Nick Clegg: A Tourist in A Strange Land
I was chatting with a LibDem friend of mine (yes, there are still some around) a couple of days ago. She had re-tweeted the message “Attacking Clegg for having been part of a society which he is now trying to change is one of the most bizarre things I’ve ever seen.”
This got us talking. My friend made some good points. She argued that class or background are irrelevant; what matters is a person’s ability and willingness to change things. Someone else chipped in with “To avoid hypocrisy charge, Clegg must a) build a time machine, or b) drop his plans for fairer internships. Only b) abides laws of physics.” I found myself agreeing with the arguments in isolation, but feeling unconvinced generally.
I was homeless from the 3rd January 2009 to the 27th of April 2010. I slept in a threadbare sleeping bag, under the stairs or in the costume cupboard of the drama school, where I trained and I did some office work. I took my clothes in a bin-liner to the local launderette once a week. I showered at the public showers in King’s Cross – £3.50 per shower, when I could ill-afford it. For 15 months I was not able to cook a meal for myself, invite anyone “back to mine”, listen to my music or do any of the things I had always taken for granted.
Poverty is another country. It exists side-by-side to the rest of the UK, but as a parallel universe. A rich, kind MP visiting a poor council estate, is still only a tourist in a strange land. I have always felt solidarity with those less advantaged than me. My sensibilities have always been socialist. But I had never really understood poverty until the 3rd of January 2009.
So, is Clegg’s background of wealth and privilege a fair target for criticism? On its own, perhaps not. Combined with the wealth and privilege of Cameron and Osborne and the other 20 millionaires in the cabinet, it is.
This government, as a demographic, is so startlingly narrow, that making speeches about “social mobility” (a concept which relies de facto on the stratification of society rather than principles of equality) is bound to be perceived as hypocrisy, and rightly so. The three architects of this government’s austerity measures are all aristocrats. These three cock-sure yuppies, asking the rest of the country to make sacrifices and “go without”, have never gone without anything in their lives. They may grasp – at an intellectual level – the concepts of scarcity, of lack, of counting pennies to get food, but they cannot possibly begin to understand them.
I have often joked in the last few months about a time-traveller from the future, landing in today’s London. The top 10% in control of more than half of the nation’s wealth and more than two thirds of the land; the poorest 10% with living standards that are dropping by the day; a Royal Family and the hysterical coverage of the coming wedding; a House of Lords; a gang of unelected, millionaire aristocrats running the country; a war by Christian nations on “infidel” ones. The time-traveller may be justified in thinking they had set the date-dial wrongly and went back to feudal times.
So, yes. I feel perfectly justified in resenting Clegg and his Baronet buddies putting VAT up to 20%, attacking public services and forcing ordinary people into debt, while giving lectures about social mobility and telling us “we’re all in it together”. This is not a Jane Austen novel. The under-privileged are no longer satisfied with the rich letting them die of tuberculosis, but condescending to drop by with some broth and good advice about how to run a household better.
To go back to the above comment: “To avoid hypocrisy charge, Clegg must a) build a time machine, or b) drop his plans for fairer internships”, I have a few additional options: c) to come clean about his own daddy-facilitated opportunities, before being challenged by the media; d) to recognise that his background means he needs to start listening to the people who do not share his good fortune; e) to set a good example by paying his own constituency office interns out of his own pocket; and most importantly f) to stop supporting measures which damage the economy and disproportionately punish those who can least afford it.
How about it Nick?