Tuesday, 11 September 2012

Who are you calling a Bigot?

Nick Clegg has a remarkable habit of snatching defeat from the jaws of victory.  It takes some doing to perform this trick with the consistency that has marked his increasingly gloomy years in government.

His latest moment comes today as part of the bigot-row (we can't call it bigot-gate as that nice Mr Brown bagged that title when he launched a verbal tirade about a Rochdale pensioner).

It seems Clegg was due to give a speech this evening in which he referred to those opposed to same-sex marriage as 'bigots'.  A draft of the speech was released to the media (as usual) but then the text was changed, removing references to 'bigot'.  This gives Clegg the impression of being gutless once again, dodging calling out those who many would regard as bigots.

On this occasion, those critics seem to have called this wrong.  I think Clegg has shown remarkable guts on this.  We presumably have yet another almighty cock-up.  A draft was produced and then sent out - presumably prematurely.  Clegg then had a choice - recall the speech and make a change, thus looking weak, or running with a speech that he didn't want to give, thus looking weak privately but the public wouldn't know.  However, in doing so, he risks upsetting many, and increasing the chance of defeat - and a defeat wouldn't make him look weak, it would demonstrate that he is weak.

So, Clegg made the strategically sensible decision of appearing weak, rather than proving to be weak.

In the short-term it fuels bad headlines but he made the right call.  The next call is to find out why a speech was released which did not use appropriate language - this is about effective government and whilst many words can be used to describe the Coalition, effective isn't one of them.

I realise - and my twitter timeline certainly reflected this earlier - that there are many who will think the term bigot is entirely appropriate, but it's a term that denotes not only narrow views, but an intolerance of other views.  Whilst this is true of some who oppose same-sex marriage, it is not true of all.  Some LGBTQ activists are opposed or question same-sex marriage but they would not describe themselves as intolerant, they just take issue with the institution.   So too, many on the right and those who identify as religious would not regard themselves as intolerant but they would have difficulty reconciling the institution of marriage as a religious concept with the civil union of a same-sex couple.

In seeking to drive through a policy such as same-sex marriage, it's important not to annoy the opposition so much that they feel stirred into fierce action.  You want mild gentle resistance which can ultimately be overcome.  Going around calling everyone bigots is a sure fire way of raising the stakes, and goading the opposition into feeling they have to make this a major battle.  A good sound-bite in the short-term would have been bad politics in the long-term.

Of course, by retracting the comments in this way, he does show the opposition that he doesn't want to annoy them, which may mean they (they being predominantly Tory back-benchers in this context) may feel they can extract some concessions from the Coalition government on other issues such as taxation and regulation.  Thus, the government not only once again looks weak, but is.

However, let's not lose sight of the bigger picture.  Clegg looked an idiot today and undoubtedly took yet another hit, but for once I see a man fighting a real political battle rather than a war of soundbites.  It's just a shame they have to make so many clumsy mistakes in the process.

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