Why Nick Clegg should try to relax, the fate of David Cameron's saplings and the Scottish referendum

I can only hope that Scotland votes to remain part of the UK. I do not want our family gravestone to be in another country

Click to follow
The Independent Online

In many ways, Nick Clegg is like Prince Charles. Not that the Deputy Prime Minister will soon be inheriting the Prime Minister's crown, but both men are in a hurry to do more with their current jobs out of fear for the next phase: for Charles, it is the "prison shades" closing on the comparatively easy life of being heir to the throne before becoming monarch; for Clegg, there is a sense that a window is also closing – he may only have 18 months left as a minister before the Lib Dems are out of government for another 60 years.

And in his apparent urgency, odd things are happening. Clegg sacked one of his closest political allies, Jeremy Browne – possibly the first minister ever to be fired for being too loyal to the Government – and replacing him with Norman Baker. Clegg has torn up a coalition consensus on free schools, without warning David Cameron. On Europe, in a speech next month, he will ramp up the differences between his party and the Conservatives yet further. On the environment, tax, votes at 16, the noise of differentiation will get louder. Despite all the talk at Lib Dem conference that Clegg will not decouple from the Tories until the 2015 election campaign officially starts, the decoupling strategy is already under way.

It is fair to ask at this juncture: what do the Lib Dems stand for? Is it simply for equidistance, splitting the difference, and remaining in government, no matter who the coalition partner is? Is the party that Clegg leads truer to its Social Democrat grassroots or to the Orange Book, economically liberal reworking of the past decade? If he stands down after the next election, does he care that his successor is from his wing of the party, like Ed Davey, or someone like Tim Farron, from the left?

When the Lib Dems lost around 13 percentage points of their share of the vote after the election, Clegg said it did not matter, that this group were protest voters or to the left of Labour, or both. The left-wing voters are staying with Labour, the protest voters have switched to Ukip. They are not coming back to the Lib Dems in a hurry. So the 10 per cent his party now counts on for support are, presumably, centre-right Lib Dems who like how they've worked with the Tories on the economy. Now that Clegg is making a new pitch to the left, that 10 per cent risks shrinking further still.

Clegg's aides will say he has always been concerned about core standards in education, that the position on green taxes and Europe has remained unchanged. Clegg removed Browne from the Home Office for not having sharp enough elbows to block things like the "Go Home" immigration vans. His relationship with Theresa May was too "coalicious". They expect Baker's elbows to be jutting outwards the minute he walked in the door at Marsham Street.

But there are signs that the Lib Dem leadership is becoming too insular. I understand that, although he holds weekly Lib Dem ministerial group meetings, Clegg has not seen many junior ministers for one-to-one talks for many months. And under his attempts to give his party definition from the Conservatives, the Lib Dems are, paradoxically, less defined. Are they natural partners with Labour or the Conservatives? Are they small-state liberals with social consciences or pragmatist centrists? Maybe Clegg does not need to care what the answer is: every internal poll for each party shows how improbable it seems that the Tories will win the election outright. Clegg has the greatest chance of all three leaders in remaining in power, in some form. Maybe he, like Prince Charles, should relax.

Cameron's true colours

Whatever happened to "Vote blue, go green", Ed Miliband asked David Cameron this week. More prosaically, whatever happened to the political paraphernalia we journalists were handed when Cameron, with the help of Steve Hilton, launched this slogan for the Tory local election campaign at a press conference in April 2006?

Four months into his leadership, Cameron decided that bemused hacks like myself would like some bags made from hemp – yes, hemp! – containing silver birch saplings as physical evidence that the Conservatives were embracing the environment. Days later Cameron had his arm round a husky on the Svalbard glacier. And some of those little trees were given permanent homes. One journalist planted his on a wild Devon hillside, another put his sapling in a pot in his courtyard garden, where it flourished. Mine, I regret to say, was given away to a Lib Dem and it died. I'll leave you to decide what that means.

Laid to rest in a foreign field?

There are birch trees very much alive in Aberfeldy, my mother's birthplace in Perthshire. Autumn colours are more vivid and diverse around the River Tay and in the Birks of Aberfeldy, made famous by Robert Burns, than anywhere else in the UK.

Our family gravestone sits on a hillside above the Tay. On the sandstone war memorial arch that marks the gateway to the Birks is inscribed the name of my great-uncle, James Mathewson, an RAF flight sergeant who went missing over Burma during the Second World War.

Giving my mother's place of birth while filling in a visa form last week it hit me that, in under a year, Scotland could have voted for independence and these names set in stone will belong to another country. As I do not have a vote next year, I can only hope that Scotland votes to remain part of the UK. I do not want that grave, that memorial, those trees, to be in another country. Some may say that my view of Scotland is akin to an American tourist's, clichéd and not "real". It is true that there is a lot of shortbread and tartan in Aberfeldy.

But despite its beauty, it wouldn't matter where in Scotland my mother had been born: I want the UK to belong to all of us.

The last Straw

Jack Straw, who announced on Friday that he is standing down as an MP, was the first minister I followed on foreign trips as a political journalist – first, to the Middle East shortly after 9/11 and then, in February 2002, into Kabul after the fall of the Taliban. On 11 September 2001, while the second twin tower was collapsing, I stood in the Locarno Room at the Foreign Office and watched the Foreign Secretary struggle to maintain his composure as he condemned what he called an attack on civilisation.

But a more poignant memory is, months later, standing in the garden of the British embassy in Kabul as Straw awarded an honorary MBE to Sher Ahmad Rashidi, an Afghan man who had looked after the residence and its neat flower beds for nearly 30 years, protecting it during Soviet occupation, when it was closed in 1988, and from Taliban rule. In Afghanistan, rare stability amid the chaos.