Do I agree with Nick?


It’s odd that the more the right-of-centre press attack Nick Clegg, the more I like him. Two stories in particular caught my eye this week. The first, in the Daily Telegraph, claimed that Nick Clegg supported the legalization of drugs. The second, in the Daily Mail, said he wanted to break up the NHS and replace it with a European-style social insurance system. If either of those things were true, I’d certainly be more inclined to support him. But what is the real story?

First, the drugs: back when Clegg was a Member of the European Parliament, he was one of only eight British MEPs to support a motion calling for the sale of cannabis and its derivatives to be legalized, for the use of other recreational drugs to be decriminalized, and for heroin to be made available to registered addicts under medical supervision. It also condemned the international drug war as a failure, and described national drug laws as ‘restricting civil liberties and individual freedom’.

In other words, the motion was plain common sense, and said what anyone looking rationally at the evidence would conclude: that drug prohibition is a flat-out disaster, which fails utterly in its stated aims, which gives rise to the most horrendous unintended consequences, and which ought to be ended as soon as possible. I can honestly say that if Nick Clegg and the Liberal Democrats were committed to ending the drug war, they might have my vote, in spite of their soak-the-rich, bash-the-bankers economic platform. But in reality all the Lib Dems are proposing is to put the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs in charge of drug policy. And Clegg being a politician like any other, the fact that he once believed in something doesn’t mean he still does. After all, David Cameron used to favour legalizing drugs too.

Second, the NHS: in 2005, Clegg told the Independent, ‘I think breaking up the NHS is exactly what you do need to do to make it a more responsive service.’ When they asked him whether he favoured a European-style social insurance system, he said, 'I don't think anything should be ruled out.’ Again, both of those statements are perfectly sensible: the NHS is too big to be manageable, and its decision makers are too remote to be responsive to patient needs; similarly, if you are going to reform the NHS, then all the options should be considered. After all, in many European countries social insurance schemes (like the one we proposed here in 2002) do deliver better outcomes and greater patient satisfaction than the NHS. Likewise, international comparisons tend to rank Bismarckian social insurance systems above Beveridge-inspired single-payer ones.

But in reality, again, that isn’t actually Liberal Democrat policy. Their plan is to make the NHS more manageable by localising it, to make it more responsive by introducing elected local health boards, and to make it fairer and less bureaucratic by abolishing Labour’s performance targets and replacing them with a simple guarantee that if the NHS can’t treat you within the specified time, the state will fund you to go private. In other words, a definite improvement on the status quo, but not the radical upheaval the Daily Mail would have you believe.

So funnily enough, I do sort of agree with Nick. I just agree with the radical caricature designed to frighten middle class voters rather more than I agree with the man himself.