The ‘fresh face’ of the new elite
With his demos-dodging rise to political fame, Nick Clegg personifies the new breed of professional politician.
‘Nick Clegg is the candidate for change.’
With that, the UK Observer newspaper, like its sister daily, the Guardian, declared its support for the Liberal Democrats and their 43-year-old party leader, Nick Clegg. Nick is different you see. He’s fresh-faced Nick. He’s refreshing Nick. He’s out-with-the-old-in-with-the-new Nick. He is, in short, a man who represents genuine, real, profound change.
The Observer and Guardian are far from alone in hailing Nick Clegg’s emergence this election campaign. From the moment he aimed his smudgy eyebrows at the camera in the first televised debate and started addressing the studio audience by their first names, bewitching commentators and pundits alike, he has been characterised in terms of his newness. This, bewitched columnists argue, is a man from the politics of the future, one free of scandal and corruption. Promising a new politics, so the media-plotted narrative goes, he appeals to those disenfranchised by the old politics.
But is Clegg really that novel? What seems to have been missed amidst the rush to anoint Clegg the bona-fide, you-can-almost-taste-it candidate of change is the extent to which he continues an already existing trend. That is, Clegg’s effortless rise through the political ranks, from Oxbridge by way of the EU and a spot of political lobbying all the way to the head of Britain’s third party, is not the mark of a new, radical political force. Rather it is the increasingly typical career path of the professional politician.
Unfortunately, for those looking to peer through the media bluster and pick fault with Clegg, the fact that he is actually dead posh, despite his Last of the Summer Wine surname, seems to be enough to condemn him. After all, runs the criticism, is he really that different from the toff-tastic David Cameron? Where the Tory leader was privately schooled at prestigious, expensive Eton before studying Philosophy, Politics and Economics at Oxford, Clegg was privately schooled at prestigious, expensive Westminster before going on to study social anthropology at Cambridge.
But the focus on inherited privilege – even if in Clegg’s case, with a great grandfather as attorney general of the Imperial Russian senate, it is intriguing – misses what really marks Clegg out: he is not the candidate for change, but continuity. For Clegg not only embodies the career path of the new political class, he embodies its outlook, its disconnection from any sort of social base.
Like the band of New Labour cadres that came of political age during the 1990s, moving from student politics to parliamentary politics with little or no intervening career, Clegg, too, belongs almost solely to the insular world of the political class. He knows only its rules, its interests. Party names are as unimportant for Clegg as they were for the young turks of New Labour. The Clegg-style politician has his allegiance principally to the political class itself. The dividing line here lies not between parties, but between the political class and the people it needs to grant them legitimacy.
Suitably enough, Clegg’s demos-dodging ascent up the political ladder began in 1994 with an appointment at the European Commission, a body never knowingly associated with democracy. Indicating Clegg’s non-ideological mindset, he owed his EC appointment to a family neighbour, former Tory foreign secretary Lord Carrington, who recommended him for a job in Brussels with the Conservative EU commissioner Leon Brittan. According to Clegg, his decision to stand as a Lib Dem MEP in 1999 was due to witnessing a barnstorming performance from Paddy Ashdown in a US/EU stand-off over hormones in beef. No? Me neither.
But Clegg quickly became disillusioned with European politics. In 2002, he announced he would not be standing at the next election. While he may have cited a lack of engagement with the public as a reason for leaving the European parliament, this shouldn’t be mistaken for a deeply felt democratic urge. Rather, he seemed annoyed with the public, for their failure to legitimise EU institutions with, at the very least, a vote at the European elections. Slamming the ‘ignorance, distrust and contempt which still disfigures British, especially English, attitudes towards EU institutions’, he opined, ‘[p]erhaps, one day, MEPs will receive the popular mandate they deserve’. To the cosmopolitan, multilingual Clegg, those whose votes he needs appear as little more than an impediment. The public here functions as a reluctant, recalcitrant partner, something that a Clegg-style politician is forced to, rather than wants to, engage with. That EU politics appears managerial, technocratic and not a little boring is a problem of the people, not the ‘supra-national’ institutions.
Clegg’s blindness to the EU’s failings makes sense. For Clegg, politics is not a matter of competing visions of society, visions rooted in competing, conflicting social interests. Clegg is beyond ideology, beyond big ideas. He is beyond the old politics of conflict and argument. Hence he recently talked enthusiastically of the ‘Thatcher revolution’, that is, the destruction of the trade union movement as an important social force during the 1980s: ‘I’ve got a lot of friends in the trade unions, but I just don’t think that’s right in a liberal democracy to have parties which are basically there to represent one vested interest over others. That’s why I always get a bit nonplussed by the right/left stuff.’
That Clegg is a bit nonplussed by the left/right stuff is hardly surprising. British political parties, with ever-dwindling memberships and few roots in society, have long since ceased to represent ‘one vested interest over others’. They are husks, deracinated vehicles for the professional ambition of men like Clegg. What Clegg says of the Lib Dems, that they ‘aren’t captured by anyone, neither representing big business or the unions’, is increasingly true of all the parties. By dint of their long-time, twentieth-century irrelevance, the Lib Dems were simply ahead of the game.
Clegg was clearly earmarked for a rapid rise. After leaving the European parliament at the 2004 election, he spent eight months as a political lobbyist in Brussels before the Lib Dems parachuted him into the relatively safe Lib Dem seat of Sheffield Hallam in 2005, following the resignation of popular Lib Dem MP Richard Allan. Clegg was elected with a majority of 8,682. Since then, it’s been a series of almost annual promotions, from being made European spokesperson in 2005, then home affairs spokesperson in 2006, before in 2007 being voted Liberal Democrat leader. And all this despite barely brushing up against the people from whom he now demands consent.
In Nick Clegg, in his ambivalence towards the ‘tribalism’ of the old politics, in his aloofness from the ‘parochialism’ of the British public, one can glimpse the continuation and consolidation of the political class as an aloof professional group over and above the rest of society. This is no cause for celebration.
Tim Black is senior writer at spiked.
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