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Nick Clegg's apology was for the right reasons - human error in a coalition is inevitable

24th September 2012

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Following Nick Clegg’s statement of apology in last Wednesday’s party political broadcast, there was understandably anger and derision in equal measure. The issue of tuition fees is a sore point for many students; for many the wounds are still raw.

Commentators have attributed the backlash from Clegg’s apology to its addressing of the ‘wrong’ aspect of his conduct: the initial making – rather than the subsequent breaking – of the promise not to support a raise of tuition fees.

His involvement in the fee-furore did little to alleviate the perception of him as David Cameron’s personal tea-secretary. Yet, could it also be argued that Clegg was opting to present a united front – at the expense of his own political agenda – so as to instil the public with greater faith in the strength and potential longevity of the coalition partnership?

Before the 2010 General Election, I witnessed a heated exchange between candidates vying to become my town’s Member of Parliament. The debate was hosted by my sixth form college, so it was unsurprising that before long the question of tuition fees reared its head. In front of the group of students, for whom university expenses were about to become a very real concern, the candidate for the Liberal Democrats unequivocally pledged his party’s opposition to any rise in tuition fees, and even suggested that, were his party in power, they would be looking to get rid of them altogether. His Labour opponent accused him of being at liberty to make false promises due to the reality of the Liberal Democrats’ third-party status removing the threat of ever having to fulfil these assurances.

So, was this the situation into which Clegg manoeuvred himself? Not anticipating a position of governmental authority, was his original pledge to the National Union of Students more an exercise in popularising his party than a serious policy commitment? By targeting the concerns of younger voters – a demographic notoriously poor at turning out for elections – did Clegg hope to decrease the margin between opposition and third party, and thereby make the Liberal Democrats a more credible check on the two political heavyweights? This tactic, were it true, would be a clever way of ensuring a more stable future without having to deliver the goods.

If this were the case, then the apology was actually for the ‘right’ reason after all. Liam Burns, the President of the NUS, expressed disappointment in Clegg’s lack of apology for the fee-increase itself. This is missing the point. The fees are not the issue. Clegg is right not to apologise for the £9K-spectre haunting the Government. He is right not to apologise for having to alter his political position. Rather, he is right to apologise for making a short-sighted, crowd-pleasing commitment that he could not expect to keep if he correctly assessed the political terrain in early 2010.

Changes in political stance can of course occur for legitimate reasons. Social, political and economic contexts inevitably change, and governments which do not adopt a pragmatic and flexible position will break. Politicians who make policy U-turns inevitably receive an inordinate amount of criticism, yet if this change of tack is down to the reaction of the electorate –to whom they are supposed to listen, after all – then surely that indicates that they have their fingers on the nation’s pulse, and are taking their responsibilities as seriously as their jobs require?

Of course, the flexibility requisite for politics is not one that comes through lacking a spine. Where conflicting demands arise, the decision should still rest on the public interest. Yet, there has to be enough room for compromise – particularly in a coalition – so that a decision can take into account calculations of risk and benefit, with the resulting choice all too often being the lesser of two evils.

Rather than attacking and deriding Mr Clegg, we need to accept that, if we are to have a legislature that we are able to hold to account, then this is going to involve a degree of human error, for which the most productive course of action is to acknowledge the fault and move forward. Which is what Nick Clegg is trying to do. Unfortunately, being a politician seems to be like walking a tightrope, with a braying mob watching from below, just waiting for the fall.

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