THE Liberal Democrats worked hard to ensure that the coalition Government’s agenda had a clear thread of liberalism running through it – from the priority we gave to mental health and the green agenda, to creating the pupil premium and protecting our civil liberties.
So it is dispiriting – if pretty unsurprising – to see how quickly, instead of building on those achievements, the new Conservative Government is turning its back on that liberal stance.
The human rights we hold dear, our right to privacy in an online age, our future as an open-minded, outward-looking country, are all hanging in the balance again because of the measures announced today.
It is clear, too, that the previous Government’s commitment to fairness is also weakened. There was little in the Queen’s Speech to help the poorest and the most vulnerable; not enough to improve social care; and no plan to build the garden cities and 300,000 new homes a year our young people need for the future.
And we will see in a few short weeks, when the Chancellor unveils his Emergency Budget, if he intends to follow through with the £12bn in welfare cuts he has promised. That Budget, not this Queen’s Speech, will be the moment we can judge whether the Conservative belief in One Nation is for real.
My party’s Parliamentary presence may be much reduced in size, but our mission is clearer than ever. As we did in the coalition Government, we will fight any attempt to weaken the fundamental rights of our citizens – whether it is those enshrined in the European Convention on Human Rights and our own Human Rights Act, or those threatened by a turbo-charged Snoopers’ Charter.
We will stand up for the poorest and the most vulnerable. And we will always defend a Britain that is at its best when it is open-hearted, open-minded and outward-looking.
Of course, I welcome those measures that build on the work we did together in coalition. The expansion of childcare is a good thing – though the Government will need to do a lot more to help working parents with the crippling costs of once their parental leave ends but before the Government’s scheme for three-year-olds begins. And, of course, I welcome the Government’s commitment to raising the personal allowance, started by Liberal Democrats in Government.
With so much at stake over Europe, the United Kingdom needs a Prime Minister who is absolutely clear about what he wants and why he wants it.
But instead, this must be the first time in living memory that a country’s citizens are being asked to support the outcome of a renegotiation on a matter of such importance to its place in the world without the Government of the day setting out in the House of Commons what it wants to achieve.
And because we do not know what the Government considers a successful negotiation, we do not know for sure which side the Prime Minister will take in a referendum.
That is a precarious position from which to persuade millions of people in a referendum who are indifferent or sceptical about the European Union.
Imagine the circumstances in which the referendum is likely to be held: Years of denigration of everything the EU does, followed by months of interminable wrangling over this renegotiation, with a divided Cabinet and a Prime Minister who still appears ambivalent about our role in Europe.
So my advice to the Government is this: Pursue your renegotiation with the EU, but spell out exactly what you hope to achieve, so that people understand the choice that’s in front of them. Be careful not to string it out so long that there is not enough time to make the wider case to the British public. And above all, remember that the referendum will be won through conviction, not ambivalence. Ambivalence will not succeed in a negotiation and it will absolutely not win a referendum.
The benchmark for reform must be what is in the long-term interest of the United Kingdom, not the short-term interest of the Conservative Party. One thing we already know is that whatever deal the Prime Minister agrees will not satisfy significant parts of his own party.
That is why he must not overstate what he can deliver. And, when the moment of truth comes and the Prime Minister presents his deal to the country, he must advocate it with real conviction.
Because, in the end, there is no surrogate for a full-throated and sustained advocacy of Britain’s continued membership of a European club which, while undoubtedly imperfect, allows us to tackle crime, address climate change and provide jobs and economic security in a globalised world in a way we never could on our own.
Without clear leadership there’s no guarantee that a referendum can easily be won.
Nick Clegg was Deputy Prime Minister and leader of the Lib Dems in the last Government. This is an edited version of the Sheffield Hallam MP’s response to the Queen’s Speech.