Cleggphobia is as stupid as Cleggmania

The transformation of St Nick into Nasty Nick reveals some rather nasty traits amongst the cultural elite.

Brendan O'Neill

Brendan O'Neill
chief political writer

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Topics Politics

Has there ever been a more spectacular fall from grace than that experienced by Lib Dem leader Nick Clegg? This time last year he was the doyen of the dinner-party set, an unimpeachable liberal hero. Excitable hacks told us he would ‘remake politics’, even ‘give us back our national dignity’. They uttered his name in the same breath as Barack Obama’s and (even more weirdly) John Stuart Mill’s. ‘I agree with Nick’ became the unquestioning mantra of the Twitterati and commentariat, who banged on endlessly about how St Nick’s easy demeanour and cheesy smile would reinvigorate public life.

Fast forward one year and Clegg is one of the most hated men in Britain. Mention his name at a dinner party these days and you’re likely to end up with a fistful of pesto in your face. The drubbing received by the Lib Dems in the local elections on Friday has been interpreted as the electorate giving Clegg ‘the bloodiest of bloody noses’. When Adam Curtis wrote a piece for the Guardian last week asking ‘Who will replace bin Laden as our evil bogeyman?’, half the commenters said: ‘Clegg?’

Now, as a proud member of that tiny band of original Cleggsceptics, who described Clegg as Machiavellian, shallow and a media construct before last year’s General Election, you might think that I would enjoy this sweeping shift from Cleggmania to Cleggphobia. Actually, not so much. Cleggphobia is almost as daft a political outlook as Cleggmania was. Indeed, Cleggphobia, the transformation of St Nick into Nasty Nick, bears no resemblance whatsoever to a considered political position. Rather it is a fairly unhinged and borderline hysterical attempt by the influential liberal classes to make amends for their earlier naive fanboy attitude towards Nick by now heaping invective upon him at every opportunity. The intensity of the hatred for Clegg is directly proportionate to the folly of having fallen for him in the first place.

What Cleggphobia really represents is an attempt by sections of the cultural elite to regurgitate the Clegg-favoured Kool-Aid that they gulped down in 2010. On the basis of nothing – seriously, nothing – they crowned Clegg as the saviour of British politics before last year’s General Election. Won over by his smile and demeanour and the fact that he wasn’t The Other Two – the Tory tribe or the Labour tribe – commentators saw in Clegg a man like them: middle-class, well-spoken, ill-at-ease in the world of supposedly rowdy, tribalistic politics, and, best of all, European (he had worked in Brussels and his wife is Spanish). This cosmopolitan vision in an M&S suit might finally deliver Britain from ‘post-industrial politics’ and move us ‘beyond left and right’, said the Kool-Aid commentators.

Yet it was the very thing they loved about St Nick – his disconnection from the old politics. Oh, let’s not beat around the bush: his disconnection from the swaying masses – which made him the changeable, principle-lite politician they now love to hate. You didn’t need to have a degree in political science to see that Clegg’s background in PR and in the Brussels oligarchy, and his treatment of politics not as an ideological mission but as a career move, made him a flighty chancer who was bereft of ideal or zeal. Indeed, I don’t have a degree in political science yet on spiked on 27 April 2010, 10 days before the General Election, I argued that the new breed of cut-off politician like Clegg 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.’

And so it has been with Clegg, who has gone from Yellow to Blue and from a passionate (I say passionate) opponent of university tuition fees to their enforcer. It’s wrong to label Clegg as a betrayer of principles, because he didn’t have any principles to betray: he merely had slogans, platitudes, liberal-sounding buzzwords (‘fairness’, ‘decency’), which he used to decorate his career advancement and disguise his political vacuity. And because they were just words, uninformed by any meaningful political tradition, trajectory or mass constituency, they could be easily discarded, like that word-a-day toilet paper some people use. It is only those who were so off their nut on Clegg Kool Aid that their critical faculties had been seriously compromised who believed that this man would remake politics.

And so now, in his own, uncharacteristically wise words, he’s been turned into ‘the nation’s punchbag’. More accurately he’s the chattering classes’ pin cushion. The smart set stick pins into voodoo doll versions of Clegg at every opportunity they get, simultaneously expressing hatred for their one-time messiah and self-hatred for their own earlier naivety. Having once viewed Clegg as a saviour of the political realm they now hold him single-handedly responsible for the denigration of the political realm – yet both of these positions are intellectually untenable, springing more from the liberal elite’s political discombobulation and exhaustion with mass politics, and their corresponding desperate desire for a saviour, than from anything to do with Clegg himself.

Probably the thing that the cultural elite hate most about Clegg is the extent to which his speedy rise and fall exposed their profound separation from the public. The great and the good of the liberal sections of society came out for Clegg last year, publishing long editorials and email round robins about how this wonderful guy represented a new, brighter, less red and less blue future for benighted Blighty. Yet at the subsequent General Election, the Lib Dems’ share of the vote remained static. Cleggmania made no impact whatsoever on the public, revealing the cultural elite’s profound inability today to make a meaningful connection with everyday Toms and Dicks. What the Guardian now says about itself in relation to the defeat of the AV referendum – ‘you could be forgiven for thinking that planet Guardian exists in an entirely different universe [from the wider population]’ – could easily have been said about the entire liberal set in relation to their earlier Cleggmania. That’s another thing that fuels their intemperate Cleggphobia: fury over how their investment of hope in St Nick ended up exposing their unbridgeable aloofness from the man in the street.

Of course there’s no need to feel any sympathy for Clegg. The fundamental lesson of the shift from Cleggmania to Cleggphobia is that if you live by the media, you die by the media. Always sustained more by media interest than public enthusiasm, empowered more by his coronation as High Representative of the liberal media’s values than by any large-scale support from the public, Clegg’s political ascendancy was always going to be a fragile phenomenon. He was made by the media and he was unmade by them, which should provide a lesson for any aspiring politician out there: if you desire impact, longevity and respect, then have something to say, the guts to say it, and say it to us, the public.

Brendan O’Neill is editor of spiked. Read 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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