Monday, November 19, 2007

Nick Clegg - potentially a great leader of our party

Václav Havel, one of Nick's heroes

First of all, I'll repeat what I wrote yesterday:

I've just come back from an interview with Nick Clegg by a LibDems bloggers' panel. It was a big privilege to be part of the panel. Thanks very much to Nick for his time, to the Millennium Elephant for presiding over it and to his Daddy Richard for organising it.

I was lucky enough to sit next to Nick and see him answering the questions at close quarters. He is remarkably impressive - extremely articulate, very knowledgeable and with an obvious passion - impatience even - for the LibDems to do better. He has an interest in, and great passion for, a very wide range of subjects.

Now that I have been part of the bloggers' panels interviewing both candidates, I can confirm that, as a party, we are remarkably fortunate in having two absolutely first class leadership candidates on offer.

So, the interview. First of all, the highlight was having a cuddle with Linda Jack. Secondly, the next highlight was hearing Nick Clegg say the phrase "Flying Bat's Fart". It was also a delight to meet Richard Allan, who is a fellow IT industry worker. It's always good to swap notes with someone about the PDP-11. What a great product that was! It paid the first 20% of my mortgage!

James has written a brilliant write-up here. Mary Reid's write-up is here. Linda's is here. Fluffy is here. Oh, and by the way, Alex's excellent pre-interview post is here.

Richard started by asking Nick what he meant by getting us out of our comfort zone. Once I had prompted for examples and Nick came back to the subject at the end, Nick's answer was extremely good. He basically gave the example of immigration. Lots of party poopers told him to leave off it. But he raised it big time and spearheaded the party's plan to stop long-term illegal immigrants being a drain on police and Home Office resources, and get them paying tax.

Excellent example, hugely liberal and the sort of thing which meets a priority subject for the people, rather than a priority for party activists. Nick also gave the example of control of output to the media. Put more effort into disseminating the policies once agreed.

It seemed that what he was moving towards is a sort of "media grid" which has worked very well for Labour (when they were in "opposition" from 1992 to 2001) and the Conservatives under Cameron. The Cameron media grid strategy works so well you can almost see it, from reading the press. MONDAY: RAPE, TUESDAY: IMMIGRATION, WEDNESDAY: GREEN ISSUES.

So hear hear to what Nick was saying. We need more of a ruthless control of our media and public output.

James asked about some memo or Guardian article written in 2005. Good grief, I am so tired of all this claptrap about history (not a reflection on James' question choice, by the way, as ever he is a model of intelligence). I just want to move on.

Linda asked about school vouchers. Good for her. Nick's answer put the whole thing to bed, for me. He didn't mention the word "voucher" in the disputed interview with the Kilt-wearer's Gazette or whatever it was. He believes in a process modelled on the Dutch system, the pupil premium, which, most emphatically, goes to the school, not the parent. Brilliant. Thank goodness we got that out of the way.

And on the question of health insurance Nick was, as James has said, a walking textbook on the issue of public service reform. Indeed, he has written a text book on the issue. Again, look to Europe - better outcomes is what we need.

Nick was emphatic about the need for real local democracy in the health service. By that, he means elected health managers at local level. He said roughly: 'There is no point in handing power from unelected people in Whitehall and giving it to unelected people in local communities'. Good point.

I was particularly intrigued by Nick's idea of giving "consolidated budgets" to local patients' groups - this could be done with certain groups such as mental health patients or old people. Sounds exciting.

He quoted the works of the thinktank "In Control" and Charlie Leadbetter as one of the models of his thinking.

'Don't stop at devolving the mechanics - put people in the driving seats'

What he is talking about, he said, is not health insurance but being endlessly imaginative with public services. 'There is no place for another party in the UK which defends the status quo - restlessness with the situation at present just isn't good enough'.

My goodness me. This man is a firebrand on public service reform! Wow! (That's a genuine "Wow" by the way, not a sarcastic "wow" like in my previous post! ;-) )

Mary asked about local government and got an impassioned response about "humanising" councils - 'don't stop devolution at the doors of the town hall'. Make local government personal to the people.

Alex. Bless him. He always gets in his question about the monarchy. Right on, brother! Power to the People! Freedom for Tooting! Alex asked: "Don't you agree that the top job should not be kept to one family?" Nick's answer was: 'I would if I thought it was the top job'. Good answer. It's very powerful in symbolic terms, but he is less anxious - the monarchy has evolved bit by bit. On the whole it is "fairly benign and harmless".

Alex also asked about paying lip service to individual freedoms - what would Nick ban and unban. Unbanning was easy - his Freedom Bill. Banning, more tricky. The Politics Show?, I asked. No, but 'some blogs' he suggested 'but let's not go there'. What blogs could he possibly mean? He's not thinking of banning Lindyloo's Muze for crimes against spelling and font usage, is he? Shurely not.

No, it was advertising on kid's TV channels. Good answer. He mentioned the "Tiny Pop Channel". Quick google. Ah yes, here it is. He said that his kids watch it and every 15 minutes there is 4 minutes of advertising - exposure to heavy-handed commercial forces at age three. If we are to protect privacy by doing away with the "molestation" of ID cards, then we should protect three year olds from commercial forces and encroachment on their childhood.

Good answer. Except that although these adverts get kids talking, in my experience, you rarely end up having to buy, through pester power, the things they advertise. My little girl came up to me aged four and said "Daddy, do you know that you can consolidate all your debts into one easily payable loan?". Yes, dear, if only I had debt. The advertising on kids' channels is often directed at the parents who are watching with their kids.

Alex asked about drugs. Nick's answer was typically inventive and stimulating. Reform the categorisation and include both legal and illegal drugs. An independent body to set the classifications with legislation where appropriate. Alcohol and nicotine should be in the classifications somewhere. Base judgments on harm levels and scientific evidence. Like James and the others, the words "Ben Goldacre" were on the tip of my tongue on the subject of cannabis.

But it was on the subject of foreign policy that Nick really started pressing all my buttons to an almost embarrassing degree. I needed to borrow the communal LibDem drip tray from Linda.

I paraphrase his words. We need to get away from Atlanticism versus Europeanism. It's old hat and a dead end. Atlanticism is based on a complete misreading of the future interests of the UK. The US star is in the descendant (strangely enough my copy of that day's FT lay in the corner of the room. It said that the dollar is falling so much that Opec is considering doing oil deals in another currency and that the Euro is strengthening - so Nick's comment was all too topical). We should not be a "vassal state" of the Pentagon. We need to stop that nonsense. We need to spell it out. It is a "conceit" that we are a bridge between the US and Europe. ("Hurrah" say I). It's not true. Throwing all our eggs in the US basket has costs.

Where Nick really got worked up - absolutely rightly, in my view - was on "Son of Star Wars" - 'announced in a written statement to the House of Commons Library on 25th July.' One wonders who was there at the time...a librarian pining for the sun outside and Frank Field working on another treatise on Social Security?

And look at the mess that has caused. Putin has gone - literally - ballistic and is looking to put ballistic missiles in Kaliningrad. It's an enclave of the EU - it's between Poland and Lithuania. Bit of a weird place - like Gibraltar in many ways. Michael Palin went there recently.

Son of Star Wars is technically unproven and is destabilising relationships with Russia and others.

People in Washington don't give a "flying bat's fart" if the Russians are playing with gas and oil and ballistic missiles because it's not in their backyard.

Nick mentioned that the major achievement of his lifetime was expanding the EU into Eastern Europe.

He also mentioned that a highlight for him was meeting one of his heroes, Václav Havel. I was privileged to visit Prague Castle, the home of the Czech President, in the last few days of Havel's period of office as President. They had erected a huge red neon heart next to the Castle. So, Nick's citing of Havel as one of his heroes meant a lot to me. A playwright who helped to found a nation.

I digress. Nick said that reaching out the EU to North Africa, Turkey and the Middle East is the next big, great project. Not necessarily through full membership, by the way, bear in mind that Turkey already has a formal trade relationship with the EU. As a great fan of the Egyptians (as opposed to Mubarak's regime) and the Turkish, I am all for this.

Nick pointed out that both Brown and Cameron are complete NUMPTIES (forgive the veering into Fluffy-speak) on foreign affairs - no languages apart from English, no real friends overseas except US mates. Brown holidays in Cape Cod, always, except when he spends ten minutes in Dorset.

Cameron is amazingly flaky on foreign affairs, Nick said. Just look at his ridiculous promise to leave the EPP at the Tory leadership election.

James asked about diversity and Nick's academy idea. It's a great idea - a permanent body in the party to promote diversity in our elected ranks. Great. Nick enticingly mentioned "one and a half donors" (half a donor is presumably a bit like half a bee) who he has got in the wings, keen to give money if he is elected leader. Shame they won't give the money whoever is elected. The academy won't happen without the money, says Nick.

Nick mentioned several times that the first 3-4 months of the new leadership is crucial. But as Alex has mentioned, we never get a new leader bounce.

Last question: Which James Bond actor would you like to be? Richard only mentioned three choices for some reason. Nick said Sean Connery. Good answer.

So, all in all, a very exciting interview. One cautionary note, if I may be allowed one after extolling Nick's virtues with such elaboration. He needs to metaphorically buy a large packet of "chill pills" and keep it in his top breast pocket. At the slightest sign of any heightened pulse at a hostile question, he needs to whip out a "chill pill" and stick it under his tongue. Straight into the bloodstream. Calm, Calm, Calm. There, there, there.

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