Thursday, 20 September 2012

Apology (Not) Accepted...

The political news this morning has been doiminated by Nick Clegg's apology for the break in the pledge not to raise tuition fees. The original apology has morphed into a pretty good viral spoof on YouTube.

So was it a good idea to apologise and will said apology work?

Those in the political media and political blogsphere who have never liked Nick Clegg have naturally lined up to ridicule the whole enterprise and have enjoyed having a good prod and gloat and that's part of politics but let's not pretend their reaction is a) typical or b) significant.

For what, we should ask, is Nick Clegg apologising? Is he apologising for the policy itself or for the volte-face in November 2010? The Liberal Democrats went into the election pledging to scrap tuition fees. It was a popular policy especially in University towns and won the party a lot of votes though possibly not as many as some had hoped. After all, if the students were so enamoured of the policy, how was Oxford West lost and why weren't seats like Hull, Exeter and Newcastle gained?

The policy was in the Manifesto which is, of course, a programme for Government, not for Coalition. Had the Liberal Democrats won an overall majority, the Manifesto policy would have been enacted but they didn't so it wasn't.

The other side of the policy was it stood in isolation to the policies of the Conservative and Labour parties both of whom supported some form of financial commitment either in the form of fees or a graduate tax. Had either party won an overall majority, their policy would have been enacted and even if the Liberal Democrats had opposed it, it would have made no difference.

The Browne Commission was also working on its review of higher education funding though the interim findings had suggested it would be unlikely to recommend the scrapping of tuition fees. Nonetheless, a number of Liberal Democrat MPs and candidates signed a pledge, sponsored by the National Union of Students, to scrap tuition fees.

The final problem was that the parlous state of the public finances made a commitment to scrap tuition fees unaffordable and impractical.

Thus the policy had been undermined and its credibility destroyed by the time of the 2010 election. In the Coalition negotiations which followed, the two parties agreed to await the Browne Review's final report but when that report recommended in October 2010 the scrapping of an upper limit on fees rejecting both a Graduate Tax and the option of scrapping fees completely, the Liberal Democrats had a second political opportunity.

The Coalition Agreement had provided the Liberal Democrats with an option to abstain if they did not accept the findings of Browne and Clegg COULD have ordered his 57 MPs to abstain which would have made no difference as the proposals would have been passed anyway. Instead, the partym split with 28 supporting the Government, 21 opposed and eight abstaining.

As a Liberal Democrat Member, it was this failure to present a united front which is the greatest source of damage and concern. Had the Party abstained, of course, it would have been damaging because the pre-election pledge was to vote against any rise in fees, not simply to abstain. Yet the damage was done in the Coalition negotiations - the Party should have stood firm to its commitment to vote against a rise in fees just as it should have been firm in its commitment to STV rather than AV which had never been Liberal Democrat policy.

Of course, we know the pre-election commitment was unsustainable and the lesson of the experience on the impact of policy-making should not be lost on Liberal Democrats - if you're going to have a policy, make sure it's credible and costed. Unfunded commitments aren't just bad policy but also bad politics.

So, back to the apology. The apology should be for bad policy-making and for bad negotiation. In both respects, Clegg and the Party have been shown to be novices and have been thrown to the wolves. Yet the spology is, in itself, a start on the road to redemption. The expression that being in politics means never having to say you're sorry is just cobblers. We all have to apologise sometimes for things we say or do, why should politicians be any different?

In the end, though, Nick Clegg's actions and the abuse he is attracting mean he is fulfilling the role John Major and Gordon Brown played in their parties. He is personalising the anger and the resentment toward his Party and it will separate the man from his party and while he will end his career in vilification, the Party will move on and rebuild.

The apology is part of the vilification, the personalisation, the separation and the rebuilding of the Liberal Democrats. He's done the right thing though no one will thank him for it and that makes the apology more significant than its detractors believe.

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