Few recent British politicians have experienced a more remarkable trajectory than Nick Clegg. As leader of the Liberal Democrats, he was fleetingly the most popular party leader since Winston Churchill and helped form Britain’s first coalition government for 65 years. But Mr Clegg’s ambition permanently to realign British politics and entrench a new progressive “liberal centre” was doomed. At the 2015 general election, the Liberal Democrats were routed, falling from 57 seats to just eight. In 2017, Mr Clegg lost his own seat.
But after an interlude as an anti-Brexit campaigner, the former deputy prime minister has been reborn. As the head of global affairs and communications for Facebook (a company with 2.4 billion users), Mr Clegg wields greater influence than ever before. This week, the former Liberal Democrat leader gives his first print interview since his appointment in October 2018. As during the coalition years – when he mediated between the Conservatives and his party’s left – Mr Clegg casts himself as a “moderator”, now searching for common ground between Facebook and the world’s regulatory superpowers. We call him the Translator.
In relation to the UK, Mr Clegg’s conciliatory project was largely a failure. His acceptance of the Conservatives’ austerity programme as a condition of entering office led to lasting economic and social harm. In return, the Lib Dems received few meaningful concessions: the proposed Alternative Vote system was defeated in a 2011 referendum and House of Lords reform was barred by Tory rebels. Rather than a more liberal conservatism, the ultimate product of the coalition era was a reinvigorated Conservative Eurosceptic right. The Lib Dems’ devastating defeat in 2015 opened the way for a majority Tory government committed to an EU referendum. The subsequent Leave vote was, in large part, a consequence of the discontent that the coalition’s public spending cuts had caused.
“It seems to me that the clock is now ticking for the end of the union of the United Kingdom,” Mr Clegg says in his NS interview. “I just 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.”
Undeterred by this failure, Mr Clegg is seeking once more to effect change from within. “There’s something in me,” he explains. “I like to grapple with difficult stuff. I kind of think you make progress through compromise.” As Liberal Democrat leader, he inveighed against the “surveillance society” and the “snoopers’ charter”. As Facebook’s head of communications, he now spins lines designed to deflect such charges. Mr Clegg is at his most unconvincing when he explains away Mark Zuckerberg’s failure to appear before British MPs (“he has to choose and he chose not to”).
Yet, in an age of extremes, it would be unwise to wish his moderating project ill. As one of Britain’s most articulate pro-Europeans, Mr Clegg has long understood the value of rules-based institutions better than most. Neither the anarchic market, nor the interventionist state, enjoys a monopoly of wisdom. For Britain, the failure of Mr Clegg’s political project has had baleful consequences. For the world, in the age of surveillance capitalism, it could have yet worse ones if the technology giants are not properly regulated and taxed.
England’s multicultural champs
England’s triumph in the cricket World Cup final at Lord’s on 14 July, against an admirable New Zealand team led by the estimable Kane Williamson, player of the tournament, was truly astounding. A nerve-shredding tied match was ultimately won by the hosts because they had hit more boundaries during the game. It was cheering that the final was shown live, free-to-view, on Channel 4, and one hopes that a new generation of youngsters would have been inspired by the thrilling spectacle to try their hand at our glorious summer game. Cheering too was the diversity of the England squad, captained by an Irishman and featuring players born in Barbados, South Africa and New Zealand, as well as two devout Muslims of Pakistani heritage. As our new columnist Jonathan Liew writes this issue, “as England’s multicultural champions cavorted on the Lord’s outfield, it was hard not to feel that somehow, we were getting somewhere at last”.
This article appears in the 17 Jul 2019 issue of the New Statesman, The Facebook fixer