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December 23, 2011 / politicsbitesize

A deepening rift in the coalition?

The Palace of Westminster at night seen from the south bank of the River Thames. Picture by Diliff on Fotopedia

Nick Clegg has clearly been doing his homework. His speech, given to Demos and the Open Society Foundation in Westminster on Monday 19th December covers many points raised over the last month in reports by Politics:bitesize. In his wide-ranging lecture he highlighted the need for transparency in areas such as bankers’ bonuses and the pay gap between the richest and the poorest, and the need for a more responsible brand of capitalism. Mr Clegg also highlighted the recent rift in the coalition that was heightened by David Cameron’s veto earlier this month in Brussels.

Could it be that the High Pay Commission’s report, which makes it ‘clear that we must open up top pay to more scrutiny’, has not only fallen onto the Deputy PM’s desk but has actually been read and taken very seriously? From his passionate speech it seems that it has. According to Mr Clegg there are five vital features that make up an open society: i) social mobility; ii) dispersed power in politics, the media and the economy; iii) transparency, and the sharing of knowledge and information; iv) a fair distribution of wealth and property; and v) an internationalist outlook. It is the second and the fifth of these features that are important here.

In the second feature he talks about political pluralism, the devolution of power from central government to local authorities and the economy. It is to this latter point that Clegg devotes much of his attention. He claims to ‘understand the anger that people feel at the bonuses still flowing to bankers’ and promises government legislation on excessive top pay. His speech becomes more heated when he asserts the seriousness of his commitment to tackling the problem of inequality and power imbalances throughout Britain. Something needs to change because the economy, he claims, is too lopsided and too reliant on the City of London and is therefore ‘delivering unequal rewards in terms of wages’.

Our reliance on one square mile of the UK fits neatly in with feature number five and is the most overt critique, in this speech, of his partners in the Coalition. When clarifying his view of this feature he states that one of the differences between an open and a closed society is that: ‘Open societies choose democracy and freedom at home, and engagement and responsibility abroad. Closed societies favour protectionism in economic policy, and detachment from foreign affairs.’ At first glance this statement is just one of fact, but on closer inspection it is a clear rebuke of David Cameron’s position on Europe at the EU summit earlier this month. As previously noted by Politics:bitesize, the Prime Minister’s decision to use the British veto promoted a ‘closed shop’ view of our participation in Europe. It seems that the PM is promoting an inward and closed society whilst the Deputy Prime Minister wants to pull society together and develop a more open society wherein we all stand ‘shoulder-to-shoulder’.

Toward the end of his speech Mr Clegg refers to this ‘disappointing outcome from the [EU] summit ten days ago’ and then proceeds to further reinforce his position on re-engaging with Europe on ‘a whole host of vital issues’. So it would appear that our Liberal Democrat Deputy Prime Minister is distancing himself and his party from the EU sceptic Conservative element of the Coalition government. His final parting shot reiterated this standpoint when he asserted that the time is now right to ‘fight for openness, against the forces of reaction and retreat’, which smacks of a call for those who believe in his liberal principles to stand united together.

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