There is a time and a place for a good Apology in politics. When a political leader says sorry with sincerity, clarity and simplicity, it can help to respond to collective anger and grievance, and also help restore some dignity to politics itself.
And then there’s Nick Clegg’s Apology over tuition fees.
There has been a tidal wave of reaction to Clegg’s Apology from across the political spectrum in the past 24 hours. Some of it has been complimentary. Most of it has been derogatory and ridiculing.
My own reaction was more one of bafflement. I wasn’t sure exactly what he was saying, or why he was saying it. I’m still a bit baffled. But I think he was trying to do three things. First, he was trying to draw a line under an issue that has become totemic of the Lib Dems’ betrayal of their pre-election promises. Second, he was aiming to restore some credibility to his own personal brand. You may not like the decisions Clegg has made, but after yesterday’s Apology, you might be prepared to give him credit for being one of that rare breed of politicians who holds his hand up when he gets things wrong. Third, he was attempting a tactical move ahead of the difficult Lib Dem Conference that starts this weekend: to close off a potential line of attack from others in his party who might have used the issue against him.
But whatever the motivation, I suspect the Apology has failed spectacularly, for three main reasons.
First, and most basically, he has apologised for something that no-one was angry about. Lib Dem fury about the betrayal of their tuition fee pledge is about their party leader’s complicity with the Tory agenda to triple fees to £9000, not with their pre-election pledge to oppose them. Who exactly has been reassured by Clegg’s Apology for promising something he was not able to deliver? Not those – students, their parents, Lib Dem activists, mainstream voters – who have spent the last two years venting their spleen about the decision. Clegg was apologising to a non-existent audience, leaving those who berated him in town halls across Britain during his summer tour both puzzled and unappeased.
Second, rather than restoring integrity to politics (and to the party leader himself), Clegg has actually made a move that will increase cynicism about politics. Because Nick Clegg’s Apology is all about politics. Clegg wanted to appease Lib Dem anger about his support for the Tory move on tuition fees by saying sorry. Fair enough. The logical thing to do would have been to apologise for supporting the fee hike. But of course Clegg can’t do that, because he is still in coalition with David Cameron’s Tories, and apologising for doing what he did once in office would have precipitated an avalanche of demands to either reverse the decision or to pull out of the Coalition. What do you do when you are desperate to apologise but can’t apologise for the thing people are angry about? Answer: you apologise for making the promise in the first place. So Nick Clegg, in the name of meeting Lib Dem anger head on, is channelled by political considerations into apologising for the wrong thing. When politicians dress up tactical manoeuvring and political constraint as personal sincerity, the cynicism of voters is bound to increase.
Third, even taken on its own terms as a piece of politicking, the Apology doesn’t work. For one thing, I strongly suspect that Lib Dem activists and Clegg’s unhappy Parliamentary colleagues do not think that the boil of tuition fees has been lanced. Nor will the Left of his party feel that they have been seen off at the pass in their desire to pull the party in a more progressive direction. If it was a move designed to bring calm to the ranks, it is a move bound to disappoint.
But there is a broader political problem for the Lib Dems created by the Apology. For years, Nick Clegg has been telling us that the reason the Lib Dems have supported policies they previously opposed is because Coalition Government is a compromise business. You give a bit here, you get a bit there. It’s tough for your supporters and your principles, but the national crisis demands pragmatism and collaboration across the partisan divide. It is a story that the British public have found quite appealing, and it has been at the heart of his attempt to keep his party on board with choices they find abhorrent. But yesterday, that explanation was thrown out the window. On the most unpalatable policy of all, Clegg decided to change the narrative: the problem is no longer that coalition requires compromise, but that the pledge was wrong all along.
This in the end could be the longest-lasting legacy of the Clegg Apology. Lib Dems angry about supporting the tripling of tuition fees will arrive in Brighton on Saturday confused as to why their Leader apologised for a pledge in their last Manifesto which they still hold dear. But the greater casualty may be that their rationale – to themselves and to the public – for staying in a Coalition they find increasingly distasteful may have been discarded by their own leader.
Stewart Wood is a member of the House of Lords, Shadow Minister without Portfolio and an adviser to Ed Miliband