Quark: We know you speak a lot of languages – how useful do you find them, and do you think that in the UK they should be a more important feature of education, like English is in other European countries?
NC: I think languages are hugely important, because they just give you a window, not just onto a language, but onto a culture, onto a different way of looking at the world…and so, I think languages broaden your horizons in a way that very few other things do. Being able to speak to someone else from a different culture, different place, different continent in their language just gives you an insight into how other people see the world, and I think that’s very important, because as a general rule it’s crucial in life not just to see things as you want to see them, but how the world looks from the point of view of other people. You know, some languages are, bluntly, more useful than others: I was brought up with Dutch – my mother’s Dutch – so I was brought up as bilingual, speaking Dutch and English. I still speak Dutch to my mum. I can’t pretend Dutch is the most useful language because they all speak English better than most of us. Obviously German, French, Spanish, Chinese…these are great languages. But I think almost any language is worth learning, and I’m very pleased that one of the things we’ve been able to change while I’ve been in government is to change the rules as far as language teaching’s concerned in primary schools, get kids from an early age encouraged to learn languages. And of course, the danger is that we can afford to be lazy about languages, because they all want to speak English – English is the most useful, the global language bar none. But I don’t think we should allow that luxury to be a sort of alibi not to learn languages.
Quark: Quite right. Closely related to languages is Europe. What would you say the 3 main priorities for the EU are in perhaps the next few years?
NC: Jobs, quite simply. I think to create jobs in an open economy such as ours at a time of globalisation, unless you’re part of what is the world’s largest economy…so jobs is the first one by a long way. 2 other ones I’d probably identify are the environment – the European Union is a sort of leading force in international negotiations on climate change. Climate change by definition is one of those issues you can’t deal with on your own – you have to work with others, so I think it’s a very good thing that the European Union works together to try and raise the game generally in terms of reducing carbon emissions. And thirdly I’d say safety. I literally think there’s safety in numbers, strength in numbers. That has a very concrete meaning. A lot of criminals cross borders; crime is now an international business. You need to be able to work with others, in the EU and elsewhere, to cross borders as well. So jobs, environment, safety.
Quark: So how do you foresee the role of the EU evolving within the next decade?
NC: Well, I was asked about this on television the other day…I think the heart of it will be quite similar. The heart of it is economic, is the growth and the jobs you get by just creating them in a marketplace of 500m shoppers. But I think a lot of other things will change. I hope there’ll be less unnecessary bureaucracy, having got rid of unnecessary red tape…I was talking to a Lib Dem MEP in the area yesterday, and it’s just ludicrous, the migration of MEPs every month from Brussels to Strasbourg costing £150m every year – of course you should get rid of things like that. I just hope it’ll be a bit leaner, a bit cleaner and more transparent. But I think the basic idea behind it, which is to create collective prosperity through creating this big marketplace where 500m people can buy anything we produce here in Sheffield – I think that will remain the heart of it.
Quark: Leading onto that, what do you think are the 3 main arguments for the UK staying in the EU?
NC: Probably the same as what I said earlier, actually – jobs, protecting the environment and safety – but of those, I think jobs…I just don’t see how in a footloose fancy freedom…we’ve got this great debate going on at the moment about Pfizer takes over AstraZeneca – that is just one of the realities of modern globalisation. We’ve got this huge commercial interest – we’re able to, at the push of a button, transfer huge amounts of money from one hemisphere to the next. The idea that somehow, in the face of that modern, globalised reality, we just retreat and cower in a corner and hope that things will sort themselves out – I really do think it’s a dangerous fantasy.
Quark: So what’s your opinion of EU-wide legislation, for example the new reforms to data protection? Do you think it simply over-complicates existing legislation of individual member states?
NC: Oh yes. Some laws aren’t necessary, are disproportionate or are not well-crafted. But, by the way, that happens nationally as well as at an EU-level. And sometimes, it’s painstakingly and mind-numbingly long and laborious, the way some of these decisions are made. I remember when I was working in the European Union – it took 15 years to decide a chocolate directive. Literally a decade and a half to decide the definition of chocolate. So you know, of course…anything…I tear my hair out in Whitehall, quite often, certainly in Westminster – of course there needs to be a reform, of course some decisions are taken which aren’t too smart or should be revised. But I don’t think you solve that by quitting it, that’s the thing: you don’t reform anything by just walking away from it.
Quark: How important would you say a European alliance is now, with the rise of the Asiatic powers? Today, Vladimir Putin has been making public speeches in Moscow and in the Crimea…
NC: Russia’s a very good example. In the long run, Putin needs Europe more than Europe needs Putin. I say in the long run, because in the short run he sells all the gas, particularly to Germany and Italy. I think what will happen in response to this crisis is that the EU will quietly work up strategies to create greater independence from Russian oil and gas, because I think the lesson has been learned in the past 7 weeks that we can’t rely on such a volatile and erratic partner such as Vladimir Putin. And that will damage Russia, and of course Europe is an economic superpower compared to Russia. It’s very important that we speak with one voice, and use that economic clout to make clear that Russia’s behaviour is totally out of order. I think in the long run, Russia will have to mend fences with the EU. There’s no future for Russia, as an economy so heavily dependent on a huge global economy like the EU, there’s no future for Russia without the European Union.
Quark: One bone of contention between Russia and the West at the moment is that they’re habouring Edward Snowden. How do you think we can balance, effectively, national security and the human right to privacy?
NC: [chuckles] I think that’s one of the great debates and challenges of our time. It’s one of the…it’s a sort of classic, can I put it like this, liberal dilemma; how do you protect civil rights, civil liberties and so on when you’re also having to deal with unbelievably sophisticated threats in which the online world is as much a threat to our safety as it is an opportunity. I think the only way you really can square the circle between privacy and security is to add a very healthy dose of accountability, to make sure the intelligence agencies operating on our behalf operate obviously within the law – as they do – and also are constantly scrutinised, so that their activities are only proportionate to the threats they’re trying to deal with. When things go wrong I think we can get uneasy is when there are proposals to scoop up great harvests of data, even from people who are innocent of any wrongdoing. So that’s why I vetoed this idea within government to block what was known as a ‘snooper’s charter’, which basically would have locked any website that you visit, in a year from the first forward slash, and I just thought that was a disproportionate response, storing everyone who is innocent’s internet traffic. That’s the balance we need to strike, and there a number of ways I think we can improve the transparency and scrutiny within which intelligence agencies work, and the proportionality with which information is retained for anti-terrorism and crime-busting purposes.
Quark: Part of the EU data protection reform includes the right to be forgotten. For youth, that means that if somebody gets drunk and puts it on Facebook, Facebook has the responsibility to remove those images. Isn’t it better to educate them not to do that in the first place?
NC: Yes, of course. I think there is an issue…my generation – I’m 47…oh gosh…if I thought everything I’d ever got up to as a youngster was on Facebook I doubt I’d ever have got into politics. No, it’s a serious point, this. I think there’s a level of confessional transparency through social media now which has never happened before. All young people do things about which they’re later embarrassed, or regret, and I think it’s important to remember that what you do one day can be a source of great regret later on.
Quark: To what extent do you think the rise of UKIP in the public eye has been facilitated by the failings of the EU to address everyday British problems?
NC: My own view is that it actually goes slightly deeper than that. Of course there are plenty of things you could say which could be changed about the European Union, which need to be reformed. My own view, having listened to lots of people who are inclined to support UKIP, is that it goes a bit deeper and wider than that. I think there’s quite a widespread sense of fear and insecurity and anxiety after the catastrophe of what happened in the economy in 2008 – people are worried about buying a house, paying their bills, finding a job…and so, as night follows day, I think what happens if you have lots of people who are fearful, you have populists providing very simple answers. And I think UKIP’s not alone – there are sort of Farage-types in every single European democracy at the moment, exactly the same debate going on. I was in – I think you’ll understand this with your German actually – I was in Austria the other day, and there are great big posters of 2 eerie-looking sort of Farage-lookalike politicians, campaigning for the Freedom Party, which a UKIP-style party there. Their tagline was “Wir verstehen Eure Wut” – “We understand your fury” – so you’ve got this kind of phenomenon between populism and feeding people’s fear. And also I think for some people appealing to a sense that some voters, not exclusively but often older voters, might uncomfortable with some of the things in modern life, you know, they might not like same-sex marriage or the fact that thankfully more women are now in work rather than just stay at home. They don’t like what’s on the internet, they don’t like what’s on telly, they don’t like what people wear – there’s a sort of hankering for a past that maybe no longer exists, but the past nevertheless is a very strong impulse. I think that’s what UKIP’s appealing to, and that’s the reason I decided to have these debates with Nigel Farage. I’m being told constantly that I came off the worse in those debates, but I nonetheless was keen to do so and would do so again because I say you can’t win an argument unless you’re prepared to have an argument. You can’t change those deep-seated issues in a few hours’ debate, but you can start to try and challenge them, because before you know it, if we don’t challenge them, we’ll be out of the European Union and will have turned the clock back. It would be a very bad thing.
Quark: So how do you go about capturing those disaffected of the UKIP vote? I [Juliet Armstrong] was recently in the north-east, in a very Labour-centric area, but it was fairly astounding, the number of people who used to vote for the left-wing but now vote for the right-wing. Since the Liberal Democrats are really in the middle, how can you go about capturing that vote?
NC: I think anything that breeds despair and a sense of hopelessness about the modern world is a gift to populists. If you sort of feel that things are happening to you and you’ve got no control over it, if you’re fearful about the future, if you despair about modern Britain, and of course someone like Nigel Farage comes along and says, “Well it’s all the immigrants’ fault”, it sounds terribly seductive – “Oh yes, all our problems can be blamed on somebody else.” You have to show that you’ve got solutions to those problems, and that’s why I try, myself, not to argue about this personality or that personality, and certainly not to do what Labour’s now doing – slagging a whole load of people off, myself included – but to say “Look” – to sort of spell out in coherent terms – “If you want to address those fears and that anxiety, if you want to keep streets safe, if you want to make sure there’s a safe environment for our kids, if you want to create more jobs, if you want to put money in people’s pockets so they can pay their bills, there is no short-cut but to keep our economy strong and open and not to pull the drawbridge up.” If someone has a better idea, please stick it on a postcard. I can’t think of a better way than trying to explain that turning your back on the modern world is not an answer to those fears.
Quark: Talking about the general election – if you had the chance again, say this was 2010 again, would you enter the coalition, knowing you’d have to make so many policy compromises?
NC: Yes. Absolutely. Without a shadow of a doubt. The longer time goes on, the more I feel vindicated for that decision, rather than the reverse. Memories are quite short sometimes – I think people sometimes forget what it was like in 2010. There were riots on the streets of Athens, Alastair Darling was flying to an emergency finance minister’s meeting on the Sunday, people like me were being telephoned saying, “If you don’t have a government on Monday the bond markets will go crazy; interest rates will go up, unemployment rates will go up…”. There was a real sense that we were on a precipice economically. I’m incredibly proud of the fact that we, obviously at some considerable short-term cost, that we stepped up to the plate to try and provide a remedy to the really deep-seated economic crisis that ensued after the crash in 2008. And then, of course, we were put under huge pressure to buckle and change course – do you remember? The endless “PLAN B, PLAN B!” and all the rest of it…the fact we not only entered into coalition but then stuck to a plan to try and create a sense of stability for the economy…and now in the city we’re in now, in Sheffield, we have lower numbers of employment than ever before, lower numbers of NEETs – young people not in employment, education or training, larger numbers of people in apprenticeships than any other northern city. That really makes me really proud, because one of that would have happened if we hadn’t stuck to our guns…but yes, no-one needs to remind me that there are some people who are unhappy about that. There were some agonising decisions, controversial and unpopular decisions made notably on higher education. But do you think I will look back on it and think, “Well, at least I tried to do the best thing for the country as a whole” – yes I do.
Quark: What image of the Liberal Democrats do you want to produce for 2015? Not to compare you to him, but Lenin summed up the Bolsheviks in 1917 as “Peace, bread and land”. If you could make a similarly catchy slogan, what would you say it was?
NC: [laughs] We’re open, we’re fair and we’re green. I think openness is really important at a time when so many populists now want to close the gate, lock the door and pull up the drawbridge. Fairness is essential as we put the economy on a surer footing, and that’s why everything from better pensions, fairer taxes and more apprenticeships have been so important to me. And green because I think it remains one of those huge huge generational challenges that we can’t just hide away from.
Quark: If we look back at the Liberal Democrats’ time in government, there have been a few scandals, with Chris Huhne, Vince Cable and The Telegraph, Lord Rennard as well – how difficult is it for you, as a leader, to draw people together, to try to negate negative press attention and to try and focus on politics rather than the actual scandals?
NC: It’s a very difficult job. The nature of modern politics…it’s a rough business. Particularly – not saying this in a self-pitying way, but the Lib Dems don’t have any vested interest in the press – there’s no-one there to stand up for us. We’ve got lots of people, left and right, constantly wanting to do us down, so you have to cope with a constant barrage of incoming fire. Some of it might be fair – a lot of it, frankly, is not – but you just have to try to deal with them as they come. But whatever the press might throw at me, I will always defend their right to throw stuff. I think it’s essential in a liberal, open society that the press can be as rude and as challenging and as aggressive as they wish to people in power, because that’s one of the checks and balances we have in our democracy.
Quark: Our final question: what’s your opinion of programmes like “Have I Got News For You”?
NC: I don’t watch…I used to watch it a bit. I used to like it. I just don’t watch that much television any more…no I think it’s a good programme. Why? You mean in terms of what they say about me and stuff?
Quark: We just wondered what your opinion was of it generally: how they analyse the news, when they have guests. Farage was on it the other day – they don’t hold back even when they’re on it – John Prescott for example…
NC: I heard about that, didn’t see it. I think one of the great things which sets us apart from any other country is that we use humour in a much more iconoclastic way than they do in other countries. I think, in other countries, politics is such a…humourless business. When you go into politics, you have to have a thick skin, and you also have to be able to laugh at yourself, otherwise you’d just go spare. I think “Have I Got News For You” is the latest in a long line of that very, very fine and very, very British tradition of satire and mockery of people in public life. Long may it continue.