Thoughts on politics and life from a liberal perspective

Monday, 24 September 2012

Interview with Nick Clegg - Part One

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. Here is the first part of the interview where we discussed the coalition's legacy, pension funding for mortgages and a particular hobby-horse of mine, drugs policy. My questions are in bold. The rest are Nick's words:

Thank you for agreeing to see me Nick

Not at all!

If we could start with a question kind of about the future but a little bit about the past too. With Lords reform now dead, what will be the coalition’s historic legacy do you think?

Oh I think the coalition’s historic legacy will be, firstly being a coalition! For those of us like you and I who are interested in politics being done differently and moving our sclerotic political culture forward, don’t forget that showing people multi-party politics works and that you don’t always just have to have either the blue team or the red team in charge is arguably more important than any one piece of legislation in terms of advancing the kind of politics that we believe in. Plural, evidence based, reasonable, where people set aside their differences in the national interest. I think that is massive and I don’t think that can be exaggerated. I think sometimes as Liberal Democrats we need to remind ourselves that however much people might be irritated by the antics of the Tory right and however much we might want to govern on our own actually proving that coalition works remains a massive strategic priority. And you know there are other things we are doing to change politics. The Fixed Term Parliament Bill which I think sometimes people assume that that’s just a small little ball; it’s not, it’s quite a big thing. We’ve been campaigning on that for generations and that actually changes politics quite significantly. I do think as a legacy we will have proved that politics can be done differently. That’s the first thing.

The second big thing is that we will be the government that has had to cope with the fallout of the biggest economic crisis this country has arguably faced for decades. I don’t think it is possible to exaggerate quite how serious this implosion was in the heart of our economy back in 2008. It’s not any old recession, I mean that was a complete breakdown, a sort of seizure in the heart, in the kind of transmission mechanism of our country, our capitalist system.

Vince Cable has described it as being like a heart attack.

Yes, it is very similar. The banking system is like a heart. It pumps money round the system. It’s like a heart pumping blood around a body and it had stopped. I sometimes think that people who say “Wellll, you should do this plan or that plan”…

The idea that you can recover from a heart attack of that severity with one policy or one wave of the magic wand. I think history will judge us very kindly in that if we hadn’t stepped up to the plate to provide a government that could pull us back from the precipice, which is where we were teetering back in 2010. If we can show by 2015, not that we’ve sorted everything out but that we have basically pointed the economy… by the way not simply putting Humpty Dumpty back together again, but actually rewiring the economy on a different basis, I think we will have done a great thing because we will have not only fixed the problem but we will have learnt the lessons from the past. By the way this agenda includes really, really building on green growth and not having this ludicrous stand-off between people who say you have to have growth and those who say you have to go green as if the two things are separate. They’re not. They go hand in hand.

And the third big thing for me is to make sure we don’t only repair the economy but that we also at the same time seek to unblock society to make it fairer in the very specific sense of giving people the opportunity to get ahead, live out their dreams and fulfil their talents. A liberal view of life is not one which wants to flatten and homogenise people but which wants to release potential in each and every individual. That’s why I place such emphasis on tax reforms so that people on low pay can keep more money. On our early years reforms so that two and three and four year olds get more support than they have ever done before. On the pupil premium, on making sure that we cherish vocational education just as much as university education. These are things which you would struggle to put some of it on a leaflet by 2015 but is what I think liberalism is all about. We live in a highly segregated society where privilege communicates itself across generations and where disadvantage does as well. Much more than in other liberally democratic developed nations.

So those are really the three things: changing politics for the good, fixing the economy but rewiring it for good and creating a really rich sense of fairness about how society works.

Just picking up that final point in the context of the announcement about the potential partial funding of mortgages from people’s parent’s and grandparent’s pensions which you made yesterday. Some people have been talking about it and I was just asked to discuss it on the radio. The question I’ve been asked and I am wondering myself is, isn’t this only going to help rich families basically? How is this progressive and how is it going to help poorer people?

Firstly you’re quite right that it doesn’t help everybody. It only helps those people who have got assets in pension pots which they can mobilise as a lump sum to offer as a guarantee to mortgage lenders so that your child or grandchild can take out a deposit. So it’s unashamedly for people with that asset. People who have got a £40,000 pension pot but have got very little disposable income, they don’t feel very rich. They may have very little in their current account and by no stretch of the imagination could they be called rich, yet they are people if you like in the middle or even low-to-middle income bracket who just so happen to have this pension pot which they wish to mobilise for the benefit of their children. So it’s not for everybody, you’re quite right. It is for people who have got a particular asset in the form of a pension pot. So it that sense it’s not for everybody. But it helps a set of people. The rough calculations from Steve Webb are that it could be made available to around 250,000 people in this country. Clearly not all of them will do it, but even if a small proportion do that’s still helping thousands and thousands of youngsters and helping them get a home that they otherwise wouldn’t get. It’s not a catch-all solution.

So you see it as part of a basket of measures to help?

Of course.

I know there are lots of other things being done as well but particularly when it comes to helping people get a house, or get a residence (it doesn’t always have to be a house). I used to rent for many years actually and one time I just had to get out of my house within two months because the landlord decided he wanted to let it to his son. I had no real security of tenure beyond a couple of months, I had to go. It was very frustrating and I just wonder what measures you think would be appropriate to help in that area.

I think what we need, above all frankly is more homes. More affordable homes, more social homes and more private homes for rent. There are a lot of people in the lower income bracket, not the lowest who rely increasingly on private rented accommodation and that’s why, much though all the press coverage of the announcements I and the Prime Minister made recently about the housing package were all about the temporary removal of the restrictions on extending your conservatory. Actually by far the biggest thing, something that’s never happened before which is that we broke the taboo in the treasury that says “Oooh, you can’t use the government’s balance sheet to offer as a sort of insurance policy” we offered £10 billion worth of guarantees to the registered social landlords and the house-builders who build housing for private rent. And they are telling us that this is going to be a massive shot in the arm for the provision of housing that you say people rely upon. Particularly those people who can’t get onto the property ladder as owners outright, or are often in transition in their professional or family life.

I wanted to ask you about perhaps a slightly controversial issue, drugs policy. Barack Obama recently said that drugs policy “is a legitimate topic for debate”. I think sometimes in the US it’s closed down as an issue but he’s clearly receptive to it. David Cameron himself called for a debate on legalisation of drugs 10 years ago when he was part of a select committee and signed up to the report that said that. There are also serious moves taking place in Latin America along these lines, I’m sure you’re aware of them. The world is moving on so is it possible that the coalition could do something on this issue? Could perhaps make some changes in a direction that would help reduce harms caused by drugs?

Firstly, I’m at the Liberal Democrat end of this debate in that I start from an assumption that the so-called War on Drugs is a spectacular failure and that we’ve got to be driven by evidence, not prejudice nor dogma…

Do you think that this government is receptive to that though?

Well I was going to come to that. I actually think that if you look at what we’re doing as a government in the drugs strategy, published in the first few months of the government’s life… Would it be the drugs strategy that a Liberal Democrat would write? Probably not but there is a lot in there, particularly on remedial support for people who have long term drug addictions which is very, very promising indeed. If you listen to the stuff that Ken Clarke was promoting as Justice Secretary and even Chris Grayling with his reputation for a being a “hard man of the right” actually I think there is now a cross-party consensus that we cannot simply carry on warehousing people in our prisons who have very serious mental health or drug conditions and not deal with those conditions themselves. So I think that’s a change. However, do I think there might be a case to look at this again? Well of course you’ve got to look at this, over and over again. We don’t have the answer to something which is a scourge in society.

But even measures like for example changing the categorisation of cannabis which was moved from B to C and then back to B. Cannabis is widely perceived as being a lot less harmful than something like alcohol.


The fact that this government, and not just this government, every government for many decades seems to largely ignore the evidence on this issue. Do you think there is any possibility of the government moving in a more progressive direction on something like cannabis? Just to put it into context as well there was a recent study that demonstrated fairly unequivocally that children under the age of 18 can seriously damage the development of their brains. But after the age of 18, there isn’t really that risk there. I’m not saying there is not risk with cannabis after 18 but that particular one is not there. So I thought it might be more appropriate to legalise cannabis but make it so that children cannot get hold of it in the same way as currently with alcohol, rigorously enforce that and therefore send a message that is evidence based regarding that particular drug. The drugs laws at the moment are not taken very seriously by some, perhaps because they’re not based very much in evidence, you know “All drugs are as bad as each other”. People know that is not true.

Basically I agree with your assumption that politicians should, in as much as it is possible for politicians to do this, refrain from seeking to make unilateral decisions, which of course need to be informed by what the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs say, and what the police say and others. That’s certainly a principle that, I’m not going to pretend is always met in practise but is certainly one that I am personally very committed to.

The second thing I would say is that you are quite right, there are an increasing number of bodies who are revisiting this debate in the round. So for instance the Home Affairs Select Committee has been looking at this now for a long time and I think is due to report in December. I will be reading that very, very closely indeed. If a cross-party select committee revisits some of these issues and urges us to open them up as a government, I think the onus is on us, not them to explain why we shouldn’t. Because every time people look at this issue on a cross-party basis in a considered fashion, it seems to me over several years now including in the committee that David Cameron once sat, actually the advice is for radical action towards a more evidence based approach. I will look out for what the HASC has with quite an open mind.

You may not be able to answer this question because I am sure you can’t read David Cameron’s mind but do you think that he would be receptive to such a debate? He certainly seemed to be 10 years ago and I wonder what’s changed.

I’ve no idea. I haven’t talked to him about it. I strongly suspect the Conservative Party as it has been for a long time is quite divided on this issue. You do have a liberal wing in the Conservative Party that is actually quite thoughtful and liberal and not hidebound by prejudice or fear of the Daily Mail headlines which is prepared to be free-thinking about this, driven by the evidence. Then you have another wing of the Conservative Party which you know, just wants to grab the headlines and appear tough even if it doesn’t actually help youngsters who are addicted and it doesn’t actually help reduce crime. Like so many things in the Conservative Party, there is this constant battle for its soul. We are lucky enough that we operate in the Liberal Democrats on this issue from a pretty calm, considered, reasonable and evidence based approach.

Tomorrow I will post the remainder of my interview with Nick 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 Prime Minister's Questions!

You can now read the second part of the interview here.

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