Clegg sets out his stall
The two leadership candidates talk to the JC about Israel, faith schools and their opposition to the Saudi state visit
YOUTHFUL, BRIGHT, multilingual and the bookies’ favourite to win the Liberal Democrat leadership battle, Nick Clegg denies any suggestion that the race is in the bag.
“One thing you never do in politics is to assume a result,” he told the JC this week. “There is still a long way to go.” In any case, he had other things on his mind, particularly the red-carpet treatment accorded to King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia on his state visit to London.
Praising the decision by acting leader Vince Cable to boycott the visit, Mr Clegg explained: “Given the lead that the Liberal Democrats have had in scrutinising arms deals between the United Kingdom and Saudi Arabia, and the criticism we have expressed over the Saudis’ human-rights record, it would have been inconsistent of us to have pretended that we could simply brush these concerns aside.”
Consistency towards what he described as Liberal Democrat values is clearly important to the 40-year-old, whose physical resemblance to DavidCameronhasbeen widely noted.
It was not easy “in the world of Westminster and Whitehall” to reject the protocol of a state visit by one of Britain’s most valuable trading partners. “I imagine Vince must have been under some pressure to relent and I am really pleased he had the courage to take that decision. In fact, I would go further. I think it is precisely the kind of thing Liberal Democrats should do. If we are in politics for anything, it is to say things and do things that other parties dare not or will not do.
“Therearehugecommercialandstrategic interests invested between the United Kingdom and Saudi Arabia and these interests have always outweighed the concerns that British governments have had about human rights. I can only repeat that if the Liberal Democrats are in politics to do anything, it is to promote the cause of human rights without worrying what the diplomatic consequences might be.” It was thus consistent, argued Mr Clegg, the LibDem spokesman on home affairs, that his party had a profound interest in the Middle East conflict.
He insisted that the LibDems had always tried to be even-handed, despite the comments of “individual members” such as Baroness Tonge and MEP Chris Davies, which raised serious concerns within the Jewish community.
“I don’t think anyone in the Liberal Democrats wants to do anything but to provide an input into the debate that is radical, rational and based on fact. I am acutely aware that there have been particular statements by particular individuals, but I must say if one looks at what the party leadership has said, these statements have been balanced, sometimes forceful but always responsible. That is a tradition I wish to maintain.” However, he offered thinly veiled criticism of party members who had indulged in “controversial” remarks about the Middle East. “I don’t think in any policy area any one person has a monopoly on all wisdom. What has happened, and I think it is a great pity, is that because the reaction of British Jewry is quite understandably defensive at times of heightened controversy, the false impression is given that the community and Israeli public opinion is homogenous.
“Something I always wish we could make more of is the vibrancy and plurality of Israel. As much as I ask people not to caricature Liberal Democrat opinion, I would equally ask Liberal Democrats not to caricature Israeli public opinion. Excessive partiality on an issue when impartiality is at a premium is something I regret. I will be quite tough on saying that as a leader. A sense of balance needs to be maintained.”
The MP for Sheffield Hallam has visited Israel and the occupied territories several times, most recently in 2005. His overwhelming impression was the “sheer, compressed geographical scale” of a land with “so much complexity”. Although admiring the “vibrancy and vigour” of Israeli discourse, he was distressed by the roadblocks and divisions between Israelis and Palestinians, which he believed were unsustainable.
Mr Clegg also believed that the split between the Hamas rulers in Gaza and the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank had to be resolved. “There are indications that there is some movement in Hamas towards recognition of Israel. Both the Israeli government and other powers, particularly the Quartet, need to strike the very delicate balance that while the stated position of Hamas is incompatible with a role in the peace process, we might be able to bring out those reformist elements in Hamas who believe that they themselves need to change.”
An enduring lesson, he said, was that while being tough on violence and extremism, “one must at the same time do everything possible to foster change within those movements”.
On domestic issues, Mr Clegg condemned the rise of antisemitism in the UK. In discussions with the Community Security Trust, he had been shocked by the amount the community had to spend on protecting schools and synagogues. It was “deeply depressing that the increase in antisemitic violence has been almost exactly parallel to that suffered by the Muslim community. There is a need for politicians to be more outspoken and more forceful in counteracting what is clearly a rise in antisemitism and Islamophobia.”
Faith schools, Mr Clegg, asserted, had “very impressive” academic records, but he cautioned that they should not be allowed to become “silos” of segregation. “I believe that faith schools should act as a catalyst between communities for understanding. The most enlightened educationists in faith schools understand that they need to reach out to visibly break down barriers. I would like to see faith schools making greater efforts so you get a network of different schools and faiths rather than exclusive schools where children grow up in an environment where they are, frankly, not aware of the plurality of faiths and views around them.”
Private schools, he said, were under pressure to play an active role in the community and the same principle should apply to faith schools.
Nick Clegg: faith schools should be “a catalyst for understanding”