Two months before the general election, Nick Clegg -- the leader of the Liberal Democrat party -- warned there would be "riots" on the streets if the Conservatives won the election and introduced extreme cuts. Now the riots have begun -- and Clegg himself is the chief cutter, installed as Deputy Prime Minister of a slash-and-burn Conservative government.
There was a whiplash moment this Wednesday. Inside the House of Commons, a pale-faced and barely coherent Clegg was championing the trebling of fees for university students at Prime Minister's Question Time, despite the fact that he promised before the election to "implacably oppose" this move because it would be "a disaster." Then, in a low rumble, the chants of the 50,000 betrayed and protesting students massed outside began to echo into the chamber. He began to stumble: "We have stuck to our ambition... our wider ambition... " (Laughter, jeers). "Our policy is more progressive... " (Hoots from all sides, including his own.) "The truth is before the election we didn't know... " The chants got louder, and the excuses got more contorted.
Clegg is one of the great mysteries of British politics. Before the election, he told us "there isn't a serious economist in the world who agrees with the Conservatives... [that] we should pull the rug out from under the economy with immediate spending cuts." Now he is one of the leading champions of doing exactly that. In just a few days after the election, he cleared a space in his swanky new ministerial offices and staged a bonfire of his principles.
Whatever you think of these policies, how can anybody defend Clegg gathering the votes of millions of people on a clear mandate of opposing these Conservative proposals, and then -- as soon as the door of his ministerial limo swings open -- championing each one of them? Remember: David Cameron got 36 percent of the vote in Britain, and even that was on a promise that "we're not talking about swingeing cuts." Some 60 percent of us voted for parties to his left. We could see the Britain he wanted to build -- just this week, our leading center for sick children, Great Ormond Street Hospital, discovered it is facing a 20 percent cut in its budget -- and we rejected it decisively. You can agree or disagree with the swinging of this scythe, but nobody can claim it is democratic.
Clegg may well be committing political suicide. He represents Sheffield Hallam, the only parliamentary seat in South Yorkshire not held by Labour. It has a huge population of students and workers at Sheffield Forgemasters -- which his government has effectively bankrupted. It is now probable he will lose his seat. Nationally, more than half of his party's supporters say he has "sold out." They are skidding down the slaughterhouse tube of the Australian Democrats, a long-standing center-left party who installed a right-wing government in power and were promptly euthanized by the electorate.
Clegg 2.0 promised he would "prioritize the interests of the poor." Clegg 3.0 is throwing the poor out of their homes and making it harder for them to go to university. I was the first person in my family to stay on in education beyond the age of 16. Would I have had the confidence to go to Cambridge if I had known I'd be racking up more than £36,000 in fees and loans? Would I have felt internally pressured to choose a much cheaper university, and lesser chances in life?
It was predictable that the British people would be furious at this betrayal and fight back. A tiny number fought back this week in a despicable way: throwing fire extinguishers off a tall building could kill somebody, and whatever thug did it should go to prison. But most acted eloquently and passionately and peacefully. "Don't ruin my dreams," one student's banner said, summarizing the mood of the crowd.
There was a string of ironies in the reactions of senior Conservatives to the protest. Cameron complained that there were not enough police at the protest -- but he is in the process of dramatically cutting police numbers, so soon there won't be enough police for any of us. Boris Johnson, the Conservative mayor, angrily condemned student violence -- hoping we have forgotten that when he was a student, he and the Prime Minister were part of a violent gang of aristocrats called the Bullingdon Club who charged around Oxford smashing windows and intimidating people in a remarkably similar way to the anarchists at Milbank Tower.
But here's the biggest irony. When they wanted to sell these extreme cuts, the Conservative and Liberal Democrats would turn moist-eyed and say it was "immoral" to "burden the next generation with higher debts." So as a solution they have introduced a program that will... burden the next generation with much higher debts.
When all this is spelled out and the excuses stripped away, Clegg and his defenders have one last argument. There Is No Alternative. We Have To Do It. In a recession, you must cut. Tighten your belt! Family budget! Just rejoice! This U-Turner Is Not For Turning! It's especially strange to hear Liberals say this, since it was the greatest Liberal of the twentieth century -- John Maynard Keynes -- was explained definitively why this thinking is wrong and in fact caused the Great Depression of the 1930s. The reason why we need national deficits is precisely to revive demand when private consumption implodes. Like the Ghost of Christmas Future, our neighbor Ireland is collapsing deeper and harder into depression -- and they are just two pages ahead of us on the Cleggeron script. ("Look and learn from across the Irish Sea," George Osborne lectured us. Yes, we should George.)
The truth is that since 1750, our national debt has always been higher than it is now, except for two 40-year gaps. If we are "bust" now, we have almost always been bust. The debt was more than twice this level in 1945, and we still built the National Health Service and secured decades of prosperity. It is flatly untrue to say the bond markets will downgrade our debt if we don't cut: They just downgraded Ireland precisely because it did cut in this way and killed its economy. If Clegg believes massive cuts are "necessary" and "the only way," then he is a willing dupe.
There are plenty of alternatives, and he knows it. Instead of soaring tuition fees, they could introduce a graduate tax on all people who have been to university to fund the next generation of students. They know it would dissuade far fewer students.
And there is a win-win alternative to the government's ugliest policy -- kicking huge numbers of the poorest people out of their homes by slashing the subsidy for poor people's rents. Even the Conservative mayor Boris Johnson hyperbolically calls it "Kosovo-style social cleansing."
The reason why we have so many poor people piling up in private rented accommodation -- which is expensive -- is that, for a generation now, we have been whittling down our stock of publicly-owned council housing, under the Tories and New Labour. They were sold off, which was a good policy because it expanded home ownership. But instead of investing the proceeds in building more council homes, they were frittered away on tax cuts for the wealthy. It caused a drought in social housing, so the only humane option in the short-term was to pay rent for people. The real alternative is to begin a massive program of building social housing.
This has a double-benefit. House building employs a large number of people on low or average incomes, who then spend the money they earn quickly on other goods and services. Economists call it a "multiplier effect," spurring economic growth. It's one of the best economic stimulators we have. But instead, the ConDem coalition has decided to cut house building to its lowest level in generations and stage mass evictions.
Nick, you should remember that angry chant you heard echoing into the House of Commons this week as you stammered and yammered. It's the sound of the rioters you prophesied would come with Cameron's cuts. Whatever happened to that Nick Clegg?
You can follow Johann's updates on this issue and others at www.twitter.com/johannhari101
If you are a member of the Liberal Democrats appalled by Clegg's choices, you can join the Social Liberal Forum, an internal group that is trying to reclaim the party.
You can watch Johann on Democracy Now being interviewed about the cuts and the fightback here.