Thursday, 30 April 2009

Commons vote on the Ghurkas: Nick Clegg Finds His Voice

Yesterday’s Commons vote was a well-deserved victory for the Gurkhas. There was another winner: the Liberal Democrat leader, Nick Clegg. In his sixteen months as leader, the media has largely ignored Nick. He has struggled, for various reasons, to project a clear narrative explaining why people should vote Lib Dem. Consequently, if the polls are to be believed, most voters have remained either unaware or ambivalent about him.

The world may not have exactly shifted on its axis today but it sure looks a little kinder to Nick. Peter Riddell of The Times said that:

“Even the Major administration was never beaten on a Liberal Democrat motion: government backbenchers normally dislike voting with the Opposition on their chosen debates so the outcome is a real coup for Nick Clegg – and should boost his standing as a leader – since he has been pressing the issue for some time.”

The Independent’s Andrew Grice hailed “a double victory [and] a good day’s work for Clegg”. The Guardian made a similar observation.

Why the sudden rush to praise? Let’s start with the simple answers. Nick was pursuing a topical, highly emotive issue which was also being championed by a notable celebrity, Joanna Lumley. The treatment of the Gurkhas is a very personal story and we could see them outside the Commons on tv last night. And it all plays into the prevailing narrative about the Labour government –out of touch and on the way out of office.

All true, but there’s more to it. Nick’s soundbite from PMQs yesterday could hardly have framed it better:

"Can [the prime minister] not see that there is a simple moral principle at stake, and it is this: if someone is prepared to die for this country, surely they deserve to live in this country?"

Therein lies the real reason why he is getting a good press. Nick stood up for “a simple moral principle”. By pursuing for months the plight of the Gurkhas and taking action yesterday in the Commons, Nick embodied a liberal narrative.

Nick’s experience is very similar to those of previous Liberal Democrat leaders, who made their mark by upholding particular principles, usually based on the party’s humanist and internationalist values. By his own admission, Paddy Ashdown was not a success in his early months as leader. I was not living here at the time, but by all accounts he found his voice by taking a stand on the issue of passports for the Hong Kong Chinese. Paddy embodied his narrative and reinforced it when he took a stand over Bosnia and visited the country, as leader.

Fast forward to 2003 and Charles Kennedy’s decision to oppose the war in Iraq. The Liberal Democrats are not, and never have been, a pacifist party. But we do believe in the UN and the international rule of law.

The issues involved are not identical but they have two key things in common. First, the government of the day had fallen well short (catastrophically so over Iraq) and the official Opposition had failed to recognise what was at stake. Second, the Liberal Democrats were able to define ourselves, through our leaders, on what were essentially moral questions.

No, this is not about playing politics. Many people have now forgotten that Charles Kennedy’s stance over Iraq carried great political risks at the time. Some of us remember that Tories called him “Charlie Chamberlain” across the Commons, just as they once sneered at Paddy when he took a stand over the Balkans. And, as Peter Riddell noted, Nick has form on the way the Gurkhas have been treated. No one could doubt that his sense of outrage is genuine.

My point is that Nick is at last getting some positive recognition, in his own right, for the correct reasons. Voters, like the commentators quoted above, may be more inclined to give him a second look. Nor should we imagine that every issue in politics can or should be reduced to a “simple moral principle” and accepted as such.)

Above all, Nick’s championing of the Ghurkas, and the reaction to it, has given us a glimpse of another aspect of the Liberal Democrats’ real narrative; how others see us, as well as how we see ourselves. Without falling into the trap of being a “pious party”, or over-simplifying hard questions, we stand up for those who politics has left behind and demand that they should be fairly treated; and for fulfilling Britain’s moral obligations as a country. But, as Paddy and Charles both found, that’s just part of the story . . .

No comments: