Cleggmania doesn't seem all that long ago. What went wrong?
Last year saw a political campaign fund buses bearing lies about EU funding and the NHS. The same campaign paid for billboards which misinformed people, in no uncertain terms, that Turkey was joining the EU. Members of this campaign endorsed myriad racist tweets as a way of putting their message across, with one effect of this being that the majority of Brits believe the UK is now more racist than it was 12 months ago.
Those responsible for whipping up this chaos and riding its waves were not rebuked, but rewarded, when they won the EU referendum. Equally worrying is that the perceived rise of racism is mirrored by the real world rise in hate crime since the referendum. And that's not my "unpatriotic" opinion; it's based on figures from the National Police Chiefs Council.
Right-wing rhetoric prevails and doublethink dominates. According to the Daily Mail, High Court judges are now the somewhat unlikely "enemies of the people" for upholding the law when it comes to Brexit. We are leaving the EU by any means possible, but a vote on how we go about it in Parliament is what the Daily Express deems "a crisis as grave as anything since the dark days when Churchill vowed we would fight them on the beaches". The BBC saw it fit to interview "serious contender for the French presidency" Marine Le Pen for the Andrew Marr Show. The show's editor announced the Front National leader's appearance via a tweet that read "Brexit, Trump, Le Pen?", explicitly linking the rise of the political right in various Western democracies. The portents have continued into the new year. Ladbrokes kicked off 2017 by offering 2/1 on far-right politician Geert Wilders becoming the next Dutch Prime Minister, and 11/4 on a victory for Le Pen.
So how did we get here? Prior to the 2010 and even the 2015 elections, the atmosphere in Britain was a very different one. UKIP were gaining more exposure and seemed to be increasing in popularity, but so did other previously more marginal parties, namely the Liberal Democrats and, to a lesser extent, the Green Party. People were genuinely asking if our country was going to become a five or six-party nation as opposed to a Labour-Conservative hegemony.
The rise of the Liberal Democrats was fuelled by Cleggmania – a belief in Nick Clegg as a reasonably young, passionate and apparently straight-talking leader, heading up a party that, to many, represented a different kind of politics. And then David Cameron increased his majority. And then we voted for Brexit. And then Labour fell apart.
As time since June's vote to leave the EU passes and Nigel Farage retires from public life, only to return again repeatedly, like herpes or Lyme disease, it's becoming increasingly clear that liberals and democrats (with a small l, small d) have totally screwed up. Key issues – like a serious shortage of affordable housing, for one – have been ignored, and traditional working class support bases have been taken for granted to the point of being completely overlooked.
Former Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg was the first liberal to get his feet under a desk in Number 10 for nearly a century. Once there he was hung by his own rope, made out of election promises he could not keep, namely vowing never to raise tuition fees. This resulted in the memorable vlogger-style apology video of 2012.
At the next opportunity the electorate decimated his party. Little over a year later, the principles that he stood for – liberal compromise and cosmopolitanism – are denounced as unpatriotic and treasonous by certain members of the 52 percent who voted for Brexit.
He has recently published a book, Politics: Between the Extremes, in which he admits to having made "mistakes" while in government. His writing takes stock of what brought us here, but falls short of offering concrete solutions. Speaking to him, I ask if he thinks our country has moved to the right and, if so, is that because of a failure of liberal government?
In short, he doesn't buy it. "I'd be careful to characterise this as a swing in one direction – I don't think it's that straightforward," he says. So how can we explain it? "One of the most striking developments in elections in recent times has been the very large number of people who are not voting at all, and you can't characterise that – the advent of mass abstention - as a swing to the right. It's clearly a new part of the British political landscape."
In this "new landscape", which Clegg maps out during our conversation, the "rise of Scottish nationalism" is highlighted as "the biggest change in British politics in recent years". He sees what has happened as "a wider fragmentation of politics away from the mainstream options which used to exist". But what, as he sees it, have we moved towards? "A more polarised politics," he says. "And that polarisation assumes several different manifestations: UKIP, the SNP, Corbyn and the ascendancy of the right-wing of the Tory party." For Clegg, "The mainstream centre is being pulled at from several different directions at once."
And what of his own role in all this? As someone who spent an entire term at the heart of government, did he and his party go wrong? "Yes," he says empathically, "dramatically wrong. I'm sure I bear some responsibility for this as much as anybody else – we have allowed certain long-term problems to go unanswered for far too long. The lack of affordable and readily available housing is an obvious example – it's a basic necessity in life – [and] the way that our welfare system is increasingly biased against the young in favour of the old. This is unsustainable and we've allowed that to happen."
"But," he adds, "there is a lot wrong with the status quo… we are all now facing the consequences of a status quo that became impervious to far-reaching change. I saw one aspect of that very clearly when I was in government, which is the ferocious resistance of the vested interests in Westminster and the, dare I say it, right-wing media to any meaningful political change."
As you might expect, Clegg sees the First Past the Post electoral system as part of this bad "status quo". It is, he says, "completely unrepresentative, insensitive to people's needs and to the modern diverse voices in society at large, and yet it… still refuses to vote for our second legislative chamber. It refuses to clean up the rotten way in which we fund political parties – all political parties, I should add; I'm not in the slightest bit sanctimonious on that point. It exists in this ludicrous stitch-up in which the two larger mainstream parties – Labour and the Conservatives – are fighting to maintain an electoral system which is now unforgivably undemocratic."
Brexit was hailed as "an earthquake", but if we're going with tectonic metaphors it's more accurate to call it volcanic: the release of years and years of pressure building up underneath the surface, ready for an inevitable explosion. Over 17 million people voted to leave the EU in June (mind you, over 16 million voted to remain), and suddenly euroscepticism was being billed as the new, long unacknowledged, status quo.
Brexit seems to have put liberalism on life support. But for OG eurosceptics like Daniel Hannan MEP, the reasoning behind the vote was as simple as: "We were right all along, I told you so." Right about what? Does he see it as confirmation that our country has moved to the right? "I don't see any evidence of it," he tells me.
Hannan, a Tory MEP for South East England, has been described as "the man who brought you Brexit". As he sees it, the referendum was about democracy, about who makes the decisions for this country: "I'm blown if I can see how democracy is a right-wing or a left-wing issue," he says.
Hannan makes a fairly convincing argument about sovereignty. "The thing that carried [Vote Leave] over the line," he says adamantly, "is the sense that the EU is failing," adding that the people who say the debate is all about immigration are "without exception, remain voters" who have "all suddenly become overnight experts on why people voted leave".
"We can swap anecdotes or you can look at the hard data," says Hannan, pointing to a Com Res poll published in the Sunday Mirror just after the vote, which showed "the ability of Britain to make its own laws" was the most important issue for leave voters, with immigration a distant second. "And for what it's worth, our private polls in Vote Leave showed the same thing," he says.
Despite belonging to rival teams, Leave and Remain, both Hannan and Clegg were talking on vaguely similar lines in seeing the failures of our democracy as a central problem. But it's not euroscepticism or a debate about democracy that we're seeing in our Facebook feeds, or in the right-wing press, or in the spike in racist attacks. It's something far bleaker.
With over a third of leave supporters saying immigration was the main reason for their vote, it's clearly still a significant factor. Equally, polls show that people have a warped sense of the scale of the problem: Ipsos Mori found that what they termed "imagined immigration" did not match up with the reality or scale of actual long-term migration. Then there's the fact that those over the age of 65 were twice as likely as those under 25 to vote leave. When you examine the "hard data", as Hannan suggests, the picture is nowhere near as clear-cut as the one he paints.
Liam, a UKIP member and activist in his twenties from Manchester, tells me: "I don't think it was solely about sovereignty. A large number of people vote to leave because they didn't want to be on the same side as the establishment." However, from what he's seen on the ground with UKIP, he says, "the biggest issue for most people was immigration".
Hannan and Liam agree on one thing: successive governments, of all political persuasions, have failed to listen to the people they claim to represent. Hannan says, "In opposition, parties find it very easy to talk about more localism and democratic control, but get their hand on the levers of power and they tend to change their tune." This, he says, makes people cynical about politics and politicians because "the clever and educated people in charge" make "decisions in their own interests", which is nothing short of "oligarchic".
"This is a place where the Daniel Hannans and Michel Goves of this world put on their bovver boots and kick the shit out of someone who's just trying to do his job"
Clegg agrees, sort of. "You know," he says, "I made endless mistakes which no doubt made our fate all the more likely." He doesn't explicitly say which mistakes, but he does say that his time in government only served to confirm his passion for constitutional reform, reinforcing the view that our current system frustrates change.
He may not think the political "pendulum" has swung in one direction, but aren't we now living in an era when it's not hyperbole to say xenophobic and racist rhetoric has been legitimised by the outcome of the referendum? Yes, Clegg concedes, warning, "It's really important we don't take this lying down. We live in a country now where really angry people like Paul Dacre of the Daily Mail are holding sway – where Theresa May, the Prime Minister of our country – thinks it's OK to get up at her party conference and dismiss millions of people who think that to be human is also to feel an affinity and compassion for and sympathy with people who live in other countries, dismissing them as 'citizens of nowhere'. This is a place where the Daniel Hannans and Michael Goves of this world put on their bovver boots and kick the shit out of someone who's just trying to do his job as governor of our central bank and keep things on an even keel. There's a really nasty air out there. We must not accept it, not be intimidated by it, and call it out for what it is – what else can we do?"
When he's not angry, Clegg is at least reflective: "I think the history books will look back on the referendum as the latest sign of a system which is no longer capable of representing, let alone answering, the needs of many people across the country," he says.
If Brexit really was about sovereignty and not xenophobia or nationalism, those who won must find a way to rewrite the history books. As Clegg puts it, a government with no official mandate needs "to claim that what happened on the 23rd of June was an overwhelming vote for their shrunken, nasty shrill and spiteful world view". In doing so, they will "airbrush out of history the fact that what happened on the 23rd of June was, in fact, not an overwhelming vote for Brexit – it was two massive, overwhelming votes pulling in opposite directions".
The government simply repeats the refrain that "Brexit means Brexit" and refuses to say what that actually means. Clegg's offering is that we must merely "refuse to take it". Unfortunately, those of us stuck in the middle can't afford to be so quixotic; we're "citizens of nowhere" now, after all.
Milly, a 28-year-old actress from London, voted for the Lib Dems in 2010 "out of dissatisfaction with the way things were" and because "they promised to scrap tuition fees". She voted Remain in 2016 and now wonders what she "was so unhappy with before the coalition; I don't remember any specifics, other than I wanted a change".
"I felt optimistic about the coalition," says Milly. "I felt like 'the grown-ups' would take them seriously, which sounds awful when I say it now, but if I was voting for the Lib Dems and my Tory parents despised them, then the coalition was a way to get those ideas into government without them constantly being scoffed at. I though they were going to have to listen to them, but they got completely sidelined and it slowly crumbled apart. I felt betrayed by the Lib Dems."
The story of the Liberal Democrats is one of broken promises and dashed hopes of change. Let that be a warning for Brexiteers who are already finding that the very democratic system they promised to change is frustrating their ability to deliver on those promises. Leaving the EU is already turning out to be easier said than done, and something tells me a viral "sorry" video won't quite cut it.
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