Nick Clegg: You Ask The Questions

Liberal Democrat Home affairs spokesman answers your questions, such as 'Is a drunk leader better than a useless one?' and 'Have you ever taken drugs?'
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The Independent Online

Wouldn't it benefit the party if you took over now rather than wait for the next election? Heather K, by email

Take over? It sounds like some sort of military coup – not a particularly Lib Dem way of doing things. Ming ha s said he will lead the party up to, through and beyond the next general election, and that's what will happen. There is no vacancy. My job is to support Ming by doing Home Affairs to the best of my ability.

Under Ming Campbell, the party has been slowly sliding into electoral irrelevance. What is your strategy for making people take notice again? Allan Forrester, Orkney

If you look at the big challenges in British politics today – the environment, Britain's role in a globalised world, the balance between freedom and security, accountability and transparency in politics, the importance of social mobility – they are at the heart of what the Lib Dems are all about. We can hardly be irrelevant when the whole political debate is moving onto our home turf. The age of two-party politics is gone: only 2 per cent the electorate voted for a party other than the Conservatives or Labour in the 1951 election; 32 per cent of the electorate voted for other parties in the 2007 election. Voters want more choice in politics, not less. Lib Dems must always be straight talking, and willing to ask the questions that no one else will. Who else would have challenged the war in Iraq? Who else would have challenged the penal populism of New Labour's headline grabbing mania on law and order? Who else would stand up for long standing British liberties which are under constant attack from both of the other parties?

Is a drunken leader better than a useless leader? Peter Stone, Peterborough

I don't know who you're referring to. Winston Churchill and Anthony Eden?

Why is Sir Menzies Campbell such a disaster as leader? Is he just too old, or too useless? Mike Burns, Clapham

People are crying out for integrity, authenticity and consistency in politics – and Ming has those qualities in spades. He settled the nerves of the party with great authority after the acrimony and angst surrounding Charles Kennedy's departure. He's strengthened their professionalism. The party has scored some memorable by-election successes under his leadership. The Liberal Democrats secured 26 per cent at the last local elections, only 1 per cent behind Labour. He's led from the front on controversial new policy issues – taxation, Trident and Europe. And he's reinvigorated the party's policy leadership on crucial issues such as the environment, Iraq and civil liberties. These are lasting achievements in difficult circumstances.

It's likely that the next election will produce a hung parliament. Who will the Liberal Democrats share power with? Colin Lloyd,Kent

It's simple – if you want a more liberal Britain, help the Liberal democrats get more votes, more seats, and more influence. I don't see the point of staring into a crystal ball to find out what might or might not happen after the next election until we know what the voters think – after all, they're the boss.

What's the first thing you would do as Home Secretary? Liz Philips, By email

I'd introduce a Freedom Bill, to roll back a great swathe of unnecessary, illiberal legislation which has been shoved onto the statute book by a Government addicted to legislative hyperactivity. From restrictions on the right to protest, to unfair rules on DNA retention, to ID cards – bit by bit the delicate balance between the powers of the state and the rights of the individual has been turned upside down. It's high time we got the balance right again, in keeping with Britain's own liberal traditions.

Are you angry at the MPs who caused such scandals during the party's leadership campaign? Liam Bradley, Stoke Newington

No. Politicians are human beings facing personal tragedies and upheavals like everyone else. I don't believe in high-handed moral condemnation of other people's private lives. Being angry with colleagues and friends for mistakes made in their private lives doesn't get you very far.

Did Mark Oaten have any good advice for you on your first day as Home Affairs spokesman? Esther Smith, By email

Pace yourself – it's a long game. Don't get burnt out.

What do Liberal Democrats really stand for these days? Ed Challinor, by email

We believe in putting people in charge of their own lives so that they can fulfil their own potential unhindered by prejudice, disadvantage or needless Government interference. Liberals believe that progress comes from people not systems, opportunity not dependency, from human innovation not Government diktat.

Why do you support rapid population growth by mass immigration? Roger Martin, Somerset

More Britons live abroad than non-Britons live here – it's a two-way process. To make immigration a success, rather than a source of fear, we need to do three things: make the administration of the system more competent, not least by introducing more effective border checks so we know who's coming in and out of the country; plan for the consequences of immigration, especially the impact on housing and public services in those areas where immigration has increased sharply; and boost integration alongside immigration, for instance by introducing a selective, earned route to legalisation for some of those people who have lived here for many years in a twilight world of illegality and exploitation. It's better, surely, to offer them a route towards becoming productive, tax-paying members of British society than leaving them in the hands of people traffickers and unscrupulous employers.

What do you make of Gordon Brown's calls for 'British jobs for British workers'? Dermot McCearny, by email

I thought it was a classic headline-grabbing gimmick to get him through a tricky session at the TUC. In any event, it's unenforceable since the Government is legally prevented from discriminating between British and EU workers.

Would you have taken a role in government if asked by Gordon Brown? Rachel Hibbert, by email

No, nor do I think he would have asked. Gordon Brown seems to think political pluralism is simply a question of picking off a few individuals from other parties on his terms, without any meaningful compromise on his part. As Paddy Ashdown said, there's little merit in Lib Dems being added as a sort of bungalow annex to a Labour administration in search of Liberal Democrat voters, not Liberal Democrat policies. Ming Campbell was absolutely right to rebuff Brown's overtures. Real power sharing and political pluralism require a complete culture change in how British politics is conducted, and that's not what was on offer.

I voted Lib Dem at the last election, but clearly your party is going nowhere. If you had to chose, would you recommend I plump for Brown or Cameron? Kate O'Brien, Birmingham

I wouldn't "plump" for either. I'm only keen on plumping if you plump for the Liberal Democrats.

Do you believe Mr Brown when he talks about a 'new politics' of consensus and cooperation? Bill Michaels, by email

I'll believe it when I see it. On terrorism, he's talked a good talk on forging a cross-party consensus yet he's done next to nothing to create a mechanism in which that cooperation can operate.

Can a ruling party ever be convinced to adopt proportional representation? Sian Williams, Cardiff

Not if history is any guide! But then again the lop-sided distortions of our present Westminster electoral system, producing overcentralised and unaccountable Government, is so out of step with the aspirations of voters these days that I think it's only a matter of time before it changes. We're living on borrowed time – either we make our system fairer, and more accountable to voters and Parliament, or the political class will only have itself to blame as public cynicism and indifference towards politics grows.

How do you reconcile your claim to believe in decentralisation with your support for more and more power for the EU? Mark Taha,

Sydenham

I think your question is the wrong way round. Will Britain really gain more power if we cut ourselves off from our European neighbours? How are we supposed to deal with the environment, cross-border crime, world trade or global migration other than by way of supranational arrangements at EU level? By pooling sovereignty at EU level we are able to influence the world around us in a way we could never hope to if we pulled up the drawbridge and languished in splendid isolation. At the same time, of course, we should only do things at EU level which clearly require a collective European response. I don't believe in creating new EU powers for the sake of it. That's why I've long advocated the devolution of some existing EU powers, such as much of the Common Agricultural Policy, whilst advocating more EU action on issues like cross border crime.

Why is the pro-European camp still so weak in the UK? Mo Anderson, by email

Because few national political leaders have had the courage to tell it like it is on Europe.

Should we have a referendum over the new EU Treaty? Georgina P, Newbury

No. If Margaret Thatcher didn't have one on the Single European Act, the biggest pooling of sovereignty in the recent history of the European Union, then why should we have one on changes that are, in particular for the UK, minor in comparison.

It would make more sense to have a plebiscite on the question of whether we stay in or pull out of the EU altogether, because that is what many of the people arguing for a referendum on this latest treaty text are really after.

Have new revelations about powerful "skunk" cannabis made you rethink your position on drugs? Ian Heath, Stratford

They have reinforced my view that the present debate on classification of drugs is a nonsense, with politicians second guessing science and evidence. We need a total overhaul of the system so that classifications are based on facts rather than the prevailing mood of tabloid newspapers or Home Secretaries.

Have you ever taken illegal drugs? Joanna Hargreaves, by email

One of the few things I agree with David Cameron on is that politicians are entitled to a past private life.

Do you think there is a media bias against your party? Alice Green, by email

It feels pretty friendless from time to time. The London-based media are missing a trick, because in large parts of the country the Lib Dems are either the major political force or the main opposition. In the south west the Labour party is non-existent, and the same is true for the Conservatives in the north.

You worked as an intern under Christopher Hitchens. What did you learn from him? Martin Whitman, by email

He's an extraordinary polemicist, a kind of mad genius. I didn't agree with many of his way-out views, but he has an unfailing talent for controversy.

Why is a man who has studied all over the world and speaks five languages wasting his time in politics? Hugh Petri, Devon

Politics remains an important contest of ideas about the kind of world we want to inhabit. Is that a waste of time?

Next week: Ed Balls, Secretary of State for Children, Schools and Families. Send your questions to myquestion@independent.co.uk

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