My Morning With Nick Clegg

October 15, 2013 3:58 pm

I arrived at Clapper Street sometime around half eight despite my train being delayed by exactly twenty-three minutes. At the time the delay had seemed like it would be my undoing as I waited impatiently at the station with the other commuters, pacing like a madman up and down the platform. I was furious at the seemingly incompetent national rail service for making me late for an appointment I had been looking forward to for days. The more I glanced at the clock the deeper my sense of impending lateness became and I soon found myself muttering every curse word in my vocabulary to try in vain to speed up the delayed train. Eventually, at nearly ten past seven, it arrived and I leapt on board with the tenacity of a gazelle evading the teeth of a lion.

Finally, I thought, now maybe If I skip breakfast at Victoria I might just make it in time for registration and keep my place! After finding an empty seat on the train I put my bag on the floor and placed my headphones over my ears to try to relax myself before the sprint to the underground I knew would be waiting for me on my arrival. During the journey to Victoria I decided to revise the question I had been pondering over for days so as to make sure there could be no scripted replies from the deputy prime minister. Having recently stated that he felt like his coalition partners approach to the UK’s drug policy amounted to “banging your head against a wall” and announcing his disappointment at the Tories failure to look into more “Imaginative” approaches to the war on drugs, I was curious to find out just what kind of approaches he may have in mind?

While legalisation and decriminalisation, he stated, may not be the answer, I found myself wondering why not? There seemed to be an ever-growing push towards these types of regulations across the global community and I was beginning to get frustrated with the Conservative party’s draconian policies towards drugs. As it stood, my question went something along the lines of asking the deputy PM just what he had meant by “Imaginative approaches” and if he had not meant decriminalisation or legalisation then what else did he have in mind? It is clear to anyone with any kind of rationality that an evidence based, harm reducing policy is the best kind of approach to these issues, yet, nothing of this kind seemed to even be on the radar of the coalition. What could possibly make them think that handing over control of a huge market to criminals would achieve? Nick Clegg

When I arrived at Victoria it became clear that I would indeed have time to eat before I jumped on the tube and this realisation caused a wave of relief to flow through my mind. I had been up at six o’clock this morning to catch the train I needed, a time that I am a firm believer no man, woman or child should ever be awake at. I grabbed a quick bite to eat and one last smoke before descending into the depths of Victoria’s underground station and making my way to Warren Street then changing for Goodge Street. Eventually I reemerged into the morning air and made my way down to Clapper Street with one last cigarette before the Q and A session began. My invitation had informed me that all participants should arrive no later than nine am in order to be registered, however, as I walked into the building the session was being held in this proved to be false. No registration occurred whatsoever, I could have just as easily walked in from the street and taken part had I known where the thing was being held.

Besides making small talk with the young lady who was kind enough to hold the lift for me I spent the majority of my first forty-five minutes there in silence reading the reviews of the England game that had occurred the previous evening. When the third floor room began to fill up with more and more participants I found myself feeling increasingly under dressed for the occasion. Everyone else appeared to be wearing impeccable suits and smart blouses with skirts and there I was wearing a sweat-stained black shirt, three-day old jeans and trainers marked with white paint from the decorating I had been doing a few days before. Nothing about me told anyone else I was supposed to be there and I am certain I was on the receiving end of more than a few funny looks as I sat alone at my table, refusing to eat the beverages that had been laid out for us all.

Just as boredom was beginning to set in I was joined by an attractive girl who immediately began chatting with myself and the others around us. She revealed herself to be the had of her own company and that they were looking for journalists to review the unsigned bands with whom her company dealt with. As soon as I let slip my trade she immediately took my email address and asked for my name so she knew as to who to address should she decided to get in contact, networking is a great thing. After a while of making small talk with her and another attractive girl from Leeds the three of us decided that this whole thing was taking too long and despite whether we were supposed to or not we were going to find ourselves some seats before there were none left and we were relegated to the bean bags laid out on the floor.

Once we were seated we waited another fifteen minutes or so before I caught my first glimpse of the man we were here to interrogate. He was taller than I expected him to be, his suit was nothing special and I was surprised at the enthusiasm he displayed being surrounded by a crowd of a hundred or so young adults. On first impressions the only thing that portrayed him as a politician was the confidence with which he addressed the room. Mohammed Ali at his prime had nothing on a fully trained politician. The kind of front that could only be taught by those with a distorted sense of self-importance and worth.

He began by stating the effects of the recent recession on the youth of today and that perhaps we feel as if we do not have the same ease of opportunities that our parents and older generations did. However, he then went on to say that while many of us worry about that, and rightly so, that there are some extremely encouraging signs including the sheer energy and get up and go optimism of many youngsters now days. After congratulating the lot of us on being so open-minded and entrepreneurial on how we got about dealing with what we want to do with our futures he then expressed his amazement on the abilities of young people and their use of technology to broaden and expand the horizons not just of themselves but of people around the world. The first question posed to Mr. Clegg was focussed around universities and whether they were really worth the time and money that is required to attend them and if not what other options there were? His answer was as follows.

“Look, if you want to go to university, that is great. And not withstanding all of the huge of the controversies surrounding the changes to the system, absolutely nothing can stop anyone from going to university if you want to. But, I think where we have perhaps failed as a society for far to long is there has been this barely concealed snobbery, and it is a kind of snobbery that has been quite unspoken for many many decades, that a kind of bookish academic qualification after you’ve left school is always better than a vocational or practical one. I don’t believe that is the case at all. I know lots of people who are really really bright but for whom sitting in a library for three or four years is just not what they want to do, they want to get their hands dirty and take up apprenticeships or take up vocations, and if we can put vocational, practical qualifications on the same footing providing the same esteem as academic qualifications, I think we’ll have made a huge step forward and that’s what we’re trying to do, raise the status of vocational qualifications and raise the esteem that is attached to those qualifications and I think in the years ahead you’ll see that you and, dare I say it, your parents too will increasingly be relaxed about the idea that there are different options available to you and that going to university is not the only thing to do after leaving school. Its great if you want to do it, we have some of the greatest universities in the world, thankfully people are applying for universities more and more and we have more people from disadvantaged background going to universities, but its not the only route and we have to cherish other ways forward whether its entrepreneurialism or vocational education on the same footing. It’s what they do, by the way, in some of the most successful economies and also some of the fairer societies around. You go to Scandinavia, you go to Germany, places like that, and the esteem that they provide for vocational qualifications are much more equal than they are here.”

The next question  was asked by a man who ran a youth community project challenging young people to become entrepreneurs and he stated that he believed young people were not the leaders of tomorrow, but the leaders of today. His main enquiry focussed on what could be done to aid the transfer of skills from an older generation to newer ones. The deputy PM replied with;

Clegg“While there are many bits to the dilemma you propose, the one that I would single out as being especially powerful, and I wonder whether some of you might have had experience with, is good mentoring programmes. Mentoring used to be considered slightly as, y’know, a bit of a sideline thing to do. I think that in so many walks of life now, whether it’s helping young offenders who got into trouble and maybe ended up on a spell in prison or not to get them back on to the straight and narrow, whether it’s helping young entrepreneurs, whether it’s helping young medics, young teachers, whether it’s helping youngsters who want to campaign in a more governmental organisation. I think over and over and over again that the best way of providing and making sure the skills are properly used and transferred from one generation to the next is a good one to one mentoring relationship and there are some really good organisations now which allow adults who want to develop a mentoring relationship, either in their spare time, on the weekends or even through the week during office hours.”

He then proceeded to question whether anyone was a mentee and questioned one girl who agreed that mentoring was a great scheme. I got the feeling that this was slightly a tactic of turning the time we had to supposedly question him around to question us on whether his policies where working. This, I believe, could be done on a separate occasion and I was beginning to get frustrated that I was being ignored. However I did understand that not everyone there would get to ask a question. But I am an impatient person you must understand and given the nature of my question was eager to air it to him. The next question was asked by a woman who ran a programme trying to introduce young girls into maths and science industries and she believed that the majority of the young people in these programmes were young males. She wanted to know what could be on a national level to make sure that more girls are interested in said programmes. This was the first question that seemed to stump Clegg as he automatically turned it back onto the woman who had asked the question.

“Well, you tell me? My first guess would be speak to the girls early, don’t leave it too late is a fairly obvious thing. I’m not sure how early, not when they’re eighteen or nineteen, eleven, twelve or thirteen I would have thought. And secondly make sure they are spoken to by female role models, people like you.”

At this point the woman who had asked the question butted back in to ask what the government could do to support that. Clegg seemed to become tired of this person and it appeared in his reply that he had turned slightly defensive.

“Well look, there’s a whole lot of things we do do, so for instance, I helped launch something called inspiring the future in which we help get people into the class room in state schools so that kids in the classrooms are exposed to positive role models, not just in science and engineering and maths but more generally.”

He then wandered slightly of topic to promote a programme his wife was promoting for a fairly similar cause about promoting good female role models before jumping back in with;

“But I don’t think there are any short cuts to speaking to girls early, in the classroom and making sure that they are spoken to by people like you who can sort of raise their sights to that of I can do that too.”

The next question was one that I’m sure Nicky boy had been dreading being asked. Tuition fees. According to the chap that asked the question there had been rumours that tuition fees were about to be raised to £16,000 and what he wanted was what Clegg’s opinion was on that and where the coalition stood on it. Nick’s reply was fairly predictable.

“No, no don’t worry we’re not going to raise tuition fees to £16,000.” 

He then went on to almost evade the question by giving the audience a history on tuition fees and basically blame the last labour government on why tuition fees were introduced in the first place. His answer to this question was so long-winded that for the sake of my own sanity I won’t write it all but merely state a few of the key points in his reply. tuition fee protests

“Whether you agree or disagree with the policy, whether you think its right or wrong, the really important thing to remember, and its been forgotten in the anger and all the rest of it, is if you’re an eligible student you don’t have to pay anything up front at all and you don’t pay back if you can’t.”

“Most estimates suggest the government will be writing of the debt of many many graduates. It’s ironic the ticket price has gone up, but actually what you have to pay out every month and every week has gone down.”

It will come as no surprise that the deputy PM was quick to play down the idea that tuition fees could possibly be on the rise as many of us will remember his famous apology video after previously making promises he could not keep.

Next up to be thrown at Mr. Clegg was whether there was enough value placed on arts and culture in education and the fact that a lot of schools don’t have the budget to encompass these values into their systems.

” Well look, I am very much into arts and humanities and they are very much close to my heart, but I think its important to remember that schools have a huge amount of discretion as to whether they can, you’re right there have been cut backs on some funding for instance for some music, even though we’ve kept the overall amount of money going into schools for kids increasing.”

“But in terms of our overall approach, our overall approach has been to allow teachers greater discretion on what they do. We feel and I personally feel that in the past, possibly with perfectly good intentions, a succession of ministers would intervene and say teacher x in year y needs to spend three minutes doing this two minutes doing that and it became  highly prescribed so we’re trying to give teachers greater discretion in how they teach and how they tailor teaching to individual kids and reducing to a slightly clearer core minimum the things that they absolutely must teach the subject that without much of you can’t really get anywhere in life literacy, numeracy, maths, english, science and so on. and I don’t think that’s short-changing arts at all, It would be a great danger if you say I think arts needs its own set of requirements and then this subject needs its own set of requirements and if you’re not careful you’re back to the bad old days were teachers are being issued great encyclopaedic directives from Whitehall telling them exactly what to do in the classroom. That doesn’t make any sense to me.”

Next on the agenda was a third year university student who wanted to know what advice Mr. Clegg had for those who wanted to choose between apprenticeships and degrees.

“The advice I would give them is to make up their own minds, don’t allow anyone to impose a decision. I’m not advocating insurrection against your parents, obviously listen to people, but at the end of the day go with what you think are your greatest talents, where your greatest strengths lie and what sort of dreams you have for the future and let that determine what you do now. As I say I think the crucial thing is that we should get away from this kind of Identikit approach to what we do after school, I think that’s kind of unfair. I also think having said that we need to give you the choice that you deserve between academic and vocation, we also need to make those choices simpler. If you don’t go to university at the moment there is just a dizzying array of programmes and budget lines and acronyms and sponsored initiatives it’s an absolute mind numbing bunch of decisions. I asked my office some weeks ago to put down on a piece of A4 If i was a 17-18 year old that wanted to know what my options were, I asked them to put down what my choices were and it was like a spaghetti junction of acronyms and overlapping initiatives so I got Jeremy Hayward to do a review of how we can dramatically simplify that.”

Next up was plain and standard packaging for cigarettes and is the government going to let parliament decide on this given that it is such an important issue for children’s health. Plain cigarette packaging

“I think it is an important issue and you’re right there is a lot of people who vociferously feel that this would make all the difference and It is almost certainly the case that we’ve seen quite a lot of evidence that the advertising and they way cigarettes  are packaged seems to have a disproportionate effect on young girls. The problem is that some of they empirical  evidence is actually quite disputed, this hasn’t been done anywhere in the world apart from Australia and they’ve only just started it. So we haven’t said no to this at all, we’ve just said to try and do this sensibly. There is a strong case being made but why don’t we wait and see for the actual full effect of what they’re doing in Australia before we make up our own minds. So we haven’t said no, I’ll admit there are some starkly differing views on this in government as you’d expect not least in a coalition government. We haven’t said no, we have an open mind we just want to make sure that only recently introduced measures in Australia that haven’t been introduced in the way that was envisaged anywhere else in the developed world is something that we can look at properly before finally making up our own minds. So don’t give up campaigning about this but don’t also think that we’ve closed the door, we haven’t. We have said very clearly that the Australia example has only just started, lets wait and see how they get on before we decide ourselves.”

Following this Mr. Clegg was asked what he would say to young people living in Scotland leading up to the referendum next year.

“I’ll tell you what I think. We live in quite insecure times in this world, the markets are shaking because of some obscure political standoff in Washington and things that happen on other continents have immediate effects on what goes on in our lives and we are all interconnected. We’re interconnected economically, we’re interconnected by borderless challenges like climate change, like movements of millions of people across borders, challenges of international crime, defence issues. This whole cliché about us being one world and being all in it together becomes more and more true as time goes on and I think the key message as we move into the age of globalisation is as a nation you can get more done when you stand together than when you fall apart. It just intuitively makes so much sense to me that the United Kingdom can do more together to deal with these challenges and provide economic prosperity, to get investors to come into this country and provide opportunities for your generation and deal with climate change and deal with criminals who move across borders is to work together. It doesn’t mean that Scottish identity as a nation can’t blossom further and I happen to be a huge advocate of something called home rule which is that you keep the flowering nations together and within that family of nations each nation gives greater expression to its own identity and I think after the referendum next year and after what I hope will be a rejection of pulling apart this family of nations then actually the next big debate north of the border is how you can further provide new powers to do this. So it’s not about sort of chiseling everything onto some tabular stone where nothing changes. The Scottish nation will continue to develop but I think its best done if it develops within a family of nations because of the simple reason we are stronger together than we are apart. It’s the same reason by the way, if not in slightly different terms why it would be economic suicide if we were to pull out of the European Union altogether and sort of pull up the drawbridge. This idea that, y’know, turning our back on the worlds largest borderless single market which is directly and indirectly responsible for employing over 3 million people in this country, why on Earth would you think its sensible for your generations prospects and job prospects and living in a safe environment and prosperous community to kind of pull the drawbridge up. I just think pulling the drawbridge up is not a sensible thing to do in an age of globalisation.”

It was at this point that Clegg’s entourage of heavily suited advisors began ushering him to wrap the whole thing up. I felt myself killing them all repeatedly in my mind knowing that my last chance to get my question asked and answered was rapidly slipping away. Alas it was not mean to be as the final question put forward to him came not from me but from someone asking whether politics should have a bigger role in the curriculum as a lot of young people seem to waste their votes through lack of knowledge. This was Mr.Cleggs response;

“Well as you know citizenship has been on the curriculum for many years now, I think it’s 10 years or so? We are actually changing a little bit the guidance of citizenship curriculum to make it more about a kind of the building blocks of our democracy so people have a kind of basic understanding of, not the passing issues of the day but how our democracy works, how our institutions work and how our constitution, which is an unwritten constitution but a constitution none-the-less and how it works. My worrying in the past has been that citizenship classes have been tough very unevenly, but actually there was a report out just a few days ago from school inspectors Ofsted that says well actually the teaching of curriculums has gone up in secondary schools. So I think that’s one important route. I think all young generations feel a bit disaffected and cynical about politics, everyone does it’s the most natural thing. The question is how can we marry healthy cynicism with information and the basic nuts and bolts about how things work. I’m a huge advocate of having people vote if they want to from 16, I haven’t been able to persuade my Conservative coalition partners to agree with that so we’re not doing it in this parliament but I will continue to argue it and Im pleased to see the Labour party saying that they would make that change. I don’t think that on its own is a magic wand solution, just because you’re suddenly entitled to vote doesn’t mean you’re going to rush out and by the financial times or anything. But I think it might nonetheless empower young people. So that might help a bit, citizenship classes might help a bit and frankly things like this might help with you and everything you’re doing. You all seem to me to be very engaged in issues of the day and the questions you’ve asked me. In a sense that’s much more interesting to you than, dare I say it actually to a lot of normal people than the stuff that obsesses the little classes  in Westminster from one day to the next. So don’t apologise if you like for the fact that you are interested in the things you are, they are as much about what makes up this country as any number of the things we debate in the house of commons.” 

The deputy PM closed the Q&A session and I decided that he must have a crazed fear of bearded, tattooed journalists and I vowed to myself that we would meet again I would shove my question down his throat, along with many others I’m sure I would develop over time.

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