Sad face: Nick Clegg became a whipping boy for the country's ills ©Ian Gavan/Getty Images

Clegg calls for reason over rage—but is his party listening?

He calls for moderation, but other Liberal Democrats have fiercer ideas
October 10, 2016
Politics: Between the Extremes by Nick Clegg (Bodley Head, £20)

The Death of Liberal Democracy? by David Boyle and Joe Zammit-Lucia (Radix, £11.99)

What is the opposite of populism? When it comes to the Liberal Democrats, crueller readers will be tempted to say unpopularity. But for Nick Clegg, like many other mainstream politicians now stranded in a raging electoral storm, the antidote is liberalism and rediscovering a rational approach to making democratic choices.

“Populism,” he writes, “offers anger without solutions.” Meanwhile, “liberalism may not be the loudest voice in politics… but it is a voice of calm reason, which—once lost—would be much missed.”

A year ago, recently ejected from government and one of only eight remaining Lib Dem MPs, his days as both party leader and deputy prime minister over, Clegg was once again the relaxed and blooming star turn at his party’s conference. He basked in the Bournemouth sunshine and the slightly unexpected congratulations of a crop of new Lib Dem members: many of them had joined the party in response to his resignation speech, a Liberal call to arms. Both Vince Cable and Clegg himself—so miserable on the government benches during most of the Coalition—have seemed like souls released from torment since the 2015 election.

Clegg has spent the time searching for deeper lessons in his vertiginous journey from little-known fresh face, to the heights of Cleggmania, to whipping boy for almost everything that has gone wrong in British public life. He has been reflecting at length on a country that has only recently rejected his entire worldview in the Brexit vote—and reflecting, too, on how the “intriguing experiment” of coalition government went sour.

The result, in this book, is a mix of avowed optimism—that a liberal worldview can and must survive—with a hugely gloomy analysis of British political culture. Politics: Between the Extremes is part memoir of the Coalition years, part meditation on the rebellious spirit of the post-crash period (to call it an age seems premature). Its balance can be uneasy, but Clegg’s book is a necessary contribution to a pressing current debate: how much and for what reason are liberal values, in the broad sense, at bay? And can any moderate politician find a way to turn the tide of resentment against the political system and its practitioners?

Those who remain dry-eyed about the possible death of Britain’s progressive politics should not spend time on this book—or indeed this article. But readers of a loosely liberal bent will find that Politics contains some interesting clues about what went wrong with the Lib Dem dream of co-operative government, and whether it might ever work again.

The path Clegg recommends is one of “reason, compromise and moderation” while insisting this route is not “insipid,” “pastel-coloured”—nor that disastrous thing for a third party “a split the difference approach.” But there is a problem. Even the most sympathetic defender of his decision to enter the Coalition—and I am in this camp—will search in vain for a clear picture of where this fraught political path was supposed to lead. Without an inspiring journey’s end in mind, will even his own party be tempted to follow the Clegg map again?

It will be interesting to see whether his pragmatism-as-principle approach can fight off a challenge from other strands of the liberal tradition, which believe that the centre ground of British politics can only be recultivated by pursuing radical ideas—the guerrilla gardeners to Clegg’s neo-classical landscapers.

In another recent publication, David Boyle and Joe Zammit-Lucia, two thoughtful Liberal Democrats, suggest that far from trying to rebuild a compromising centrism, the UK’s now-fourth party should fight its way back to relevance and a shot at power by rediscovering its roots. They outline a liberal vision that constantly challenges institutions and the status quo, rather than becoming an unwitting apologist for entrenched power.

In The Death of Liberal Democracy? the authors demand a renewed activist fervour that bases its broad policy in the needs of communities, and asserts human values against the “soulless, bureaucratic, centralised state.” This, their argument goes, would be a “reborn” liberalism, “clearer and fiercer,” a liberalism that can take on populism because it has something to say to that perennial target of the populist, namely “the little guy.”

How unlike the political life of our own dear former deputy prime minister, you might feel. To be fair, Clegg uses exactly this language, and in this very book: “The little guy, the voter, the consumer, always gets taken for granted.” Clegg himself could never have been the ideal tribune for all those angry voters who feel patronised or demeaned at the moment—not only because he has just spent five years in high office, but also because his whole philosophy demands the triumph of reason over rage.

The contrasting prescriptions for the future of Liberal politics in Politics and The Death of Liberal Democracy?—moderate versus radical—bring out the dilemma facing the party. Does the public want or need the Lib Dems to be, for want of a better word, the sensible party, electorally useful enough in their former strongholds to help disenfranchised Labour moderates reclaim centre ground votes from Theresa May and challenge permanent Tory rule? Perhaps, counter-intuitively, this could be a failure of nerve. Instead, revived liberal radicalism, with its emphasis on local solutions and communities taking control, could be the real challenge to the UK’s populist moment—becoming, as Boyle and Zammit-Lucia suggest, “an electoral asset and a source of moral authority.”

Among almost any crowd of Lib Dems, Clegg stands out as different. And yet it is worth noting the extent to which he still intrigues and attracts his own party faithful. For a second year running, he was the darling of the conference. That is likely because the influx of new members that has saved the Lib Dems from total demise are largely what you might call Cleggite—they queued to buy multiple copies of his book, and will tell any passing reporter that they are not interested in returning to protest politics.

So who is the Clegg that emerges from these pages, still able to remain a hero to his battered troops even as he became a punchline or punchbag for everyone else?

Exhorting more tribal politicians to recognise “the virtues of compromise,” Clegg freely admits to a political style that values stability, incremental reform and practical progress—not so different perhaps from the pragmatic “what works” credo that characterised New Labour in power, even though he would dislike that comparison.

The radical heritage of the sandal-wearers of old, who were animated by the awkward spirit of the Non-conformists and Dissenters, is not part of his make-up. He would never be mistaken for one of Boyle and Zammit-Lucia’s reborn “fierce” liberals.

But he is also, and equally emphatically, not a social democrat. He remains highly suspicious of the bloated state, and especially Whitehall, as the chapters on SW1 decision-making and “Taking power from the powerful” make clear. Unlike Tim Farron, the current Lib Dem leader, with his recent attempt to make a play for Labour supporters by praising Tony Blair’s “early work,” Clegg feels no instinctive pull towards the Labour Party’s actions in office or its values.

Indeed, during those early Blair years when many of us who had beavered away to get shot of the Tories, enjoyed a heady atmosphere in which so much seemed possible, Clegg was somewhere else. Specifically, Brussels.

A new dawn had broken, had it not? A sensational electoral coalition seemed to agree. Clegg, however, was busy working for a senior Conservative, Leon Brittan, on the intricacies of European Union trade policy. Perhaps we were all fools and dupes in the UK. Or did the young Lib Dem leader-to-be miss out on a formative moment in the emotional development of Britain’s progressive voters?

Either way, while reiterating the need for voting reform, in this book Clegg gives little comfort to the romantics who wish to solve once and for all David Marquand’s progressive dilemma—how to reunite the Labour and Liberal traditions (even Marquand himself seems to have given up). As a pluralist, and a veteran of hand-to-hand combat against Labour in his Sheffield seat, he rejects any need for an answer.

A chapter entitled “Was Roy right?” argues forcefully against any grand Jenkinsite realignment of the centre left—the Lib Dems would be snuffed out in any formal alliance along the lines plotted by Blair and Paddy Ashdown in the late 1990s. A bad idea, writes Clegg, even with a revived moderate Labour wing. He makes a good, high-minded case for offering the voters diverse choices, rather than building an electoral portmanteau that would lump together those with wildly differing instincts, into a soggy stew of collectivists and lovers of liberty. “Big, self-serving blocs,” he argues “seem as undesirable in politics as they are in business.”

With talk of pacts and cooperation in the air—some of it sensible, some reminiscent of the Rainbow Coalition of green, red and yellow he (rightly) believes would never have worked after the 2010 election—Clegg warns that it would be an offence against the electorate to narrow its choices, particularly now when traditional party loyalties are breaking down.

But as a grace note—and as Labour’s travails continue—he shares the analysis of Labour MPs Tristram Hunt, John Denham and others who want to nurture a non-Tory, non-Ukip version of patriotism to reassure voters cut adrift by globalisation. It’s an intriguing admission that there is more to politics than cold reason.

Trying to implement House of Lords reform comes across as a bitter experience, and his views on those who like what he calls “the plumage of power” are scathing. George Osborne asked David Cameron to fix it with Clegg so that the then Chancellor of the Exchequer could have shared use of the Deputy Prime Minister’s grace-and-favour country house Chevening, a perk in which Clegg had no interest. The reader is expected to find this tale of Osborne’s appetite for the trappings of office seedy and shameful.

Once inside the Cabinet Office, however, the DPM’s desire to make the first peacetime coalition since the 1930s work—and be seen to work—took over. The pragmatic aspects of his character and training, as well as the ideals of the rational, head-over-heart politics revealed in this book, turned the would-be reformer into a minister who was too easy to caricature: a member of the technocratic elite who valued power above principle.

After the tuition fees debacle, a moment from which the party is still struggling to recover, blows rained down from opponents, critics in the media and some former supporters; left-wing and protest voters jumped ship and used their posters of Clegg for target practice; but the much-depleted Lib Dem ranks remained almost spookily united.

From the account here—more the tone than any explicit confession—the reader will feel that wounds inflicted on the former Lib Dem leader still need time to heal. Some will find it self-pitying—you will not find apologies here but there is plenty of hurt and regret.

Just like his political soulmate David Laws in his earlier memoir Coalition, Clegg sees his time in government as entirely worth it, and wants to explain why—for the sake of the future as much as to justify his role in the recent past.

“The Liberal Democrats played a thankless role,” he argues, “harangued non-stop from right and left, in ensuring that the government remained a moderate one.” Self-evidently better, he believes, than the current Conservative administration, “given untrammelled authority on such a slender mandate.”

This conclusion will not satisfy the left, who may always see Clegg as an enabler of austerity, however much energy and printer’s ink he uses up listing Conservative measures he blocked. But he fervently wishes to convince us that, as he puts it, “two heads are better than one.” “Coalition,” concludes a confident Clegg, “is a style of politics—and a method of government—that will return… Cross-party collaboration, perhaps even a Government of National Unity, may well be required to rescue the country from the spiralling uncertainties we now face.”

And what uncertainties they are for those with a liberal outlook. The Brexit vote showed at least 52 per cent of Britain does not share the internationalist instincts whose promotion has been the life work of Clegg, as well as Charles Kennedy and Paddy Ashdown before him. The party is stuck in single figures in national opinion polls.

Liberalism, admits Clegg, “seems to be being buried by fear and recrimination.” But it is needed: “there is no other option in a world that is struggling to bridge differences, unite diversity and heal segregation.”

For now, many voters probably see May as their rescuer. And an election, if called soon, would be unlikely to dislodge the Conservatives or necessitate a patriotic return to cabinet service by senior Lib Dems.

But to travel back to relevance, to be in a fit state to make such a contribution somewhere down the line, the Liberal Democrats need to face up to some big strategic questions. Clegg’s book elucidates these, and insists on the values of compromise and moderation. The party may be tempted instead to embark on a chippier course, and redefine Liberal politics for the post-crash era as a crusade against the powerful on behalf of “the little guy.”

Maybe, just maybe, if it can find a way to marry the two, then a future period of power-sharing might give rise to a memoir of liberal triumph, rather than a chronicle of defeat.