Lib Dems won’t forgive Nick Clegg’s U-turn
Neil Clark: Treacherous Clegg is looking like the Ramsay MacDonald of modern politics
It's one of the biggest political U-turns of all time. Just six weeks ago, during the general election campaign, Liberal Democrat leader Nick Clegg was attacking Conservative plans to introduce major cuts in public spending before the economy was secure.
“Do I think that these big, big cuts are merited or justified at a time when the economy is struggling to get to its feet? Clearly not.” he told Jeremy Paxman in April. "Of course I would vote against cuts which would destroy any chance we would have of having a sustainable recovery."
Now, though, it's Clegg himself who is making the case for big, big cuts. "We have to take action now so that we can still be in control of our future," he says. Postponing the cuts "would not only be irresponsible, it would be a betrayal of our progressive values".
Could it be that there are really two Nick Cleggs?
The Liberal Democrat leader claims that he's changed his tune because the economic situation is worse than he believed. But while the Office for Budget Responsibility has downgraded Britain's growth forecast to 2.6 per cent from the 3.25 per cent figure estimated by Alistair Darling in his March budget, it also predicts that the public deficit will fall to 10.5 per cent of GDP (or £155bn) in the current financial year, from the 11.1 per cent forecast by Labour. In other words, Labour actually over-estimated the deficit, which is not quite as bad as we thought.
Making major cuts in public spending now, as the leading economist David Blanchflower continually argues, will endanger the economic recovery and put us in grave risk of a double-dip recession.
So why has Clegg, who espoused the eminently sensible Blanchflower line during the election campaign, morphed into a public spending axeman?
Many will suspect that he's simply caved in to Tory coalition pressure. But in reality Clegg was never the progressive, social democratic figure that many Liberal Democrat supporters believed him to be. The public-school educated son of a wealthy banker, who worked for the Thatcherite EU Trade Commissioner Leon Brittan in Brussels, Clegg is an Orange Book Liberal, a believer in privatisation and the rolling back of state provision.
By hyping up the need to make urgent cuts in public spending, Clegg can see to it that the Orange Book agenda - for a much smaller state, which has hived off many of its functions to the private sector - is indeed implemented on grounds of unavoidable financial necessity.
What Liberal Democrat voters will make of Clegg's shift is another matter altogether. During the election campaign, Clegg expressly promised that he would not support a Conservative government which attempted to introduce major cuts in public spending in an emergency budget. Not only is he doing just that, but he is going around making the case for the cuts himself.
While most Lib Dem supporters will understand that the price of joining a coalition government is compromise on a number of key policy issues, did anyone expect the party to sign up so enthusiastically to the Tory agenda?
Clegg joked during the election campaign that he was the only man who’d gone from being Winston Churchill to Adolf Hitler in just one week. But both Churchill and Hitler are poor comparisons.
The politician Clegg resembles most is the former Labour leader and fellow crypto-rightist Ramsay MacDonald.
MacDonald fought the 1929 election on a programme of helping the working-class, but then two years later joined a Tory-dominated coalition government which proceeded to make the swingeing cuts in public spending that international capital had demanded.
Labour supporters never forgave MacDonald for his treachery and my guess is that in the years to come Lib Dem supporters will be equally unforgiving of Nick Clegg. ·
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