Archive for April, 2011

Nick Clegg: Face like a doorknob

(The title, there, is a Coupling reference, which I mention just in case you’ve somehow got through life without amassing a vast mental collection of useless soundbites. You weirdo.)

Wherein I ramble on about politics. And how, in all conscience, and in this day and age, could I attempt a political blog post without that I first encourage you to watch a 31-year-old satirical sketch?

I like that one. So, apparently does Dave “How many Blacks is Oxford holding up? One, count ’em, forty-, er, no, one” Cameron. Still, I find it’s occasionally hard to dislike Dave; he might be an arrogant rubberfaced Tory bigot, but he isn’t actually Michael Portillo. And, of course, he genuinely believes that fucking everyone over is the right thing to do. This is much nicer than the other way round, where you fuck everyone over, but endlessly carp on about how bad it makes you feel.

Incidentally, the other week saw The Guardian report that Nick Clegg showed his vulnerable side in an interview with Jemima Kahn. Or, for those of you who prefer your Internet without tautology, Nick Clegg gave an interview.

Movingly, he related how his children have been asking difficult questions like ‘Why are the students angry with you, Papa?’ That’s got to be a difficult thing to hear. No man wants to go home after a long day and realise that he’s brought into the world a child who can’t understand the six o’clock news. However, I think I’ve finally worked out the actual answer, which is to say, obviously the answer to the question is “Because Papa bleedin’ stabbed the students in the back after he promised them he was the sort of man who could be trusted with sharp objects,” but I think I’ve worked out why that became the answer: the silly bugger is trying to be nice.

The problem, really, is that Nick Clegg is a nice man in a silly position. I’m pretty sure he’s the first Liberal to manage that since little David Steel squeezed himself into the role of David Owen’s tiny pocket-puppet. Which in case you forgot, looks like this:

Ol’ Charlie Kennedy, now, or Paddy Ashdown, wouldn’t have got themselves into Nick’s position, I don’t think. For my money, they’d have reacted to an election result like the one we got last May by forming up a minority Government with Labour. It wouldn’t have got much done, I suppose, but it would have been a nice kick up the arse for all the people out there who thought that voting for their local Conservative candidate was somehow a magic vote for Cameron (of whom you’d think there would be none, but it bloody terrifying how many people out there don’t understand how the system actually works). And Menzies “Old Man In A Hurry” Campbell would have got himself into Clegg’s position, but the difference is he’d have enjoyed it, and zimmer-framed about with a great deal of determination and making speeches about how it was necessary to cut absolutely everything because a) we have no money, and b) he used to run races, and therefore ought to be in charge of everything.

But, no, Nick Clegg felt it was only fair if he palled up with the largest single party in the Commons, and he said he’d do that before it became necessary and so he felt he should when it did. That was actually very honourable, he gets points for that. He gets points, too, for ensuring that an agreement got thrashed out that didn’t entirely shaft him, which was actually very sensible.

But he loses nearly all those points immediately, because somewhere along the way Cameron seems to have convinced him that the important thing with a Coalition Government is to make sure there are no obvious divisions. Which is just crazy. Of course there are going to be divisions, that’s what a coalition is; a group of parties who unite in spite of their differences. Hell, you’d even get divisions if the Tories went and formed a coalition with UKIP (although admittedly, they’d probably be over who got to pull the triggers first). Divisions are a political problem if they appear within a single-party cabinet, because they suggest a lack of coherence and discipline, but in a multi-party cabinet, they’re pretty much what you’d expect to see.

More than that, they’re what you want to see. You want to be able to look at a cabinet and say “Well, I don’t agree with that either! I’m glad to see someone’s backing me up over there!”. We haven’t got that. What we have are hidden divisions, that nobody tells us about, and it’s left us without a sense of contrast. I believe there are differences, and they’re probably thumping massive ones, but we’re not allowed to see them because Dave has convinced Clegg that it would be bad for government if they were apparent. By which, of course, he means it would be bad for him, because if the Lib Dem MPs started to reject the party whips then Cameron would start to lose out.

Actually, of course, such gaps might be bad for The Government, but not for government in general. Politically, divisions in a coalition can be a very healthy thing; it should be possible for a government motion to fail because not enough MPs backed it irrespective of which parties are sharing power. It should be possible for a motion proposed under a coalition government to fail because some members of that Government instead unite with the loyal opposition to defeat the bill, and force the cabinet to re-negotiate with its own supporters in order to get something that better reflects the wishes of the parties, and the supporters of the parties, involved.

(And you need to be able to compromise on the fly, and to be seen to be compromising on the fly, because otherwise it’s a fast track to page 184 and nobody can tell the pigs from the bleedin’ farmers…)

So we’re in this absurd position of having got ourselves a coalition government that agrees on everything, even the things half of it don’t agree with. That’s why the students are angry at papa, little Clegglets. To the students – to everyone – it looks like Papa has teamed up with a man who wants to make everyone’s lives more miserable, and that Papa is jumping up and down with delight over it. The man doesn’t like it, you can tell he doesn’t like it, but he doesn’t have the balls to say that he doesn’t like it, because he’s promised Dave that he won’t.

(Whereas Dave, you’ll notice, is more than happy to run around telling everyone they should keep the superannuated excuse for a system that is First Past the Post, because only the immigrants, and the unemployed, and the bogeymen want alternative vote… but that’s an acceptable sign of division, to him because it divides Dave out in such a way that he looks good to people who like Dave, and if Dave is anything printable then he’s definitely a man keeping his monocle trained on his chances for the next General Election.)

I can’t think of any other explanation for Clegg acting like that. I thought for a long time that he was a bit of a Henry Collingridge, the weak and ineffectually well-meaning Prime Minister from House of Cards (which if you haven’t seen, you really should, because it is just amazing. I continue to offer up a choice of whiskies and sofas to people who want to come watch it on Earth, because it really is that good.) Francis Urquhart describes Collingridge’s greatest need as being “That people should like him,” which is a pretty good summation of a terrible damn flaw.

We had a Guild President like that while I was still an Undergraduate. Tremendously popular, quite leftist, and not at all the usual hack. No real grasp of what she wanted, so far as I could tell, so she was forever having to be told by people with their own agendas, and whenever you met with her so she could tell you that she was going to bugger everything up (and so you could patiently explain for the seventeenth time that she’d be doing nothing of the bloody sort, thank you all the same) she employed big sad eyes that said “Don’t hate me, I’m only doing what I’ve been told to do by people who are more devious than I am”, and then agree with you until she next met the people giving her dubious advice, when she’d back-flip. She was a really nice person, but frankly her methods didn’t improve the buggery as much as she thought they did.

Actually, though, I think that’s wrong; Clegg isn’t acting like Henry Collingridge at all. No, he’s acting like Geoffrey Booza Pitt, a cheerful bufoon whom Urquhart raises to office during The Final Cut, with the result that the Opposition nickname him “Sooty,” and make little glove-puppet mimes whenever he speaks. It’s terribly cruel on the poor chap, who’s actually very nice, and quite clever, and generally very well-meaning, but not at all politically nimble (whereas Urquhart really is. Seriously, if you still haven’t seen it either get a copy or let me know and we’ll try and fix it. ‘s only about twelve hours to watch all three series, and you’re allowed to take breaks now and then).

If you have watched the whole thing, here is a nice little video of Urquhart & Booza-Pitt together, which helpfully illustrates why a name like Sooty would stick…

Poor Geoffrey. And, indeed, poor Nick, because I’m pretty sure that the relationship dynamic with him and Cameron must feel pretty similar from time to time. When he isn’t being invited to posh Oxfordshire dinner parties, for example. But for all that, the man has actually given a really good interview; it feels like he’s starting to hint that maybe he might not be a Sooty after all, might just occasionally object to things on ethical grounds, even if he winds up asking people to back them for political reasons. If he could just start saying that sort of thing in public, I reckon that’d help his image.

I’m not even sure it would take very much of that to stop him looking like Cameron’s own Sooty, even now (although to be sure, he’s got a hell of a lead to pull back).

It’s got to be worth a try though; even if he can only make it to Sweep, that’d be a good start. At least Sweep had a squeaker.