It is gratifying that Nick Clegg's fluency in German gained him such kudos on his recent continental trip. Unfortunately his use of English is not producing such positive results.
Last autumn Clegg referred to the need for "savage cuts." Presumably he soon regretted it and as far as I know has never used the phrase again, but the record cannot be altered. The left-wing press refer to it again and again to try to demonstrate that Liberal Democrats share the Tory penchant for cutting back the state.
Earlier this week Clegg talked of "gold-plated public sector pensions" and I suspect that that bit of hyperbole will haunt us and him as much as the savage cuts. In yesterday's Guardian, in an article headlined "For the Lib-Cons, this is an excuse to shrink the state" (well worth a read) Seamus Milne pointed out that public sector pensions average £4000 a year in local government and £6000 in the health service. More tin-plated than gold-plated.
It is true that a number of senior executives in local government, the health service and even Whitehall have obtained private sector style salaries and perks, and this is to be regretted, but their excesses should not be used to tarnish the entire public service, who by and large work for salaries and pensions which are modest, but regard this as suitable compensation for the security they enjoy.
A friend of mine who knows about these things assures me that most if not all local government pensions are "funded" and, as such don't cost the taxpayer a penny. Teachers' and civil servants' pensions are not "funded" in the same sense, but that is not to say that we haven't paid for them. Six percent of my salary was deducted throughout my working life. If the authorities chose to use that money for current expenditure rather than putting it into a separate fund that was not my choice. And it will have helped to keep down the taxes of everybody else, inducing the private sector who are so prone lick the cream when times are good and to bleat and turn on the public sector as soon as the going gets tough.
Liberals are rightly proud of the contribution our party has made to the establishment of the welfare state. Whilst rightly seeking greater efficiency our priority should be to protect and nurture it, not to jump on a populist bandwagon and tarnish its image by thoughtless gibes.