Two months ago, on a bright spring morning in Paris, Nick Clegg set off for a meeting among various heads of government and assorted leaders of the global technology companies – Twitter, Facebook, Amazon, Google et al. The default setting on Clegg’s personal hard drive has long been optimism-despite and he was cautiously confident that he could help facilitate agreement again. The meeting was to be hosted by the French president Emmanuel Macron and the New Zealand prime minister, Jacinda Ardern. Among those also present were Theresa May, Canadian prime minister Justin Trudeau, European Commission president Jean-Claude Juncker, and the Irish premier Leo Varadkar.
But this time, of course, the 52-year-old former deputy prime minister sat on the other side of the table, not with the politicians but with the representatives of the technology firms – among them, Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey and Google chief legal officer Kent Walker. Clegg was just a little over six months into his new job as head of global affairs and communications at Facebook. The meeting had been called to co-ordinate international efforts to stop social media being used to organise and promote terrorism following the horrific mass casualty gun attack on two mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand in March this year, which was partly live-streamed by the attacker on Facebook Live.
The Paris session got off to a tense and wary start with some of the technology company representatives reading from their lawyer-lacquered statements. The politicians wanted some easily explainable “job done” solutions to take home; but the new masters of the universe speak in a different language from others, and the world leaders, like most of the people they represent, struggled to understand what the American tech giants were saying they could do, had done, might do, or might be prepared to undo. In a sense, the room became a microcosm of the wider human deadlock. On the one side, the ungainly paper-and-pencil ballot-box power of the national democratic governments; on the other, the deep-code, click-savvy digital power of the borderless private technology platforms. Between them, that oldest of questions: how to deal with human tragedy, trauma, violence and savagery.
Into this no man’s land stepped Nick Clegg. There has long been something unassailably buoyant in his manner. Certainly, that day in Paris, he was the only one who knew people on all sides of the table. He was an old acquaintance of Juncker from his days as a Liberal Democrat MEP and more recently from leading unofficial missions to Brussels with Tony Blair and John Major. He had kept up cordial contact with Macron’s circle. He had shared cabinet meetings with Theresa May. And he had also been talking to Ardern, both on his own and with Mark Zuckerberg, the founder of Facebook.
“Look,” he said, venturing across the divide, “I’ve spent a large part of my adult life on the other side of the table. And I know the huge pressure you are under to extract change and concessions from this side…” Here was the ideal interlocutor to explain one group to the other; and thus the ice was broken.
Some time later, Theresa May began censoriously to rasp from her briefing notes. The history between Clegg and May was “unpleasant”, he would tell me: Clegg had spent half a decade fighting and blocking her initiatives at the Home Office during the coalition government – among them, the prim excesses of the “Snoopers’ Charter” and May’s acidic approaches to immigration. He had found her “unbelievably techno-ignorant”, with a “leaden securocrat’s” attitude to technology. But in Paris, her intervention was measured and incisive. Clegg again leaned into the yawning gap between the two sides, set aside his differences with May and – to the surprise of his new tech fellows – offered his support to the Prime Minister. “Actually,” he ventured, “I agree with what Theresa has just said. In fact, Theresa, I’m agreeing with you more across this table than I ever did around the cabinet table.”
The effect was to draw laughter from the other politicians, to bolster May (at that time in a near-horizontal limbo of low spirits) and to corral the other tech companies into a more open, engaged demeanour. Ignore ideology and partisanship; seek progress and compromise; look for evidence- and reality-based solutions: this is Clegg’s approach, as he would have it. A nine-point plan emerged from the meeting that all the tech giants signed up to; it was voluntary, so for individual countries and companies to honour as they saw fit. But at least the two sides had stopped talking past one another.
This view of Clegg – as a translator – is the positive one. In this account of his career, he is the moderator not the quisling. The man who speaks five languages fluently – forever translating, in effect, between European ideas of social democracy and Atlantic ideas of a more rapacious capitalism. And, of course, this is a mirror position to the one he took in the Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition government of 2010 to 2015. Better to be in there – blocking the more rabidly self-lathering elements of the Conservative Party and advancing Liberal Democrat policy where possible – than not to have power at all.
But there is also the opposite view: that of Clegg as Tory enabler, apostate and sell-out. A man who will say and do almost anything for gain. And now that he has moved to California and Facebook, this question has taken on a new acuity: who is he really, what does he believe and for whom does he speak? Have the files been irretrievably corrupted? Can he address the questions Facebook should answer in the United Kingdom and, if not, why should we take him seriously?
When we meet in London, Clegg is fresh from a tour of the other European capitals where he has been making what he describes as a “big offer”: asking for government regulation of Facebook. We agree to come back to the Facebook questions later but for now it is clear that his zest has returned. There have been times in the past few years when he’s been remarkably – staggeringly – resilient but all the same you felt as though you were talking to a political taxidermist. Now, though, the dash and vim are back and he has again the trademark demeanour of an award winner – British Airways’ multi-destination pilot of the year, perhaps. He smiles and jokes and seems to be able to mine an inexhaustible resource of optimism.
Clegg went to Westminster School and studied anthropology at Cambridge – the latter furnishing him with a wide-screen view of history and our species. He interned briefly for Christopher Hitchens at the Nation magazine in New York then went to Brussels to work for the EU. From 1994 to 1998, he was employed by the European Commission, where he assisted negotiating the entries of Russia and China into the World Trade Organization (WTO). He became an MEP in 1999, an MP in 2005, leader of the Liberal Democrats in 2007 and entered the Conservative-led coalition government as deputy prime minister in 2010.
On the day we meet, Clegg is looking after his three sons and part of the time we drive around London in a tiny electric street-hire car with his children in the back. His wife, Miriam, an international trade lawyer born in Spain (who has advised both the UK and EU on trade law), is out. At one point, his father calls while we’re talking at the house he uses as his London base. Though Clegg has known family trauma – his son, Antonio, was diagnosed with a form of blood cancer three years ago and is now in remission – his family life has been stable and happy.
We take his sons to play tennis in one of the public parks by the Thames – “the years I have spent here,” Clegg says, shaking his head, as we contemplate that most British of sights: a wet wooden park bench.
For two decades, Miriam earned far more than her husband and Clegg did a good deal of the daily care. And it’s obvious he has a close bond with his sons – like a veteran of child-wrangling, he starts haranguing them to find their shoes a good 15 minutes before we are due to leave. There’s an interesting psychological question as to why he always seems to place himself in positions of national (now global) vilification, but in the local cafés he is warmly recognised. Perhaps it’s because he makes his immediate world feel so genial that the attacks seem almost abstract, as if happening to someone everybody else has misunderstood. He is good company. Above all, he remains copiously engaged with every conversational subject from philosophy to literature to politics and he has a multi-dimensional intelligence rather than, say, the trompe l’œil mind of Boris Johnson.
Between 2015 and 2018 Clegg (though ever-ebullient on the surface) retreated a little, psychologically, into some kind of private hinterland where he dealt with what can only have been a form of post-traumatic stress disorder following a series of atrocious public defeats. In the 2015 general election, the party he had lead into the coalition was all but annihilated – dropping from 57 MPs to eight. In 2016, his vision of an outward-looking patriotic pro-European Britain was sacrificed at the rank and fetid altar of Johnson’s Conservative leadership ambitions. In 2017, he lost his parliamentary seat in Sheffield to Labour’s Jared O’Mara (who now sits as an independent).
“You have to embrace failure not shun it,” Clegg tells me. “You have to accept it, stare it in the face not try and explain it away. Without naming any names, I do think it’s the real abiding failure of a lot of previous politicians. They’ve spent all their time trying to explain the past, justify themselves, vindicate themselves. I think you have to be open about it. [The 2015 election result] was a massive defeat and that fell on my shoulders and I took responsibility for it and you have to admit it and absorb it – embrace is not quite the right word.”
I ask about David Cameron and George Osborne. “No, I’m not friends with George or David,” he replies. “I see them from time to time. George comes out to California. I stood next to David at the memorial for Sir Jeremy Heywood [the ex-cabinet secretary and former head of the Home Civil Service, who died last November]. I am not an idiot. [Back in 2009-2010] George was doing what he loves doing – which is playing politics. When I came into government and sat across the table, I thought you’re the guy… who was trying to drag me and my family through the mud just a few days go.” He is referring to hostile briefings that appeared in the Conservative press at that time. “Maybe I was naive, but there was a method to my madness. I thought: what is the point of being in power and then looking as if you don’t want to be there? Sitting there with my arms crossed for five years looking grumpy? I was co-running [the government] with Cameron and I was bloody well going to do it and grab the reins.”
We talk, inevitably, about Brexit. He remains angry and deeply exasperated. I was writing about politics in 2014 and I remember a long train ride back from Bath (following a visit to the battleground constituency at that time held by Liberal Democrat Don Foster) with Clegg when he laid out – detail by detail – all the problems and contradictions of Brexit as an idea, as a process and as a political event. His dissection remains the most forensic forecast of what would happen that I have heard. He predicted the risible handling of the referendum itself by Cameron, and the subsequent issues if the vote was lost – our asymmetrical trading relationships, the customs union dilemma, free movement, Ireland, the European response, the steep Tory learning curve and inevitable chaos.
At that time, it was not an exaggeration to say that he was one of fewer than half a dozen MPs who actually knew what our relationship with the EU meant – politically, economically, in terms of power, sovereignty, national security and the hard-won details of sector-by-sector trade. He understood what was at stake and why. Clegg contacted Cameron during the 2016 referendum campaign urging him to change strategy, but he carried little sway by then and had barely any voice – a consequence, as he admits, of his failure in the 2015 general election.
Clegg won’t agree with the characterisation of Boris Johnson as a fat-berg who has blocked the national sewer, but says instead that he’s “one of those classic examples, the more you see of him, the less impressive he is. With familiarity, he diminishes.”
How does Clegg see the next few years going politically? “It seems to me that the clock is now ticking for the end of the union of the United Kingdom. I am afraid I’ve sort of come to the view I think that is now more likely than not. I think the Brexit demon has unleashed such an aggressive and regressive right-wing English nationalism. And that the Conservative Party is converting itself into an English nationalist party. It has so little representation in Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland and they have to compete with [Nigel] Farage. So I think the Conservative Party is condemned – whoever is leader – to be pulled in an ever more English and divisive direction.”
Boris Johnson will end up calling a general election, Clegg believes, because his only persuasive political claim is that he’s a winner. “And he’s going to really scratch away at that itch because that’s all he has got. I mean he’s literally reduced to saying I’ve got no plan for Brexit. I have no answers to the questions about my character. You know as I do that [Johnson’s] journalism is about striking poses; that’s the whole point about it. That’s what columnists do – they’re trying to provoke thought. But that is not what government is about. Instead, you are trying to play Solomon on a whole bunch of really invidious choices where you will never keep everyone happy, where there’s no perfect solution.”
Clegg often talks about rolling up his sleeves and dealing “with reality” and the “limitations of government”. I attended an ideas forum in London in 2014 which Clegg addressed by saying: “It would be great if we could stay within the bounds of reality as it is commonly understood.” The problem, of course, as TS Eliot would remind us, is that: “human kind cannot bear very much reality”. Electorates, in particular, are allergic to it.
While we’re talking, Clegg gets a call from Chuka Umunna, who joined the Lib Dems last month. Clegg walks away so that I can’t hear what they’re discussing. He comes back full of excitement about the prospect for the Lib Dems – “a real opportunity to hold the balance of power again”. Clegg won’t criticise Vince Cable but instead says that “Jo [Swinson] or Ed [Davey] will give some real energy to it… because there’s an excellent opportunity. In the grand scheme of things for such an old political party, it’s only four years and we’re back in business and I think that’s very exciting.”
Nick Clegg and Mark Zuckerberg meet French president Emmanuel Macron in May 2019
The central charge against Nick Clegg is that he is a bad actor and that his motives are suspect – or, worse, venal. At its crudest and simplest the question is this: was he merely a power-seeking Tory enabler in the coalition government, and does this mean he has “form” for his taking a job at Facebook?
His role in the coalition government is becoming easier to weigh with time. Of course he was power-seeking; he wanted to take the Liberal Democrats into power. But from the perspective of the party he led, he did so for good reasons: to get as many Liberal Democrat initiatives on to the statute book as he could. At that time, there was a new generation of energised liberal politicians and thinkers who were seeking to ally social justice with economic liberalism. They all contributed to the influential pamphlet “Orange Book: Reclaiming Liberalism”, published in 2004. Clegg was their dynamic leader and he wanted to give the Liberals their first shot at government since the time of Lloyd George.
This is not to say that he was wildly successful or that he and senior colleagues did not make serious mistakes – the tuition fees debacle; the easing through of Andrew Lansley’s botched NHS reforms; the decision not to take a big definable role at the Home Office or education so as to build and own a distinct Clegg-Liberal legacy. Undoubtedly, the Liberal Democrats were naive in the early years of the coalition. They paid heavy prices for zombie policies such as the (all-but-forgotten) Alternative Vote referendum of 2011. But if Clegg’s underlying motive is in question, then only the most cynical would ascribe venality; he did what he did because he thought it was the best for the country and for his party. Far from enabling the Tories, he was trying to carbon-offset them. He wanted to translate liberal policies into real-world improvements.
As he concedes, it soon became clear that this would not be easy. Indeed, the combined experience of all the senior Liberal Democrats that I have spoken to since the end of the coalition speaks most forcibly to one point: each and every one of them had to spend more and more time battling (the often bewildering) ideological Tory excesses on behalf of a country that had little idea at that time just how toxic the right wing of that party was becoming.
Danny Alexander, as chief secretary to the Treasury from 2010 to 2015, wound up asking for distributional analyses so that he could see where the pain of cuts would be felt – whether by the richer or the less well off. What this meant in practice was that every time the Tories attempted something ideologically driven that placed an unfair burden on the poor, the Liberal Democrats first illuminated the policy for what it was and then either blocked it (time and time again) or insisted upon a reciprocal burden being placed on the better off.
David Laws, meanwhile, minister of state for schools from 2012 to 2015, was staggered by Conservative opposition to the pupil premium, a Liberal Democrat scheme that allocated more money for poorer children in schools. In 2013 Cameron and Osborne tried to persuade Clegg to accelerate austerity with a further £30bn of cuts – almost all of them on welfare spending – and Clegg flatly said no. A telling graph from the Institute for Fiscal Studies illustrates the impact of tax and benefit reform on net household income during the coalition as against the Conservative-only policies announced since the 2015 election – needless to say, it got much worse for those on lower incomes the moment the Liberal Democrats left office. And, indeed, the best evidence of what Clegg prevented is what happened next. We now know that the Farage effect was already dangerously overheating the right-wing Tory reactors and, once the cooling rods were removed, there was bound to follow a huge explosion and subsequent national meltdown.
The new national beef with Clegg, though, concerns Facebook. Questions germinate: are politicians entitled to a career after politics? If they make a lot money, is this to be resented? What, if anything, are we entitled to expect from them?
For some, Clegg’s remuneration package – several million pounds – is evidence of venality. (See also the case of Tony Blair after he left office.) And there is no answer to the charge that Clegg has taken the money and left the country. He now lives with his family in the Silicon Valley town of Atherton, near San Francisco, which was last year named “the most expensive zip code in the country” by Forbes magazine. But, for others, it’s not the dollars: it’s the fact that it’s Facebook. It’s the feeling that if Clegg were so mortified by the EU referendum result, then surely he wouldn’t be comfortable working for Facebook, a platform where so much “dark money” of uncertain provenance was spent on advertising for the Leave campaign.
When deciding whether to work for the tech giant (Facebook’s market capitalisation was $582bn at time of writing), Clegg remembered that Pascal Lamy, former director of the WTO, “had this wonderful saying, when I worked with him in Brussels: ‘If you are part of the problem, you are part of the solution.”’
He was approached by the office of Sheryl Sandberg, chief operating officer, who had previously worked for Google. And there was a lot of back and forth. Clegg told her, “I know that Facebook seems to be in such reputational trouble and I’ve spent the past 20 years working and being shouted at and I don’t feel like doing that again.”
He was on holiday in Catalonia in Spain as talks intensified. He had been getting on well with Sandberg, and then “wrote a three- or four-page paper to Mark and Sheryl and was very blunt. I said, ‘Look, I don’t want to come… to meet Mark and Priscilla [Zuckerberg’s wife]… I don’t want to get on a plane until you understand where I’m coming from. I think it’s remarkable that you offer this ad-funded business model for free and that you’ve offered your services to Africa and South America and so on. But you know you’ve sullied political and public trust about how Facebook is a guardian of people’s data.
“Social attitudes have changed completely, as far as the holding, aggregation and storage of data is concerned. There’s a profound feeling in Europe that companies like Facebook don’t pay enough tax and that you should contrast your values much more sharply with what’s going on in China. And there needs to be an attempt at least to try to develop a more mature and open approach to regulation, to governments.’”
Meanwhile, Clegg discussed the offer with his wife, Miriam. “I think, as a family, we felt it was time for a change. And I think we were both pretty down in the mouth about what’s happening to the country here… And I was not in a position to do anything about it any more. And just gnashing your teeth from the sidelines is not something I like doing.”
He pauses, and then adds: “I’m 52. I did not want to be an ex-senior politician, pontificating endlessly on the after-dinner circuit. Giving a few lectures. Sitting on a few boards and quietly expiring on a sofa in a gentleman’s club. I’ve got 20, 25 years of life left in me, and I’ve got a lot of energy… And I like to think I’ve learnt some things. So, I had decided I wanted to work in tech, and then I became chair of the advisory board of a small, small social care tech company. And [at some point] I thought, well, if I am serious about this, it might as well be the most… controversial.”
When he finally flew out to California and met Zuckerberg, Clegg told him straight: “Your fundamental problem is that people think you’re too powerful and you don’t care.”
To Clegg’s surprise, Zuckerberg replied: “Yes [that’s] totally understandable, I get that.”
Clegg further argued that it was “a good thing that society doesn’t like concentrations of power”. And Zuckerberg said, “I understand that, I get that.” It was only at that point – when Clegg saw how open Zuckerberg was to change and advice – that he thought he could take the job. They talked everything through. “The guy is much maligned but I find him unbelievably thoughtful. He hasn’t got to where he is at 35 by being a dunce. He’s seriously smart, he’s got an ability to look several moves ahead.”
Clegg moved out to Silicon Valley just after Christmas with his family and now bicycles to the office every day.
“There’s lots of sleeveless Patagonia puffa things and shoes like I’ve got on now with no socks. I never wear a suit and there’s micro-kitchens everywhere with a mix of healthy foods. The work rhythm is very different: I get up at six, then take the kids to school and then it’s pretty full-on. You know you don’t have any of the Westminster lunching culture here. Lunch is basically broccoli with some suspect sauce while you’re in a meeting. I stick out like a sore thumb, I honestly think I would blend in more in Sicily or Bavaria than I do in California. I’m constantly using phrases that I shouldn’t which then leave everybody utterly stunned. There was one meeting I had the other day with all these engineers and I wanted to make a suggestion so I said: ‘I don’t want to teach Grandmas to suck eggs but…’ And they were like ‘what?’”
We come back to the Brexit referendum and Facebook’s role in it. The charges are various. That there was Russian interference; that a huge amount of money was deployed on Facebook advertising but that we, the electorate, do not know who spent that money or how much; that we do not know what ads were shown to whom; that we do not know what effect this had on the result.
“The problem is,” Cleggs says, “we keep going round in circles. We have no evidence [for Russian interference]. We have looked for it. People say, ‘show us the evidence’. But we can’t have evidence for something which hasn’t happened. We ran these tests twice, using exactly the same methodology as Facebook used when the FBI tipped them off about the Russian bots in the US presidential election. And the only thing we can confirm is that they – the Russians, if I can put it loosely – spent $1 on the Brexit referendum.”
Politicians like to answer tight and specific questions as a way of not answering others. Clegg goes as far as I think he can: “That doesn’t mean, by the way… for all I know… that Arron Banks tried to spend money on adverts, OK? It doesn’t mean that people didn’t say ghastly things about Turkish immigrants on Facebook – because that is not what I was asked. But can we absolve ourselves of the anguish by saying it was cooked up in the Kremlin? I’m afraid there is just no evidence of that.”
While Clegg is firm on Russian involvement, he is, of course, not denying that advertisements on Facebook are effective. So I push the Cambridge Analytica question.
Was the data that has been improperly harvested from Facebook redeployed by the now defunct UK political consulting and communications company, and does he think this swung the vote for Leave?
“Crucially,” Clegg says, “the watchdog has said that no UK Facebook data was involved. So, the Cambridge Analytica data, as much as we can tell, is almost entirely to do with US voters, not UK voters. I think conflating the two is not very… helpful. I’m not saying that social media doesn’t have nasty sides to it – Facebook groups saying excitable and hyperbolic things to each other. [But there is] no systematic proof of some external puppeteer.”
Then, cryptically, he adds: “To say two plus two equals seven is the problem. But it doesn’t mean that two plus two is incorrect.”
On 12 July, the US Federal Trade Commission was reported to have voted to approve fining Facebook $5bn to settle an investigation into the company’s privacy violations after the Cambridge Analytica allegations.
“If the criticism,” Clegg continues, “is that there was a period of time in which data was too loosely governed, and data was almost too liberally shared… Yes, absolutely, undoubtedly. And that led to Cambridge Analytica, you bet. And boy has the company learnt the mistake, the lesson.”
I put it to him if a company is politically operative in a country, it must be obliged to answer to that country’s parliament. That Zuckerberg should come to Westminster and answer some questions.
“Mark has quite rightly given evidence to lots of parliaments and he’s given evidence to the US Congress, to the European Parliament… He will no doubt give evidence to other parliaments in future. But [the UK] hasn’t actually attracted the attendance of other chief executives… And, we’re going have to agree to disagree on this… He has to choose and he chose not to [come to the UK].”
Clegg – speaking now as a Facebook employee – is obfuscating. His answers are inadequate and partial – and he knows it. We don’t know the details of who spent what money on Facebook advertising during the referendum, but Facebook does. We don’t know how much money was spent – but Facebook does. We don’t know if the effect of the advertising was to change the result – but Facebook could help us understand that.
On this subject, the case against Clegg is forcible; he is either unhelpful or uninformed. If he knows the truth, he’s not going to tell us. More likely, he doesn’t know the details and he’s not going to find out. He sees his role as trying to translate a bad past into a better future.
When I speak to computer scientists at Cambridge University about the 2016 referendum by way of background, the kindest interpretation is that, “Clegg may not actually know what he is talking about.”
But all of them are clear that variously paid-for manipulative advertising occurred and that it had an effect. Ross Anderson is a professor of security engineering at the University of Cambridge Computer Laboratory. “It’s clearly politics trumping the rule of law,” he told me. “There has been a real failure of electoral law enforcement. If this had happened in a by-election, a high court judge would have simply ordered it to be run again.”
Steve Murdoch, an associate professor and Royal Society university research fellow in information security research at University College London, says that: “Facebook advertising is problematic from the perspective of privacy in that they rely on surveillance. The thing that advertisers pay for is attention and how to manipulate attention. And that might not be a great thing for society – especially when it comes to political advertising.”
Of the half-dozen computer scientists I talk to, all are united in their call for government regulation as a direct result of what they think happened during the Brexit referendum. Nobody should be allowed to advertise on social media during election campaigns unless strongly authenticated – with passports, certificates of company registration, declarations of ultimate beneficial ownership. The source and application of funds needs to be clear and easily visible. All ads should be recorded – as should the search terms used to target people. And there’s no reason why you couldn’t pass these laws, and give the fines real teeth.
Into the valley: the main gate of Facebook’s headquarters in the city of Menlo Park in Silicon Valley, California
If Nick Clegg is part of the problem with regard to the referendum, then might he also be part of the solution in terms of privacy? In terms of preserving what the writer Shoshana Zuboff has called “decision rights” – the right to self-determination and individual autonomy? In recent weeks, Clegg has been in Europe overtly calling for regulation. This is the Clegg of Paris where we began. He is in a unique and powerful position to change things for the better.
“I have certainly spoken a lot to Mark and Sheryl,” Clegg says. “They’re very open to it. That they’ve gone through one chapter and then they’re entering another one. But they don’t have all the answers. Of course, they’ll fight to protect the business, but they equally accept that no business thrives unless it operates within the social consent of the society in which it’s located. [My part of Facebook] is the policies: what does the company think about new privacy legislation and data portability and anti-terrorism measures and how you communicate that externally? The core of my job is overseeing this really interesting stuff.
“I was on a long call yesterday with Mark about what we do on this evolving problem of high-risk ‘deep fakes’ [sophisticated hoax films and images] in election time. Particularly if machine learning is used to produce them. All of that stuff is fascinating policy. And it actually draws on muscle memory that is very, very reminiscent of politics. Mark and Sheryl have given me as much latitude and authority as I could possibly ask for to shift the ground. And if anyone wants to be cynical about Facebook’s motives for calling for a turning of the page in the relationship between Silicon Valley and governments, [they should see] the splenetic private reactions of the other players.”
Clegg is clear that he wants intelligent government regulation.
“We need law. I don’t buy for one minute that it can’t be done. I mean, financial services and pensions are easily more complicated in my view than social media. You have to come up with some rules of the game, where data is kept safe and locked down, but can go walkabout where people want it to go walkabout. And for that we genuinely need the help of decision-makers and lawmakers. And the European Union is interesting here because it has no dog in the fight – commercially.”
Later, Clegg tells me about the first time Zuckerberg called him and immediately asked what he thought he should do about Macron. “Mark had met Macron and got on very well with him,” Clegg explains, “and there was this issue about whether Facebook should try to enter into a very unusual partnership with the French government, where we would lift the bonnet and invite French officials to [Facebook headquarters] Menlo Park. [Mark] said there was a great deal of misgiving in the company. But I said, “No, you’ve absolutely got to do this.”’
Clegg observes that Macron was busy filling the gap left by the British, who used to play a role as a so-called transatlantic bridge between Europe and the US, and so he thought it was essential they co-operated with him. Zuckerberg decided to go ahead with it. “And we then conducted this totally unprecedented set of consultations and deliberations with a team of French officials, and here’s the thing…” Clegg grins. “Guess what the upshot has been? Draft French legislation. I got an email this morning and we’ll see the legal analysis about it. Of course, it is totally unwelcome to us in some important respects. And very welcome in others. And my next step is to turn around to Mark and say, ‘That’s how it works. You don’t then get the regulation you want. You don’t control this.’”
Clegg is trying to emulate this process with the New Zealand government and he wants to propose a similar exercise with the Dutch government on political speech and content. Pride and candour re-enter his voice. “I’ve got half of an American company speaking to what is traditionally the most dirigiste political class, the French. Mark has a sort of kitchen cabinet of people he gathers around him. I’m one of a clutch of people. And the vast majority, the rest of them, are engineers, and I do find myself constantly having to translate from a rational world where things are laid out on spreadsheets and code to the irrational world of public figures, media sentiment and political reaction.
“But the great thing about being 52, rather than 22, in this job, is that I don’t have to pander. I’m not there to climb a greasy pole. I tell Mark exactly what I think, and most of the time he seems, at the moment at least, to be prepared to listen.”
As we close the interview, we talk about all the attacks on him and how at least for figures such as Jeremy Corbyn or Boris Johnson there’s a vocal faction of die-hard support, which he does not have. “There’s something in me,” he says, “I like to grapple with difficult stuff. I think you make progress through compromise. Maybe that’s a motif for me, I just think you need to get your hands dirty.”
And this is true as long as I have known him: he goes towards difficulty. Grasps it. There is something admirable here, to do with the difference between seeking approval and wanting to be liked. Most politicians are thirsty for both, of course. Some will shoot for approval even if disliked – imagined, covert or unspoken approval if it gets really bad (as with Theresa May). But others – the rarer type – are secure in their own views; or secure in their ability to avoid complacency and come to an intelligent assessment when their view is as yet unformed.
Clegg wants to be liked, but he does not need approval. At a very fundamental psychological level, he trusts himself and is at ease. This doesn’t mean we should trust him – but it’s what makes him different from lesser politicians who either panic-buy their entire suite of views off the shelf, or posture in ways they believe will find favour. It is also what makes him different from, say, Johnson or Michael Gove, for whom the covert inner life is at odds with the outer life, and for whom politics therefore becomes a protracted agony of performance and bad acting.
There is something peculiar about the British psyche with regard to other languages – a mediocre grasp of the dead ones – fine, funny even; but actual fluency in the living ones – less fine, vaguely suspicious. But more than ever, we need translators. We need fluent ambassadors in the courts of modernity. Clegg won’t, I think, return to politics. But he will keep representing the UK abroad.
He is a compromiser – no doubt; but we are living in a time horribly blighted by pedlars of what philosophers like to call the nirvana fallacy – politicians who love nothing better than to create a false dichotomy between difficult human reality and fantastical unrealistic alternatives. Under this fallacy, everything that is imperfect can be attacked. But the abiding human question has always been the same: can the imperfect man or woman manage to do more good than ill in the time and circumstances in which they find themselves?
Edward Docx’s most recent novel is “Let Go My Hand” (Picador)