How Nick Clegg’s new job at Facebook shows Britain doesn’t matter any more to Big Tech

The former Lib Dem leader’s value to Facebook lies somewhere else: in the European Union. 

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“Your princess is in another castle” is a phrase that video gamers use to indicate that someone is going down a blind alley. It originates from Super Mario Bros, in which a pixellated plumber must navigate a series of dangerous castles to rescue his love interest, Princess Peach. But at every turn Mario finds that his princess is in another, even deadlier castle.

Nick Clegg is fluent in five languages but gaming isn’t one of them. He might have to pick it up quickly in his new job as Facebook’s chief lobbyist, because the social network hosts dozens of puzzles, platformers and other time-wasting plug-ins.

The former Liberal Democrat leader and deputy prime minister has stunned Westminster with his decision to start a new life in Silicon Valley. There is anger that he has abandoned the fight against Brexit (although not before talking to George Eaton for this week’s cover story). And there is bafflement: the role of a lobbyist is to open doors, and in the UK Clegg’s name is more likely to see them slammed shut. While there are some Conservative MPs who respect him, they are far from the levers of power; while the pro-Brexit wing hates his Europhilia and his role in frustrating many of their worst excesses in coalition.

On the Labour side, the long-standing tribal dislike of the Liberal Democrats means that he has few friends, and none at all at the heart of the Corbyn project. In the United States, no British politician since Tony Blair has registered as a figure of note. Clegg is no exception.

Yet his value to Facebook lies somewhere else: in the European Union. Clegg knows his way around Brussels. He was an aide to Leon Brittan during the latter’s stint as a European commissioner, and he served as a Liberal Democrat MEP from 1999 to 2004.

Although his brand of centrist liberalism has been squashed in Britain by first-past-the-post, the proportional systems that dominate in Europe ensure that leaders of Cleggite parties will be, if not in the highest office, at least in positions of influence. As much as any language, it is vital that Clegg speaks Brussels-ese.

Why does that matter to Facebook? Because there are three main regulatory blocs in the world, which govern standards on fast-moving concerns such as data flows and privacy, as well as perennial ones such as taxation. Of the three, the EU presents a far bigger challenge than North America or China to the big tech companies. (The US’s approach is largely laissez-faire, while many tech companies are banned or barely established in China because of its severe restrictions on internet freedom.)

One of the inescapable truths of Brexit is that, after it finally happens, the United Kingdom will not be uppermost in the thoughts of any of the world’s biggest corporations. While economists are largely united in expecting that leaving the European Union will make Britain poorer, it is at least possible that the British economy will defy those predictions. However, the one certain thing is that the UK will be less influential on the global stage when it steps outside one of the world’s pre-eminent political and regulatory blocs.

Tech power politics – at the level where Facebook, Google, Amazon and the rest operate – is mediated by those same three blocs: the US, the EU and China. The only question that matters in British politics is which one of those regulatory titans dictates our rules. We cannot simply “go our own way”, as some Brexiteers glibly claim, if we want to trade with the rest of the world. The Conservative Party is split, therefore, between those who favour Europe for reasons of geography, and those who favour the US for reasons of sentiment.

That said, what the Tory party wants may be irrelevant in the long run. Most lobbyists and their clients accept the strong possibility that the next government will be led by either Jeremy Corbyn or someone whose politics have a Corbynish hue. Public affairs firms with a large roster of domestic clients are keen to speak to and hire staff with a genuine connection to the Corbyn project. Lobbyists with large Labour contact books are once again in vogue.

Big Tech, which prides itself on staying at the cutting edge, has been surprisingly slow to adapt to this change. Many of the largest firms employ a who’s who of staff from either the old coalition government or a bygone era of New Labour politics. At Google, Tim Chatwin and Naomi Gummer, special advisers to David Cameron and Jeremy Hunt, rub shoulders with Theo Bertram, a veteran of both Tony Blair and Gordon Brown’s inner circles. They have recently been joined by Michaela Neild, a former aide to Jon Ashworth, one of the few remaining right-wingers left in the shadow cabinet. Alongside Nick Clegg at Facebook is Ed Balls’s former policy chief Karim Palant and the Liberal Democrat peer Richard Allan. At Uber, its recent hire Lottie Dominiczak worked for Tory MPs Matt Hancock and Damian Green. She joins Alex Belardinelli, a Balls-era Labour fixer.

Nick Clegg’s role is more high-profile (and far better paid) than any of these, and he will be based in California. However, it is part of the same story. The lack of Corbynite staffers isn’t because Big Tech thinks a Corbyn government is impossible, but because there is a limit to what any British government can meaningfully do to affect their businesses.

With the exceptions of the BBC and the Premier League, the UK’s two greatest cultural exports, there are very few things that a radical British government, whether of the right or the left, could do to make anyone in Silicon Valley look up from their breakfast. For Jeremy Corbyn, any electoral triumph after Brexit will swiftly be followed by the realisation that his princess is in another castle

Stephen Bush is political editor of the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics.

This article appears in the 26 October 2018 issue of the New Statesman, The Brexit crash