was only 11 weeks into his new job as leader of the Liberal Democrats when Simon Barrow spoke to him on 3 March 2008, over a ruminative sandwich in his office in the Palace of Westminster.
Barely two years later, he was Deputy Prime Minister.
Photography: Andrew Firth
A recent profile of you said, ‘We still don’t really know who Nick Clegg is.’ What more do we need to know about you to understand who you are?
That’s a tricky question. People quite rightly want to know who you are, but a full explanation would require a degree of confessional autobiography I’m not sure it’s easy or right to deliver, or even right to expect of people in public life. It doesn’t sit very naturally, I think, with the kind of political culture we have in this country.
I suppose I’m like a lot of people: if you ask me what my influences are, they are without a doubt my family. They are very much the main driver of who I am as a person – my parents, my brothers and sisters, my cousins (I come from a very big, boisterous, warm, loving family) and my own family now. But I’m never that keen to talk about my own family, because by definition one is talking about private things. Not that I have any dark secrets or anything.
May I ask you what you learnt from your parents?
Well, I think that from a healthily early age I and my brothers and sisters were aware that really bad things can happen. Mum had spent four years in a Japanese prisoner-of-war camp in Indonesia when she was very young, and my dad’s mother, who was from St Petersburg, lost all her family and then was part of that very dislocated Russian diaspora that moved through the Baltic, through Germany and France to London. So, by complete coincidence both sides of my family had been particularly marked by that extraordinary run of revolution and war and tragedy during the 20th century.
I was acutely aware as a youngster that things just seemed to work much better in the Netherlands than they did in Britain – or England, at least
I think, too, that my mother’s classic sort of Dutchness instilled in us a degree of scepticism about the entrenched class configurations in British society. Rightly or wrongly, you just felt that the Netherlands was a much more socially mobile country, where you weren’t judged by your accent, your education or your background as much as you are in this country. (Though, I have to stress, I had a very, very fortunate, affluent background and went to a private school myself.)
I was acutely aware as a youngster that, frankly, things just seemed to work so much better in the Netherlands than they did in Britain – or England, at least. There was just a feeling that something was holding this country back, at a time when – perhaps in part because of the devastation of the war – large parts of Europe were palpably moving forward, politically, economically, in terms of infrastructure…
What other influences do you think have shaped you?
Probably the most important event to have occurred in my generation was the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989. I remember very well listening to the reports on a radio in a freezing cold basement flat in Minnesota, where I was living at the time. It was extraordinary, a political revolution, really, which made a huge impression on me at a key point in my own development.
The transformation of Europe after the collapse of communism and the lifting of that terrifying threat that had hung over my generation… I vividly remember being scared absolutely witless as an 11-year-old by a fire-and-brimstone history teacher who informed us reliably we would all be dead by Christmas because the Soviet Union urgently needed access to warm-water ports for some reason and the Red Army was going to sweep through Europe.
The end of the Cold War was also a huge moment, I think, in the transformation of the politics that for a long time had slightly ossified Britain. The old politics of the Seventies and much of the Eighties was organised around a very polarised concept of left and right, whereas we now inhabit a political universe that is much more plural, much more diverse, much more fluid, much more – dare I say? – ecumenical almost.
Was the collapse of apartheid also significant for you?
Absolutely. Hugely important. But I actually think very much in European terms. I always have done. It’s very much part of who I am, because of my Dutch mum and my half-Russian dad and all the rest of it – and I’ve travelled a lot around Europe.
How do you feel about the anti-Europeanism that still lurks in British (and perhaps especially English) culture?
In a liberal democracy there are certain values everyone has to respect. If you explicitly flout them, I think it’s quite reasonable to say, ‘You’re not part of our moral discussion’
Part of the problem, I have to say, is the circumstances in which we first entered the European Community. I think we went in out of a sense of inevitability rather than any great sense of enthusiasm. If you are German or French or Italian or Dutch or Belgian, the European Community is a symbol of peace and reconciliation after war. If you are Spanish or Portuguese or Greek, becoming a member of the Community was a symbol of democracy and modernity over Fascism. You ask people and those are their explicit associations. I think we are almost unique in seeing it in negative terms.
You have been widely quoted as saying, ‘I’m a liberal by temperament, by instinct and by upbringing.’
I’m a liberal to my fingertips.
What does that actually mean?
Well, it means lots and lots of things, but probably the core of liberalism for me is tolerance. I mean real tolerance – a profound antagonism to prejudice of all sorts.
There are some profoundly intolerant forces in our society. Do we tolerate them?
Of course there are limits to tolerance, absolutely. When I say ‘tolerance’, I don’t mean relativism. I don’t mean a sort of moral free-for-all. Far from it, actually. Liberalism – muscular liberalism – should be, and is, very antagonistic to creeds and ideologies that espouse an intolerant, narrow-minded approach to things.
Personally, I think that if you live in a liberal democracy there are certain ground rules that everyone has to respect: you know, human rights, respect for the individual, gender equality, democracy. If you explicitly flout or confound those values, I think it’s quite reasonable for a liberal democracy to say, ‘You’re not part of our moral discussion.’
There are many different traditions that have informed the Liberal Democrat Party. Which of them are most important to you?
I think the tradition of the Liberal Party as a party of political reform is a very powerful one indeed. There are many other traditions – the tradition of internationalism in the Liberal Party, the tradition of civil liberties and individual rights – but I think the tradition of political reform is possibly more important now than it ever has been before, given the bankruptcy of British politics these days.
You are said to be more of an economic liberal than some others in the party.
My moral frame of reference is clearly a Judaeo-Christian one. My ethics are not insulated at all from the world of faith and organised religion
I’ve genuinely never quite understood the great debates – supposed debates – between social and economic liberals. Every time I listen to them, they seem to be saying almost precisely the same thing, just with linguistic emphases in different places.
Isn’t there a tension between them?
I think there would only be a tension if people who call themselves economically liberal somehow either accepted or, even worse, advocated that this led to less social justice. For me, it’s all ends and means. I want to live in a fairer society, so my overall objective, if you like, is to live in a more socially liberal society. I passionately believe this. I do not believe that you can call our society liberal until we have rid it of this terrible handicap of people being born into disadvantage in a way that actually condemns them for life.
Frankly, I think it’s a rather unideological discussion about what you think are the best means to achieve that. For instance, why is it that a socially progressive party, the Labour Party, with unprecedented amounts of money and electoral power, hasn’t delivered a more socially progressive, liberal society? I think that begs big questions, for which I think the economic liberal tradition has got a very good answer – namely, you can’t create social justice from a bureaucrat’s office in Whitehall. It’s all to do with the dispersal of power, to individuals and communities. It’s to do with diversity and pluralism.
Now, a lot of that is very germane to economic liberalism – the idea of letting go, innovation and so on. I see economic liberalism totally as a servant to greater social fairness.
Many religious people talk about how their faith informs their politics. How do you think that not believing in God affects yours?
Well, my moral frame of reference is clearly a Judaeo-Christian one. My ethics are not insulated at all from the world of faith and organised religion. I think that fundamental concepts of tolerance, of compassion, of love for your neighbour run very deep in our culture but they are also intimately bound up with our Christian heritage. In fact, I’m very sort of proud of the fact that some of that ethos I very much espouse. You know, many members of my family are very religious and I have a great deal of admiration for the strength of their faith. (I take a great interest in people’s religious faith, but I’m very non-judgemental about it. Maybe it helps a little bit that I personally don’t share it.)
As it happens, I was asked [in a quick-fire interview on BBC Radio 5 Live] whether I believed in God or not and was asked to give a one-word answer: yes or no. I thought for a few seconds and thought, ‘Well, I don’t know whether God exists, so I can’t say “yes”. So, the only logical answer is “no”.’ But I’m not some rabid atheist by any stretch of the imagination. If anything, I feel almost inadequate that I don’t have faith.
You’re more of an agnostic.
Blah blah blah. And I honestly don’t mind that – you know, I accept that it goes with the territory.
In some ways, politics and the media in this country are like a strange soap opera we all get caught up in.
Yeah, I think that’s true. Politicians and the media have got themselves kind of locked in a pretty unhealthy embrace, where both are dependent on each other but both have become extraordinarily suspicious of and antagonistic towards each other. In every interview, the journalist is thinking the politician is hiding some terrible dirty secret and the politician is thinking the journalist will stop at nothing in order to skewer him. And that creates an idiom in our political debate of doublespeak, euphemism and evasion. It’s extremely difficult, as you say, and very worrying.
Nowadays, British politics seems to be full of people like you and David Cameron, who are young and media-savvy. Do you think it will ever again be possible for someone like Clement Attlee, say, to come to power in this country?
While we are preoccupied with the top three stories on the Today programme, vast swathes of the country just aren’t listening at all – or are finding things out for themselves
Oh, I’ve spoken to politicians who were active in the Sixties and Seventies who told me they wouldn’t have been able to do this or that, or dress in a particular way – or their looks wouldn’t have worked, or whatever – in the much, much more intense media environment we have now. I mean, it’s a relentless 24-hour industry which has a voracious, insatiable appetite for stories.
So, you have this slightly hyperbolic quality to press coverage, and I think we’re all struggling to deal with the fact that, while all that is happening and we are getting wildly preoccupied with what the top three stories are on the Today programme, vast swathes of the country just aren’t listening at all – or (and this is the really interesting thing) are actually taking matters into their own hands and finding things out for themselves –particularly, of course, from the internet.
Part of the challenge for a third party in this country, it seems to me, is that you have no prospect of winning power for a long time to come. But once you admit that, the media will say there’s no point in voting for you.
I think you’re being unduly pessimistic. Well, I would say that, wouldn’t I? But look, we got six million votes at the last election – that’s more than any other liberal party in Europe. We have more MPs than we’ve had in a generation. I think it is possible – it’ll be a stretch, but it is genuinely possible – at least to double the number of MPs we have here in Westminster. And the moment you do that, politics changes utterly, because you’ve broken the stifling grip of the two-party system. And I think it’s a lot more realisable than people think.
I suspect that every Liberal Democrat leader for years would have said the same.
Hang on! In the 1951 general election, only 2 per cent of the British electorate voted for a party other than the Conservatives or Labour. In 2005, that figure rose to almost 33 per cent. The 2001 general election was the first time that more people didn’t vote at all than voted for the governing party. And these things accelerate. Once you have a political system that is so out of whack with the people it purports to represent…
What keeps you sane when the going gets tough?
I’m lucky, all my closest friends have nothing to do with politics – and think I’m completely bonkers for having gone into it. I find that their frame of reference is just completely different to the kind of media merry-go-round that I am involved in.
How can you persuade them to take what you’re doing seriously?
You don’t half get buffeted around a lot as party leader. You just have to plough on, and try to keep a bit of a sense of humour and a sense of perspective
With difficulty, but I’m going to try. One of the things I’m doing, and I’m determined to carry on doing for as long as I am leader of this party, is to spend as much time as I can outside the Westminster bubble. So, one day a week I campaign outside London. I hold town-hall meetings – we simply advertise them in the local press: ‘Nick Clegg, leader of the Lib Dems, is in your area. You can come and ask him anything.’ And some of them have been brilliant, absolutely packed to the gills. It’s completely unstaged, completely unorchestrated – it’s very old-fashioned, actually. People who’ve been completely switched off by politics have loved the opportunity just to ask things that bother them.
I don’t pretend that it’s going to change the world, but if I do that hundreds of times in the next few years I think it might make a difference. One thing for sure – and I say this with some feeling as a South Yorkshire MP – is that life beyond Westminster is entirely different to what many people in the bubble think it is.
You have said you think the system is archaic and needs to change. How would you go about it?
Where do you start? The whole thing needs to be up-ended.
What were your feelings when you first arrived in the House of Commons?
Part of it was awe, of course – I mean, it’s a very impressive building, it is just so redolent of history and some of the debates are still among the best you will hear in any parliament in the Western world. But that awe was mixed with utter dismay that something can be so out-of-date – a ritualistic approach to politics that collapses into farce at Prime Minister’s Questions every Wednesday, a narrow, stale tribalism, an absolute lack of pluralism… The two main parties, who sustain this place, jealously guard their vested interests.
How could it be different?
Well, we could have a horseshoe chamber rather than this rather claustrophobic antagonism of benches banked up opposite each other. We could call each other by our names. We could schedule debates so they didn’t take place in the middle of the night. We could have debates that people want, rather than ones that are dictated by government whips and outdated procedure.
You come from a privileged background and I imagine you would fit very nicely into the old regime. Are you really enough of a rebel to ‘upend’ it?
Oh, I feel completely unsentimental about this place.
How far can you go in challenging it?
Well, I have said I’m prepared to go to court rather than give my details to a compulsory government database for the ID card scheme. I think the tradition of dissent and direct protest is very, very important to a party that is not just not part of the system but wants to overhaul the system completely.
In the 1970s, when I was a long-haired Young Liberal, we were described as ‘the kind of people your mother warned you against’. What did your mother warn you against? And have you followed her advice?
This is a rather serious answer, and it would be lovely to say it in Dutch, but that’s too pretentious. She was always warning us to take life as it comes. Like any mum, I think she was keen that her children shouldn’t suffer disappointments and thwarted expectations.
Has that advice proved useful in your new job as leader of the Liberal Democrats?
Oh, it’s been very useful. You don’t half get buffeted around a lot, and anything you say or do is subject to constant criticism and carping. You just have to plough on, and try to keep a bit of a sense of humour, and a sense of perspective.
This edit was originally published in the May 2008 issue of Third Way.
Nick Clegg was born in 1967. He was educated at Westminster School and read anthropology at Robinson College, Cambridge, gaining a master’s degree in 1989. He then won a scholarship to the University of Minnesota, where he studied the political philosophy of the ‘deep greens’.
In 1990, he moved to New York to work as a trainee journalist on The Nation.
He then spent six months in Brussels as an intern in the European Commission, before taking a second master’s degree, in European studies, at the College of Europe in Bruges.
In 1992–93, he worked in London as a consultant for GJW Government Relations. In 1993, his journalism won him the first Financial Times David Thomas Prize, which took him to Hungary as a reporter.
In 1994, he returned to Brussels to take up a post at the EC delivering technical aid to the countries of the former Soviet Union. Two years later, Leon Brittan, then vice-president of the EC and its trade commissioner, offered him a job in his private office as a policy adviser and speechwriter. At this time, he led the EC team in negotiations on the admission of China and Russia to the World Trade Organization.
In 1999, he successfully stood for the European Parliament as the lead Liberal Democrat candidate for the East Midlands. He served a term, in which he spoke on trade and industry for the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe and also co-founded the Campaign for Parliamentary Reform.
In 2005, he was elected MP for Sheffield Hallam with over 50 per cent of the votes cast. He spoke for his party on Europe, and a year later was promoted to the front bench with the brief for home affairs.
Last December, he defeated Chris Huhne MP in the election for the leadership of the party by 20,988 votes to 20,477.
He is a prolific author, journalist and pamphleteer, and from 2000 to 2005 wrote a fortnightly political column for Guardian Unlimited. He has lectured at both Sheffield and Cambridge Universities.
He has been married since 2000, to the daughter of a former Spanish senator. They have two sons.
Up-to-date as at 1 April 2008