Caveat: I’ve never listened to a speech delivered by Nick Clegg to the party faithful before. I have listened to a couple of speeches he’s done as Deputy Prime Minister, but never one delivered in his capacity as leader of the Liberal Democrats.
I did watch Clegg’s keynote speech delivered earlier today at the Lib Dem party conference. My caveat above is only to make it clear that I have no point of comparison against which to measure this year’s speech. I don’t know how previous speeches have gone down, during the years when the Lib Dems probably thought, if they were being honest with themselves, that being in power wasn’t going to happen any time soon. I don’t know if Clegg was realistic in those speeches, or if he spoke as if there was an actual chance that the Lib Dems might win the next election. I can imagine that it’s a difficult position to be in, leader of the perennial third party – you have to act as if you might really make it to government one day, when deep down, you know that’s not very likely to happen.
But it did happen, and the Lib Dems are actually part of government. Perhaps much to the dismay of some, since it involves working with the much-hated Tories, but nonetheless, there they are. I must say that I was quite impressed with Clegg’s address, and rather surprised that the BBC’s Nick Robinson described it as “largely defensive“. I didn’t find it defensive. I thought Clegg conveyed a degree of maturity and responsibility, appropriate to his new role as Deputy PM.
His speech did focus on driving home the Lib Dem contributions to the Coalition and its policies. Perhaps that is why Robinson saw it defensive. Clegg knows many in the party aren’t happy with some of the policy decisions the Coalition has taken, and fear that they’ll either be swallowed up by the Tories or pay a heavy price at the polls in the next election, so I can understand why he’d make a point of stressing how Lib Dem values are prevailing and will continue to prevail. He needed to try to reassure party members, and I thought he did a fairly decent job of it. “Hold our nerve and we will have changed British politics for good”, was one line, another was “we’ve always been the face of change, now we’re the agent of change.”
What impressed me the most, however, was how relatively non-partisan the speech was. He said nice things about David Cameron (“he showed he could think beyond his party and help build a new kind of politics”), but did pledge to ensure that the Coalition would never repeat the Conservative excesses of the Thatcher era. He made a case for coalition government, saying it can be “braver, fairer and bolder than one party acting alone”. This coalition is the “right government for right now”. The BBC, which was live-streaming the speech, also had a liveblogging feed set up. Brian Wheeler commented: “This is very sober stuff. No jokes, no ritual bashing of other parties and definitely no crowing about being in government” which is exactly what I’ve been trying to convey here.
He was most critical of Labour, both past and future: he attacked them for not taking full advantage of huge majorities and a strong economy to bring true, progressive change to the UK, and almost pleaded (I thought) with the party to be a more effective, constructive opposition. But he could have been far more partisan, and perhaps in the past, he was.
Again, I didn’t find this to be a defensive speech. It was sober, yes, even humble. Did it succeed in quelling the doubts and fears of many in his party? I don’t know. Perhaps many were expecting a far more partisan speech, but Clegg’s in a difficult position. Labour is the only real target he has, since he can’t really rip into the Tories anymore, other than to remind them that the Lib Dems will be their Jiminy Cricket, but even when it came to his hits on Labour, perhaps because the party’s in the midst of a leadership race, he didn’t hit as hard as he could have.
Of course, I’m not a party member, and have no vested interest in what happens to the Lib Dems in 2015, so perhaps my assessment is more positive. However, I do think that even as a party member, I would have been quite satisfied with this speech.