THE BLOG

Isn't It Time We Forgave Nick Clegg?

22/01/2015 17:21 | Updated 24 March 2015

The General Election campaign is starting to heat up and, as it does, commentators increasingly can't agree on what's likely to happen. This is the most volatile election for decades and for the first time since the 1930s neither of the big two parties are managing to poll even above 30%.

In the midst of all the uncertainty there is only one point on which everyone seems united; that the Lib Dems are going to get a drubbing. This is obvious both in the polls, where they are routinely below both Ukip and the Greens, and in the news cycle where 'the fall of the Lib Dems' has become a routine talking point.

So why is there so much animosity towards what was previously the third largest political party in the UK? Well, bizarrely, a lot of it seems to stem back to a personal dislike for one man and a single broken promise: Nick Clegg and the infamous Tuition Fees pledge.

I've not always been a massive fan of the guy myself, but really, isn't it time we all got over this? Or, at least, looked at the bigger picture?

To me, the Tuition Fees rise always seemed inevitable. A position which is supported by the fact that no party has made a serious promise to repeal the increases should they win the General Election. After all, in an election as tight as this surely one of the parties would have attempted to woo student voters with such a promise, were it within their power to provide it. Only Labour have muttered about 'discussing a cut, but not now' and that level of enthusiasm should tell you all you need to know about the prospects of a repeal.

Quite simply, following Labour's push to have at least 50% of the population enrolled in higher education during the Blair/Brown era, there were always going to be calls to increase costs. It's very simple economics; the demand for a limited resource (University Places) was skyrocketing so prices were going to increase to match. Indeed, when the decision on what to charge was left to Universities, many chose to charge the highest rates.

While an argument could be made that Government funding to Universities should increase to match this demand, there were, and are, few voices seriously supporting a raise in taxes to help students. In fact, much of the public was dead set against such a move.

Yet despite the cash pull of the Universities themselves, and the reluctance of the public purse to meet demand, all the ire for the whole episode seems reserved for Nick Clegg, who pledged in 2010 to not vote for any increase in fees and was unable to follow it through. Should he have made that pledge? Absolutely not, it was a foolish thing to do and almost entirely provoked by pressure from the traditionally student-heavy Lib Dem base, does this make him the worst of our modern politicians? I would say no.

In fact, Nick Clegg is probably the modern politician who seems to try the hardest to engage with the public; despite the almost constantly negative responses. He hosts a weekly radio show, makes frequent public appearances (even set to appear on Channel 4's The Last Leg to try and convince at least one undecided voter directly) and has been a vocal critic of the delays in the Chilcot Report.

He is also the only party lead to make a principled, and public, stand against Ukip and Nigel Farage in a series of debates. While I disagree with his overwhelmingly pro-EU position, I think he should be applauded in not joining David Cameron and Ed Milliband in a race to some Xenophobic bottom on the topic of immigration.

Even if we exclude his personal efforts, I would argue that the few bright spots of current government policy have largely come from Mr. Clegg and the Lib Dem half of the coalition. The increased ceiling of tax-free earnings (a long-standing Lib-Dem policy) has meant millions of people, including me, are a little better off each year. The Lib Dems, in the form of Vince Cable and Nick Clegg, also provided the only real pushes for regional devolution, a serious issue for people outside the South East, before the Scottish Referendum made it a hot-button issue.

Even some well-intentioned Conservative policies, such as the Marriage Equality Act, are unlikely to have survived back-bench resistance without coalition support.

Ultimately, I can argue over policy points and achievements until we finally reach May and the votes are counted. However the true legacy of Nick Cleggs decisions, good and bad, won't be clear until after the election. Because he did compromise, he abandoned pledges he couldn't keep and decided to support a party that the largest share of voters had gotten behind and because of that compromise we have had five years of stable government at a time that the UK desperately needed it.

If the polls are anything to go by, we may soon find ourselves missing that stability.