Anyone in the vicinity of the Liberal Democrat conference last week would have been able to put their ear to the ground and hear the rumble of a statement of the blindingly obvious approaching. Here it comes; leader Nick Clegg found the decision to raise university tuition fees ‘heart wrenching.’ Golly; who’d have thought it eh?
In his keynote speech to the party conference last Wednesday afternoon he went on to assure delegates just how ‘tough’ being in government had been over the past year. It had, he said, ‘brought tough decisions’ like that pesky problem of campaigning against a rise in tuition fees only to backtrack later for example, and he had seen the anger this generated amongst the electorate saying, ‘I felt it, I have learnt from it and I know how much damage it has done us as a party.;
Referring to the party’s tumultuous year in government Mr Clegg said ‘I suspect none of us predicted how tough it would be,’ he went on to say the Lib Dems had ‘lost support, we’ve lost councillors and we lost a referendum. I know how painful it has been to face anger and frustration on the doorstep.’
So not much of a year then eh Nick; but never mind because the party faithful can be assured their leader is committed to doing what it ‘right’ rather than what is simply ‘easy’; taking the long hard road that for all its trials leads if not to the sunlit uplands then at least to a better and happier place where clichés can roam free. In a neat little rhetorical question he asked ‘some of you may have wondered will it all be worth it in the end? It will be.’
As proof Nick Clegg pointed to the party’s success in winning concessions on Tory plans to reform the NHS and over human rights. There is, of course, some truth in this, Andrew Lansley did ‘pause’ in his plans to reform the NHS in deference to the junior partner in the coalition raising concerns; before carrying on pretty much as before.
The Liberal Democrats do deserve some praise for sticking to their non-negotiable commitment to protecting the Human Rights Act, which they, rightly, love and the more foam flecked wing of the Conservative Party hate with a passion. As Nick Clegg put it ‘Let me say something about the Human Rights Act; it is here to stay;’ quite so, but it may be transformed into a UK Bill of Rights and what position will his party take then? I fear more soul searching may follow.
As conference speeches go there was nothing remarkable about Nick Clegg’s performance, he didn’t use notes and spoke ‘in the round’, meaning at any one time he had his back to half the audience. Quite brave of him when you come to think about it since he is not well loved by his fellow Liberals just now.
It was all though just a little on the bland side; a bit meh, as the teenagers might put it. In fact you could say the same thing for the whole conference. There was none of the simmering resentment you can expect when Labour convene in Liverpool next week, nobody dropped a serious clanger; as I said, a bit meh really.
We did, I suppose learn a little more about Nick Clegg, he seems to be rather like a sort of needy university lecturer. Trying his hardest to be down with the kids, an authority figure but not a stuffed shirt; you can just imagine him calling his students ‘guys’ and them mocking him mercilessly once his back was turned.
There were, of course the usual attempts to be controversial that were, again as usual, utterly contrived. Vince Cable had a pop at the bankers; Energy Secretary Chris Huhne laid into greedy energy companies. Needless to say the delegates lapped it up, mostly because it must have seemed comfortingly like old times, the not too long ago golden days when they could shake their fists in righteous indignation safe in the knowledge they would never have to solve any of the country’s problems.
It was all rather sad really, there were no big policy announcements; they’ll all have been hoarded for the speeches David Cameron and George Osborne make to the Tory conference the week after next. Instead it seemed more like a dismal trade fair than a brave attempt by an embattled party to forge a distinct identity for itself.
If you were the hypothetical activist Nick Clegg imagined asking him or herself if it had all been worth it; the public animosity, the wholesale selling off of long held principles, the near certainty that the 2015 election will bring a return to political oblivion; the answer on the strength of this sad fandango of a conference would have to be that it hasn’t.