Clegg’s speech defended the very establishment he claims to despise
Nick Clegg is not a prostitute for power, as his detractors claim. Nor is he stupid, as they sometimes imply. But he has a very small idea of what politics is. His speech today aimed to disprove the easy populism of Nigel Farage or Alex Salmond. But he revealed his own failings much more powerfully than those of his opponents.
The opening did a better job of surveying the political landscape than either of the other two main party leaders had done. Forces of separation and difference had overcome Britain, he said. People were being told to blame the English, or immigrants, or people on benefits. They were being given easy scapegoats for their anger.
Clegg's solution was dispiriting. "Politicians of every party," he said, "have fed this growing cynicism by exaggerating and overstating what governments can do."
It was a very revealing statement. It was reminiscent of his performance against Nigel Farage, when he seemed content with European politics staying roughly as it was for the next generation.
Once you get past the bluster and the rhetoric about being anti-establishment and wanting to shake up the existing political order, Clegg's conception of politics is very small and very conservative. He does not seem to believe significant change is possible. He sees his role as tinkering with the status quo.
The Liberal Democrat leader is a decent man. He is far more principled than his villainous reputation allows. He has made a series of difficult choices as best he could in trying circumstances. His detractors have the luxury of carping from their armchairs, where principles can always remain untainted. The extent to which Clegg's motives are questioned says more about our suspicion of politicians than it does about him.
His speech today was the best I've seen him do. The unconvincing manner in which he used to speak is gone. The confidence of power has made him more convincing, more sturdy in his delivery. It was streaks ahead of the mean-spirited, nasty offering by David Cameron. It was more specific and less obviously brain damaged than Ed Miliband's the week before.
But once the high-minded talk of challenging power was stripped away, there was little of consequence on offer. It was like a product comprised mostly of attractive packaging.
What did we have left once the wrapping paper was cast aside? A raise in the income tax threshold, an improvement in early years education funding, free school meals, a minor change to parental leave. Clegg's boasts of a drive to renewable energy rang false. His insistence on Lib Dem responsibility for gay marriage was as unfair as the Tories' attempt to claim credit for his income tax policy. It was Cameron who took the bigger risk on gay marriage.
It's all perfectly commendable, but hardly inspiring. Clegg's vision of his party is of a restrictive cog in a crappy machine. He wants it to be the least worst option for voters in marginal constituencies.
His diagnosis is as misjudged as his medicine. The problem with politics is not that people expect too much, it's that men like him offer too little. His is a tiny politics, a deeply restrictive and reactionary assessment of what politics can be. In his view, institutions and markets do what they do and politics is merely the process by which we try to alleviate their worst injustices.
He delivered his speech to an overwhelmingly white audience, behind multiple layers of security gates, in a part of Glasgow no resident of the city appears to visit. He could not have been more removed from the fire of political discussion if he tried. He could not have further insulated himself from the passion of real political debate, of the type we saw during the independence campaign.
Clegg notices the anger towards Westminster, Brussels, the media and all the other power centres, but he misreads it. Ultimately, he thinks it is mistaken. He thinks people are being ungrateful when they despise Westminster for being self-serving, or when they suspect the European parliament of being remote and corrupt, or when they become infuriated with the media for the piddling theatre they present as political reporting.
But he does not see that he is part of the establishment, just as much as Cameron and Miliband. That's not just about his upbringing – although that is a cut-and-paste, identikit establishment background. It is because of his views. He does not challenge power, he aims to, at best, restrain it slightly.
It is a dire whisper, when British politics desperately needs to hear a roar. At the moment, the only people offering radical, easy to describe change are Salmond and Farage. As Clegg rightly says, they offer nothing but division and lies. But at least they propose a programme substantial enough to match the problems of the country. Clegg barely scratches the surface and what he finds there he misinterprets.