''Brown and Cameron are illiterate and parochial''

Nick Clegg dismisses charges he's the right-wing candidate in the Lib Dem leadership election. He's

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Nick Clegg is a nice guy. That's his shtick. His Liberal Democrat leadership bid is based on a calculated emphasis on his natural attributes of eloquence, charm and confidence. But, like those other great public school populists of our age, Tony Blair and David Cameron, he is also able to come across as the sort of chap you could happily have a beer with. In fact, one senior female Lib Dem told me she was backing Chris Huhne precisely because Clegg was too charming.

But there is one area of policy where his contempt for his political opponents is tangible. When the subject turns to Brown and Cameron's grasp of foreign affairs, the boyish smile is gone and a steely seriousness takes its place. "I think David Cameron is one of the most parochial Conservative Party leaders in a long time," he says at the very end of our interview. "In fact, I think both Cameron and Brown, in different ways, are quite illiterate and badly versed in international relations." Clegg is utterly dismayed by what he calls Gordon Brown's "infatuation" with the United States, but also by the failure of either main party leader to grasp what he sees as Britain's "European vocation".

It takes a good hour, but finally Nick Clegg is riled. He has spoken with eloquence, charm and confidence about his ideas for a devolved National Health Service and his plan to chop up giant comprehensives into manageable mini-schools on the public school "house" model. He hardly breaks a sweat disposing of the rival claims of Chris Huhne to the Lib Dem leadership. But when I suggest that the two other parties have already fed the "Clegg factor" into their calculations, he begins to look seriously irritated. "There are big differences, it seems to me, between the philosophy I espouse and that of those two party leaders," he says. "The other two parties can read into my leadership, if I were to become leader, what they like," he says, with just a touch of petulance. "But I hope I have been quite clear about the direction of travel." Apart from a more internationalist approach to foreign affairs, this direction would involve, according to Clegg, constitutional reform, changes to the electoral system, restoration of civil liberties and genuine devolution to local government.

Assuming he wins, there are those on the left (myself included) who believe a revival in Lib Dem fortunes would hugely benefit the Labour Party. There would probably never be quite the opportunity for a left-liberal alliance that there was in 1997, but there is no doubt that a new anti-Tory compact would be hugely damaging to Cameron. Clegg accepts the basic premise of this argument but takes it a stage further. "Something like 85 per cent of our MPs are in former Conservative seats. I want to hold on to those gains and improve on them. Look at the political map of Britain: the places where we are going to win the most seats in the next few years are in the Labour heartlands. One of the reasons I'm keen to be leader is that I think I can lead the charge against Labour." Clegg argues that his experience as the only non-Labour MP in South Yorkshire and his previous life as MEP for the East Midlands has given him a solid track record of taking the attack to Labour. "I am an anti-Labour northern MP to my fingertips," he adds.

There is a separate Tory orthodoxy, presently being touted by some of the most senior figures in the party, which suggests that in the event of a hung parliament the Liberal Democrats will be forced to come to an accommodation with the Tories because the British people will have indicated that it's time for a change. Clegg dismisses the suggestion: "It's an unbelievably far-fetched attitude from senior Conservatives that somehow the Liberal Democrats are condemned to do deals with them. It's phooey."

Clegg's opponent has been attempting to paint him as a man of the right, by suggesting his reform programme for education amounts to vouchers and that his position on Trident makes him an advocate of rearmament. His policies on health have also made him vulnerable to the charge that he wishes to break up the National Health Service. I ask him to assure New Statesman readers that the NHS is safe in his hands.

Unequal outcomes

Refreshingly, in arguing for reform, he talks not about "choice" or "consumers" but about inequality. "If you are born in the poorest ward in Sheffield you will die, on average, 14 years earlier than if you were born just a few miles down the road in a wealthier ward. In other words, health inequalities have not shifted at all in this country over the past ten years." Clegg has identified possibly the most challenging question for the government as it prepares to persuade people to vote them in for a fourth time: "Why is it that we have this National Health Service, of which we are rightly so proud - I depend on it, my family depends on it - and yet it still produces such unequal outcomes?" One of Clegg's solutions is to make primary care trusts accountable at a local level by transferring their powers to local authorities. I suggest this puts an enormous amount of faith in councils, not necessarily the most robust of democratic institutions. "It might sound glib," Clegg responds, "but I'm afraid the answer is, you either have faith in the ballot box or you don't. It's as simple as that. You either believe the ballot box acts as the best check on incompetence, or you don't. I can't think of a better system." In addition, Clegg believes elderly patients, those who are mentally ill or with long-term conditions such as diabetes, can be given a greater degree of control over the treatment they receive rather than being seen as the passive recipients of care. "This is nothing to do with privatisation and nothing to with social insurance. It doesn't touch the fundamental principles of a heath service free at the point of use, accessible to everyone."

On education, he is keen to target resources at the most disadvantaged. He claims that by the age of six, bright children from poor backgrounds are overtaken by less able children from middle-class homes. He therefore aims to weight funding in favour of schools with large numbers of children from poorer families. He estimates this would cost £2.5bn, of which £1.5bn would come from taking richer families out of the tax credit system and the rest from efficiency savings in Whitehall. He also believes the crucial transition from primary to secondary school is made more daunting by the size of many comprehensives. He proposes "schools within schools", to provide a more friendly environment for learning.

I suggest he has said nothing about the two sets of institutions that do more than anything else to reinforce the unique social apartheid we have in British schools - the independent sector and faith schools. Here his solutions are far from radical. "I think a combination of focusing resources on the disadvantaged, moving towards smaller schools and putting pressure on both the state and private sectors to become integrated parts of the community - it's an important mix that would lead to a progressive outcome." In other words, don't rock the boat too much even though we have one of the most divided and divisive education systems in the developed world.

Clegg is clearly irritated by the suggestion that he is the candidate of the right, especially as his opponent has accused him of being too "right-on" about law-and-order issues. He is keen to clarify his position on Trident renewal, which he voted against in March. He claims Chris Huhne is more of a rearmer because he is arguing for an independent British nuclear deterrent. Clegg claims Britain has a "once in a lifetime chance" to rid the world of nuclear weapons at the 2010 Nuclear Non- Proliferation Treaty talks. "I want us to play an active role in disarming the world. Where I disagree with Chris, firmly and fervently, is . . . you don't go into a negotiation having already thrown all your negotiating cards . . . out of the window."

Nick Clegg is determined to change his party to reflect the changing face of Britain, and to make serious gains at the next election he will have to do that. Whether a Westminster and Cambridge-educated middle-aged white man is quite the person to do that is open to question.

But perhaps only someone of that background has the arrogance - or is it self-belief? - to think that such a gargantuan task is possible.

NICK CLEGG: The CV

1967 Born 7 January in Amersham, Buckinghamshire.
Educated at Westminster School and Cambridge
1990 Internship in New York under Christopher Hitchens at The Nation
1991 MA at the College of Europe in Bruges
1996 Policy adviser and speechwriter for Sir Leon Brittan at the European Commission
1999 Elected as MEP for the East Midlands
2005 Won Sheffield Hallam constituency. Lib Dem spokesman on Europe
7 January 2006 Touted as a leadership candidate on Charles Kennedy’s resignation, but ruled himself out
19 October 2007 Launched leadership bid

Research by Alyssa McDonald

This article appears in the 19 November 2007 issue of the New Statesman, New best friends?

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