The Deputy Prime Minister is calm and reasonable. Much of Britain is, too. So why isn't he popular?by Edward Docx / May 22, 2014 / Leave a comment
“Sometimes the Prime Minister and I have pretty ferocious debates,” says Clegg. “But you’ve got to punch through that. It’s very British.” © Peter Marlow/Magnum Photos
I sit down opposite the Deputy Prime Minister just as the Prime Minister calls. We’re on a Great Western train from Bristol to London. Outside, the English afternoon is passing by in a blur of Betjeman and Brunel. We have cups of tea. Over the fields are massed a flotilla of Boris Johnson clouds—vaguely alarming, bulky and off-white.
This is early May and the Daily Mail has just published leaked private correspondence between Nick Clegg and Danny Alexander, his party colleague and Chief Secretary to the Treasury, that shows that the Liberal Democrats are “resisting” Tory plans to introduce mandatory sentences for knife crimes. When he arrived at Paddington, I heard Clegg say that he was “pissed off,” but now the tone of his phone conversation with the PM is cordial and congenial—a business-like conversation between two mutually well-disposed brothers-in-law discussing how best to deal with an upcoming wedding anniversary at which a great deal of fighting is envisaged between the variously insane relatives of their very different families. There is a fair bit of “OK, David, I’ll call you over the weekend… Yes, let’s talk it through… We should… No, that would be good.”
I have been following Nick Clegg for several months. I first met him in person at a private dinner back in January. Today, I am with him as he travels round Gloucestershire. We will catch up again at Chevening, the grace and favour residence in the Kent countryside that he shares with William Hague, the Foreign Secretary. From the gallery of the House of Commons, I have also been watching his exchanges with Harriet Harman at Deputy Prime Minister’s Questions. I find his position remarkable—in terms of the history of the Liberal Party and its successor the Liberal Democrats, in terms of the deal he managed to strike after the 2010 election and in terms of the day-to-day running of the coalition government. As a person and a leader, he is extraordinarily resilient and—in every sense—central to contemporary British politics. Most of all, I want to understand how a man of centrist convictions leading a centrist party in a country whose political instincts are broadly centrist should now find himself fighting a return to the margins.
When the phone call ends, I ask, “How can you proceed like this? How can you discuss and govern if private conversations and letters are going to be leaked?”
Clegg draws a breath. “I mean, this sounds foolhardy, or even defeatist,” he says. “But it’s quite the reverse. Bizarrely, the longer I’m in politics, the more I actually think sticking with big ‘P’ politics is what, in the end, wins out. You know, you can waste so much time trying to duck and weave, trying to be tactical… But actually, people aren’t stupid. They kind of sense that it is inauthentic and it looks artificial. Most people don’t listen to politics. They tune in and out of it a bit, and actually, most people take political decisions when they vote on quite big judgements. So you might as well aim big anyway.”
“But surely,” I say, “these leaks affect the relationship. I mean leaking stuff like this is very… dirty?”
“Yes, it is. And silly. It’s juvenile.”
“So it must inhibit you in Cabinet, in government?”
He grimaces a little. “You just have to be very broad-shouldered and thick-skinned. I think there’s a real problem for both the Conservative and Labour parties; these are majoritarian parties, who are struggling desperately to understand that they’re now operating in a plural political universe. And what has happened is that the Conservatives—almost by accident—have found themselves sharing power because they worked out that if they didn’t, they would have no power at all. They are still labouring under the delusion that it’s a small interruption before normal service is resumed and the pendulum swings back.”
“So this is a sign of that. When they’re under pressure and when elections loom, they resort to really grubby politics, which you can do if you don’t care whether you have to build alliances later. They’re so inescapably wrong. I think people will look back and see that this was a really important, early laboratory experiment in plural politics, however much it might have been rough at the edges and not always ideal. And this is why it’s actually very important that I swallow my pride, grit my teeth and clip on the armour every day and make sure this coalition is seen through to the end.”
“Do you lose your tempers with each other?”
“Very few times, there’s been a bit of…” He doesn’t finish this sentence. “I mean, [Cameron] is under no illusions about how incredibly silly I think this is. But look, you have to keep the channels of communications open. That’s very important. I think, where things go wrong is when the two people at the top stop communicating.”
“Can’t you just say to him: ‘Stop it, please?’”
“You do say that?”
“Of course I do; and he does to me. Candidly, sometimes he can and sometimes he can’t. We are leaders of political parties, we’re not religious leaders of sects… But at the end of the day, you’ve also got to look after your own side, your own tribe, your own values, and we do that. On the whole, we are quite respectful of not forcing either of ourselves into impossible corners. But look, we have wings of our parties, they’ve got to pull us in different directions. So sometimes we have some pretty ferocious debates, but you’ve got to punch through that. And actually we do. Which is very British.”
The first time I met the Deputy Prime Minister, the furore caused by allegations about the behaviour of Chris
Rennard, the Lib-Dem peer, was at its most intense and threatened to tear the Liberal Democrats limb from limb, never mind the wider coalition. Given the kind of day he must have had, Clegg was remarkably calm. The talk was of holding things together. Interestingly, he said that he could count the times that he and Cameron had lost their tempers on the fingers of “less than one hand.” He also indicated that he admired the Prime Minister and outlined how the risks faced by the Conservative leader going into coalition were somewhat similar to those he faced with his own party. I got the strong impression that one important pillar of their public, political relationship was this personal and private recognition of what the other guy was undertaking “against a backdrop of suspicion and near total negativity.” In this, Clegg was talking about the press, who didn’t believe the coalition would last five minutes. But he was also thinking of large factions of his and Cameron’s respective parties.
Since then, I have come to think that their personal relationship is the coalition. The week that follows our discussion on the train sees a damaging series of leaks and counter-leaks between Tories and Liberal Democrats over education. Ostensibly at issue is a shortfall in the funding of the government’s policy to provide all pupils in the first years of primary education in England with free school meals. The policy was piloted by the Liberal Democrat schools minister David Laws. When, at the end of the week, I catch up with Laws and Clegg, they both express the strong wish that the government could go about big “P” politics without all the distracting and time-consuming little “p” stuff. Neither man, though, questions the fundamental principle of the coalition. Certainly, the rancour and the disputes are real. But they do not emanate from the centre; rather, they have their origins in the agendas of outlying Tory fiefdoms. Clegg and Laws seem concerned to stay as focused as possible on the implementation of the policy in question. By the end of the weekend, a conversation has taken place at the top. And this is what returns the frothing dogs to the kennels, although the barking continues.
I end up impressed by Clegg and Cameron’s stubborn resolve to see their agreement through. Indeed, one of the many paradoxes of the moment is that the worse it gets around them, the more these two men are going to need each other—Clegg, because he badly needs coalition to be seen to work for the future of his party; Cameron because a collapse in the Lib Dem vote helps Labour.
Close up Nick Clegg isn’t so much groomed as spruce. He smells of soap. Either he is going grey interestingly late or he uses one of those shampoos that “targets” grey. His features seem at times to be deliberately inexpressive. He’s paler than he looks on television—pasty even—and has the slightly compressed smile of a man forever running for office. George Eliot would have him as an ambitious family doctor. Charles Dickens maybe would have seen something appealingly boyish and risk-taking in his demeanour—a clever lawyer with obscure expertise to whom the protagonist is inexplicably bound. In private, his manner is engaging, eloquent, genial and quick. He wants to joust and follow the conversational muse. He is a very warm father and he would make a good friend.
During the course of our day together, though, I notice that in public Clegg responds best to plans, ideas, argument, proposals. Either he finds the more Blairish effort of trying to make a personal “connection” with voters cringingly false or it’s just not uppermost in his nature. Of all the politicians I have met, only Bill Clinton pulls this approach off convincingly when encountering a wide variety of people. A slight intellectual impatience seems to hover in the coulisse of Clegg’s public character—something that is entirely absent from the private man.
Clegg’s father, also Nicholas, was chairman of United Trust Bank and awarded a CBE. On this side of the family he has Russian, German and Ukrainian ancestors, which is why he scrupulously pronounces the capital with the stress on the first syllable, “Kee-ev”, as they do in the country itself. His English grandfather was editor of the British Medical Journal for 35 years. His mother, meanwhile, is Dutch.
Clegg and his Spanish wife Miriam, whom he married in 2000, are raising their three sons as Catholics—she is a Roman Catholic—but Clegg, who studied archaeology and anthropology at Cambridge, has said publicly that he does not believe in God.
As the train approaches Swindon, we get on to next year’s general election. None of the Liberal Democrats I’ve spoken to (MPs, peers and party activists) thinks the number of Lib Dem MPs will go up. They have 57 seats now. One MP said, “35 seats would be my guess.” The consensus within the party seems to be that Labour will win, but without enough seats to govern alone. (These conversations took place before several opinion polls recorded a Tory lead for the first time in two years). Most believe that the party is therefore preparing the ground for negotiations with Ed Miliband and his colleagues.
Not that these would necessarily end up with the two parties forming a coalition. As the same MP said to me: “It is less easy to go into coalition with them because Miliband is less generous than Cameron.” Meanwhile, in private and in public, Clegg is adamant that he will be the leader of the Lib Dems after the election. If Labour wants to negotiate, it will have to be with him.
“Will you be fine with Labour as well? Is that OK for you?”
“It’s not a question of ‘it’s OK’,” Clegg says quickly. “If you really must know, the more I do this job, the more I’d love to be Prime Minister, but I don’t think that’s going to be an instant prospect.” He continues more coyly: “Look, if the British people were basically saying ‘the only way in which you can govern this country is with Labour,’ then of course, I’ll try and see if that’s possible. It might not be possible. Who knows?”
“What do you want to do in your second term?”
He smiles at my tone but takes the question seriously. “I think the unfinished business for me, the most important thing of all, is clearly that the shadow of 2008 looms much longer and darker and larger than we first thought.”
“So continue with the economic recovery?”
“Yes. It was easier to explain in 2010 in the aftermath of the shock that we needed to do pretty extraordinary things. It is much, much more difficult when the original catastrophe has started fading from memory. So I think it’s going to be very, very tricky in the next elections. Which is why, by the way, I just don’t believe this idea that the minority is going to be able to pull it off. You need a strong government with a clear narrative.”
Could a Labour-led coalition government preside over continued spending cuts?
“Yes, you can be a progressive and also oversee a prolonged retrenchment of the state. And of course this is where I think Labour have gone completely wrong—totally wrong ideologically… They think: ‘Oh, can’t we just put Humpty Dumpty back together again?’ And they still believe that good policy is synonymous with a big spending policy. But actually if you think public spending has a sort of innate virtue to it, then you can’t make sense of the next parliament. In fact, I just don’t see any evidence that Labour understand what it is to be a post-2008 progressive. They cannot expect to be in government without… understanding that [it] can no longer be about the governance of extravagance in public spending. And that would be my central challenge. I really would not be confident at all of entering into coalition with a Labour Party that doesn’t understand that breaking the bank is a deeply regressive thing do to.”
I ask Clegg about fighting alongside Labour if a referendum is called on Britain’s membership of the European Union:
“Yes, I don’t think there’ll be any problem. I don’t actually think the issue is so much whether the Liberal Democrats and Labour will be able to find common cause on Europe. We’re both pro-European. I mean they are supposed to be an international party…” He starts laughing at what he perceives to be Labour’s don’t-ask-me-guv act over Europe. “But they’re failing to make the case. No, actually, funnily enough I think the fault line with [Labour] is the same as the fault line with the Conservatives: it is about this distinction between ‘open’ and ‘closed’.”
© Rex Features
This “open-closed” idea is one that Clegg returns to on several occasions in our discussions. “The old distinctions by which politics is still organised in the hands of a lot of commentators are just so out of date,” he explains. “They’re still stuck in [questions like] is it state or market? Is it north or south? Is it east or west? Is it communism, capitalism? Is it employer versus employee? Actually, the big thing, the big dividing line, increasingly, in politics is about how identity politics responds to the very unsettling effect of globalisation. Because globalisation is creating a sense of powerlessness.”
“Is there a generational aspect to this?”
“Yes. Those who are most comfortable with what I’d rather loosely call ‘Open Britain’ tend to be younger and those people who feel that Britain is no longer the country they feel comfortable with, and also, who are not comfortable with the world in which we find ourselves, tend to be older. And that’s, in a sense, the greatest challenge for my party. Because exactly at the time when I think our liberalism is most in tune with modern Britain, younger Britain… Because of all the things we’ve had to do, because of the controversies around tuition fees and all the rest of it, we have to work a lot harder to get our message over.”
He’s touching here on what he freely admits is his greatest mistake: abandoning the Liberal Democrat manifesto pledge to stop tuition fees being raised—and then the handling of the subsequent apology. This is painful to his party for all the obvious reasons and because it means that the other major manifesto pledges which have been achieved cannot be celebrated as evidence of a pattern of delivery. But it is all the more painful to Clegg personally, I think, because the obvious implication of his “open-closed” idea is that the party should be appealing as often as possible to the younger “EasyJet” generation. And the perception of the tuition fees episode among young people is undeniably damaging.
As the train nears Reading, I ask him how he would explain to those young Britons the point and purpose of being a Liberal Democrat today. He says: “What distinguishes liberalism is a passionate optimism in the individual, in a belief that there is something sacrosanct about each individual, there is something good and wonderful and beautiful in each individual, and that the role of politics, above and beyond everything else, is to allow individuals to fulfil themselves to the greatest possible extent. And that is crucially based on the idea that the state is not there to enforce a pattern of behaviour on the individual, still less of a pattern of belief.
“Liberalism does not believe that where an individual happens to be born is where they should belong. This is different from left and right. Because the left is about the emancipated power of the state, using the state as a battering ram to deliver collective public goods to society; meanwhile, the right, the conservatives are—as the name implies—about the view that there is something sort of innately satisfactory about the status quo, there’s something innately wise about the pecking order.”
There are two striking things about this. First, that Clegg is absolutely a Liberal and not, as is sometimes suggested, a covert Conservative. Second, that the outlook he describes is surely shared by a large portion of the British people.
Here we come back to my earlier question. How is it that a centrist party with a centrist leader should often be seen as belonging to the fringe? If you set aside the “brand values” associated with the various parties and asked people if they would vote for a party that championed the freedom of the individual, social mobility between classes and free trade yet also believed in a strong non-conformist secular society that promoted civil rights and social justice, I think many of them would say, “Dude, sign me up.” The big central chunk of the electorate, the voters who actually decide general elections, are far more liberal (and Liberal) than they realise. Yet the Liberal Democrats are hovering around 9 per cent in the polls and it is highly likely that they will lose seats in 2015. Why?
Liberalism as a political philosophy is a creation of the Enlightenment—the period when, for the first time, sections of society sought to challenge the primacy of religion and tradition with the power of reason, evidence and logic. Enter science and medicine and all the developments that allow us to live as well as we do today. What strikes me focibly about Clegg is that he is animated by the mental habits and attitudes of the European Enlightenment—the rationalism, the atheism, the preference for debate over dogma, reason over rhetoric, negotiation over intransigence. Add to this his study of anthropology, which fosters an understanding of the role of ritual, myth and tribe in human societies, but which also requires an intellectual distance. And his difficulty becomes clear: Clegg the archetypal liberal is powered by reason, but modern British politics is powered by emotion.
Listen closely to the language that he used in the debates with Nigel Farage and you can hear him constantly charge the Ukip leader with peddling a “fantasy,” his underlying point being that Farage’s position is not a rational response to our circumstances—it is a fiction, fantastical, a fairytale. Let’s leave aside the politics and observe that Farage’s argument is principally emotional with some supporting reasons while Clegg’s argument is principally rational with some supporting emotions. Likewise, whenever I have watched Clegg at Deputy Prime Minister’s Questions, it is quickly apparent that he does not believe in the drama of the occasion; he finds it false and somewhat silly. But the House of Commons at question time is an emotional place. Antiphonal. Built for conflict and disposed towards drama. And though Cameron and Miliband may also be aware that any given subject is being distorted or misrepresented, deep down they are convinced that the other side will screw up the country in the interests of themselves and their tribe. Which, of course, is how millions of people vote.
As we head back into London, Clegg is positive about his party’s chances and its achievements in office. Where they can get a hearing, he tells me, they can get votes. He mentions the raising of the threshold at which people start to pay income tax and argues that this is “huge because it’s a massive movement of money from one part of the tax system to another part of the tax system and in no way would that have happened without us.” Close behind this comes the “pupil premium” which channels money towards the most disadvantaged children. “These are not policy tweaks, they’re seismic shifts. And I can’t see them being reversed.”
When I ask about his election strategy for 2015, he says: “The general election will be fought, in many respects, through labour-intensive battles—so that’s why I think we are going to do better than people predict.” He means a “by-election strategy” whereby the Liberal Democrats contest their winnable seats as though each were a by-election, focusing on local issues and deploying party activists who are well-established on the ground.
Broader than this, what he hopes will happen is that “more people will look back on the fundamental purpose of this government, which was to pilot the country through an unprecedented period of economic turmoil.” He thinks that “the more people see that we’ve managed that, the more people might accept that we took our decisions for good reasons, the more they might acknowledge the part we have played as Liberal Democrats.”
But it is the coalition itself, or rather getting British people used to the idea of coalition, that Clegg considers to be his greatest political achievement. “Let’s remember,” he says, “the most valuable thing politically about this coalition is that it explodes the myth that we can only be governed by one party. It completely demolishes that, and that is a bazooka politically, with a far greater effect than sort of pea-shooter tactics of whether you leak a letter here or there. And that’s what I keep holding in my mind. And that’s why I have greater pride in being Deputy Prime Minister than people think. It is amazing what we have done and what we have had to do—everyone has had to accept, private or public, less wages and tougher times. And yet we’ve got through all of this with a minimum of social unrest. All we can do is keep going.”
The greatest thing about Britain today is that we are, for the most part, moderate, fair and tolerant. And so if you want to run our country, you have to convince the centre. Clegg has a year to find a way to appeal to the heart of an instinctively liberal, modern nation.