My prize for winning Lib Dem Blog of the Year on Saturday was a 25 minute interview with Lib Dem party leader and Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg. I posted the first part yesterday where we discussed the coalition's legacy, pension funding for mortgages and a particular hobby-horse of mine, drugs policy. Here is the second and final part of the interview including a discussion on how his speech last year that stated "Birth should never be destiny" can be reconciled with his support for an hereditary monarchy, the three things he likes about Ed Miliband and whether anything can be done to improve PMQs. My questions are in bold. The rest are Nick's words:
Slightly changing tack now. In Spring 2011 in a speech about social mobility you used the phrase “Birth should never be destiny” which I completely agree with. But how can you reconcile this with your support for an hereditary monarchy?
I just don’t believe for a minute that if you were to man the barricades and effect a revolution to turn the United Kingdom from a monarchy into a republic, suddenly the problems of poor housing, poor infant health, poor pre-school support, poor education for poor children in primary schools would suddenly be solved. I think it’s the wrong answer to a much more profound social problem which is bound up with our education system, housing and patterns of work. I just happen to think that the monarchy provides a sense of identity and clearly brings a great sense of sort of value and pride to the country. I think it unites people, and we want to unite people rather than divide them. I don’t think the monarchy in and of itself is why we have these huge social and economic forces and factors that prejudice the lives of children who are born into poor backgrounds.
I think what is be slightly different which may be what you’re after is: “Does it foster a culture of diffidence and hierarchy?”. I personally think Britain is not a particularly diffident or hierarchical society, I mean people just don’t take authority no questions asked any more.
I was going to phrase it slightly differently than diffidence. I was going to ask isn’t it true that because our head of state is there by virtue of birth rather than merit that it undermines the case at a fundamental level within our society for meritocracy which is something that as liberals we should be striving more for?
I’m going to give you an answer which is really based on real world pragmatism rather than theory. I’m sure you could write a sort of theoretical case for all sorts of radical reforms within our society and heaven knows I’ve tried to get rid of some of the obvious bastions of privilege and patronage in the House of Lords which was difficult. In fact it proved to be impossible because of the vested interests in the establishment parties…
…and I am aware that there is a big majority in the country currently in favour of the monarchy so I realise that this is a rather academic discussion.
Yes, and I personally, not least now that I actually have more contact with members of the Royal family have actually become a stronger supporter of the monarchy than I even was before.
So were you already a strong supporter of the monarchy?
Well, if you ask me “What are the things that would make society more liberal?” “What are the things that will ensure that a bright but poor child is not condemned by the circumstances of their birth?” I just wouldn’t put fiddling around with the monarchy anywhere on my shopping list of things to do. I’d put education, I’d put taxation, I’d put housing, health, jobs…
…I understand the point you’re making but don’t you think like for example in the US where any child could potentially become the President and the Head of State that that says something fundamental about that society and how it operates?
Well let’s first crack our immediate problem which is that children at the moment irrespective of their circumstances of birth don’t think that they could become Prime Minister! Or even leader of the Liberal Democrats. I think the displace the failings of the political class or decant them into an argument about the monarchy is slightly letting the politicians off the hook. We have a political class, people like me, dare I say it people like you: Blokes In Suits…
…I don’t normally wear a suit. I wore it especially for you Nick!
Well I’m flattered Mark! But a political class who are not representative of modern diverse Britain. That is a much more urgent problem we should be addressing it seems to me than reopening a debate that the British people don’t want us to reopen and that I genuinely don’t think has the direct effect on lack of meritocracy that you feel. I hear what you say but I don’t share that view.
OK. So my last two questions. They are both related. Politics is a rough old game and there is often bad blood between politicians and leaders of different parties. So to combat that can you list three things that you like about Ed Miliband?
He’s approachable, he’s interested in policy…
…and is he willing to engage in sensible debate because you don’t always get that from for example PMQs?
But PMQs is not a debate, it’s a shouting match!
He’s got a perfectly good sense of humour. He’s a civilised human being. I’ve talked to him on several occasions and I have found him easy to talk to.
He’s wrong though! But that’s a different matter.
Linked to this do you think that PMQs and politics in general might benefit from a change in approach? A friend of mine recently suggested that you could still have PMQs but once a week the Prime Minister and Leader of the Opposition sit in a room with a moderator and for half an hour or three quarters of an hour just debate policy. Without all the baying and the jeering and the “playing for your team”. Do you think politics might benefit from something like that?
Look, I’ve been through this myself. The problem that we have at the moment is that if you act in a thoughtful, considered, emollient, human manner in the bear-pit of politics whether that’s on the floor of the House of Commons or some moderated discussion what I’ve discovered is that people immediately brand that as weak and ineffective.
I mean I saw it myself in the first few months of this government. When I did Deputy PMQs or stood in for PMQs I tried a kind of… I mean sometimes I didn’t, sometimes I’d lose it and shout at the Labour benches but you know if I was to sort of engage then it would be written up the following day as “Oh, he’s weak, he’s rubbish” all the rest of it. If I got up and just yelled at the other side, said a few jokes, made them look ridiculous and beat them round the head and neck it would be “Oh, a good strong improved performance”. I’m afraid that there’s this remorseless logic at the moment for the way in the which politics is communicated, interpreted and mediated by the press which just constantly ramps up the antagonism. It doesn’t mean that politicians can’t speak to each other but I wouldn’t hold your breath that there’s a new public forum. Much that I would like the idea that politicians could have a sort of fireside chat. At the moment, funnily enough particularly at the moment I think there is a rather shrill, almost semi-hysterical tone which is entering into the coverage of politics in part of our press. I think it’s partly because the press themselves are quite anxious about how they are going to hold onto their own readers so they are becoming ever more hyperbolic in order to try and hold onto people.
Thank you very much Nick!