Show Hide image

Nick Clegg: the Biography

The choices reveal the leader.

Nick Clegg: the Biography
Chris Bowers
Biteback, 256pp, £17.99

The striking thing about this defensive biography of Nick Clegg is how much of it is spent debating whether he is a Conservative.

The author, a Liberal Democrat activist, likes his leader a great deal. "Idealism in politics is at stake through the person of Nick Clegg," we are told. "He believes in the intrinsic good­ness of people" and "he may yet be headed for great things, as many have believed for some time".

Like the prophet, Clegg may go unrecognised in his own country; but apparently this is a problem for the country, not for him. "Clegg remains as much a challenge for the British people as they are for him," Chris Bowers writes. "If there is any genuineness in the cries for a better form of politics . . . he should become popular again, as he [represents] something different."

But different in what respect? Much of Bowers's book consists of interviews with fellow Lib Dems and friends of Clegg, including, tellingly, Leon Brittan - for whom Clegg worked in Brussels when the former Tory minister was a European commissioner - and Ed Vaizey, a current Tory minister with whom he travelled to the Arctic Circle for a week in 2007.

The consensus is that the "something different" about Clegg is that he is a different kind of Liberal Democrat from his predecessors as party leader. He is on the right where they were on the left, and what made him opt for the Lib Dems rather than the Tories was not "a better form of politics", but rather one issue - Europe.

Clegg's Europeanism stems as much from lifestyle as from conviction: the Spanish wife, Dutch mother and Russian grandparents; the career in Brussels; the fluency in four European languages. This accounts for the difference in his liberalism, too. His free-market libertarianism is common in right-wing liberal parties on the Continent, and he has little rapport with the 20th-century social-democratic tradition that dominated the Liberal Party and its successors from Asquith, Lloyd George, Keynes and Beveridge through to Roy Jenkins, Paddy Ashdown and Charles Kennedy. Indeed, Bowers notes that until he became an MP in 2005, after five years as an MEP, Clegg "had very little knowledge of Britain politically".

Thus Chris Davies, a Liberal Democrat MEP and friend of the leader's, says: "I think of him more as a Continental liberal than perhaps a mainstream British liberal." Andrew Duff, another Lib Dem MEP, observes: "If the Conservative Party had been how it used to be under Edward Heath, Nick would be a Tory, albeit a natural liberal, pro-European Tory like Chris Patten and Ken Clarke."

His Tory friends agree. According to Brittan, Clegg "didn't like Labour at all and didn't like the Conservatives enough. He was very unhappy with the Conservatives' European policy." Vaizey says he is "essentially Tory but divided by one issue, in his case Europe".

The journalist John Palmer, who knew Clegg well in Brussels, links Europe to his neoliberalism. "His work with Leon [Brittan] in and around the single market and competition policy probably had quite a strong influence on him. He was quite markedly to the right of some of his colleagues."

The matter of Europe apart, Clegg fits the Cameroon glove in background, outlook, style, the lot. The English side of his family could hardly be more establishment. The son of a wealthy Buckinghamshire banker, educated at prep school and Westminster like his grand­father (his father was at Bryanston), he emerges from this biography as a Home Counties, public-school, dutiful Tory in largely the same mould as David Cameron and George Osborne. Which is why, given the choice last year, he opted to form a coalition with them rather than stand aside from a Tory government, or negotiate a "confidence and supply" agreement with the Conservatives, or form a coalition with Labour - all credible options.

He told his party there was "no alternative". Margaret Thatcher said that, too, yet this is never true in politics. To govern is to choose, said Pierre Mendès France, and the choices reveal the leader. In Clegg's case, the choice was not only to coalesce with the Tories, but also to support their economic policy without compromise, and even to front the trebling of university tuition fees. Significantly, Bowers reports that Clegg supported tuition fees before the election, but was too weak within his own party - and too much of an opportunist - to take on the membership or tell the voters.

His Tory inclinations are all the clearer in his statements during the election to the effect that, in the event of a hung parliament, he would negotiate first with the largest party as a matter of principle. As he knew, this was contrary to constitutional precedent and international practice. It also contradicted the position of previous Lib Dem and Liberal leaders, who had said simply that they would seek to get the best deal for the party in the wider national interest. Given that, in 2010, the Tories were very likely to be the largest party in any hung parliament, Clegg knew this would give momentum to a Tory-Lib Dem coalition above all other options. And so it proved.

Here lies a crucial point of distinction with Continental politics. The major centre-right parties on the Continent - the successors to the Gaullists in France, the Christian Demo­crats in Germany and Benelux - have tended to be corporatist and statist. Liberal parties in these countries inject a dose of market individualism into coalitions of the right. In Britain, by contrast, the post-Thatcher Tory party is thoroughly neoliberal, though it is wearing a "big society" badge this time around. This means that a Lib Dem leader from the same stable is mutually reinforcing, not a force for compromise. Which is precisely the record of the Cameron/Clegg coalition in practice.

Why is the Lib Dem social-democratic majority putting up with it? It doesn't quite realise that a coup took place last year (I have lost count of how many Lib Dems have told me: "Nick had no alternative but to go in with the Tories"). These Lib Dems like the idea of their party being in government and latch on to the small mercies - a referendum on AV here, a bit of Murdoch-bashing there. And they are still out of sorts with Labour. Above all, they have no choice, until they get a new leader. They were not in the room when Clegg and Cameron did the deal. They are not in cabinet meetings when Tory policy after Tory policy is agreed.

Bowers invites the nation to admire Clegg's accomplishments. Whatever you think of his politics, he is a man apart. Not only the talented linguist and the easygoing nice guy, there is also Clegg the sage: "He has a deep-rooted love of English literature and is comfortable with demanding works." His favourite is Giuseppe di Lampedusa's The Leopard, "a fairly challenging Italian novel . . . imbued with hidden meaning, and not the kind of book many would be found reading on the 7.20 in to Waterloo."

It's true. On the 7.20, they are more concerned with grubby, everyday things such as jobs, taxes, riots, the state of England's schools, trains and hospitals. They may not be imbued with Lampedusa's insights into the Sicilian aristocracy. But they know a Tory when they see one, and they know a leopard doesn't change its spots.

Andrew Adonis was a member of the last Labour cabinet

This article first appeared in the 05 September 2011 issue of the New Statesman, 9/11