Why Nick Clegg is so Machiavellian

The Lib Dem leader’s deeply undemocratic stab for power reveals the replacement of democratic politics with oligarchical intrigue.

Brendan O'Neill

Brendan O'Neill
chief political writer

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Topics Politics UK

Anyone who doubts that mainstream British politics has become an entirely aloof, cut-off, even oligarchical affair will surely have had their minds changed by the current antics of Nick Clegg. Behaving more like a foot-stamping Prince Regent than the leader of Britain’s third-largest and mostly laughable political party, Clegg is jostling and positioning himself for future power in a way that would make Machiavelli beam with pride. The rampaging Cleggalomaniac, as the Sun aptly baptised him, gives us a glimpse into the behind-the-scenes intrigue and patronage that passes for ‘democratic politics’ today.

For the past few days the press has been packed with reports about who Clegg will work with, who he won’t work with, under what conditions he will agree to form a coalition government, and so on. Because it is now widely predicted that neither the Tories nor Labour will win an outright majority, the Lib Dems assume that they have an extraordinary level of power to determine what the next government will look like and what it will do. Clegg is not so much a politician working out which other political parties he shares things in common with, so much as a lord-in-waiting who has just heard that the king (Gordon of Kirkcaldy) is on his deathbed and is making his stab for power early and loudly.

Much of the anti-Clegg media, particularly the David Cameron-supporting, spooked-by-Clegg Sun, have depicted Clegg’s behaviour as a product of his super-arrogant personality. Behind the PC demeanour, they argue, we now know that there lurks a tinpot tyrant, drunk on Downing Street. No doubt part of the Clegg phenomenon is explained by Clegg’s own sense of entitlement – this is a man, after all, who seems allergic to mass democracy, having spent his formative years cooped up in newspaper offices, lobby firms and that palace to political oligarchy, the EU. But more fundamentally, Cleggalomania is informed by, and infused with, today’s powerful strain of anti-democracy and elite politicking.

Most strikingly, Clegg’s power-positioning is not based on any groundswell of mass support but on media encouragement. His sense of kingmaking potential comes not from public enthusiasm but from the patronage of large sections of the respectable, liberal media who have effectively knighted him as the spokesman for their narrow concerns. Following the first televised leaders’ debate, the liberal broadsheet media went into overdrive about Clegg and the transformative impact he could potentially have on British politics, and in the process they pretty much wrote the narrative for this General Election campaign. Clegg has mistaken this media-elite patronage for public support. In truth, this is more like old-style court politics than the court of public opinion: like a lord who has just won the backing of some other important lord, Clegg’s arrogant pronouncements on the future of British governance are backed by elite clout, not mass agitation.

Indeed, it is striking that some in the liberal media are now expressing their deep concern about Clegg’s attacks on Gordon Brown and his flirtation instead with Cameron’s Conservatives. ‘We wanted you to save Labour not side with the Tories!’ they are effectively saying. Their High Representative of Liberal and Tolerant Values is letting them down. What they don’t appreciate is how unstable and unpredictable mainstream politics is today, precisely because it is so cut-off, arbitrary, removed from the public and from any clear, measurable public values and desires. In such circumstances, networks of power are not formed through shared political interests and ideals, far less through any engagement with the public – rather they are cobbled together opportunistically and more on the basis of personality than political conviction. This inevitably makes them weak, changeable, and given to collapse.

Indeed, the fact that Clegg can shift from Labour to the Tories in the course of a couple of days is a product of another of today’s oligarchical trends: the cult of the leader. At a time when the political parties are not political parties in any meaningful sense – in that they have no clear political ideas and no real active grassroots support to speak of – the party’s leaders become increasingly important. Similar to North Korea (I said similar), the absence of a healthy political and democratic culture means that the leaders are invested with a disproportionate role and influence – not as actual leaders of a political movement whose policies and values we are expected to engage with and judge, but as personalities, frontmen, political mirages, whose attitudes and temperament we are invited to empathise with.

And in such a climate, when the party is all about the leader and the leader is all about personality and celebrity, the leader can easily move to the left, to the right, forwards, backwards, wherever. Unanchored by any real political movement or beliefs, and pushed forward to fill today’s democratic vacuum with a little bit of parliamentary celebrity, the Dear Leaders can make all sorts of weird and unpredicted political leaps. Those disappointed by Clegg’s hints at a possible Yellow-Blue coalition, rather than a Yellow-Red one, appear not to appreciate the fluidity and changeability of political culture and political favour in an oligarchical setting.

Too many of Clegg’s critics in the right-leaning press hold him singlehandedly responsible for denigrating this election campaign and harming democracy. In fact, Clegg – and more importantly the phenomenon of Cleggalomania – is a product of the collapse of the political parties, the dearth of political debate, the long drawn out exclusion of the masses from the political realm, and the rise of a new political oligarchy. I’m all in favour of smashing Clegg at the ballot box next week; don’t give your vote to this illiberal, authoritarian creature of anti-politics; but that on its own won’t resolve today’s crisis of democracy.

Brendan O’Neill is editor of spiked. Visit his personal website here.

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

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Topics Politics UK

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