Nick Clegg was at the heart of the coalition government. Now he’s written about his experiences and the changing landscape of British politics. Chris Bond met him.
Nick Clegg is sitting waiting for me outside his constituency office in this quiet, leafy suburb of south west Sheffield - a stone’s throw from bustling Ecclesall Road. “It’s that lovely September sunshine isn’t it?” he says, though it’s more of a statement than a question.
Dressed in jeans, an open necked shirt and jacket he comes across as someone comfortable in his own skin - his face still retaining the boyish vestiges that belie his 49 years and the countless proverbial slings and arrows he’s had to deflect during his career.
Few, if any, political leaders in recent times have seen their fortunes fluctuate quite so wildly as Nick Clegg. He sparked an unlikely wave of ‘Cleggmania’ in 2010 (when Corbynism wasn’t even a twinkle in the eye) as young voters, in particular, turned to the Liberal Democrats as a vehicle for change. But less than two years later following the fallout from the party’s disastrous position on university tuition fees - the Lib Dems pledged not to increase them only for the coalition to triple them - he found himself less popular than Genghis Khan if one opinion poll is to believed.
Then came last year’s general election when not only were the junior partners in the coalition government unceremoniously booted out of office they were left with just eight MPs.
It was a chastening experience for the Sheffield Hallam MP but one he doesn’t shy away from in his new book - Politics: Between the Extremes, which he will be talking about when he appears at the Ilkley Literature Festival next month.
He is quick to stress that it isn’t a hatchet job on his rivals. “I don’t tend to read political memoirs because the few I have dipped into either seem to be people rewriting history or bitterly settling scores. So I was keen to avoid either of those two fates - I made far too many mistakes to start writing a self-aggrandising account of my time in government,” he says.
It’s an engaging and entertaining read that offers little nuggets of gossip - like Michael Gove hiding in a toilet to avoid talking to Lib Dem education minister David Laws - but it’s also a serious attempt to examine the reasons behind the seismic shifts in the political landscape that have galvanised the left and right at the expense of the middle ground. “I wanted to cast a bit of light on why politics is as turbulent as it is at the moment and what we might be able to do about it in the future, because I really don’t want to see my kids grow up in a country where politics is in the hands of angry brigades on the right and left.”
I point out that the book’s also a chance for him to put over his, and his party’s, side of the story. “I’m proud of what we did in the coalition and I do think on the whole it was a good government doing good things in very unpromising circumstances, and since no one else was going to tell our side of the story, of course I wanted to do that … but it wasn’t the principle motivation.”
It’s been a torrid 18 months for the Lib Dems with last year’s catastrophic election compounded by the nation’s decision to leave the EU. “I was more saddened by the outcome of the European Referendum than I was by the general election result,” says Clegg. It’s an admission that might surprise some people. “I personally think we will look back [at the EU vote] and realise we’ve lost something quite precious - you can’t put Humpty Dumpty back together again once the country starts pulling away from Europe.”
Not that last year’s election night wasn’t painful. “It’s not a night I’d recommend, it was a spectacular defeat and in that sense it was a pretty public humiliation. But you know, don’t go into politics if all you want is bouquets of compliments and success all the time, that’s not how it is. It was brutal and abrupt and I was very sad. But I definitely feel a greater sense of bereavement about what I think we will feel we have lost, not now, but in years to come.”
What last year’s election and the Brexit vote showed was mainstream politics in turmoil. “Liberalism not just here but in many other places is on the retreat from angry polemical politics on the right and the left which hog the headlines.
“People who shout loudest make their voices heard, initially at least, over those who speak more moderately. But that doesn’t mean moderate voices aren’t needed in politics - I think they’re desperately needed.”
He’s referring to people like Donald Trump, Nigel Farage and Marine le Pen and admits defeating this brand of populism isn’t easy. “How does moderate centre ground politics which is less melodramatic and less eye-catching, how does that kind of politics make a comeback?” The answer, he believes, lies in being more vocal about the positive impact that progressive, liberal politics has on the country.
At the same time he understands why so many people feel disillusioned. “As long as millions of our fellow citizens feel rightly angry that they haven’t had a pay rise while the bankers and politicians mess things up and never pay the consequences for it, and as long as their kids can’t get their feet on the first rung of the property ladder you will always get the politics of anger doing well.
“We need to look more closely at our banking system which I still think is skating on very thin ice, and the familiar problem of not building enough houses. I think the state should just borrow the money and build huge amounts of houses over a long period of time. It’s the only way it seems to me to reduce some of this remorseless pressure on people’s living costs.”
Clegg remains critical of the way the Remain campaign was run. “I think Cameron and Osborne ran a very poor campaign and Corbyn didn’t really run a campaign at all. The Brexiteers had all the passionate intensity and the other side were a bit insipid. There wasn’t enough emotion in the Remain case. Instead we had this dismal moment when George Osborne threatened to stick people’s taxes up and cut their local services if they had the temerity to disagree with him about Europe. I thought at that moment the argument was not being won.”
Since then the Lib Dems have shown a few green shoots of recovery, attracting new members to their ranks and buoyed by a string of council by-election successes, including a triumph in the recent Mosborough ward by-election in Sheffield where they enjoyed a 19 per cent swing from Labour.
Some people believe Labour’s woes can work to the Lib Dems advantage, but Clegg doesn’t believe having such a fractured Opposition is good for the country. “It’s very unhealthy in my view to have a government which only got 24 per cent of the eligible vote last year in the election and a prime minister who wasn’t been voted for by anybody who is trying to foist all kinds of new experiments on the country without any mandate of her own.”
It has been suggested that the Lib Dems should join forces with moderate Labour MPs, echoing the SDP-Liberal Alliance of the 1980s. But it’s not something he believes would work. “Split parties always do badly as the British public rightly doesn’t like family spats and you can’t just invent new parties out of thin air.”
Clegg spent five years as Deputy Prime Minister and he admits if he had his time again in the coalition he would do some things differently. “It’s not just about doing the right thing, people have to see you doing the right thing. One of the many mistakes I made was dutifully beavering away in the bowels of Whitehall, but because it was always David Cameron and George Osborne doing the glamorous stuff in the shop window and at the despatch box in Westminster, everybody thought it was all their doing and I ended up getting all the grief and they got the credit for the good stuff… I realised all too late that you have to spell it out to people.”
If this was frustrating at times it was nothing compared to the level of anger aimed at the Lib Dems, and Clegg in particular, over tuition fees. “I’m not the first politician, and I won’t be the last, who it turns out couldn’t do what they wanted in government compared to what they said before.”
But he understands why he received such opprobrium for this. “It’s a symbol that the next generation has done better than you have which is what every parent wants, it’s what I want for my three kids, and tuition fees was a real kick in the shins for parents’ own aspirations for their children.
“However much I tried to explain over and over again that it’s not actually debt because you don’t pay it off if you can’t and you only pay when you can, it was this feeling that debt was being placed on the shoulders of young people again.
“We had a lot of people on the right and left who were absolutely gagging to condemn the Lib Dems and they leapt on the tuition fees, and when you get that condemnation in stereo it tends to stick.”
As for his own political future Clegg says he will remain an MP for the remainder of this Parliament and make up his mind nearer the time about whether to stand again. “I could easily walk away from politics. I’ve got interests that go way beyond politics and while I’m interested in it and think it’s important I don’t think politics, as with any job, should be an all consuming obsession.”
But for all the trials and tribulations of his time in office he says he enjoyed the experience. “It was a massive privilege and honour to be able to serve my country for five years and I do think the history books will look back on it as one of the better governments of recent times,” he says.
“Tony Blair once said the irony in politics is that you start at your most popular and least capable, and you end at your most capable and least popular. I know exactly what he means. I’m a much wiser, tougher individual now than I was in those heady days in 2010 when I entered into Whitehall as a fresh-faced novice Deputy Prime Minister.”
Politics - Between the Extremes, published by The Bodley Head, is out now priced £20.
Nick Clegg is appearing at the Kings Hall, Ilkley, on October 14. For more information go to ilkleyliteraturefestival.org.uk