"Brown and Cameron Are Illiterate and Parochial": Nick Clegg Dismisses Charges That He Is the Right-Wing Candidate in the Liberal Democrat Leadership Election. He May Be Eloquent and Confident but, as Martin Bright Finds out, It's No More Mr Nice Guy
Bright, Martin, New Statesman (1996)
Nick Clegg is a nice guy. That's his shtick. His Liberal Democrat leadership bid is based on a calculated emphasis on his natural attributes of eloquence, charm and confidence. But, like those other great public school populists of our age, Tony Blair and David Cameron, he is also able to come across as the sort of chap you could happily have a beer with. In fact, one senior female Lib Dem told me she was backing Chris Huhne precisely because Clegg was too charming.
But there is one area of policy where his contempt for his political opponents is tangible. When the subject turns to Brown and Cameron's grasp of foreign affairs, the boyish smile is gone and a steely seriousness takes its place. "I think David Cameron is one of the most parochial Conservative Party leaders in a long time," he says at the very end of our interview. "In fact, I think both Cameron and Brown, in different ways, are quite illiterate and badly versed in international relations." Clegg is utterly dismayed by what he calls Gordon Brown's "infatuation" with the United States, but also by the failure of either main party leader to grasp what he sees as Britain's "European vocation".
It takes a good hour, but finally Nick Clegg is riled. He has spoken with eloquence, charm and confidence about his ideas for a devolved National Health Service and his plan to chop up giant comprehensives into manageable mini-schools on the public school "house" model. He hardly breaks a sweat disposing of the rival claims of Chris Huhne to the Lib Dem leadership. But when I suggest that the two other parties have already fed the "Clegg factor" into their calculations, he begins to look seriously irritated. "There are big differences, it seems to me, between the philosophy I espouse and that of those two party leaders," he says. "The other two parties can read into my leadership, if I were to become leader, what they like," he says, with just a touch of petulance. "But I hope I have been quite clear about the direction of travel." Apart from a more internationalist approach to foreign affairs, this direction would involve, according to Clegg, constitutional reform, changes to the electoral system, restoration of civil liberties and genuine devolution to local government.
Assuming he wins, there are those on the left (myself included) who believe a revival in Lib Dem fortunes would hugely benefit the Labour Party. There would probably never be quite the opportunity for a left-liberal alliance that there was in 1997, but there is no doubt that a new anti-Tory compact would be hugely damaging to Cameron. Clegg accepts the basic premise of this argument but takes it a stage further. "Something like 85 per cent of our MPs are in former Conservative seats. I want to hold on to those gains and improve on them. Look at the political map of Britain: the places where we are going to win the most seats in the next few years are in the Labour heartlands. One of the reasons I'm keen to be leader is that I think I can lead the charge against Labour." Clegg argues that his experience as the only non-Labour MP in South Yorkshire and his previous life as MEP for the East Midlands has given him a solid track record of taking the attack to Labour. "I am an anti-Labour northern MP to my fingertips," he adds.
There is a separate Tory orthodoxy, presently being touted by some of the most senior figures in the party, which suggests that in the event of a hung parliament the Liberal Democrats will be forced to come to an accommodation with the Tories because the British people will have indicated that it's time for a change. Clegg dismisses the suggestion: "It's an unbelievably far-fetched attitude from senior Conservatives that somehow the Liberal Democrats are condemned to do deals with them. It's phooey."
Clegg's opponent has been attempting to paint him as a man of the right, by suggesting his reform programme for education amounts to vouchers and that his position on Trident makes him an advocate of rearmament. …