One of the conferences that aroused the greatest expectations at the Hay Festival, held in Segovia with the collaboration of IE University, was the one that included former British Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg, with Spanish journalist Pedro J. Ramírez as moderator. After the latter made a declaration of principles, defining himself as a liberal centrist and setting the ground rules for a relaxed conversation, the former threw out a question: “What went wrong?”
In the 2010 election, Nick Clegg’s Liberal Democrat Party obtained 23% of the votes and 57 seats in Parliament, but this year the number of seats dropped to just nine. A serious defeat, attributable above all to his role in governing with Conservative PM David Cameron. Clegg said there was great pressure against what they did together in the government. His lack of experience and the economic crisis in the country burned Clegg out.
“Doing controversial things to fix the economy is more in line with what a conservative party would do, not a liberal one,” the British politician stated in the main hall of the Santa Cruz la Real campus. And among these things were two very important issues: student tuition fees and electoral reform. The fees went up when the Lib Dems were part of the government. “This was very controversial and did us a great deal of harm, because it was diametrically opposed to what we had stated in our party manifesto,” said Clegg, adding that they had no alternative, something that they unsuccessfully tried to explain to the people.
“You can’t expect people to follow you, especially with regard to big reforms, unless you take a long time to explain what the problem is. And we didn’t explain it well, we did it in a hurry because of the economic crisis.” A personal anecdote perhaps best illustrates the times Clegg lived through and helps define him. When the ministers visited him in his office to ask him for the green light to raise the fees, he asked them if it was possible to wait a year. The answer was ‘no’: the universities would be complaining during that year. With hindsight, Clegg reflected, not without a certain irony: “I should have said to them, ‘Let them complain for a year and then people will see there’s a problem.’”
Clegg was aware that raising the tuition fees involved something many people held dearly: the future of their children. But the second matter was no less important. Electoral reform was also a key element in his program. “We have a government that has won with only 24% of the votes,” he said, to give an idea of how important this issue was. To try and assure a change, the Liberals proposed a political concept of Labour, but Labour didn’t support them.
So great was the damage suffered that Clegg made a video apologizing, that went viral on YouTube thanks in part to a musical modification. “In politics as in life, it takes a long time to earn a good reputation, but you can lose it in an instant,” he said, later adding: What you want to do and what you can do in reality are two different things.”
Pedro J. Ramírez raised the question of nationalism. Scotland and Catalonia seemed likely to appear here. He spoke of the historic and legislative differences between the two, but also of their similarities. “What can a State do when a large proportion of its people want to secede?” he asked.
Clegg then took a new tack. “We’re undergoing a change.” He noted that the world we lived in was about left and right, bosses and workers, the public and the private –notions that were polarized in the Cold War. “In fact, liberalism has an alternative to this, but it’s not doing it very well.” Just the opposite of the nationalisms, which have been successful in penetrating this two-party system, raising the banner of local identity. The question wasn’t answered, but it’s out there: The liberal or centrist alternative must serve as a counterbalance to these nationalisms by offering an option that’s different from the two principal political forces.
After a brief review of the role of the press in the UK –“what worries me is when part of the press lines up with part of the politicians”– Clegg spoke about Europe. He stressed that many people don’t believe the European Union can guarantee their security, in everything from borders to the economy. The British politician believes that the EU is failing when it “cannot persuade people that the basic ingredients of their security are out of danger.” In spite of this, he said it is important for everyone to work together to unite their forces, especially in a globalized world like today’s.
Clegg has time to address the issue of populism. “We lived in a world where people had jobs, money to buy gifts,” he said, stressing the changes that have occurred in recent years and that have ended all this. He associates the success of the populist messages to the fear people have about their children and about losing their jobs. “This is totally understandable, it’s a human instinct.” If anyone claims to have a solution to these problems, it’s easy to believe him. To defeat this, Clegg says it’s necessary to find attractive political solutions to today’s problems.