At least he did last week, when he gave his speech on political reform. There were absolutely amazing lines in it - things like “This government is going to transform our politics so the state has far less control over you,” and “we will radically redistribute power away from the centre, into your communities, your homes, your hands,” and “This will be a government that is proud when British citizens stand up against illegitimate advances of the state. ”
He promised “sweeping legislation to restore the hard won liberties that have been taken, one by one, from the British people.”
He said “you will get more control over ... the schools you send your children to”
He said “You know better than I do about how to run your life.”
He said “thousands of criminal offences were created under the previous government.... Obsessive lawmaking simply makes criminals out of ordinary people.”
He said “We will ask you which laws you think should go.”
He even said “So, we'll get rid of the unnecessary laws, and once they're gone, they won't come back.”
In fact, believe it or not, he said “we will repeal all of the intrusive and unnecessary laws that inhibit your freedom.” Yes, he used the word “all”.
My eyes opened wide as I listened to all this. And I wasn’t the only one. Apparently Charlotte Gore’s housemate said “This is real? We can really have this?” and Miss Gore felt the same. I’m afraid that I’m clearly in a cynical mood these days, because what I thought was “Frankly, I just don’t believe it.” Again.
So why don’t I believe it?
1. When he said “We will repeal all of the intrusive and unnecessary laws that inhibit your freedom,” the crucial word is not “all”, but “unnecessary”. Who is to say what laws are unnecessary? As Tim Carpenter says, in a helpful analysis of Mr. Clegg’s speech, “He will be the one to determine “unnecessary”. I suspect Labour thought all those rules “necessary” for their purposes.”
2. I am sure the government will indeed ask us which laws we think should go. But they will be the ones who make the final decisions. Mr. Clegg set out some of the government’s plans in his speech.
“So there will be no ID card scheme. No national identity register, a halt to second generation biometric passports. We won't hold your internet and email records when there is just no reason to do so. CCTV will be properly regulated, as will the DNA database, with restrictions on the storage of innocent people's DNA. There will be no ContactPoint children's database. Schools will not take children's fingerprints without even asking their parent's consent.”That is good - but it only scratches the surface.
And, it seems to me, while it promises that, in at least some respects, there will be no advance in the power of the state in the future, it does nothing at all to give back the freedoms that have been taken from British citizens over the past 30 years. The rhetoric in the speech is brilliant - the detailed proposals are, frankly, disappointing.
3. Mr. Clegg states “My starting point is always optimism about people. The view that most people, most of the time, will make the right decisions for themselves and their families.” So, is he going to allow us to buy 100w incandescent light bulbs? I rather doubt it. I’m not actually sure that he thinks we should be allowed to buy them. But in any case, Westminster has no power to do so because power has been handed over to the EU, and Mr. Clegg does not want to see any change there. And is he going to allow us a choice about whether we wear seat-belts in cars? Again, I very much doubt it. Because while he may believe that most people, most of the time, will make the right decisions for themselves and their families, he believes there are some people that will not, so we have to make intrusive rules for everyone.
4. Mr. Clegg says “This will be a government that is proud when British citizens stand up against illegitimate advances of the state.” Again, a question is begged. Which advances of the state are illegitimate? Catholic adoption agencies felt that it was an illegitimate advance of the state when the state enacted the 2007 Equality Act banning adoption agencies from discriminating against homosexual prospective parents. Mr. Clegg and his party supported that legislation, and I don’t remember him appearing to be particularly proud when Catholic adoption agencies opposed it. Mr. Clegg spoke of “the repeal of illiberal laws” in his speech, but what does he mean by illiberal laws - does he mean laws that curtail freedom, or laws that he considers ‘unprogressive’?
5. And while we are on the subject of the advancing power of the state, there is plenty of evidence that Mr. Clegg wants the state to have even more power. In his speech last week said “you will get more control over ... the schools you send your children to.” So, does that mean that he wants the state to have less control over schools and what they teach? You might think so, but just a few months ago, in an interview with Attitude magazine, Mr. Clegg apparently said “Faith schools should be legally obliged to teach that homosexuality is "normal and harmless". That sounds like an increase in state power over schools to me.
6. Some of the things that Mr. Clegg promises in his speech actually seem to me to be contradictory. He speaks about the tyranny of vested interests, and then says that he is going to take tax-payers money and give it to one of the favourite vested interests of politicians: the major political parties. This is simply scandalous.
7. Mr. Clegg says “This government is going to break up concentrations of power and hand power back to people.” He also says “We know that devolution of power is meaningless without money.” He is quite right in this. Which means that if he wants to devolve power to the people from the state, money must be left in the hands of the people, not put into the hands of the state. That means massive cuts in tax and in public spending, and that has never been LibDem policy. In fact, it hasn’t been Conservative Party policy for a long time.
In short, I’m sure that the coalition will, in some respects, protect the freedoms that we have traditionally enjoyed in this country for generations. However, I’m not hopeful that there will be any great advances. And as for the state giving up power and handing it back to the people? Frankly, I don't believe it.