835 to 1841, and Peel then came back until 1846, so there is an argument that there were only five living men who were former and not current prime minsters for that period.

Similarly, from the end of Ramsay MacDonald’s first term, on 4 November 1924, until the death of H.H. Asquith on 15 February 1928, there were also six living former prime ministers: the rather obscure Lord Rosebery (briefly PM in 1894-95), Arthur Balfour, Asquith, David Lloyd-George, Stanley Baldwin and MacDonald. Again, however, Baldwin was back in for a second term.

The most recent period when there was only one living ex-prime minister was between the death of Baldwin on 14 December 1947 and the end of Attlee’s term on 26 October 1951. The only living ex-PM then was the leader of the opposition, Winston Churchill.

When the first prime minister, Robert Walpole, died on 18 March 1745, there were no living ex-PMs. His successor, the Earl of Wilmington, died in office, as did the next in line, Henry Pelham, and there was no living ex-PM until the end of the first term of Pelham’s brother, the Duke of Newcastle, on 11 November 1756.

The number of ex-Taoisigh (?iar-taoisigh?) is also at an all-time high, at six (Bruton, Ahern, Cowen, Kenny, Varadkar, Martin) though again we have to enter the caveat that Varadkar is currently enjoying his second run.

That level has been hit twice before. Between the end of John Bruton’s term in 1997 and the death of Jack Lynch in 1999, Lynch, Liam Cosgrave, Charles Haughey, Garret Fitzgerald, Albert Reynolds and Bruton himself were all living, and as Bruton’s successor Bertie Ahern had not previously been Taoiseach, there are no ifs nor buts.

And more recently, for the two months in 2011 between the end of Brian Cowen’s term and the death of Garret Fitzgerald, the living ex-Taoisigh included also Liam Cosgrave, Albert Reynolds, John Bruton and Bertie Ahern; and again Enda Kenny was a first-time Taoiseach during that period.

There has been no period when there were no living ex-Taoisigh, thanks in part to the longevity of Eamon de Valera. After the death of John A. Costello in 1976, Jack Lynch was the only living ex-Taoiseach until Liam Cosgrave lost the 1977 election (and Lynch came back to power).

The number of living former heads of the devolved administration in Northern Ireland is also current at an all-time high, at five (Mark Durkan, Peter Robinson, Arlene Foster, Paul Givan and Michelle O’Neill – counting First Minister and Deputy First Minister equally, but not counting those who served only in an acting capacity such as Reg Empey and John O’Dowd).

In the olden days there was no living ex-Prime Minster of Northern Ireland until John Miller Andrews was kicked out in 1943, Lord Craigavon having died in office, and then again from Andrews’ death in 1956 until Brookeborough retired in 1963. James Chichester-Clark, briefly PM ion the dying days of Stormont, lived to 2002, by which time devolution had been more or less restored.

Aren’t you glad I worked that out for you?