The Paul Richards column
The significance of Nick Clegg’s speech yesterday lies in what it says about the prospects of coalition government. It has the same importance as Paddy Ashdown’s speech delivered at the Guildhall in Chard, Somerset in May 1992, which called for Labour to embrace a liberal free market and look to coalition with the Lib Dems, because it could never win again on its own. Ashdown moved the Lib Dems nearer Labour, based on a completely mistaken and deluded reading of the political situation. Labour won a 179-seat majority five years after Chard, and Ashdown’s hopes of ministerial office were comprehensively dashed.
Clegg has ended any prospect of coalition of Labour for as long as he is leader. It was clear from the coalition talks in May 2010 that the Lib Dems had no intention of entering a coalition with the Labour Party, even after Gordon Brown resigned. It wasn’t just the difficult maths; it was also that the Orange Bookers shared the Tories’, not Labour’s, view of the economy and society. In effect Clegg has merged the Liberal Democrats into the Conservative Party, uniting the two historic 19th century blocs which the Labour Party was founded to oppose and defeat.
I’ve written it before, but I am sure that Clegg is on a promise with Cameron – either a peerage or ministerial office in a Tory majority government, which means he can jettison both the people in Sheffield he supposedly represents, and the political party that elected him leader. The ‘leaks’ from Miriam Clegg that he will only serve one term make me more convinced. That makes him the most unpleasant kind of politician, one who seeks high office and status, not to advance a cause or set of principles, but to advance only himself and his own interests.
That makes his speech yesterday even more dishonest and self-serving, with its hypocritical attacks on ‘back room boys’, when Clegg had only ever been a researcher and speech-writer before seeking elected office, and its pious talk about children’s futures, when his education policies will destroy so many young people’s chances in life.
I grew up a couple of miles from Nick Clegg. He lived in Chalfont St Peter, in south Bucks. His prep school played rugby and cricket against my prep school. I used to know a lot of boys like Nick Clegg: they had an easy confidence, the kind of swagger that knowing that you will never, ever be poor, gives you. Their dads drove expensive cars. Their mums didn’t work. They had swimming pools, and gravel driveways and sometimes stable blocks. On their 18th birthdays, they got given cars. At Clegg’s school Caldicott in the 1970s, there would have been as many Afro-Caribbean boys, say, as there are Afro-Caribbean Lib Dem MPs, which is none.
Some make the mistake of saying that the reason why Clegg so naturally fits into a Tory government is because he belongs to the same social class as Cameron and Osborne. But it’s much worse than that. Clegg’s background is upper-middle class, but not upper class. Marx was wrong to talk of ‘two great camps.’ Orwell was right when he identified the variegated, strata of class in England (Orwell claimed to be lower-upper middle class. He went to Eton, but had no money or land). Clegg, in myriad nuanced almost-imperceptible ways does not belong to the same social class as Cameron. It’s the difference between shopping at Peter Jones and shopping at Fortnums, or living in Kensington (with a weekend place in Oxfordshire) and living in a respectable villa in Putney.
Clegg went to Caldicott then Westminster School. He didn’t go to Eton. Cameron and Osborne are proper land-owning toffs. In the class-conscious English southern counties people like Clegg aspire to mix with people like Cameron. They long to be invited up to the manor house for sherry at Christmas. Clegg wanted to enter a coalition with the Tories, not just because he shares Conservative instincts, but because he is a snivelling, venal, ruthless social climber, desperate to make the final step from middle to upper-class.
Phone for the fish knives, Norman.