Lib Dems: will the real Nick Clegg please stand up?


7:25 pm - September 23rd 2012

by Dave Osler    


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Review of ‘Nick Clegg: the biography’ by Chris Bowers (Biteback Publishing, 2011)

Under Charles Kennedy, the Liberal Democrats stood against the Iraq war, did not want a replacement for Trident, opposed tuition fees, and favoured a 50p tax band for Britain’s highest earners.

I was not a Labour Party member in 2005, and while socialist principle precluded me from even considering support for a party with no connection to the organised working class, it was readily understandable why that particular set of policies appealed to many leftists rather more than what was on offer from Blair at the time.

Under Nick Clegg, the Lib Dems patently present a remarkably different sales pitch. When put to the test, not one single MP or peer voted against the formation of an austerity coalition with the Conservatives in 2010. So much for any pretence of somehow standing to the left of centre.

Chris Bowers’ account of the party’s latest leader – which is now over a year old now, but which I have only just read – offers a sympathetic exposition of what has altered in the interim.

It does a fair job of explaining the culture and recent history of the Liberal Democrats to those outside its ranks. But that said, Clegg is hardly a gift of a topic for any would-be political biographer.

By some irony of my self-devised book classification system, this volume sits on my shelves next to a couple of works outlining the life and times of David Lloyd George, the logic of that arrangement being that both can be considered under the loose heading ‘Liberal Party, leaders of’.

The Welsh Wizard was arguably the most entertaining of this country’s twentieth century premiers; he led Britain in world war one, was a womaniser on an epic scale, and oversaw the corruption of the honours system to a degree that even New Labour had to really struggle to match.

Clegg, by contrast, has done little that will prove of interest beyond the anorak milieu. We learn, for instance, that he once ate deep fried bees on a trip to China, and that he saw the late great blues guitarist Stevie Ray Vaughan live prior to the latter’s untimely death, for which I am extremely jealous of him. Oh, and he once had a serious ski-ing accident.

Other than that, his role has been to serve as window dressing for a Cameron administration that has already made inroads into what little Thatcher and Blair have left standing of the post-war social democratic settlement, and which intends to go a lot further still in the direction of wiping it out.

The first two chapters outline Clegg’s fascinating ancestry, which includes a Russian noble slain by the Bolsheviks, a promiscuous double espionage agent and a captive in a Japanese prisoner of war camp.

But such colourful forebears hardly compensate for a bland petit bourgeois curriculum vitae that runs from home counties banker dad via prep school and public school, Oxbridge and policy wonk in Brussels, and inevitably on to MEP, MP and party leader.

Clegg, we are told, actually rang up Lib Dem headquarters to find out how quickly he could get a seat in Westminster prior even to joining the party.

While many activists were introduced to the delights of canvassing while still spotty but committed teenagers, the first campaign Clegg ever worked on was his own successful bid to get to Brussels in 1999, by which point he was thirtysomething and widely seen as going places.

Bowers goes on to document his rapid progress, from finally securing a seat in parliament in 2005 to becoming leader just two years later, and deputy prime minister three years after that.

But beyond the personal ambition, he fails to outline quite what makes the Lib Dem leader tick. The book is honest enough to contain some argument as to whether Clegg even qualifies as a liberal at all in the philosophical sense, but cannot bring itself to reach a conclusion on where he should be placed.

Simply to tell readers that he is pro-European, in favour of civil rights and anti-statist ultimately reveals little. Those same descriptions could apply to activists in all parties and none.

More could have been said about the man’s inteectual influences; those who would like to know what books Clegg has actually read, and what inspiration he has drawn from them, are left none the wiser.

Yes, ‘Nick Clegg: the biography’ is worth reading. However, it leaves open the question of whether its subject is worth more considered and detailed treatment, and what future the party he has taken to an 8% poll rating, neck and neck with UKIP, is likely to face.

 

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About the author
Dave Osler is a regular contributor. He is a British journalist and author, ex-punk and ex-Trot. Also at: Dave's Part
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Reader comments


1. Chaise Guevara

We have book reviews now? Awesome. This biography does sound a little thin. A shame; Clegg’s kinda interesting.

Clegg, we are told, actually rang up Lib Dem headquarters to find out how quickly he could get a seat in Westminster prior even to joining the party.

Well. That explains that then. Power is the end, not the means to ends.

The real Nick Clegg is standing up. He is a shallow, duplicitous pin head.

Clegg’s fascinating ancestry, which includes a Russian noble slain by the Bolsheviks, a promiscuous double espionage agent.”

See, his double dealing runs in the family. A ‘Pledge’ to Clegg is a can of cleaning wax.

What a truly worthless individual Clegg is, in every meaningful sense. Good review Dave, but one point of terminological inexactitude:

“a bland petit bourgeois curriculum vitae that runs from home counties banker dad via prep school and public school, Oxbridge and policy wonk in Brussels…”

This doesn’t sound very “petit” to me, not exactly Arkwright from ‘Open All Hours’ is he?

Clegg has one outstanding accomplishment in common with Lloyd George – he entered his party into a coalition with the tories. It’s just a pity that Clegg never took a lesson from history.

Earlier this year, Vince Cable, the frontrunner at this week’s Conference to anoint a new Lib Dem Leader, called for significant repatriation of power from the EU. His more lately proposed industrial policy is wholly incompatible with the Eurofederalist project.

Many of the old SDP have come to be far more critical of the EU as the last decades of progressed. Like Cable, they have realised that the apostles and prophets of post-War Keynesian Labourism – Ernest Bevin, Herbert Morrison, Hugh Gaitskell, Douglas Jay, Anthony Crosland, Peter Shore, Bryan Gould – were not “right about everything apart from Europe”. They were also right about Europe, and their entire vision is incomprehensible apart from that insight.

From the Right, defined in terms of economics, the rival candidate appears to be Ed Davey. Like David Heath, Norman Lamb, Alistair Carmichael and David Laws, Davey is of that rising generation of Lib Dems who are no fans of the EU, either. The Party President, Tim Farron, an economically left-wing and socially quite conservative adult convert to Christianity, is of similar mind, while, among the veterans, the Deputy Leader, Simon Hughes, abstained over Maastricht and remains no less lukewarm, while Sir Nick Harvey went so far as to vote against Maastricht, and no one need imagine that, on this or on anything else, his knighthood has bought him off since his confinement to the backbenches.

Hitherto, mild to strong Eurosceptics have kept quiet within the Liberal Democrats. They have probably assumed that they were a tiny minority. But I bet that they are not. In fact, I bet that they are not really a minority at all. Vicious campaigners though they very often are, Lib Dems believe profoundly in the election, sensibly or otherwise, of everyone who exercises any sort of power. In absolute openness and freedom of information, prudent or otherwise.

They believe in the highest possible degree of decentralisation and localism, appropriate or otherwise. In the heritage of uncompromising opposition to political extremism everywhere from Moscow to Pretoria abroad, and from the Communist Party to the Monday Club at home, which must logically also mean from the coalitions in the Council of Ministers to floor of the European Parliament.

In (unlike me) the tradition of anti-protectionism against everyone from nineteenth-century agricultural Tories to 1970s industrial trade unionists. In the rural Radicalism that has always stood against the pouring of lucre into the pockets of the landlords. And in the interests of the arc of Lib Dem fishing seats from Cornwall to the Highlands and Islands via North Norfolk, Berwick, and North East Fife.

And now, they are on course for something not seen in a major party since Labour in 1980, namely a Leadership Election featuring only Eurosceptical candidates. Ed Miliband, somewhere between Healey and Shore or Silkin in 1980 terms, you need to up your game on this, as you have been dropping distinct hints towards doing. Surrounded by Ed Balls, Jon Cruddas and Maurice Glasman, that ought not to be difficult.

Top laughter marks to Sally @ 3.

Who cares about any of it really?

No one deserves to have a good life.

” Clegg, by contrast, has done little that will prove of interest beyond the anorak milieu. We learn, for instance, that he once ate deep fried bees on a trip to China, and that he saw the late great blues guitarist Stevie Ray Vaughan live prior to the latter’s untimely death, for which I am extremely jealous of him. Oh, and he once had a serious ski-ing accident. ”

Did he not cite setting a cacti on fire as an edgy achievement and thus displaying a hitherto unnoticed wild side? I would say the descent from Cleggmania to the most reviled politician in a parliament containing George Osborne and George Galloway is quite an achievement.

Clegg is a man (to use the old phrase) without “bottom”, as the CV and potted bio amply demonstrate. What is more he is leading a party, largely by default, due to a paucity of anyone in the LD leadership with a personality or a clue.

The problem for the LD’s as a party (and thus sadly for the UK as a polity) is that the self destruction of their party over the past 2 years has probably put paid to any change of bringing about the type of radical or progressive changes this country so badly needs.

It struck me whilst listening to coverage of the LD conference this morning, and listening to Clegg being eviscerated by a second division Radio 4 presenter, that the rump LD’s are now effectively an old school Liberal party. They don’t actually care anymore (whatever their pious protestations) about constitutional reform, Europe etc etc…. they care about orange book type economics, free trade, fiscal probity, a small state, fair taxes. They have now diminshed to classical centrist party, neither right nor left; given the circumstances they really have nowhere else to go.

Even Uncle Vince appears to be taking his policy cues from “The Thick Of It” judging by his new policy on banks…. talk about life imitating art. Honestly?.. the best the LD’s can come up with is some over complicated plan to help out small business.

With that as their rabbit out of a hat idea, not only will they not succeed, they won’t deserve to!

In a week when there have been so many posts attacking Nick Clegg, I have been unable to keep up. In one thread, we were reminded that Clegg worked for (Conservative) Leon Brittan so Clegg is thus a Conservative in Liberal clothing. But Clegg previously worked for Christopher Hitchens, so what is the spin on that?


I hope that Dave Osler’s book review is part of the new direction for LC. Seriously. Not so seriously, can we bring back Laurie Penny to a bit of Orwell.

Well if he worked for Christopher Hitchens he must be an ex-trot pro-war neo-conservative then…


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  1. Jason Brickley

    Lib Dems: will the real Nick Clegg please stand up? http://t.co/UCGaTSPf

  2. leftlinks

    Liberal Conspiracy – Lib Dems: will the real Nick Clegg please stand up? http://t.co/MnCwZgSx

  3. elizabeth westgaph

    Lib Dems: will the real Nick Clegg please stand up? | Liberal Conspiracy http://t.co/hbxZWuDq via @libcon





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