The controversial legacy of Nick Clegg will be debated by historians in many years to come. The former Liberal Democrat leader and deputy prime minister who resigned in 2015 may find history will be kinder to him in the long-term.
Ask people what their immediate thoughts of Clegg are and many will undoubtedly say: “He voted to increase tuition fees.” Or: “He produced that embarrassing video in 2012 apologising for it.”
However, the story behind Clegg’s rise as the kingmaker of British politics in 2010 to leading a party that was almost wiped out in last year’s general election is not completely depressing. Underneath the u-turns and that humiliating video lies a story of a man whose impact upon the current Government lasts to this day.
Even though Clegg spent the first fifteen years of his political life as a Lib Dem MEP, he returned to Britain in 2004 to fight the Sheffield Hallam seat and he won with more than fifty per cent of the vote in the 2005 General Election.
More than two years later, Clegg fought a bitterly fought leadership contest in the face of Sir Menzies Campbell’s resignation as party leader. His leadership rival, Chris Huhne, circulated a nasty memo referring to him as “calamity Clegg.” Clegg won the race by a margin of less than one per cent. Impressive, considering he was only an MP for two years by that point.
The 2010 leadership debates helped create a surge in support for ‘Cleggmania’ and won him an army of fans in the short-term. His popularity almost rivaled that of Winston Churchill’s. Yet his approval ratings did not translate into seats for the Lib Dems under the much-loathed first-past-the-post voting system as they lost five seats.
Despite this, he was soon landed with the difficult choice of choosing who to jump into bed with. This was never going to be an easy decision. If he propped up a Labour-led government, Clegg would have been condemned for propping up a ‘rainbow coalition’ that would cause years of instability. And if he chose to form a coalition with the Tories, well, we all saw the consequences of that move. Either way, Clegg’s political fortunes were never going to last forever from that point onward.
Considering David Steel’s alliance with the crumbling Callaghan government in 1977 was a failure, Clegg deserves credit for managing to play his part in keeping the coalition government of 2010-5 together in the face of rebellions from both Conservative and Lib Dem MPs. Many doubted the coalition would endure for the full five years. That in itself is an achievement.
Clegg encountered many lows during his five years as deputy prime minister. He was forced to break two of his flagship policies of opposing an increase in VAT, which jumped to 20%, and scrapping tuition fees, which instead tripled to £9000 per year. The electorate would never forgive him for this. But it was a brave sacrifice to make in order to ensure the coalition was united in its mission to eradicate the deficit.
Clegg suffered further blows along the way. There is no doubt the No to AV campaign emerged victorious in 2011 on the back of discontent towards Clegg after voting in favour of a rise in tuition fees. This defeat killed the Lib Dems’ dream of achieving electoral reform. And House of Lords reform, another raison d’etre for the Lib Dems, was undermined by the 2012 rebellion of Conservative MPs voting down his plans to deliver House of Lords reform.
But underneath Clegg’s humiliating failures lies a set of achievements that helped make life better for many Britons during years of austerity. The income tax allowance for the lowest-paid increased from £6000 in 2010 to £10,500 by 2015, lifting millions of people out of paying tax before they earned more than the 2015 threshold. Because of this policy, some of the poorest Britons are not paying tax at all. This legacy was maintained by the current Government who are increasing the allowance to £12,500 by 2020.
The pupil premium has helped raise the attainment of the poorest pupils from reception to year 11. The pupil premium budget has ensured schools have received £1320 for pupils in reception to year 6 and £935 for pupils in year 7 to year 11 this financial year. This was a policy Clegg supported and then became a reality during the coalition years.
Despite voting for an increase in tuition fees, Clegg supported the creation of more apprenticeships in this country with 1.5 million more apprenticeship starts since 2010. This is a policy the current Government continues to support. There is now far more choice for young people other than the single option of going to university than there was under the last Labour government.
The electorate did not reward Clegg for his bravery though. In their eyes, he cowered out of pushing for his radical policy of abolishing tuition fees. And he suffered their wrath in 2015 when his party was reduced to eight MPs. Clegg was forced into making an emotional speech announcing his resignation last year.
Historians will debate Clegg’s legacy for years to come. It was a series of ‘calamities’ and bold decisions that have changed the lives of many people. People have not come to appreciate the latter yet. But considering he has been consigned to the dustbin of British politics now, he cannot help but think at this point: “I wonder how different my political life would have been if I accepted Leon Brittan’s invitation to join the Conservatives?” Very, is the simple answer to that. And the same goes for millions of people too.