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To be perfect is to have changed often – but not if your name is Nick Clegg

2010 December 9
by Paul Vallely

To live is to change, said Cardinal Newman, and to be perfect is to have changed often. That being the case, why is Nick Clegg being so widely reviled for his U-turn over university tuition fees which, before the general election, he stoutly opposed, and which as deputy prime minister he has now embraced?

Changing your mind, in many walks of life, is seen as a sign of strength. “When the facts change, I change my mind. What do you do, sir?” the economist John Maynard Keynes once asked imperiously. But in politics the template is that the lady’s not for turning.

In one sense politics is different, because a mandate is involved. Politicians offer themselves for election on the basis of promises, and it is reasonable to expect that they should fulfil them. The argument that because two parties have entered into a coalition they are not bound by their manifesto undertakings is very dubious. Coalition cannot not mean that all pre-election pledges are off ; compromise has to remain within certain boundaries if coalition partners are to maintain their political integrity.

This has been a steep learning curve for the Liberal Democrats. They have learned that actions have consequences unthought-of when they luxuriated in perpetual opposition. It is not just their volte-face on tuition fees; they also made no attempt in the coalition negotiations to stand by their two key economic election pledges – no deficit reduction this year and opposition to a VAT increase.

What they have risked with such piecrust promises is trust – a quality already diminished after the MPs’ expenses outcry. Trust depends upon our estimate of the constancy of an individual. Cardinal Newman spoke of the necessity of change within the context of a steadfast faith; voters do not have any such yardstick for Nick Clegg, leaving him open to the suspicion that his fidelity is only to the appurtenances of power.

All this could yet devastate the Lib Dems electorally. But it is also damaging to the broader political fabric. Many voters disillusioned with 13 years of Labour government turned to the Lib Dems as the idealistic alternative. That was particularly true among students, who gave the party key constituencies in Cambridge, Leeds, Bristol, Manchester, Cardiff, Colchester and Mr Clegg’s own seat in Sheffield. The student sense of betrayal has generated a level of venom never before publicly directed at the third party. “Clegg, you lying waste of space. You sicken me more than any other politician does or ever has,” as one blogger put it.  The disillusionment of an entire new generation of young voters should worry us all.

Some have argued this is just as the moment the Liberal Democrats have had to grow-up politically. When the facts change, I change my mind, and all that. The trouble is that only the facts of parliamentary power shifted; the economic facts are as they were when all those Lib Dem MPs signed the pledge to oppose tuition fees.

What has made all this worse has been the revelation of secret party documents which showed that Clegg & Co were drawing up plans to abandon their flagship policy to win the student vote two months before the election.

A month before Mr Clegg was still publicly bemoaning the fact that “you’ve got people leaving university with this dead weight of debt, around £24,000, round their neck” Lib Dems negotiators had decided that, in the event of a hung parliament, the party would junk the tuition fees pledge – even though the policy had provided what their chief negotiator, Danny Alexander, called “clear yellow water” between them and other parties.

The clear yellow water, many students suspect, was the product of political micturition.

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