In our latest People Behind The Policy interview, Editor in Chief, Cameron Broome, caught up with former Deputy Prime Minister Rt Hon Nick Clegg, MP for Sheffield Hallam. Discussion points include: events and individuals that influenced Nick’s early political philosophy; his proudest achievement and biggest regret during his time in government; his relationship (both past and present) with David Cameron; whether Mr Clegg still has an appetite for politics and expects stand for parliament in 2020; juggling politics with family life; whether learning a foreign language is still valuable in today’s world; the blurred line between politics and the media; how social media is transforming the landscape of British politics; the need to modernise Westminster; his hobbies and interests, including his new found love for Spotify and exclusive comments from Nick on Arsene Wenger (spoiler alert- he’s reluctantly a member of the ‘#WengerOut’ brigade); voting systems; young people and voter apathy, and why politics is so important.
Listen to our 40 minute podcast or read Nick’s comments below…
At what age did you become interested in politics? And when you were developing your political views, were there any politicians that you idolised? Were they any events that shaped your early political philosophy?
I think the problem is when you look back on your own life, you always end up slightly reinventing things, I think, in your own mind, and you start reimagining things as if it was all a perfectly straight line; it wasn’t like that at all. I, like most young people, didn’t really know what the future held or what I necessarily wanted to do.
But I do remember from quite an early age being interested in kind of modern history and in politics, and I had an unhealthy habit of reading books at a tender young age about the siege of Stalingrad. I always enjoyed and was very interested in historical figures and the importance of politics, and partly because of my upbringing, because I have a slightly curious upbringing. My Mum’s Dutch and she was born in Indonesia and ended up in her formative early years in a Japanese prisoner of War Camp, and my Dad is half-Russia and his family was very much affected by the revolution.
I’m not going to pretend to be sat around earnestly talking about politics, and there wasn’t much party politics at all. I was never that interested in party politics until later. But the idea that political ideas matter and that they have big effects for good or ill; that was certainly something that I felt at quite an early stage.
I remember at school and, particularly at University, I was quite turned off by the kind of spectacle and the sight of students who seem to know all the answers already, immediately, and yelled at each other in red-faced certainty about their views as opposed to others. I was like many people, I was still asking myself more questions than answers as a student.
But later on, there were some big formative events. I’ve just turned 50; anyone in my generation, the fall of the Berlin Wall in 89, it’s really impossible to exaggerate what a big thing it was for my generation. Because we all grew up, and obviously people older than me even more so, we grew up with this idea that the whole world was shaped by the Cold War and the whole world was overshadowed by the menace of nuclear conflict, and the whole world was kind of often a trigger-happy, push of a button away from annihilation. I mean that was a very acute feeling that I had as a youngster. And suddenly all that just went and it was an astonishing sense of optimism and hope for the future, so that had a huge influence.
And there were various individuals. Again, in keeping with that, I remember some of the leaders of the revolutions in Central and Eastern Europe made a huge impression on me. I remember meeting him once, there was a poet, a poet-politician called Václav Havel who was the first Prime Minister or President, I can’t remember what his title (President I think) of the Czech Republic, after the fall of the Berlin Wall. And there was this incredibly romantic quality to these, Lech Wałęsa in his early days, they were just these…he was a dock worker; Havel was a poet and a philosopher. They were just extraordinary folk who were just sucked into politics, quite, quite different to conventional politics, so they made a big impression.
And in British Politics, Paddy Ashdown was a big figure for me, still is, he’s an old friend, and I remember his brave stance in favour of being generous towards Hong Kong citizens when there was this whole issue of whether they should have British passports or not. And, interestingly, a conservative, in a non-partisan way, Leon Britton. I worked for him as a civil servant much later, but he had quite a big influence in encouraging me to think myself of going into politics, so there you go, a mix of influences.
So you’ve had a very long and varied political career. You worked as an MEP for 5 year; became an MP in 2005; Liberal Democrat leader; Deputy Prime Minister. Do you have a stand out proudest achievement; and conversely, do you have a biggest regret?
Well I think my biggest achievement, of course I would say this, I think working very hard at creating a stable, and I think, largely moderate government for half a decade at a time when governments were falling like nine pins…. Is it nine pins or ten pins?
[… We agreed on nine pins but we meant 10 pins – blame my nerves on inability to count – as for Nick’s excuse, you’ll have to ask him….]
So when governments were falling like nine (ten) pins across Europe and we were all obviously reeling not only as a country but as a continent, in fact the whole developed world, from this absolute catastrophe in the banking system in 2008… of course I’m very proud of the achievement that we didn’t succumb to the populism or the extremism that a lot of other countries did in the wake of that crash, and that we created a degree of political stability that I think was absolute essential to keep unemployment down, which otherwise I think would have skyrocketed.
Obviously, the coalition came with plenty of controversies of its own but I think it was a remarkable achievement because it had never been done before, and it certainly hadn’t been done before in such exceptionally unforgiving circumstances, because anyone who was in power at the time was going to have to do unpopular stuff and so the writing in that sense was on the wall.
But yeah, I’m very proud that, not just me but myself and my colleagues, we basically put country before party and that’s quite an unusual thing in politics so yeah I’m very proud of that.
So lots of individual policies I can talk to you about… in terms of, what was it the most embarrassed or most ashamed or?
Do you have a particularly significant regret?
Oh yeah, of course, I have lots of regrets, you always do. In terms of my time in government… I regret things that I wish had happened that didn’t happen. So, I wish we’d won the AV referendum. I wish the Labour and Conservative parties had honoured their promises on House of Lords reform; a whole bunch of stuff like that.
But the thing where I really feel with hindsight that was something I really regret doing…. actually, probably the biggest was the military action we took in Libya, because I think in hindsight that was a mistake, that was a mistake.
And you can’t take a decision of greater seriousness than whether you take military action or not. Whereas actually, funnily enough, particularly given this week it’s perhaps relevant, I massively regret that we didn’t, David Cameron and I didn’t, manage to succeed in persuading the House of Commons four years ago to take military action against the chemical weapons that are now being used in Syria. So oddly enough, I regret that we didn’t take action in one place and do regret taking action in another, because I think charging into Libya like that without thinking through what would then happen subsequently I think has turned out to be a grave error.
So following the EU referendum result, Mr Cameron has resigned as both Prime Minister and as an MP, and in the last few months we’ve had two MPs resign: Jamie Reed, the MP for Copeland and Tristam Hunt whose taken a job as Director of the V & A museum in London. Given the scrutiny that politicians are under, social media, 24 hour rolling news, it’s no surprise that politicians are being seduced by careers outside of politics that are arguably better paid, less stressful. Do you still have an appetite for politics, and do you expect to stand for Parliament in 2020?
So, on the latter point, I genuinely don’t know; I’m very open about that. I think lots of MPs will make up their minds in the next couple of years I guess. But obviously, I’ll tell my constituents before anyone else. But genuinely, it’s been such a wonderful joy and privilege, 12 years now, MP here in Sheffield. But I just genuinely don’t know; and I think it would be very false if I claimed, which is what you’re normally supposed to do in politics, to say ‘yeah I wanna carry on until the end of time’. Well you know, it’s obviously not like that.
As for my appetite for politics, oddly enough, you might think oddly enough, because I’ve been through numerous ups and downs; my appetite for politics is probably as great now as it ever has been. And in a weird kind of way, if you’re like me – I’m not going to be Deputy Prime Minister again, I’m not going to be Prime Minister, in a sense, I can’t, nor do I pretend to look forward to new dizzying heights in my political career – but in a weird kind of way, it’s exactly that point where I feel I’ve got the most to contribute. Because of course, like anything in life, you learn from your mistakes and I’ve got a fairly thick skin, and you develop a degree of perspective and experience on things….
And I also just so happen to think that this government is a rotten government doing very silly things and driving us towards a hard Brexit that I absolutely appal and that I think is bad, particularly for the next generation. So, as long as I’m in politics, I feel very, very motivated to speak up against a trajectory that I think is a very bad one.
If everything was brilliant, how can I put it…. if there was a government that I thought was doing a great job, then I think I’d probably think well you know, time to go shuffle off and do something else, tend to my allotment, not that I have one. But I don’t feel like that at all, I feel very, like a lot of people, I feel very motivated and angry, I felt very angry by what’s happened, I think it’s appalling, the huge lies that the Brexiteers indulged in in the first place and the false utopianism with which they’re now pretending Brexit will be a walk in the park, and it makes me very angry. Anger and frustration are always good motivations in life, and they are in politics as well.
So, when you were in the coalition, you worked very closely with Mr Cameron. Given that he’s no longer involved in politics, do you ever contact him to play tennis or go out for dinner or?
No, we had a cup of coffee together I think about a month ago or so, so that’s the first time we saw each other in a couple of years I guess…
No, I mean look, it’s always overstated… because we were roughly the same height, the same age, both public school boys, all that kind of stuff, because there was this sunny press conference at the beginning, the way in which our working relationship was depicted was always, I think, more sepia-tinted than the reality.
Of course, you have to be civil to each other, which we were, and he’s got a good sense of humour, he’s an easy guy to get on with but actually, it was much, much more hard-headed and much, much tougher than I think anyone, or at least that’s the impression I get, than anyone from the outside expects. We weren’t sort of sitting there, cracking jobs and deciding which pub we were going to go; it was a very hard-head transaction. And that’s, by the way, the way that I certainly felt it should be. We weren’t being paid to form a coalition to sort of become mates; we were paid to do a really difficult job for the country, and that involved constantly standing up to each other and against each other; that’s the way the coalition worked.
My regret, of course, is it became very easy for the right-wing, who hated the fact the Lib Dems were even in government, to say “oh the Lib Dems are just useless patsies and they don’t really have any say in how the government is run” and sort of dismiss is, and of course the left wing, the left ended up saying the same thing “oh Clegg is Cameron’s lackey and patsy” and so on. After a while, there wasn’t much I could do about it but it was a grotesque rendition of a much, much more hard-headed reality.
And in many ways actually in government, in many ways I wish we could have got the cameras into the endless meetings that we’d have week in week out, day in day out, because what it showed was that far from being ‘selling out’, I was often variably, the most stubborn, more ideological one of the two. Cameron, it’s one of his strengths and I guess one of his weakness, he’s a very pragmatic Conservative politician.
So, we got on fine, obviously we had a working relationship which meant we got to know each other well but it wasn’t the sort of “mates at work”; that wasn’t what it was about.
So, politicians have a particularly unique job in that they have to live and work in two different places. And when I spoke to Philip Davies, the MP for Shipley, on Tuesday, he was pretty convinced that his marriage had broken down as a direct result of politics; he found it difficult to juggle his marriage with his duties as an MP. You’re also married, you’ve got three sons; how have you gone about managing politics, particularly as Deputy Prime Minister, with your family life?
Oh, I don’t think there’s any perfect rule. Look, there are lots of jobs in life which are tough and I don’t think MPs should go around asking for special sympathy or treatment. But it is a slightly atypical job, as you say, not only are you working in two places, often not in the same place where your family is… In my case, of course when you’re in government, you’re working in three places actually: your office in government, your office in parliament and your office in your constituency.
And every family and every individual and every marriage and every couple need to work out their own way. I think what for Miriam and myself was tremendously important was, one…
I think it is incredibly important that politicians learn to stay no to politics. Politics is not the be all and end all of life; it is a very all-absorbing thing. It is not a nine to five job; it is a vocation, it is a way of life. But if it consumes everything, if you accept every invitation, every demand, and everyone’s making demands of you all the time, and then they get very angry if you say “I’m sorry, I can’t” … you’ve got to learn to say no, you’ve got to learn to say no … I can’t go to that dinner or I’m sorry I can’t speak at that meeting and I’m really sorry I cannot attend that interview or whatever….
So, I think you have to be quite tough and realise that at the end of the day, if you don’t put limits on the commitments you make, it will eat you up. And I personally think it’s kind of a straight forward calculation. And if that’s what people don’t like and they want to vote you out then that’s better than frankly becoming an all-consuming and all-consumed political robot.
And then for Miriam and myself, the key thing was we kept our kids completely out of the public eye, completely and we’re a very close family, and we ferociously protected our private space I think and when you’ve got the ghastly ghouls of the Daily Mail and others constantly sticking their noise in your private life, it’s just really important that you are ferocious in policing.
About the only times I ever would ring newspaper Editors, because frankly I just gave up after a while given all the absolute rubbish they used to write about me, but the only times I’d actually really hit back or react is if they did stuff about my kids or my family.
I remember once, I remember the Mail, the Daily Mail or one of the Mail papers, writing a front-page banner headline saying “hypocrite” because my Catholic, I’m not a Catholic but my wife is, my kids are brought up as Catholics, and they go to state schools, Catholic state schools, all of them, they go to Catholic state primaries and they went, logically enough, to Catholic state secondary schools, the two oldest boys. What my oldest boy did, they branded this a hypocrisy because I’d decided not to be a Catholic, I just wrote to them and went “come on this is absurd, how dare you make assumptions about the decisions, the spiritual and educational decisions that me and my wife make” but anyway of course, you don’t get anyway with them, certainly not with ghastly papers like the Mail.
So, I think you just have to be able to say no and just keep your private stuff private; keep your family, particularly children… talk about them by all means, I do that plenty, I’m very proud of them, you can’t do that, you can’t avoid that. But I think don’t make them a visual part of who you are as a politician.
You are a self-proclaimed Europhile and you are fluent in 5 different European languages, so we’ve got two questions for yourself in relation to foreign language. Firstly, given that the global language of business and law is English, is there still a value to teaching foreign languages in English schools? And secondly, given that Asia, and particularly China, is growing as an economic region, should schools (if they do teach foreign languages), consider teaching Mandarin or Cantonese, or is there still a benefit to learning European languages?
So, I think, I would say this wouldn’t I, I think there is such a joy in learning a foreign language, even if you don’t learn it very well. Because everyone speaks English around the world, we are very, very lazy about this, and then of course the result is that people, I always think we have a national affliction which is that we get embarrassed when we tried out foreign languages. “Oh, is my accent wrong or right” and everyone sort of giggles and titters about it. There’s nothing wrong with making mistakes and learning other languages, and other people appreciate it massively.
Everyone know this, if you go on holiday, even if you don’t know speak French, if you’re on holiday in France and you still try and order a drink in French or ask for directions in French, people appreciate that, even if they see that you’re struggling with the grammar.
And I think it’s good for the brain, because there’s a lot of evidence that, particularly young kids, if they learn more than one language it does something to the brain, it’s like a form of working out in the brain gym; it’s good for the brain.
It gives you access to culture, to literature, to music, to humour, to comedy, to fashion, and we shouldn’t be complacent. Yes, English is a global language; it’s not the only massive, global language. Spanish is a huge global language now. Go to any part of South America, but North America as well; the states itself is because increasingly Hispanicised. Chinese obviously, and Mandarin in particular I guess.
So I think it would be a great shame if schools wined down on their commitments to teaching languages, and I certainly agree that new languages, well not new languages but big global Asian languages, should be taught as readily as European languages.
It’s long been understood that there is a blurred line between politics and the media; But recently we seem to have seen a growing number of politicians who have dual careers as both politicians and journalists. So, Michael Gove interviewed Donald Trump and has got a Times column; Boris Johnson was Editor of the Spectator, he also was paid £250,000 for a Telegraph column. Before you became an MP, you also worked for The Financial Times, you had a Leading Britain Conservation chat show. And most recently, George Osborne accepted a job as Editor of the London Evening Standard. Do you believe politicians should be allowed paid jobs as journalists, alongside being members of parliament?
Well, I’ve got to declare an interest here; I write a column once every two weeks for The Evening Standard, for which I get paid £300 or something per column. So, I’m not going to start being pious about people writing and getting paid for it, even as they are MPs.
I don’t really see why anyone should have a legal constitutional prohibition on all of that. And there’s a long, long tradition of people who like to write, like to express themselves, are interested in ideas and also, of course, travelling in and out of the media and politics; there’s an obvious shared idiom there. I write columns because the stuff I’m interested in in current affairs that I want to get off my chest and hopefully people find them interesting enough to read, and that’s naturally an instinct which fuels my politics. So, I don’t think you can… I wouldn’t suggest, nor would I think there’s any need, to say that that is verboten.
I think where there is, however, a slightly different thing which is when you just get powerful vested interests in the press; let’s be blunt, you’ve now got a sort of curious group, a cabal really, of older men, most prominently perhaps, Paul Dacre, this secretive multi-millionaire Editor of the Daily Mail, Murdoch’s initiative at The Sun, the Barclay Brothers, wherever they live in Monaco – I mean a lot of these people don’t even live in this country, who have immense power but they’ve got no accountability; no-one’s elected them, they’re not responsible for their actions. And I think when they become very close to people in power, and people in power basically end up doing what they, in effect, want them to do, that’s very corrosive.
So, funnily enough I think having a go at… however extraordinary I find it that Boris Johnson was paid all that money to burble along on the pages of The Daily Telegraph, it’s a free country, he can do that. I don’t think that’s where its problematic.
I think its problematic, oddly enough, when you can’t see it. It’s all the unspoken connections between politicians in power and vested interests in the press. And the press and the politics will always have this peculiar love-hate relationship with each other, because they both depend on each other, and both loathe each other.
But it’s always sensible, I think, for those relationships to be done with greater caution and distance than has sometimes been the case.
So in relation to the media, social media is undoubtedly transforming the landscape of British politics, particularly used by young people. In terms of tackling political apathy, getting people engaged in politics, what do you see as the biggest opportunities in relation to social media, and what are the biggest challenges?
The great opportunity, of course, is that its accessible to everybody. We now have access, both by way of social media and just by way of the internet, we have access to information, opinion, commentary and an ability to express ourselves, unknown in human history, so it’s astonishing liberation.
In a way, information used to be hoarded by the powerful; it is now readily and genuinely available to everybody. If anything, the debate now from governments is that when the freedom to express oneself is over-exploited and particularly by extremists and others, so it’s amazing how that pendulum has swung. And that, on the whole, is a brilliant and beautiful thing, that as long as you get your fingers onto a set of keyboards, you can find out anything you want and express yourself.
I think the danger is the obvious one about social media is that when it first burst onto the scene, I remember lots of portentous commentators saying “this will lead to an emancipation of democratic debate and everyone will be involved and it’ll open up people’s minds”. Actually, what of course it’s done, and this is a pretty commonplace observation now, its created these bubbles, these silos, where people yell at each other in raging certainty and raging agreement with each other, and that erodes something which worries me tremendously.
It erodes one of the most important principles of any mature democracy which is the willingness and the ability to accommodate yourself and seek to understand rival points of view. At the end of the day, democracy is all about pluralism; it’s about plural, diverse opinions sharing a shared space and everybody accepting the rules of the game – that sometimes one set of opinions will triumph over another.
I think in a really weird kind of way, the silo effect, which hasn’t been invented by social media but has certainly been facilitated by it, has definitely led to a kind of intellectual intolerance, and so you it on both left and right.
So, in terms of voting on bills, at the moment politicians have to travel all the way down to Westminster to debate bills. Would you be in favour of a policy whereby, if an MP already knew how they were going to vote, they could possibly vote remotely, electronically, or do you think it’s important that they’re there physically in person?
No, I would be in favour of anything that would get us away from this ridiculous, farcical pantomime of 19th Century, stiff-neck politics that we have in Westminster. It’s just an embarrassment the way Westminster is run, it really is.
And of course, the traditionalists love it and all this nonsense, you can’t call each other by your normal name, the peculiar sitting hours, the bonkers way we vote, the yelling, the screaming, it’s just….I mean look, I tried my best to try and reform the place.
But the vested interests, particularly I have to say the two larger parties, of course they love it because the whole set up is there to flatter them. You know you’ve a Prime Minister now who hasn’t been elected by anybody, whose party got what 24% of the eligible vote. You’ve got a Labour party basically on political skid row, still parading around, strutting its stuff in Westminster as if it still rules the place.
So, the whole architecture, including the way you vote and the whole ritual of Westminster, is there to flatter the old powers that be and it’s just really time they move on. And when even Nigel Farage is now becoming a fervent advocate of electoral reform, you kind of suspect that maybe Labour and Conservatives need to catch up.
So how much free time do you get as a senior politician and what do you enjoy doing in your free time?
Well now, of course, a lot more. I mean when I was in government, and I’ve got small kids, so when I was in government, I was either working or whatever spare time I had I would spend with my kids…helping them with their homework or kicking a football in the park or whatever
But now, it’s much more varied. I do all sorts of things that I was never able to do. I got to see plays; Miriam and I went to the theatre last week, and I read more books and I listen to more music. Actually, I noticed after I left government that, and I hadn’t realised this had happened to me, I’d actually stopped without really being aware of it, properly listening to music.
One of the first things I did after I left government was just listen to hours and hours and hours of music; I discovered Spotify. I was like a pot plant that had been starved out water for years, and suddenly I was drinking up all this music.
The danger is, particularly if you’re right in the furnace of frontline politics, and because it’s so aggressive and you’re constantly in fight or flight mode, I think the danger is: A) you’re knackered because you’re grappling with 4, 5 maybe if you’re lucky 6 hours sleep a night, but certainly no more.
But secondly, you’re constantly kind on the lookout for the next banana skin or the next scandal or the next attack and the next ambush. And you stop revelling in the wonderful pleasures that make up being a human being. Things that make you laugh; things that make you cry.
And so, I read more, I listen to more music, I play much more sport. I, of course, which is the greatest blessing of all, I of course, have more time to spend with my kids.
I don’t buy sometimes when I hear some politicians sort of say that they can’t balance it with some of their hobbies or pleasures; of course you can, as long as I said earlier, as long as you’re prepared to say no.
I read online that you were an Arsenal fan. So, Arsene Wenger, next season, should he remain Arsenal manager?
I hate to say this because I’m quite a big Wenger loyalist and I was so desperately… I should stress, I became… I have the zeal of a convert; so I didn’t grow up as an Arsenal fan. In fact, I didn’t grow up following football that much. It’s really only the last five, six years, not least because of my two oldest boys who are fanatical about football, and so I developed the zeal of a convert really, and I do follow it very closely now.
And I have been a very, very staunch loyalist to Wenger and I was desperate that he should end his long and distinguished career on a high, but I’m afraid even I have started thinking that really it is time now to draw this extraordinary reign to a close.
And I’ll tell you why… because I’ve now seen, even over the last half decade, that the team is bumping up against the same problems with a different cast of players. And so, the only conclusion is that it’s not the players; if you have the same pattern, constantly scraping into the top four, never ever….always disappointing when people breathlessly start talking about maybe winning the Premiership, always flanking out in the same stages of the Champions League, doing well in the lower ranked teams but always actually falling short against the top teams.
Well, you think that if that’s happening with a different cast of players, it’s because there’s something wrong at HQ. And that’s why I do think it would be best for him, unless he’s prepared to do something quite radical to break that pattern, to say look, I had a fantastic innings, an extraordinary innings, a unique one, and now it’s time for him to gracefully move on.
Best book that you read during 2016?
I was very struck by, which is perhaps more than enjoy because it’s a very, very dark novel and very unsettlingly, Ian McEwan’s latest – Nutshell. I’d probably single out Nutshell, but it’s not for the squeamish or the faint-hearted.
Favourite TV shows?
Well, actually, probably these days it’s probably Match of the Day I should think, that’s the one I most religiously watch.
Spanish food. Well I have to say that, obviously, but it is also true, I absolutely love good Spanish food.
Tapas, paella or?
Yeah, particularly with the way they prepare fish, particularly in Northern Spain; I love Northern Spain, it’s quite different to the rest of Spain. It’s not dry and it’s not like the conventional image of Spain; it’s quite green and hilly and mountainous and wooded. But it’s got these amazing, amazing places where you can eat the most lovely fish.
And what’s the number one song at the moment on your Spotify playlist?
Oh my god; well I haven’t got a playlist favourites, I haven’t got a number one. This is very boring because it’s old and it’s not new, but I was re-listening to Macy Gray just last week, some of those big tracks like I Try, Still, and I think I’d forgotten what a fantastic voice she’s got. So right, right, right now, Macy Gray.
18-25-year-olds are the least likely to vote in general elections. But when you speak to young people, it is clear that they care about politics in terms of caring about issues. However, what they are less interested in is political parties, party politics. So, what can politicians do to encourage young people to vote and to get them more excited by politics?
I don’t know, I mean I’ve been asked this so many times and I’ve thought about it so much; there’s no magic wand solution. Because, of course, some people say ah well you know, only talk about things that young people care about, whether it’s housing or tuition fees, probably not the theme I should dwell on too much, or civil liberties or the environment or Europe or whatever. But there’s a slight problem to that.
If you only talk about one issue, or a couple of issues, you obscure the fact that actually what is important about politics isn’t one or two issues; that’s the whole point of politics, or at least it should be. The whole point of politics is it’s a set of values about what your overall view is about how society should develop, and what is fair and what’s not fair, and all the values that you care about most, is it individualism or is it the collective; is it compassion or is it the free market. I personally think….
The traditional answer is just dwell on the specific issues that we know younger generations, quite logically, will care about more than other generations. But I think that only takes you so far, because actually what you do need to do is rekindle an interest in big ideas, including ideology. I know that’s difficult because people think “oh, that’s party politics; that’s putting people in different buckets and different categories”. But I don’t think you can shirk away from that.
And so certainly I, and obviously, I do a lot of speaking at colleges or schools or Universities with youngsters and so on, I always encourage them to start at the beginning. What kind of country do you want to live in? What kind of things make you feel good about being British? What are the values that you want? What are the things that make you angry? And then build up from there.
And you saw it in the Brexit debate actually. The stereotype that young people don’t vote; I think turn out from 18 to 24-year-olds was 62%, 64%, which is pretty high. I mean it’s not as high as the 90% of over 75-year-olds or whatever it was that voted, but it’s still pretty high, much higher than election time. And that’s partly because I think they knew it was their future at stake and it wasn’t just about straight cucumbers and EU directives, it wasn’t just about the environment or any policy issue. It was about what kind of country are we going to be in the future, and I think that’s what we need to encourage.
So, though of course, I’m very downhearted by the Brexit outcome, particularly for all those 70% of youngsters who voted for a different future, I hope it will actually serve as one of those generational catalysts. You get the generational catalysts from time to time, Iraq was one clearly, the collapse of the Berlin Wall was another one. If there’s any silver lining to the Brexit referendum it’s that, I hope at least, it will keep young people motivated to continue to raise their voice…
Because if you want to do anything about Brexit and salvage anything, still let’s challenge it, and maybe in the future would day re-open it and reverse it, that can only happen if young people maintain their fervour about it.
I know lots of young people who in 2015 really wanted to vote for the Liberal Democrats or the Greens but they lived in a marginal seat; it was a case of damage limitation, so they ended inevitably voting Labour. And in the 2015 general election, although your party is sometimes said to have failed and done awfully, you still got 8% of vote share which proportionally is equivalent to 50 MPs. Why do we have a voting system whereby everybody’s vote doesn’t matter equally and it depends upon imaginary geographies, and how frustrated are you with first past the post?
Frustrated doesn’t even scratch the surface of my dismay and fury really that we have an electoral system which…. Firstly, let’s just get the Lib Dem position out of the way, of course, I feel this but…
Surely even non-Lib Dems cannot believe that it is fair that a party such as ours, even at the low point of our fortunes in 2015 as you pointed out, we got a million more votes than the SNP, a million more votes. Surely everyone can see that it’s just outrageous that a party gets a million fewer votes than another one gets 56 seats, compared to our 8. I mean how can you call that democratic?
That’s as far as we’re concerned. But worse than that, it means, as you quite rightly said, that people are constantly voting for parties they don’t necessarily believe in, and everyone’s forced into this kind of artificial decision between two options that maybe they don’t care about at all. And so we have a so-called democracy which is compelling millions of voters, in the name of democracy, to make choices which are not even what their heart says.
So, I think any democracy which basically almost compels people to not vote the way that they really want to is living on borrowed time. And, of course, it means that lots of people give up voting altogether because they’re right, because depending on where they live, they basically haven’t got a choice.
And also, of course, it might have worked, the first past the post system might have worked, and indeed it did work for the days forty, fifty years ago, where 90%, 95% of people voted for either the blue team or the red team. It makes absolutely no sense in an era of the SNP, UKIP, Lib Dems and so on. There’s a pluralism in politics now which is not going to be reversed, so of course, it needs to change, of course, it needs to change.
In a nutshell: why is politics so important?
Politics is important not because it has the answers to everything; it doesn’t, and nor should it. But because however imperfect it is, however flawed and tawdry and unpleasant it can sometimes be, and tedious to sometimes watch, it is nonetheless the way in which we in our country resolve differences in a peaceful way, to try and decide collectively what we think is right for the country as a whole. How we fund our public services, how we protect our environment, how we play our role in the world, how we shape our futures.
And that’s why, if you don’t participate in it, other people will design the future for you and that’s not right.