5. A Pragmatic Assessment
So has any damage been caused to the wider LibDem cause by the policy u-turn? What lessons should Clegg and his team learn from this episode? A flurry of advice has been forthcoming.
To the pragmatist, there is nothing very remarkable and nothing fundamentally ‘wrong’ with this episode. Clegg and his team have done exactly what they should do as leaders. Their job is to get the party into power: they’ve delivered at least partially on their mission.
The LibDems now control the positions of deputy Prime Minister and Business Secretary and a handful of other cabinet posts. They are influencing policy and its implementation.
By refusing to form the Coalition they might have condemned the party to many more years without power; indeed they might never have secured it. Is the price – disgruntled voters and students – too high to pay for this access to the top table? No.
Writing in the Independent on 11 December 2010, Andrew Grice urges Clegg to ‘learn the lesson of this fiasco’.
“The arguments on fees are all over the place. Sometimes they confess to making an unrealisitic pledge; on other occasions they say abolishing fees is`still their policy; blame the economic crisis; blame coalition politicians; say they are proud of the policy or even apologise for it.”
And what would the main lesson be?
“The obvious one is about unrealisitic promises. After a spell of sharing power, the next manifesto will have to be framed for another coalition, not the government of the party’s dreams.”
Grice predicts that any damage to the party will be short-lived. Reports of the demise of Clegg or the Coalition are “exaggerated”. Clegg hopes his party is simply experiencing “growing pains”. Sir Alan Beith weighs the opprobrium dealt out by angry students to LibDems in power, against the days when the party had no seat at the top table and declares: “I am not going back there”.
The pragmatist’s advice is clear:
- Clegg’s main mistake was pledging to implement an ‘unrealistic’ (another word for radical?) tuition fees policy;
- he should have realised that realpolitik would give him access to a share of power, with a party which is ideologically opposed to this policy;
- the pledge therefore served only to hinder the LibDems assumption of power;
- this was not a major mistake, because it only involved breaking promises to voters (it’s not as though he broke pledges made to the City).
This position is completely in tune with pragmatic thinking. As a pragmatic leader, Clegg, by their accounts, hasn’t done too badly so far.