‘Jeremy Corbyn is one of the most crap opposition leaders I can remember in a generation’. The Cambridge Globalist talks to Nick Clegg about Brexit, British politics and the rise of populism.

Source: Wikimedia CommonsSource: Wikimedia Commons

The past few years have not been great for Nick Clegg. Once the golden boy of British politics with a 74% approval rating, the former Deputy Prime Minister and leader of the Liberal Democrats was by 2014 one of the least popular political figures in modern British history. Then a year later in 2015 the Lib Dems lost three quarters of their seats and 4.4 million votes. Then a year after that the UK voted to leave the European Union, a brutal rebuke of the pro-EU politics Clegg has always advocated. And then a year after that Clegg himself lost his seat at the 2017 election. There is perhaps no figure more emblematic of the vicious reversals of fortune to which the political arena lends itself. As an emotional Clegg said in his concession speech – ‘In politics, you live by the sword and you die by the sword’. One final year after this political ‘death’ brings us up to the present day, which is when fellow-editor Sam Brown and I find ourselves in Clegg’s offices at Somerset House, the man himself bounding over to shake our hands. And if I was expecting the glum phantom of a defeated politician, I am quickly proven wrong.

If anything I get the distinct impression Clegg has found a new lease of life. He is a picture of cheerfulness and energy, quick to laugh and animated and excited in his conversation. Easy charm can readily slide into insincerity, as perhaps the public thought of Clegg, especially after the infamous tuition fees U-turn. But meeting Clegg in person he does not strike me as disingenuous. Leaving elected office has some benefits, one being the ability to be pretty much as frank as you want. That is something Clegg obviously relishes.

Jeremy Corbyn is excoriated as ‘one of the most crap opposition party leaders I can remember in a generation, and Theresa May deemed ‘one of the most unimaginative and uninspiring leaders British politics has seen since the war’. He is unsparing in his disparagement of those whom he holds accountable for putting the country in its current Brexit mess. Clegg’s vision is that of a ‘liberal Britain’, ‘in which power is devolved from its hoardings in SW1’, ‘public services would be decently and sustainably financed’, and ‘social mobility would be real for more people’. But none of that, fears Clegg, is possible with the ‘ball and chain of Brexit around our ankles’. The Centre for European Reform estimates Brexit is already costing the government coffers £500m a week, rather more than the much criticised £350m figure made infamous by the Leave campaign.

That is something which should particularly concern the young, Sam notes. 75% of 18-24 year olds voted to remain, yet it is they, and the many others who were too young to vote, who will live with the consequences of leaving. It’s their public services, and their social mobility which will be put in jeopardy. As such young people, Clegg argues, have ‘every right’ to oppose Brexit. ‘I can’t think of any other example anywhere in the democratic world, certainly not of the modern era, where a decision is taken on a wafer thin margin, about the long term future of the country against the explicit and stated wishes of the young.’ It is unsurprising, therefore, that students are very active in campaigns for a second referendum. Younger people must avoid patronising those who voted leave, Sam adds, not least because of the ‘generational rift’ opened up by Brexit. Clegg agrees. ‘One shouldn’t denigrate those who are looking for fixed, stable points in an unstable world. There’s no better place to look for reassurance than the past’, but the instinct to do so cannot provide ‘sustainable path to map out our future’. 

One of those who feels Clegg’s scorn is clearly his old boss David Cameron. He stresses he is not ‘theologically against referendums’, after all he organised one on moving to the Alternative Vote system. What is desperately needed, however, is a formal protocol as to when, why and how one can hold such referendums. Cameron shouldn’t have been able to call a referendum simply to settle, as Clegg puts it, ‘an internal family spat within the Conservative party’. ‘You can’t really put the genie back into the bottle, particularly if one doesn’t like the outcome of the last referendum, it would be pretty rich to now say “oh well we should never have had one in the first place”.’ But that does not weaken the case for stronger checks and balances. ‘We are the only democracy in Europe which doesn’t have a written constitution. One of the things I find over and over again talking to politicians in other countries, is that they are simply incredulous that a prime minister literally one day just said oh i feel like having a referendum next week. And with no restraint, no constraints.’ 

This simple lack of clarity means we now have a fight not only over whether Brexit was the correct decision, but over the authority and conduct of the referendum itself. The ‘manner’ of leaving or staying in the EU should have been detailed, Sam argues, as opposed to the open-ended nature of a ‘yes or no’ question. ‘I have always advocated for a referendum on the European question,’ Clegg replies, ‘when there is a question to be answered, namely when new powers are pooled to the EU, or new treaties to be ratified.’ This is a crucial distinction. After a vote of ratification, the populace can clearly observe whether politicians hold true on their word. As Clegg puts it, there is no such ‘accountability’ with the Brexit vote: the Conservative Party can take whatever path they want towards Brexit, justifying their actions by recalling the referendum ‘mandate’. America, for all its political failings, does seem to enact ‘checks and balances’ more effectively, Sam adds. ‘Much better,’ Clegg agrees, ‘just look at the way the rusty wheels of accountability are working to hold Trump in check. We have nothing like that in our country.’

This lack of accountability extends to the digital world, arguably the key battleground for the Brexit debate. While Big Data and social media are clearly central to the politics of the future, Sam argues, it is ambiguous how such potentially corrupting tools will be regulated and controlled. Clegg is more cautious in his criticism. ‘Using data to target voters is as old as the hills in politics. What clearly modern technology allows, is to do that at a speed, at a volume, and with an accuracy which is unprecedented. That is true and that in my view requires absolutely new regulation, new safeguards.’ One must differentiate the influence of traditional media giants like ‘the Barclay brothers, Murdoch, or Paul Dacre’ from the power of firms like Cambridge Analytica, however. ‘Let’s not conflate Big Data with something which I’ve always thought more corrupting in politics – which is unaccountable, unelected, usually rich, old men, trying to be puppet masters of elected politicians.’

As for the final result of Brexit, Clegg is decidedly pessimistic. ‘I think the most likely outcome remains that we’ll be told suddenly one day there’s white smoke and Barnier and the government have come up with some impenetrable fudge’. We will have some, albeit muddled, agreement on key issues such as the Irish border, EU citizens’ rights, and the money Britain owes to the EU, but as for everything else ‘the future will be kicked into the touch with some legally non-binding declaration which will be full of nice sounding verbiage which will help Theresa May corral MPs to support the proposal’. A Brexit so confused as this, would already be totally unpalatable to those who voted remain, and Clegg is clear would also amount to a ‘betrayal of voters who voted for a better Brexit Britain.’ Rather than the Brexit that was promised to them in the campaign, such a separation from the EU would amount to ‘leaving your house, locking the door, throwing the keys away, having absolutely no idea where you’re going next.’

‘MPs who are the only people who can now save us from this fate [by] politely but firmly saying ‘thank you Theresa May but no thank you’. ‘At the end of the day the acid test will be how Labour votes on the so-called final deal’, says Clegg. Labour lining up to oppose the deal, however ‘unheroically’ they come to that position, is key to preventing the disastrous fudge he fears. And that looks now more probable than ever. ‘If Theresa May brings back a deal that fails our tests’, said Keir Starmer, shadow Brexit secretary ‘- and that looks increasingly likely – Labour will vote against it. No ifs, no buts.’ But is there any alternative to the government’s plan apart from the a no-deal Brexit, dreaded across the political spectrum?

Clegg’s response takes us by surprise. ‘No no no! The no-deal Brexit, of the many many myths floating around, is by far the least likely outcome.’ He is unequivocal: ‘If the final deal is defeated in Parliament in the next month or so, although that would ‘provoke a bit of turmoil’ it would likely lead to the ‘most sensible outcome of all’ in which the EU extends the Article 50 deadline to allow us to ‘take a deep breath’ and ‘think how we really want to proceed.’ ‘We don’t legally leave until the 29th March, can anyone seriously claim that for three months, when the markets are going nuts, there’s breathless headlines about no-deal on the front pages everyday, that nothing happens! – ‘Hey ho the airplanes can’t take off, radioactive waste can’t be transported’- it’s nonsense.’ But an extension would require the agreement of each of the 27 national governments of the other EU states. Otherwise we crash out come what may on the 29th of March. Are the key political figures from each EU state likely to be unanimous in such an arrangement?

‘Oh well I know they are – I’ve spoken to most of them,’ laughs Clegg. Himself a former EU trade official, Clegg declares he was not involved in a single trade negotiation which ended on time. ‘The one thing that Brussels finds infinitely fungible and elastic, is time.’ With such a reprieve from the calamity of a fudged Brexit, we would have time, quite possibly with a new government, to come to a more sensible position. And Clegg, says rather coyly ‘eventually, not immediately, that might lead to a referendum in which we look again at the facts available to us.’

Even if ‘at the 59th minute of the 11th hour’ Labour brings down the government’s deal and we gain this hoped for Article 50 extension, Clegg bemoans that it has taken this long to expose the ‘disgraceful sleight of hand’ of Brexit. ‘At any time since the referendum, a half-decent opposition would have dismantled this government, and the Brexit case!’ ‘Month after month Corbyn is lauded by supporters as some great Old Testament prophet who has delivered the promised land’. ‘But he’s crap!’ exclaims Clegg, reaching a crescendo of disdain, ‘He’s just not good at it. They should be twenty points ahead! They should be absolutely destroying this government!’ 

But if Labour has abdicated its role in holding government to account, then surely the Liberal Democrats have proven even more of a damp squib. With Labour pushed to the left by Corbyn and McDonnell, and the Tories poisoned by Brexit, a much remarked upon chasm has opened up in the centre of British politics, and yet the explicitly centrist Lib Dems have barely rebounded from their trouncing at the polls in 2015. Their performance has even worsened since then in some respects, their percentage of the vote actually dropping slightly in the 2017 election, albeit gaining a handful of seats.

Clegg is relatively gentle in his treatment of the party he once led: ‘Partly I think it’s a problem of mass or lack of it. At one point if you don’t get beyond a certain threshold of size, in the Westminster village you just don’t get taken very seriously’. But he does also issue some restrained criticism – ‘The one thing the Liberal Democrats were always very good at was, even if they were a million miles away from power, [was being] at the forefront of pioneering new thinking’. Their 2010 manifesto, for example, proposed replacing first-past-the-post with the Single Transferable Vote system, a written constitution and elected House of Lords, voting at 16, and abolishing income tax on income up to £10,000 a year. ‘We’ve sort of relinquished that space, as being the intellectual pioneers of British politics’, but Clegg does not go so far as assigning blame for this stagnation citing ‘reasons I can’t quite put my finger on’. ‘I think [the Lib Dems] need to get beyond licking their wounds. They need to stop being embarrassed of their past – I think we have a lot to be proud about – and be positive, and inventive about new policy ideas.’

Having completed his analysis of the current state of British politics, we turn to the question of how we got here in the first place. The British establishment asked a referendum it was sure it could win, and then promptly went on and lost it. Beyond our shores, Donald Trump is in the White House, Hungary and Poland are sliding towards authoritarianism and Brazil is set to elect a far-right president. Everyone has adjusted to the new reality so quickly, that it is worth remembering how outlandish today’s developments would have seemed even five years ago. But of course this populist wave has not arisen by chance. It can surely be traced in part back to the 2008 recession, whose political symptoms are only really manifesting themselves a decade later. But that’s not the whole story. Losing a job between 2012 and 2016 made one no more likely to vote for Donald Trump. Poland is the most prosperous it has ever been and avoided recession completely ten years ago. Is it fear of demographic change, of Islam, of immigration, however irrational, rather than economic shifts, which has driven this populist ascendancy?

Clegg does not come down on either side: ‘If this is not sounding too contorted, I think both can be true. I can’t prove this to you, but my strong hunch is, if 2008 had not happened, I don’t think this country would have voted Brexit, I don’t think Donald Trump would have been elected president of the US today. But that is not to say that Brexit and Trump are completely explained by 2008.’ Clegg points to the ‘much more fluid ideological environment after the collapse of the Berlin wall’. ‘When I was at university, politics was much simpler than it is now. Everyone lined up either on the left or the right, communism versus capitalism.’ In a sense the existential political struggle of the Cold War crowded out unorthodox politics which have now found space to flourish. With the triumph of liberal democracy and capitalism after the collapse of the USSR, it briefly appeared to some that the world had essentially reached a consensus as to the correct political ideology, what Francis Fukuyama now infamously termed ‘The End of History’. It now seems rather more plausible to say that although communism may have been rejected, a different politics, the populism and protectionism of today, the illiberal democracy of Poland and Hungary, has taken its place as the rival of liberal, democratic capitalism.

Clegg also suggests that features of capitalism itself has speeded this trend, citing the ‘unsettling’ rate of technological change, ‘globalisation’, and the rise ‘supranational organisations’, such as the EU, ‘[which] struggle to feel accountable’. All this has contributed to a dissolution of ‘class, family, and place-based affiliations’ – something which Clegg is quick to point out has had various positive effects, but also led to ‘much greater volatility’. Still, Clegg says, we must come back to the fundamental importance of economic factors.

One reading of today’s economic malaise is that it’s driven by spiralling inequality. Clegg disagrees. ‘Inequality shot up in the 80s, and then it remained pretty stable, in fact during my years in office it went down slightly’, and indeed the gini coefficient of the UK and US, the most used measure of inequality, has stayed almost the same since the 1990s. For Clegg the issue lies elsewhere; ‘when I started in politics twenty years ago, poverty was basically associated with unemployment. Probably the single biggest socio-economic change that has happened while I’ve been in politics is that certainly in America and Britain, poverty is an in work phenomenon. You have millions of people who are in work but poor.’

The statistics are indeed stark; two thirds of UK children in poverty are in working families, the highest figure ever recorded. Across the Atlantic, real wages, i.e. the purchasing power of an American worker’s income, have not increased for most in forty years, whilst the social security net set up in the 1960s has been severely cut back. The United States retains one of the highest rates of in-work poverty in the developed world. ‘The link between how hard [people] work and the reward they receive has collapsed.’ That, says Clegg, fuels the frustration and desperation on which populism feeds, so when democratic exercises such as the 2016 US Presidential election or the Brexit vote become referendums on the status quo, people ‘quite understandably’ reject it. Clegg points to the current fiasco over universal credit. Far from being a ladder out of poverty, it has become a ‘trap’, with the treasury having ‘decimated’ entitlements. ‘I don’t think our tax system, our welfare system has been remotely reformed enough to reflect these [economic] changes’. His message is simple; the failure of serious economic reform is not only wrecking lives, it’s wrecking liberal democracy.

For Clegg, at least, things are looking a little rosier. Facebook have just hired him as head of global affairs and communications. He moves to sunny California in January. If 2019 promises to be another troubled year for the world, for Clegg it may be his best in some time.