Many book titles reveal little about what their book contains, either providing but a banal name for its contents or a clever, clever name which obscures rather than reveals. However, The Clegg Coup – Britain’s First Coalition Government Since Lloyd George by Jasper Gerard has a title which is revealing in two aspects. First, the way general accuracy in the book is marred by detailed slips – for whilst the general point of the title is true, with the May 2010 coalition being the UK’s first peacetime coalition in Westminster since before 1939, the title does not use the word “peacetime” and relies on the technical point that Lloyd George was still alive at the time of Churchill’s coalition even though no-one talks of 1940 as still being “Lloyd George’s time”. The rest of the book contains several other slips of detail which, even if sometimes justifiable with a tortured defence, nonetheless risk undermining confidence in the author’s knowledge of the topic.
Yet that would be a mistake, for in fact Jasper Gerard – a former staff member for Paddy Ashdown and intermittent speech writer for Liberal Democrat leaders – shows far more knowledge of the party’s internal workings than nearly all other writers. Any book that features both Paul Marshall and Duncan Brack in its index, with as many entries for Chris Rennard as for Ming Campbell, shows an understanding of the realities of the internal workings of the party away from the public headline figures in Parliament.
The second thing the title reveals is Gerard’s basic thesis – that Nick Clegg has brought about a major change in the Liberal Democrats, not only taking the party into power but also (and more under his control) changing the party’s policy stance radically towards a much more ‘Orange Book’ stance.
Gerard rightly does not confuse the views of people such as David Laws with those of the Conservatives, but is very clear in his sympathy for what he terms traditional Liberal approaches to public services.
Although his argument is graced with lively, high quality and very readable writing – making Nick Clegg’s family background into an even more exciting tale than Chris Bowers – it does not always convince. The argument that Clegg has carried out an internal coup rests on several key assumptions, each debatable. The party’s approach now to public services is certainly very different than under Charles Kennedy, where the policy approach was to favour having spokesmen with professional expertise in the area who could identify enough waste to free up money for both a smaller deficit (or bigger surplus in the years there was one) and also to spend more on key priorities. It was broadly an unconfrontational approach of cut waste, spend more on priorities and be nice to the professional bodies and union viewpoints – with the one major (and important) exception of Iraq. It was not one of aiming for major changes to British society. Even if the rhetoric sometimes claimed such lofty aims, the detail did not back it up.
However, the approach was widely criticised across the party – and in his own writings, one of the social liberal leaders (until he became a special advisor) Duncan Brack was far more critical of Kennedy’s line of least resistance, unradical approach than any Orange Booker. The reaction against Kennedy was not something forced on the party by a small clique led by Clegg; it was a widespread reaction from across all parts of the party.
Moreover, whilst it is certainly true that the Parliamentary Party’s outlook changed towards a more professional one based on a much greater emphasis on wanting to run the country well (as opposed to being restricted to ambitions for representing a particular geographic community), 1997 is the most plausible key turning point, not only for the infusion of the class of ’97 but for the its impact on attracting those who were elected in subsequent elections.
Had it not been for the Ashdown / Rennard success of ’97, many of those elected in ’01 and ’05 would not have been attracted to seeking a Parliamentary career (including Clegg? Discuss at leisure).
The legacies of 1997 and Charles Kennedy are rather underplayed as Gerard talks up the impact of Clegg. At times reading the book I suspected Gerard was aware of the weakness of his case for although he states if boldly and confidently several times, when he then turns to more detailed narrative, the details almost always support a much more nuanced interpretation – especially when one also factors in the simple fact that the country’s overall economic position was very different by the time of the 2010 manifesto writing from the earlier period, making a shift in policy emphasis hardly surprising. Indeed, Gerard writes of the Ashdown legacy, before backing away from considering its impact on his thesis.
Moreover, look at the four priorities on the front page of the 2010 manifesto and they do not show a particularly Orange Book flavour – the pupil premium (a central funding formula to pump more money into parts of a public service), constitutional reform (a policy interest that can be traced as far back as the party’s predecessors in all their different forms over the centuries), environmentalism (again, hardly new) and tax cuts (but balanced by tax increases; a different tax system but not a move to an overall low tax world). As coups go, that is not much of a return.
And yet, even if you end up thoroughly unconvinced by the ‘coup’, the book is a great read for its stylish commentary which shows both inside knowledge and understanding of the Liberal Democrats. Here is where you will (finally) find in print some accounts of the internal disputes amongst the authors of the Orange Book, an explanation of Danny Alexander’s role and influence and an account of the influence of CentreForum (where perhaps Gerard’s thesis is closest to being right for its influence is much greater than you might gather from the disparaging comments some activists make about it).
Clegg, both in his political skill and his commitment to liberalism, comes out of the book well as do many of his colleagues – David Laws included. Surprisingly, those who come out of it least well are the Liberal Democrat press team who, both implicitly and explicitly at various times, are blamed for failing to handle the media well, too often preferring silence or slowly returned calls to energetic, in your face, defence of the party and its personnel. (That mirrors a criticism the Independent’s Matt Chorley made at a fringe meeting I chaired at the party’s Autumn 2011 conference, where he said the party took too long to realise that when in power it will be written about – the choice is whether to provide journalists with good stories or not; ignoring the media just results in bad stories. Matt did go on to add that it is a lesson the press team have since learnt.)
So whether you are persuading by Jasper Gerard’s argument or not, do give the book a read.