An interview with Nick Clegg: A window into Nick’s world
21 September 2011 6 Comments
In 2007 I went to see the leadership hustings in Leicester and Nick Clegg impressed me with a communication style that was straight, direct and clear. Following being elected leader I remember feeling proud when he was interviewed by Jeremy Paxman or John Humfreys, as he was able to set out clear positions that I believed in. He was convincing not only because of what he was saying but also because of how he said it. Here was a man who was frustrated with the current government, the voting system, the reactionary politics of the Tories and Labour. Here was a man espousing a new type of politics and I felt proud to be part of the party who had him on our side. It was no surprise that he would go on to impress the nation in the TV leaders’ debates.
I saw little difference between the Nick Clegg I saw back in 2007 and the Nick Clegg that sat before me now. His answers were straight, direct and clear and his positions were said with a sense of urgency and belief. Here was a man convinced that the path he and the party took was not the only path he could have taken but the right path. He spoke of the need for liberalism, a non-reactionary politics, a considered politics, a fair politics. He spoke of the inequality in society and what the Government were doing to address it. He spoke of the need to treat each other as a compassionate family and came across as a leader who has not forgotten what the party stands for, who is standing up for the values of the party, and is giving a positive message about our contribution to Government.
But it is also very important that he understands what it is like out in the real world. “There’s a lot of distress out there, trying to make ends meet, and keep jobs” he said, “the squeeze on living standards is huge… parents are feeling guilty that they can’t do more for their kids and that’s a very powerful emotion – parental guilt”. This seemed more than a man who had been briefed on the subject and more of a man who was trying to really understand what it is like. When it came to the Lib Dem party he believed that the anger towards him and the party came down to two reasons: the fact that we went in to Coalition with the Tories and the tuition fees issue. “I’m acutely aware people feel let down by us” he said, “they’ve flipped, they’ve U-turned … how on earth could you let the Conservatives back into No 10?” he parodied. So when I asked him to rate his relationship with the electorate he was well aware that it had been “very badly damaged” but believed that it was “recoverable”.
So in many ways this was exactly what I needed to hear in these difficult times for the party. Yet there was something unsettling about this. It wasn’t what he said or even the way he said it, these are his strong points and were as strong as ever. It was that he seemed to be seeing things from a very different viewpoint and I was struggling to see why. In the 2010 General Election campaign I felt proud of the Lib Dem policy to deal with the economic crisis and Nick Clegg spoke of it with passion and zeal, claiming that there would be Greek style riots in the streets of the UK if we followed the Tory proposals. Yet here he was speaking of the need for these Tory measures with the same passion and zeal he had used to speak against them only a year and a half ago. He seemed to move from one position to another in the space of a day (back in May 2010) and I hadn’t. It has taken me longer to digest all the information and come to some sort of conclusion, and even then it is difficult to know. But I am prepared to go with the better judgment of those who know more than I do; it just leaves me thinking that passion and zeal are Nick Clegg’s style, no matter what he is talking about.
I remember the Governor of the Bank of England saying that the next Government would have to implement such severe austerity cuts that the Governing Party would make themselves unelectable for a generation. We have since seen a decimation of the support for the Lib Dems with opinion polls which worry everyone in the Party. So if you were to be asked what you would consider to be a realistic success for the Lib Dems at the next General Election, what would you say? To have achieved 18%, or even 23%, in the polls? To have lost only a few MPs or even maintained the same number of MPs? I asked Nick Clegg and he said “the Lib Dem party growing”. To clarify I said “more MPs?” to which his reply was “yeah. Bigger”. He went on to say that the electorate would find respect for the party and understand why we have done what we have. He saw this period in Office as an electoral asset for the party. Of course, being the leader of the party his job is to influence those in the party to believe that we are not heading to a bleak future. But the way Nick Clegg says things sounds as if he truly believes it and again I find myself not in sync with his view.
We live in a world of uncertainty – politically for the Lib Dems and economically for the country and the world – and there are many different views as to what might happen but no one can be sure as to what will happen. So either Nick Clegg’s style of using passion and zeal is to cover an inauthentic position in an attempt to influence those around him, or he truly believes what he is saying and the passion and zeal are an authentic embodiment of his belief. And so I found what he said to me right at the end of the interview, when everyone was getting up to leave, fascinating:
I know we’re down, or whatever we are. I really do, feel it in my bones, there are a lot of people out there who kinda don’t want to be told that you either go for a fair society or a strong economy but you can’t have both. I think there are a lot of people who say no we want people who are trying to do both and I think that’s what we’re all about. And if we play our cards right, a little bit of luck on the way, I really do. The short term is the difficult bit, I think next May is gonna be tough, we’re fighting a lot of tough seats up and down the country, I think the medium to long term could be really, really great for us.
So to paraphrase Nick Clegg: ‘I feel it in my bones that the future will be really great for the Lib Dems’. ‘I feel it in my bones’ is a statement of intuition, which makes a lot of sense if we listen to a recent Government review by Professor Munro:
Intuitive reasoning ‘generates feelings of certitude’ and this characteristic makes it very attractive for the individual who is operating in a world of uncertainty. The downside of this is that the [person] who has a ‘gut feeling’ … has a sense of confidence in that judgment that can make the person resistant to change or challenge
Intuitive reasoning leads people to make their minds up very quickly. It can explain why Nick Clegg seemingly changed his mind on economic policy after his meeting with the Governor of the Bank of England coming out in full force in favour of public spending cuts, while the majority of those who voted for the Lib Dems did not. It can also explain why he believes that being in Government will be good for the party despite the evidence to date, or that of junior coalition partners worldwide, and the rest of the party do not. Intuition is a powerful force. What this tells me is that he truly believes what he is saying and the passion and zeal are an authentic embodiment of his belief. But what it doesn’t tell me is that he is right. In fact it tells me that I should rely on it less as intuition is not a good long term political strategy.
Those who claim to forecast the future are lying, even if by chance they are later proved to be right – Arab Proverb
In many ways Nick Clegg has gone on a journey that the rest of the people who voted for him have not gone on and so there is a disconnect between him and the electorate. From where he stands, his strategy has made perfect sense but from the sidelines it has at times made little sense. This leaves him with a sense of frustration: “I feel no sympathy for that view at all” he says talking about those who feel betrayed by the party. What about the mistakes made with tuition fees? “If you apologise people will ask ‘why did you do it then?’”, in other words there will be no apology. So I asked Nick Clegg what he thought he could do differently to bridge this gap between him and the electorate. And with the same style and eloquence that won me over in 2007 he gave a very articulate defence of the current strategy: “explain why we’ve done what we’ve done… express regret & explanation… be patient”. And for someone who intuitively believes that being in Coalition with the Tories will be good for the party this makes perfect sense, as the public “will come to respect what we do”. However, this view is not wholly shared by everyone in the party or the country.
Nick Clegg is a very intuitive politician, which makes him good at what he does. But he needs to be careful that he doesn’t fall into the trap of intuition – believing something despite the evidence. At conference I got the impression that some believe he is doing the right thing, while for others it was not that they necessarily agreed with it but that they saw no other option. Few believe this that this will be good for Lib Dem electoral success. But I still believe in the party and what it stands for so while I don’t agree with Nick, we want the same things – to maximise our electoral success while bringing the values of the party to Government.
So how do we do this? “Make ourselves available”, “knock on doors”, “a lot of face to face stuff”, “speak in plain and simple terms” he said. And so for conference to be a success Nick Clegg believed that it should be judged on whether activists start saying “I’m going out again, to knock on doors”. And if his intuitive political skill can get people out again, it matters not whether he is right in the end – we will have done our best.