Interview with Nick Clegg: What is he about?

Simon Barrow
By Simon Barrow
18 Apr 2010

Back in March 2008, I interviewed the (then new) Liberal Democrat leader Nick Clegg for the Christian culture and social comment magazine Third Way. Here are some substantial excerpts from that conversation. This series of interviews is intended to explore the person, beliefs and influences behind the public figure - rather than to be 'political' in the BBC Newsnight sense. The aim is to provide a fresh perspective on the subjects and their world views. More on Clegg here: http://www.ekklesia.co.uk/tags/5113. We'd love to publish interviews with Gordon Brown and David Cameron, too. But they have not yet said 'yes' to Third Way, and neither has SNP leader Alex Salmond. We will shortly publish the interview with Caroline Lucas, leader of the Green Party of England and Wales.

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.

What did you learn 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 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 -

Indeed. That's partly how this magazine ended up being titled Third Way; though the thought was about Christianity over-reaching narrow politics rather than Blairism, etc.

Right. Well, 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?

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.

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.

But 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 un-ideological 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.

Yes, exactly.

And then the media got over-excited and –

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?

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 [that's] 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 two per cent of the British electorate voted for a party other than the Conservatives or Labour. In 2005, that [figure] rose above 40 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.

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This interview was conducted on 3 March 2008 and published in April/May 2008. Third Way subscriptions: http://www.thirdwaymagazine.com/subscribe

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(c) Simon Barrow is co-director of Ekklesia. He is not a member of a political party, but he is a passionate believer in economic, social and restorative justice; peace-building and conflict transformation, environmental sustainability, hospitality towards migrants, and radical political reform. He is a sponsor of the Hang 'Em campaign for a hung parliament (http://hang-em.com/) and has recently written a critical appraisal of the impact of Nick Clegg's election debate performance: 'Can the ‘Clegg effect’ be a wedge for real change?' (http://www.ekklesia.co.uk/node/11859). See also: 'Ethics election poll watch: Lib Dem surge may be due to 'rage against the machine" (http://www.ekklesia.co.uk/node/11861).

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