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TNS is 10: Interview - Nick Clegg

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Nick CleggYou call your polices a ‘liberal alternative’ to the discredited polices of ‘big government’. What do you mean by this and how will the Lib Dems be different to the other parties?

I joined the Lib Dems because I'd had enough of being dictated to by people I didn't believe in. The liberal vision is progressive, green, internationalist, anti-establishment and committed to giving people greater control over their lives. The Liberal Democrats are now the only party calling for profound reform of a political system which has left so many people angry and frustrated. Labour and the Conservatives are part of a cosy consensus that protects the status quo because it allows them to take it in turns to govern. We, on the other hand, want to fundamentally rewrite the rules.  

How much debt were you in when you left university?

I was lucky enough to have parents who were able to help me a lot when I was at university, so not much. But I am well aware - not least as a Sheffield MP with a huge number of students from two universities in my constituency - that most students struggle to make ends meet while they are studying. Many have to take on part-time jobs, which really adds to the pressure, especially at exam time.

These years can be some of your greatest, and no student should have that spoiled by the stress of unmanageable debt. 

What’s your party’s position on tuition fees and the funding of higher education?

We remain totally committed to universal access to education and we believe that young people from all parts of society should be able to attend university if that’s what they want. But there are some big anomalies which need to be addressed: the discrimination against FE Colleges compared to Universities, and the increasingly large number of part time students who are not properly catered for. That’s why we are reviewing our policies at the moment. I hope they'll be finalised by next Spring. 

What importance does ‘image’ play in modern politics and what problems, if any, do you think this causes?

In a media driven political culture image has undoubtedly become very important. The cult of celebrity is everywhere these days. As a politician, there's no point complaining about it - I went into politics with my eyes open about the highs and lows, the good and the bad. My main concern goes far wider than the effect on individual politicians: I fear that a focus on celebrity creates conformity in politics. People should feel able to be who they are - great change only happens when people dare to be different. 

How do you think the continuing growth in violent crime amongst young people can be tackled?

It does no one any good to vilify and criminalise young people. If you believed everything you read in the papers or heard from Labour or the Conservatives you’d think that every young person is a knife wielding thug about to attack you. It just isn’t true.

Violence cannot be tackled by tough talk, ASBOs and overcrowded prisons – the poverty, alienation and disempowerment that contributes to crime needs to be tackled too. Of course we need to be tough on perpetrators of violence, but we need to involve local communities as well. I want to see community courts set up throughout the country where offenders have to face up to their victims and then do visible work in the community. That way the people who commit crimes can really understand the impact of their acts and make amends to the local community. 

You were a lecturer at Sheffield University – tell us a little bit about your time there.

I was a part-time teacher in a couple of courses on European politics in the Politics Department. It was an interesting thing to do having spent ten years working in the European Union, where I had managed development aid projects in Central Asia and led EU trade negotiating teams with the Chinese and Russians before becoming a Member of the European Parliament. At Sheffield University my role was to act as an occasional reality check on the academic stuff the student were reading about the EU. Theorising about politics sometimes has little to do with the grubby realities of politics! 

To date what would you say is your greatest achievement?

I wouldn’t call it an achievement, but I’m most proud of being a father. I have two wonderful sons with a third on the way. Children may be innocent, but at least they've got their priorities straight. They aren’t interested in what was said at the Dispatch Box or who’s where in the polls, they just want to be with the people they love and have a good time. Who's to say they're wrong? 

Have you ever done anything you are not proud of?

Sure. But that's probably best left to me and my conscience! 

Why are the Lib Dems the right party to give Britain what it needs?

Because Britain would be a fairer, freer and greener country if it were a more liberal country. Protecting civil liberties, championing green policies, changing the political system, fairer taxes for people who are struggling , ending our slavish subservience to the White House - these and so many other things can only be delivered by a liberal, reforming Government.   

It is often said that the Lib Dems can just ‘say what they like’ because you have no realistic of getting into power. What would you say to that?

We got six million votes at the last general election, more than any other liberal party in Europe. We control more of the largest cities in this country than any other party. We pushed Labour into third place at the elections in May. We've got more MPs than at any time since the war. I think that progress points in one direction only...power. And that's why our policies - from opposing the Iraq war, to scrapping ID cards to pay for more police, to our plan for a zero carbon Britain by 2050, and our plans for fairer taxes - are radical and bold but also workable and detailed.    

Many graduates feel let-down by the system, starting their lives after university in massive debt, and qualified in fields they can’t always get a job in. What can you and the Lib Dems say/do to reassure them and future graduates?

We’re looking at ways to ease the burden on graduates as they start out in life. Internships and work experience are becoming more and more necessary for young people to get the jobs they want, and a lot of these are unpaid. Then, once you are working, buying a home or putting some money aside seems like a pipe dream, as does ever getting your bank balance back to zero. That’s why we’re looking at how to take the pressure off students once they have graduated as well as while they are studying.  

In your conference speech you seem to be outlining plans for more ‘public-led’ politics in the UK (i.e. in the running of local services). Why is this a good idea and how would it work?

The British political system is incredibly patronising, with Government Ministers and Civil servants making fundamental decisions about our lives, and about things they don’t understand, from their desks in Whitehall. It’s become increasingly fashionable for politicians to talk the talk about decentralising power, but the UK is still the most centralised state in Europe after Malta (which is about the size of Croydon)!

The Liberal Democrats understand that it’s people who know best when it comes to the services they need. That’s why we are the only party with proposals to take power away from central Government. We want to give it back to individuals and local communities so that they have a say over their schools, their health services, and the other the decisions that affect their everyday lives. I believe it's an approach which will work because it puts the people who know most about the local services they deliver and use in the driving seat.

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