Clegg Rules Out Joining SNP in Supporting Labour Government

Britain’s deputy prime minister, Nick Clegg, on Friday ruled out supporting a Labour government that also relies on Scottish nationalists for a majority in Parliament.

The Liberal Democrat leader told the Financial Times he would not “help establish a government which is basically on a life support system, where Alex Salmond could pull the plug any time he wants.”

Salmond, the former Scottish first minister, will lead the Scottish National Party in Westminster where it is projected to take as many as 54 out of 59 Scottish seats — an increase of 48 for the party that advocates independence. Given that many of the nationalists’ gains would come at Labour’s expense, the socialist party could probably only form a government with their support.

If Labour does worse in next month’s election than the polls now predict, however, it could need the support of a third party to take power.

Clegg said he wouldn’t be that third party and lamented that Labour had been consumed by “frothing bile” toward the liberals for the past five years. Read more “Clegg Rules Out Joining SNP in Supporting Labour Government”

Europe Referendum “Red Line” for Britain’s Liberals

British deputy prime minister Nick Clegg would rule out another coalition between his Liberal Democrats and the Conservative Party if the latter insist on calling a referendum on European Union membership.

Prime Minister David Cameron, the Conservative Party leader, has promised to call such a vote by 2017 if he wins the election in May.

“This is pretty much a red line for Nick,” an unnamed source close to the party leader told the British tabloid newspaper The Sun. Read more “Europe Referendum “Red Line” for Britain’s Liberals”

Clegg, Osborne Criticize Each Other’s Budget Plans

British deputy prime minister Nick Clegg sharply criticized his Conservative coalition partners on Sunday, saying they were “kidding themselves” if they thought they could simultaneously balance the budget and reduce taxes.

The Liberal Democrat leader’s criticism came after the Conservative chancellor of the exchequer, George Osborne, had accused the smaller party in The Sunday Times of having no credible tax plan.

“While they sign up to deficit reduction, they want more tax rises rather than spending cuts,” he wrote.

But they shouldn’t pretend to people that the sums required can be achieved by their homes tax alone. If you want higher taxes to do the heavy lifting, you’d also need to increase taxes such as income tax or national insurance.

Clegg said on the BBC’s The Andrew Marr Show later in the day his party would like to raise taxes on expensive homes. His proposal seemed awfully similar to the one Osborne announced in his budget statement this week: for homes to be taxed more progressively. Read more “Clegg, Osborne Criticize Each Other’s Budget Plans”

Clegg “Not Going to Change Course” on Budget Policy

British deputy prime minister Nick Clegg said on Sunday that the government was “absolutely not going to change course” on fiscal policy. At the same time, he argued that it had been much more “pragmatic” than critics of its austerity program would allow.

“When we saw that the economic situation was tougher than many people anticipated, that growth was going to take longer to recover in full,” he said in a BBC interview, “we didn’t dogmatically cut further,” rather extended the deadline for reducing Britain’s debt until after the next election.

Earlier in the week, the Liberal Democrat appeared to question the wisdom of fiscal consolidation when he told The House, a weekly political magazine, “If I’m going to be sort of self-critical, there was this reduction in capital spending when we came into the coalition government.” Read more “Clegg “Not Going to Change Course” on Budget Policy”

Clegg Criticizes Cuts as Britain Slides Into Recession

Britain’s deputy prime minister, Nick Clegg, questioned the government’s austerity program as the country teetered on the brink of a third recession.

“If I’m going to be sort of self-critical, there was this reduction in capital spending when we came into the coalition government,” Clegg, who leads the minority Liberal Democrats, said in an interview with The House on Thursday, a weekly political magazine.

We have all realized that you actually need, in order to foster a recovery, to try and mobilize as much public and private capital into infrastructure as possible.

Growth figures published on Friday revealed that British gross domestic product had declined .3 percent in the fourth and final quarter of last year, more than the .1 percent contraction that had been forecast by analysts.

Britain’s economy is still 3.3 percent smaller than during the first quarter of 2008, before the financial crisis plunged the country into recession with much of the developed world with it. Its recovery has been far more lackluster than most other industrialized nations’. It slipped back into recession in the last three months of 2011 and could very well again in the first quarter of the new year. Read more “Clegg Criticizes Cuts as Britain Slides Into Recession”

Did David Cameron Do “Bad Deal” on Europe?

Britain’s deputy prime minister Nick Clegg said that he was “bitterly disappointed” about David Cameron’s veto to European treaty changes last week.

The Liberal Democrat leader told the BBC that any further withdrawal from Europe risks making Britain “a pygmy in the world.” He blamed the “intransigence” of France and Germany for Britain’s isolation. Both countries pushed for a fiscal compact of European nations. Britain was the only member state to oppose fiscal union.

Clegg also criticized Euroskeptics within the ruling Conservative Party who, he alleged, had pressed the prime minister to show “bulldog spirit” in negotiations.

There’s nothing bulldog about Britain hovering somewhere in the mid-Atlantic, not standing tall in Europe and not being taken seriously in Washington.

The liberals, who are far more enthusiastic about European integration than their conservative coalition partners usually are, have reason to be concerned. As Cameron pointed out on Friday, more than half of British trade is conducted with others countries in the European single market. Being a member of the European Union is very much in Britain’s interest.

His wariness of surrendering sovereignty to Brussels stems from those very interests however. Britain stood little to gain from becoming part of a European fiscal union and much to lose — the fortunes of London’s financial district for one thing but also, eventually, the freedom of maintaining a competitive tax regime. France and Germany favor harmonization of tax rates across Europe, something Britain and Ireland have objected to.

The other Europeans should not be blamed for blocking a British exemption from regulatory and tax harmonization. Smaller countries like Estonia, the Czech Republic and the Netherlands also stand to lose business if they have to rein in their financial sectors and raise corporate tax rates so why should they tolerate a special status for Britain?

Indeed, none of these countries should have to undermine their competitiveness in the name of boosting competitiveness across the continent and Britain should be leading the fight for a two tier Europe with a eurozone core that embraces fiscal integration and a periphery that’s economically too divergent to belong to a monetary union but quite prepared to be part of the common market.

Cameron’s “bulldog” backbenchers and their call for a referendum about British membership of the EU are an asset in this regard. The threat of a British exit should compel eurozone leaders to reconsider their insistence that the entire Union adopt their plans for fiscal consolidation and financial reform.

As for Clegg, his party is mired in single digits in opinion polls. He won’t split the coalition and risk a snap election now.

British Liberals Decimated in Local Elections

Britain’s Liberal Democrats lost almost half of their councilors in local elections on Thursday. According to party leader Nick Clegg, the liberals were being “blamed” for coalition budget cuts.

A simultaneous referendum to change Britain’s voting system was also expected to bring defeat for the country’s largest minority party. Both the Conservatives and Labour campaigned to maintain the “first past the vote” system which makes it difficult to third parties to compete.

Many liberal votes went to Labour. The socialists fall one seat short of a majority in the Welsh Assembly but the Scottish National Party won an absolutely majority in their local parliament, making it the first party ever to do so.

The Democratic Unionists and Sinn Féin were expected to remain the largest parties in the Northern Ireland Assembly. Throughout the United Kingdom, the Conservative vote was holding up.

Clegg, who is also deputy prime minister in a coalition government with the Conservatives, told the BBC last night that his party was bearing “the brunt of the blame” for unpopular spending cuts which were bringing back “memories of things under Thatcher,” the conservative prime minister during the 1980s. While some party members urged him to resign, the Liberal Democrat leader promised to “redouble our efforts” and “get up and dust ourselves down.”

Prime Minister David Cameron said that the coalition government would “work for the full five years” of this parliament to rein in public spending and restore economic growth.

The liberals have lost popularity in government, particularly among students and young urban professionals. Voters punished them for agreeing to raise the value-added tax from 17.5 to 20 percent and their support for an education reform measure which they claimed to oppose ahead of last year’s parliamentary elections.

The Liberal Democrats’ plight is comparable to the struggle of liberals in Germany who have performed poorly in local elections this year. Both parties have their base divided. Leftists were disillusioned by their support for deep spending cuts while moderate voters are drawn further to the right where they find conservatives who share their concerns about immigration and crime and don’t appear that hostile to welfare provisions anymore. There isn’t much room left for social liberalism in the center.

Clegg Vows to Protect NHS from Privatization

Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg promised not to let the “profit motive drive a coach and horses through the NHS” after members of his own party voted to reject government reforms this weekend.

The Liberal Democrat leader said that the ruling coalition’s health reform would improve accountability and transparency in care without privatizing it. Party activists were angered however when the Conservatives pushed for an overhaul of Britain’s public health system which was not part of the coalition agreement.

Two months ago, Prime Minister David Cameron said that the country could not delay health reform and he urged critics who alleged that his plans amounted to privatization to “grow up.”

The coalition’s reforms would allow consortiums of doctors to take over management of the National Health Service (NHS) from primary care trusts in England. Some 80 percent of NHS budgets for commissioning services would be handed to general practitioners while private competition is introduced in the provision of care.

The liberals are skeptical, worried about private companies “cherry picking” profitable services instead of treating patients in the most need. Health minister Paul Burstow, a Liberal Democrat, defended the proposed reforms, saying that they would strip out layers of needless management and administrative costs to save some £5 billion over the next four years, “all of which we will plough straight back into patient care.”

The coalition with the Conservatives has not been popular among liberal voters. Whereas the party won nearly a quarter of the vote in last year’s general election, ahead of a controversial measure to raise undergraduate tuition fees in December, the Liberal Democrats polled at an historic low of 8 percent. In a recent local election, the party slumped from second place at the general election to sixth, winning a mere 4.2 percent of the vote.

Last month, Britain’s Health Service Ombudsman unveiled a grim report about the quality of care in the United Kingdom, lambasting “an attitude — both personal and institutional — which fails to recognize the humanity and individuality of the people concerned and to respond to them with sensitivity, compassion and professionalism.”

According to the ombudsman, NHS provision was “failing to meet even the most basic standards of care” and he blamed not so much a lack of resources rather the “culture” of the National Health Service.

If liberal backbenchers in parliament vote against the reform bill they would have a majority with the Labor opposition to halt the effort.

Britain’s Nick Clegg Speaks at United Nations

In his address before the General Assembly of the United Nations on Friday, Deputy Prime Minister Nicholas Clegg of the United Kingdom outlined three major challenges confronting world order in the twenty-first century: a withdrawing of the map, characterized by a shift in economic power; the globalization of problems and the increasing fluidity of identity. “All three,” he said, “demand matching responses.”

As the world changes, “the effectiveness of multilateral approaches is in question,” according to Clegg. He pointed at the still unsuccessful attempt to enact international financial regulation; the lack of success in Copenhagen on efforts to fight climate change this year and the stalling of the Doha trade round. “We need to inject new life into our institutions and new confidence into the expression of our ideals,” he professed.

The deputy prime minister publicly supported reform of the Security Council, “to reflect the new geography of power.” Brazil, Germany, India and Japan should become permanent members, he believes, along with a representation of African countries. “The UN cannot speak for the many if it only hears the voices of the few.”

More passionately, the foreman of Britain’s liberal democrats spoke about the universalism of values which, too often, he complained, are labeled as “Western”. He mentioned the great Mughal Emperor Akbar who, in sixteenth century India, championed tolerance and openness while in Europe at the time, people were burned at the stake for heresy. “Liberal ideals of equality, law and self-determination cannot be claimed by any nation or hemisphere,” said Clegg. “They are global values with global force” and members of the United Nations “must never shy away from [their] insistence that nobody should be silenced because of their religion or beliefs.”

Living in a globalized world also means getting used to the notion of stateless problems. “It is not possible to put people into neatly labeled boxes anymore,” said the deputy prime minister, while security threats are “more fluid and often less visible” than several decades ago.

In spite of major budget cuts across the board and broad entitlement reform at home, Britain remains committed to international cooperation and security, Clegg promised. That is why his coalition government has exempted foreign aid from spending cuts.

Clegg was encouraged by the words of President Barack Obama, who spoke before the General Assembly yesterday, and his government’s renewed commitment to the Middle East peace process. Britain, too, is prepared to “play a full role in working toward the end of hostilities that have been so profoundly damaging for all sides.” Former British prime minister Tony Blair currently serves as the West’s permanent representative to the Israeli-Palestinian negotiations and expressed enthusiasm earlier this month about the possibility of finally reaching an accord.

At the same time, the experience in Afghanistan has shown that “democracy cannot be created by diktat,” Clegg stressed, while “freedom cannot be commanded into existence.”

Clegg made brief mention of the display that was Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s address to the assembly on Friday. Ahmadinejad suggested that the attacks of 9/11 had been orchestrated by elements within the American government. Clegg described these allegations as “bizarre” and “offensive” and suspected that they were meant to “distract attention from Iran’s obligations and generate media headlines. They deserve to do neither.”

The Great Experiment

With David Cameron installed as prime minister on Tuesday evening, for the first time in almost seventy years the United Kingdom has a coalition government again. Will it hold?

Elections in early May produced a hung parliament with the Conservatives just twenty seats short of a majority. Negotiations between Labour and the minority Liberal Democrats reportedly broke down on Tuesday which paved the way for Tory leader David Cameron to ascend to 10 Downing Street. He was asked by Queen Elizabeth II to form a new government in her name after eight o’clock GMT that same day.

In his first speech as prime minister, Cameron admitted that Britain suffers “deep, pressing problems,” including a huge budget deficit, a mounting sovereign debt as well as a “political system in need of reform.” It seems likely that some sort of agreement has been reached with the liberals on remodeling Britain’s electoral systems which currently denies them proportionate representation in Parliament. At the last election, the party won 23 percent of the national vote but just 9 percent of the seats. Instant runoff voting, also known as alternative voting (AV), is something that might be considered.

The next government’s foremost priority will be to get spending under control and prevent Britain’s already record debt from skyrocketing. Both the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats are well aware of the need of reform. According to David Cameron on Wednesday, under Labour the country endured “a chronic short-termism in government.” The next five years, he promised, would allow long-term decisionmaking.

On foreign policy and defense there may be greater discord. The liberals have campaigned against renewing the Trident nuclear defense system, arguing that it belongs to a different era. Both Labour and Conservatives warned against unilateral disarmament however. Some sort of compromise, including defense reform but nothing too significant to upset old guard Conservatives, will likely be worked out.

Unlike the Tories, Liberal Democrats are overwhelmingly pro-Europe and favor joining the eurozone eventually. Party leaders have agreed that Britain won’t give up the pound during this Parliament. Whether the country will nonetheless seek a more active place in EU politics remains to be seen.

Commentators have been quick to point out possible causes for future consternation. Writing for the Times, Daniel Finkelstein notes that by allying himself with the Liberal Democrats, “Cameron has the potential to lift himself and the party above normal partisan politics.” He may emerge as a national leader and transform his party in the process to be seen as “broader, more generous, more capable of listening and of compromise.” But there is the danger that this coalition could split the Tories. Both Tim Bale at The Guardian and Andrew Sullivan at The Atlantic predict grumbling on the right with Cameron possibly conceding too to Nick Clegg’s party. Barry Legg is more assertive. “David Cameron,” he believes, “has sold out the Tory Party.”

From whipping Tory MPs through in support of a referendum on AV, the number and nature of cabinet places he’s going to give to the liberals, to surrendering the bedrock of the Westminster system — by giving way on fixed parliaments — Cameron gains office but not power.

Liberal Democrat voters may not be happy either, suggests Jackie Ashley. Before anything else, they wanted to keep David Cameron out of 10 Downing Street. “This isn’t what they voted for.”

James Joyner at New Atlanticist takes a more nuanced view. He notes that the British people overwhelmingly rejected Gordon Brown, not Cameron. For Labour to remain in government would have appeared illegitimate. Indeed, according to E.J. Dionne, that’s exactly why Labour didn’t actually want to stay in power.

As unusual as the current coalition may seem, according to Joyner, “it really couldn’t have gone the other way.”

It would have been simply bizarre [for the Liberal Democrats] to have run as an alternative to Labour and then form a government that kept Labour in charge.

What’s more, David Cameron didn’t really “sell out” to Nick Clegg. Alternative voting doesn’t really undermine the Westminster system. Appointing several liberal secretaries won’t undermine conservative policy. Indeed, the Liberal Democrats have already agreed to drop plans for a “mansion tax” on properties costing more than £2 million and to a cap on non-European immigration.

But the most important tasks ahead include social and economic reform and on these issues, there has been no evidence of infighting between the coalition partners as of yet.

The coalition agreement makes specific mention of the “substantial erosion of civil liberties under the Labour government” and promises to “roll back state intrusion.” Nick Clegg on Wednesday announced that it would be this government’s “simple and yet profound ambition” to “put real power and opportunity into the hands of people, families and communities to change their lives and our country for the better.” That, said Clegg, is what liberalism is all about and it perfectly echoes the “big society” rhetoric of David Cameron’s Conservative Party.