What sort of liberal is Nick Clegg?

Mark Pack writes:

The new (and in fact only) biography of Nick Clegg is very much a book of two halves. The first – a fascinating tale of Nick’s multinational family; the second – a fairly standard recount of some of the political events of the last few years, with little in the way of revelations. If you do not follow political news closely, you will still find in the second half much of interest, but whether or not you do the first is illuminating not only because of the colourful relatives (as one newspaper put it, think Tenko meets Reilly, Ace of Spies) but also because the clues it gives as to Nick Clegg’s liberalism.

There is always a risk of mixing hindsight with tidiness so as to draw too neat a line between events in someone’s past and their subsequent believes. It is though very tempting to link Nick’s passion for the pupil premium and lukewarm views on tuition fees with his mother having been a special needs teacher. From his own early years, it is early years education that has been at the centre of attention. Tempting also – and on perhaps more solid ground – to link the multiple nationalities of Nick family with his own very internationalist outlook along with the obvious linking of his liberalism with his own family’s continental liberal traditions.

The biography rightly reminds readers that although Nick’s ascent of the political ladder was very swift, it has involved three hard-fought membership contents – to be selected for the East Midlands Euro list, then to become the candidate for Sheffield Hallam and finally the party leadership contest. In each case he was up against at least one very strong rival candidate.

That background helps explain why Nick Clegg has consistently been a regular visitor to local parties around the country, even despite the pressures which normally befell people who become party leader or go into government, let alone those who do both.

He has not disappeared off into a bubble. If anything his cycle of meetings with local parties and their members is now more intensive than it has even been. Both consciously and subconsciously a political career based on having to win over members is serving him well.

Yet it is also a rather top-down heritage: you go to meet people, you persuade them you are a good thing. It is not a campaigning heritage: you go to meet people, you persuade them to go out campaigning.

Hence perhaps the usual absence from his rhetoric and actions about the need to build the party’s campaigning infrastructure and foster activity at the grassroots. He certainly isn’t hostile and the party has made some good changes since he became leader (such as the move to VAN) and the Bones report certainly tried to deliver much. But you rarely hear the sort of enthusiastic exhortation on the topic that featured regularly in Paddy’s early years as leader.

Moreover, the party’s local government basis has featured very little in Nick’s ascent. He has never stood for a local council, let alone been a councillor or taken part in running a council, and nor has his route to being Deputy Prime Minister rested much on securing local government victories first, unlike those MPs who got elected after first nurturing a growth in the council base in their patch.

Add to that a working career centred on working in that most bureaucratic of places, the European Union, and you can easily see why Nick combines a healthy scepticism about under-performing centralised public bodies with what would otherwise be a somewhat puzzling almost complete absence of talk about community politics.

What he has rarely had to do in the past is directly attempt to improve the quality of public services – explaining perhaps why his views in this area are ones that most often leave people asking questions about where his instincts lie. On that the past gives very little in the way of clues; the present is however rapidly making up for that.

You can buy Nick Clegg by Chris Bowers from Amazon


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5 comments on “What sort of liberal is Nick Clegg?
  1. Jonathan Price says:

    Not everyone is, or ought to be interested in local politics. I just can’t get worked up about dog poo or parking. The Eurozone crisis on the other hand is totally fascinating. To be a proper party of government LibDems need big picture people in the mould of Tony Blair just as much as community politicians.

  2. Simon Banks says:

    I disagree with Jonathan. Not every Liberal Democrat MP needs to have a local government background, but if a leader of the party is not interested in l.ocal government or community activism, that’s a serious failing, just as not being interested in Europe or international affairs would be.

    Nick is also on record saying that Liberals should be for equality of opportunity, not equality of outcome. This is stated on the Reform website as a simple fact, that Liberals are in favour of the first, not the second.

    Of course complete equality of outcome is impossible, but should Liberals really have no interest in whether inequalities of outcome (of wealth, for example) increase or reduce? 19th century Liberals tended to believe that if you removed all the gross discrimination around (inequality of opportunity), inequality of outcome would reduce, but in the early 20th century many voices such as Hobhouse expressed deep concern about inequality of outcome. Are we really, for example, unimpressed by the argument that severely unequal societies are divided and disfunctional, with high crime rates? Equality of opportunity is indeed Liberal, but there’s a severe problem of definition. The concept depends on a notional starting line at which point everyone has the same chances; but clearly some babies have better chances than others because of the nature and resources of their parents, their genes and so on. Where do you draw the line?

  3. Jonathan Price says:

    No, no, party leaders can’t be expected to be interested in everything. They may have to be knowledgeable about local politics and to have understanding about it, but that is not the same as being interested in it. For some people the village or town community is everything, for others it is the global community of humans that matters. We need all sorts of people in the party and to allocate the right people to the positions that suit them.

    I also feel strongly that once you go down the road of equality of outcome, the inevitable destination is a socialist one. The party knows what’s best for you and will force you to do it.

  4. Simon Banks says:

    If a party leader is knowledgeable about something but not interested, and that thing is right in the core of what his activists care about, that will show and it will hold him back. That is not a disqualification, but it is a disadvantage.

    Why, by the way, should people interested in the global picture be uninterested in the very local? If you are not interested in the local, what is the nature of your interest in the global?

    Your comment about equality of outcome strikes me as being based on categories that need unpicking. Are we – are you – completely uninterested in the degree of inequality of outcome, so that we’d be happy with a society where the super-rich got richer and the failures starved? I suggest that a society where inequality of outcome is relatively modest is a society which is both happier and more able to deliver equality of opportunity than, say, the U.S. the Tea Party would want. It is certainly not true that any action to reduce inequalities must be taken by a coercive central state, or even by the central state at all. And is progressive taxation, for example, really unacceptable crypto-Stalinist socialism?

    I could go on a lot about the problems with equality of opportunity – the more you try to define it, the more it slips through your fingers – but I will say that it is a very useful concept when applied within clearly defined parameters. For example, Race Equality law in the UK was always based on the idea that if you had two job applicants, or two customers, and everything else was equal, you needed top explain why the black one (or the white one) lost out – or if when you assessed strengths and weaknesses, the Indian candidate was strongest, why did the Pakistani get the job? In other words, for this purpose you are looking only at ethnicity and ignoring whether one of them went to a privileged school or had parents who were perpetually at war.

    Try to turn it into a general principle and you just don’t know what to include and what to exclude.

  5. Ian Laws says:

    Re: the issue of local politics, for a party whose ideology is based so firmly on empowerment and the widespread distribution of power, not to mention a healthy scepticism of central/bureaucratic authority, surely a leader with little interest in community politics is at a severe disadvantage?

    Further, regarding equality of opportunity, I agree entirely that a definition wholly divorced from equality of outcome is so vague and nebulous as to be irrelevant. To use a personal anecdote: many, many years ago, I had a very competitive job interview which I lost out to a candidate, who, according to feedback, tipped the scales with his supreme self confidence. This was most likely impacted by his teenage years which were spent travelling the globe, financed by wealthy parents. Surely equality of opportunity in this sense, would require under-privileged children to be subsidised to spend the same 3 years in India and South America?

    So should meaningful equality of opportunity require absolute equality of outcome until the age of 18; or 21; or 25? And what if you find yourself on the job market in your 40′s or 50′s? Then those without the best private healthcare will have very unequal opportunities. Ridiculous, you may think, but it illustrates the problem.

    Thus it is hardly constructive to seriously debate equality issues in such vague and general terms.

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