Deputy Prime Minister and leader of the Liberal Democrats, Nick Clegg, will arrive tomorrow (20 May 2014) in Oxford to speak on ‘Britain’s Place in the EU’. In response, the Oxford Activist Network (OAN) has organized a demonstration against Clegg (rally begins at the Taylorian at 2:45pm). The OAN statement on the protest aptly summarizes who Clegg is and why we should be angered by his presence here:
We, students in Oxford, do not forget. We do not forget that in 2008 Nick Clegg said: “will I ever join a Conservative government? NO.” We do not forget that in 2010 Nick Clegg pledged to oppose tuition fees, oppose a VAT increase, and oppose immediate cuts in public spending. We do not forget that millions of people, many of them students, lent the Liberal Democrats their votes on the basis of these promises. And we do not forget that at the first whiff of power Nick Clegg dumped his pledges to us, trebled tuition fees, and leapt into bed with the Conservatives. Nick Clegg’s continued parliamentary support enables David Cameron to pass regressive legislation from the benefit cap to the bedroom tax, punishing the poorest for an economic crisis created by the wealthy. Clegg presides over a divided nation, with taxes cut for the rich while prices rise, pay is squeezed and debts grow for the rest of us. He has sold out our generation.
This succinct analysis, with its wonderfully fiery rhetoric, unfortunately does not translate into the appropriate practical realities of opposition. Having debated the option of refusing Clegg a platform for political reasons, the OAN decided to reject the ‘no platform’ tactic. Historically reserved for fascists and racists, ‘no platform’ might be enacted in a number of ways, such as refusing to host speakers associated with violent groups, e.g. the English Defence League, or taking direct action to prevent the proponent of an abhorred political position from speaking. In the spirit of comradeship and furthering the struggle of students, I offer the following analysis to show why believing that ‘Clegg is not welcome on our campuses or in our universities’ entails actively denying Clegg a voice in our university. In other words, I believe we should ‘no platform’ Nick Clegg.
Clegg’s history of promises and subsequent betrayals shapes how we are to understand his status as our political representative. As a representative, his duty is to fulfil and carry out the mandates of the people who voted him into power. One of these mandates was not to increase fees. Far from failing to carry out his obligation as an elected representative, he turned around and betrayed the will of the people, doing exactly the opposite of what the people had elected him to do. Clegg’s actions in power should be clearly understood as an authoritarian act against not just students but any of us who still believe in democracy.
Understanding Clegg as an authoritarian or tyrant is far from making a hyperbolic statement. In fact, the British government’s own philosophical basis, that is, our own liberal history, provides us with a justified precedent for making this claim. John Locke, early proponent of liberalism and disliked author among undergraduate finalists, argued that people unite together in political society to preserve their lives, liberties, and estates by erecting a legislature to pass laws for the preservation of the community. Locke argues that the government has a duty to implement and enforce the ‘will of the Society’, which in our case was the desire not to increase student fees. By increasing fees, however, contrary to his representative duty, Clegg ‘quits this Representation, this Publick Will, and acts by his own private Will’; in so doing, ‘he degrades himself, and is but a single private Person without Power, and without Will, that has any Right to Obedience’,and may thus justly be resisted(Two Treatises of Governemnt, II, §151). Applied to our situation, Locke’s argument demonstrates that Clegg, as our equal, does not have any natural authority or power over us. Being in government, however, provides him with an immense amount of power and authority that we, as individual citizens, do not have. What makes this unequal relation of power legitimate, according to Locke, is that we have consented to this situation. That is, we agreed to let Clegg have authority over us on the condition that he represents our wishes. We entrusted Clegg with power to represent students. However, by betraying this trust (in such a brazenly public manner, no less), he forfeits any authority he has over us. Simply put, we did not consent to tuition increases. In violating our consent, Clegg loses any claims to legitimacy as a representative not just of students but also of any democratic persons who entrusted him with power to represent them. For Clegg to come to Oxford to speak in his capacity as a political representative is an insult to all who consider themselves Clegg’s moral equals. His exercise of power over us is illegitimate and, as such, any act of power against the consent of another should be understood as authoritarian.
So what are we to do? According to Locke, this betrayal of trust justifies us in removing Clegg from office and, if need be, to do so with the use of force:
[U]sing [the] Force [of the Government] upon the people without Authority, and contrary to the Trust put in him, that does so, is a state of War with the People, who have a right to reinstate their Legislative in the Exercise of their Power … when they are hindr’d by any force from, what is so necessary to the Society, and wherein the Safety and preservation of the People consists, the People have a right to remove it by force (II, §155).
I am not advocating that we violently eject Clegg from Oxford, but, according to Locke, given the circumstances of mounting debt and student poverty, we would be justified in doing so. Morally speaking, then, given that Clegg has lost any authority to represent students, we are justified in denying him a platform to speak as a person who falsely claims to represent us.
Some may say that we should go to his talk and pose provocative questions. This obviously will accomplish nothing, politically speaking, other than giving the questioner a sense of rebellious importance for having spoken ‘truth to power’. More importantly, to engage Clegg presupposes that the terms of engagement are legitimate and in so doing masks the illegitimacy of his position. To ask him a question in his capacity as a representative assumes that Clegg is indeed our representative. However, it should be clear that Clegg has lost any authority to represent anyone other than his own particular interests.
The issue of denying Clegg a voice is not about political disagreements regarding fees. This is about the political legitimacy of representation based on a people’s consent. Even if you are okay with tuition fees or are politically aligned with the liberal democrats, as long as you hold democracy and equality dear to your heart, you must oppose any liar who has forfeited his trust by betraying his democratic mandates. While we should not be surprised when politicians lie and deceive, the blatant two-faced nature of Clegg’s turnaround should deeply shock all of us who still consider ourselves democrats. In shared responsibility to the coming generations, I’ll see you in the streets.
This article was written in response to the debate provoked by Nick Clegg’s visit to Oxford this week. Read Andy McKay’s article defending the Liberal Democrats here.