NICK Clegg hit out at the politics of “blame, grievance and fear” of the SNP and Ukip and the “bitter tribalism” of Labour and the Conservatives, as he fired the starting gun on his party’s campaign to remain in government.
The Deputy Prime Minister said the Liberal Democrats were a “party of the head and heart” in a passionate defence of their role in the coalition government with the Conservatives over the past four and a half years.
Mr Clegg said the Lib Dems would not “seek to distance” the party from the coalition’s record and blamed the austerity drive following economic collapse on the last Labour government.
However, in the closing speech to his party’s conference in Glasgow yesterday – the final annual gathering of the party faithful ahead of next year’s election – he warned that the Conservatives governing alone would “cut services to the bone” .
The Lib Dem leader went on to accuse David Cameron of a “self-serving plan” to boost Tory support with his plan to ban Scottish MPs voting on England-only issues in the House of Commons and said Labour wanted to “ignore the problem”.
However, Mr Clegg singled out First Minister Alex Salmond and Ukip leader Nigel Farage as politicians who wanted to promote the “politics of fear” through nationalism.
The Lib Dems suffered heavy losses to the SNP at the last Scottish Parliament elections in 2011, when the party saw its Holyrood representation reduced to five MSPs. Mr Clegg’s party also lost 11 of its 12 seats in the European Parliament in this May’s elections, when Ukip made sweeping gains across the UK with 10 per cent of the vote. It also won the party’s first MEP in Scotland.
Mr Clegg accused Ukip and the SNP of offering “false comfort of grievance” as he attacked the Nationalist campaign during last month’s referendum.
The Deputy Prime Minister claimed Labour and the Conservatives were also promoting a divisive style politics, warning that Mr Cameron wanted deeper cuts and that Ed Miliband an increase in debt levels.
He said: “Something very un-British is taking root in our politics. A growing movement of people who want to pull us apart. Salmond, Farage, the bitter tribalism of left and right. Worried about your job? Your business? Your children’s future? Your way of life? No matter, just blame Europe, Brussels, foreigners, immigrants, the English, the South, professional politicians, Westminster, big business, anybody claiming benefits, even onshore wind farms.
The Lib Dem leader accused the Conservatives of attempting to hijack the cross-party plan to extend devolution following last month’s No vote and Labour of failing to get to grips with the issue of Scottish MPs voting on laws that only affect England such as the NHS and schools.
“Within hours of the historic Scotland vote, when we were meant to be cracking on with the plan for further devolution – a plan that this party will not see hijacked, or diluted, or delayed – they were at it again.
“The Tories trying to impose an entirely self-serving system of Tory votes for English laws on the House of Commons, in order to give more say to their MPs.
“Labour ignoring the problem altogether in order to give more say to their MPs. Well they can both forget it: whatever reforms we do will be fair and right by the British people, and that will be guaranteed by our MPs.”
He claimed his party had been responsible for the UK’s economic recovery and for cutting taxes for low earners, but blamed the Conservatives for austerity measures.
“You can pick a Labour Party which has learnt no lessons from the past and which – left to its own devices – will jeopardise the economy all over again. You can pick a Conservative Party which doesn’t share your values and which – left to its own devices – will make poor people poorer while it keeps cutting away at the services everybody needs.”
He said the Lib Dems’ record made it fit to remain in government. “Our mission now is to give people a reason to reject bitter, us-and-them politics… To do that, we have to provide the one thing that so many people across Britain still lack and crave: opportunity. We mustn’t allow coalition to be caricatured either. This government has provided the country with the political stability without which the economic recovery and hundreds of thousands of new jobs would never have materialised.”
An SNP spokesman said: “The Lib Dems are prepared to do anything to prop up their Tory allies and dance to Ukip’s Euro-hostile tune, which is why they are at 5 per cent in the polls in Scotland.”
David Coburn, Ukip’s Scottish MEP, claimed that the Lib Dems would “cease to exist” north and south of the Border and were now an “irrelevance”.
David Maddox: Nick’s bird of paradise loses its colour after courtship display with the Tories
AN image often tells the true story, and so it proved to be with the background for Nick Clegg’s speech and his party’s bitter experience of coalition.
The Liberal Democrat bird flew in from the darkness on the left, entered a yellow furnace centre stage and emerged again on the right to disappear back into the black void. Clegg’s speech was that of a man tempered and politically scarred by the flames of power-sharing with the Tories.
“We may no longer be untainted, as we were by the freedom of opposition, I may no longer be the fresh-faced outsider,” he told the small gathering of party members who dragged themselves up to Glasgow for the last heave before next year’s general election. According to party organisers, there were 2,500 of them at the conference, but in the vast empty spaces of the Scottish Exhibition and Conference Centre there seemed far fewer.
What he didn’t mention was that nobody says any more “I agree with Nick”, as they did in those heady days before the general election in 2010.
But there was the inevitably ongoing apology to students over tuition fees. “Sorry” did not feature as a word, but regret was there over the policy that “tainted” the party and has left it distrusted and in single figures in the opinion polls.
“Politicians of every party have fed this growing cynicism by exaggerating and overstating what governments can do,” he said. “We’ve all done it. I’ve been there. When I apologised for the disappointment and anger caused by our inability to scrap tuition fees, I knew we could never, ever make that mistake again.”
His appeal beyond the hall of Lib Dems to the country outside was that you need the Lib Dems to stop the Conservatives hurting the poor or Labour trashing the economy.
It was also a speech about beer and scoffing – as in the threat posed by the Nigel Farage (very fond of a pint) and Alex Salmond “blame politics” of the SNP and Ukip. Only the Lib Dems can protect people from all these things, Mr Clegg said.
“Say what they we will, we are now the only party holding firm to decent, liberal values while anger and blame are on the rise.”
Before the speech a bookmaker suspended bets that Mr Clegg was about to resign, based on his assertion that he “is not the Duracell bunny”. But the Deputy Prime Minister made it clear that he is in it to the bitter end.
However, there was a valedictory nature about the speech – haven’t we been great, he told his battered activists. Or sort of good, anyway.