Clegg learns 'hard lessons' on approach to political reforms
Plenty of eyebrows were raised when, back in 2010, Nick Clegg described his political reform agenda as "the biggest shake-up of our democracy" since the 1832 Great Reform Act.
More than two years on, and several hard knocks later, the deputy prime minister would appear to have changed his tune a little - at least when it comes to the means of achieving his goals.
Appearing before the Commons liaison committee of senior MPs, Mr Clegg said he was wary of developing a broad-brush "constitutional blueprint", comparing the pursuit of "excessively neat" solutions to characters in Samuel Beckett's play Waiting for Godot searching for the meaning of life.
The Liberal Democrat leader has learned the hard way, seeing his cherished goal of electoral reform go down in flames in a referendum and plans to democratize the House of Lords derailed by Conservative backbenchers.
And his party retaliated by scuppering plans - until 2018 at least - to reduce the size of the House of Commons and reconfigure parliamentary constituencies to make them roughly the same size, which the Lib Dems initially supported.
Meanwhile, with the Scottish independence referendum looming next year - the Lib Dem leader and his Conservative and Labour counterparts are having to contemplate the prospect of a profound constitutional change they would rather not see.'Not interested'
Asked for his views about devolution for England and the prospect of fundamental change in the relationship between central and local government, Mr Clegg acknowledged he had not always succeeded "to put it mildly" in his pursuit of big-bang political reforms.
Wider desire for such a sweeping approach was limited, he suggested.
End Quote Nick Clegg Deputy Prime Minister
I have come round to the idea if you wanted to make progress to a more devolved and decentralised country, waiting for a perfectly consistent blueprint is like waiting for Godot. It just won't materialise.”
"The British public, when they were asked for a change in the electoral system, they did not seem that interested. When they were asked to vote for police and crime commissioners, very few turned up. When they were asked to advocate mayoral elections, (they) didn't."
Experience from elsewhere in Europe suggested ministers should be more "relaxed" about the pace of devolution in different parts of the country, he told MPs, and that the process would always be "dynamic".
"I have come round to the idea if you wanted to make progress to a more devolved and decentralised country, waiting for a perfectly consistent blueprint is like waiting for Godot. It just won't materialise."
So the government was right to put forward "pragmatic and workable" solutions to what is known as the West Lothian question - where Scottish MPs are able to vote on legislation affecting England in areas such as health and education but not vice versa - rather than talk about an English Parliament.
And heralding the City Deals scheme - in which more than 20 cities in England are steadily being given new powers over planning and transport - he suggested this could be a model of a more incremental but still radical approach to calls for a new political settlement in England.'Black hole'
Instead of "springing" some grand plan on the public, he said he preferred to get on with devolving decision-making powers across a range of areas and disclosed that he was lobbying his cabinet colleagues to accelerate the process.
"I have been thumping the table in Whitehall saying you have got to give up powers to city halls," he said.
Other moves, such as allowing English councils to retain business rate revenues and borrow money against future income generated from capital investment projects, represented "quite a dramatic loosening of the leash" of central government, he insisted.
"Baring down on that Whitehall reflex - which is to constantly arrogate powers to itself and tell other areas what to do - is not an overnight job. I think we have done more over the last two years to break down that centralising reflex than any government in a very long time."
But opposition MPs on the committee seemed sceptical of the deputy prime minister's new approach, Labour's Graham Allen suggesting Mr Clegg should be bolder and the government should be able to "walk and chew gum at the same time".
"There is a black hole, a magnetic force that draws powers back to Whitehall," he said.
"To ensure that does not happen, when you are no longer deputy prime minister and David Cameron is no longer prime minister, don't we need to enforce it or entrench it in some way?"