The Yellow Man

Ten years after the first Coalition austerity budget, we recall the rise of Nick Clegg – British centrism's last great hope – who appealed to the radical instincts of his supporters, only to march them to the right.

It is now ten long years since a curious phenomenon took an unsuspecting nation by storm. Back in 2010 times were hard. Politically, it felt like we were between a rock and a hard place.

Everyone was sick of Gordon Brown’s dour coda to New Labour, but equally fearful of David Cameron’s promise to eliminate the state and run the country as a sort of trendy-dad village fete, with Clarkson manning the white elephant stall and Alex James spinning ‘smooth’ Supertramp cuts on the sound system. 

Then, in springtime, as a bloodless general election campaign chuntered into second gear, a dapper hero with a surname of pure poetry burst onto the scene, rousing the idealism of the nation’s youth with a TV persona that evoked Hugh Grant at his bumbling best. 

Opening the first ever televised UK election debate, this clean-cut demagogue looked directly into our souls and promised to ‘create the fair society, the fair country, we all want’. Finally, the quixotic knight of chillwave liberalism had arrived. He walked under the sign of Hope, and his name was Nick Clegg.

When all is said and done, there is a sense in which satire is the only way to do justice to the strange glitch in British political history we have come to call — and I use the official term here — ‘Cleggmania.’ But for all its absurdity, the phenomenon has enduring legacies.

Looking back over the strange trajectory of Sir Nicholas William Peter Clegg over the last decade helps us to understand much about the crucial role of liberal centrism in blunting reform and enabling Britain’s inexorable drift to the right in the early years of the twenty-first century. 

At a time when a new Labour leader appears intent on ignoring the hopes and dreams of younger voters to chase a centrist compromise that will probably never materialise, it will be instructive to revisit the Clegg narrative in all its tragic, ludicrous glory. 

The Roots of Clegg

To understand where Cleggism (to coin a phrase) came from, we need to examine two very different pre-histories to the heady spring of 2010. The first — the backstory of the man himself — is serenely uninteresting, if depressingly familiar.

Clegg’s own roots were, quite simply, in the English establishment. The son of wealthy parents with connections to banking, medicine and the European aristocracy, he went to private schools in London and the Home Counties before studying at Cambridge University, where he was captain of the college tennis team and a keen participant in student theatre. 

After graduating, he joined what might be called the Extended Gap Year wing of the professional upper-middle class, moving through a series of exciting, far-flung jobs — a postgraduate scholar in the States, intern at The Nation, Brussels diplomat, corporate lobbyist, aid-agency mandarin — of the kind that are mysteriously and invariably the preserve of people who fit this exact demographic profile. 

This might seem like an unlikely set of credentials for a man whose rise to power eventually occurred on the back of radical proposals to abolish tuition fees and wind-down Trident. But, in fact, Clegg was a British Liberal in the banal, traditional sense of the term. 

For hundreds of years before they were supplanted by the more genuinely demotic Labour Party, the Liberals were the party of the ‘progressive’ haute bourgeoisie and its complex power networks, which typically comprised high-ranking politicians (in both Commons and Lords), merchant capitalists, civil servants and colonial administrators.

In other words, Clegg was merely the latest mutation in a time-honoured — and rather boring — lineage in British Liberalism, which stretches back through Paddy Ashdown and Jeremy Thorpe to Asquith and Gladstone.  

The Lost Leader

But while Clegg’s genteel pedigree might have enhanced his appeal among fanboys and fangirls with a soft-spot for preppy Mark Darcy types, it wouldn’t have been enough in itself to produce the outbreak of enthusiasm for the Lib Dem ticket in the 2010 general election campaign.

No, the real source of Clegg’s (qualified) popular success in 2010 was the remarkable expansion of his party in the preceding period. On becoming Lib Dem leader in 2007, Clegg was able to capitalise on the momentum the party had built up over a long, fruitful decade, the highpoint of which was its 1999-2006 stewardship by Charlie Kennedy — surely the finest leader it ever had.

When I was an undergraduate student in the mid ‘00s, almost everyone I knew voted Lib Dem if they voted at all. A large part of the reason for this was the broadly leftist stance the party had adopted after Kennedy replaced Paddy Ashdown in 1999. 

Under Ashdown, the Lib Dems had become a sizeable faction at Westminster, harnessing the anti-Tory tactical vote to win 48 seats at the 1997 election (after winning only 18 in 1992). Kennedy built on this strong foundation in the first years of the new millennium, foregrounding youth-centric policies such as strong opposition to the Iraq War, the (possible) legalisation of cannabis and the scrapping of university tuition fees. 

The result was the high watermark of the 2005 election, in which the Lib Dems picked up 62 seats (their highest total since 1923), making them a substantial third force in British politics, who could credibly claim to be an alternative opposition party.

From today’s perspective, it is useful to note that many of the urban seats — Manchester Withington, Bristol West, Hornsey & Wood Green, Cambridge, Leeds North West — which Labour now takes for granted as the core of its electoral powerbase looked like they might become long-term Lib Dem heartlands in this period.

But the beginning of the end for the Lib Dems occurred soon after this electoral highpoint, when Kennedy was in 2006 forced to step down as leader because of his alcoholism. 

All in all, Kennedy is a tragic figure who is the ghost at the feast where the Clegg narrative is concerned. In contrast to Clegg’s High Liberal background, Kennedy was originally a member of the Social Democratic Party (SDP), a Labour breakaway sect. He came to politics from a modest ‘provincial’ background in rural Scotland, which is probably partly why he was able to position his party as a down-to-earth alternative to both New Labour managerialism and Tory traditionalism in the early ’00s. 

It seems unlikely that Kennedy would have possessed the necessary personal or moral sympathy with David Cameron to enter into coalition government with him in 2010. He died a broken man in 2015, a few days after losing his parliamentary seat, in an election where the Lib Dems were made to pay heavily for his successor’s vainglory.

Limits of Cleggism

Given the strong foundations laid down in the Ashdown and Kennedy years, there is a sense in which Clegg did not have to do very much in the 2010 election to achieve relative success. Indeed, boiled down to its essence, ‘Cleggmania’ was really a rather short-lived media narrative that had little discernible impact even on the election which provided its backdrop.

It is true that Clegg’s performance in the first TV election debate had a huge impact in terms of political atmosphere. A ComRes/ITV poll on the night of the debate gave him a 43% lead over Cameron (26%) and Brown (20%), and for a few weeks he had a fair claim to be the most popular politician in the land.

If the 2010 election had been a straight presidential contest, it is likely that Clegg would have won, and he ended up taking the Lib Dem popular vote to 6.8 million — almost a million higher than their 2005 total, and within shouting distance of Labour’s 8.6 million. At this point there really were two main opposition parties rather than just one.

However, it is also true that Cleggmania did not in itself amount to any kind of electoral breakthrough. In spite of their popular tally, the Lib Dems actually won 5 fewer seats in 2010 than in 2005, with modest gains in urban seats like Norwich South and Bradford East offset by heavier losses in the rural South and West – a foreshadowing of the large city-small town divide that would deepen over the next decade.

And if Cleggmania resulted in a muted success for the Lib Dems in 2010, its aftereffects would lead ultimately to the near annihilation of the party and the social destruction of the country. 

The Great Betrayal

After the election produced a hung parliament, Clegg accepted David Cameron’s offer of a coalition partnership. Clegg became the Deputy Prime Minister overnight, posing for embarrassingly amatory photographs with his Tory overload in an infamous ‘Rose Garden’ press conference to announce the new alliance.

It would take a while for the impact of this decision to be felt. But from this moment on, having totally betrayed their left-leaning support base, the Lib Dems were now dead in the water as a major force in British politics.

There is a case for saying that any other leader would have acted as Clegg did in 2010. At the time, and in the years since, Lib Dem coalition members like Vince Cable have tried to claim that they co-operated with the Tories in order to mitigate the effects of Austerity.

Presented with the opportunity, weren’t they always going to help form a government and implement at least a small part of the Liberal agenda, after a century of exile on the backbenches?

This argument is weak in general, and in Clegg’s particular case there is no doubt that he was personally amenable to a partnership with Cameron. A public schoolboy in the same cohort as his Tory counterpart, with a similar demeanour and not dissimilar views about the need for a pro-market economy which worked in collaboration with international finance, Clegg was in fact an ideal foil for Cameron’s political project. 

Especially in the early days of the Coalition, Cameron needed a useful idiot to make up for the fragility of his seat-share in Westminster, not to mention the widespread unpopularity of his radical austerity agenda.

The brutal truth is that without Clegg at his side, by all accounts acting as a simpatico left-hand man, Cameron would never have been able to treble university tuition fees, squeeze the NHS until it bled, and create the conditions for the rise of the foodbank as the defining civic institution of the decade. 

It seems unlikely, to put it mildly, that many of the millions of idealistic young students who backed Clegg in 2010 would have knowingly voted for this, or anything like it. Readers can doubtless think of their own examples, but I cannot personally bring to mind a more heinous case of a party leader double-crossing his own voters in the long, ignoble annals of British political history.

Cleggxit Centre-Right

After his great betrayal Clegg’s party were massacred at the first opportunity, when the 2015 election reduced their seat-total from 57 to 8, more or less where it remains today.

But Clegg was mercurial enough that he was able to escape the disillusion and marginalisation suffered by tens of thousands of Lib Dem members and activists following their electoral wipeout in 2015 — even after he experienced the further personal humiliation of losing his Sheffield Hallam seat to Labour at the 2017 general election.

After losing her Crewe and Nantwich seat in 2019, Labour MP Laura Smith calmly shrugged off the experience of visiting her local unemployment office in search of work. While Smith remained in the Northern English seat she had grown up in after her defeat, it would be fair to say that the hero of the present article followed a slightly different trajectory.

Possibly in return for his pivotal role in reviving the twenty-first-century electoral fortunes of the Conservative Party (officially for ‘political and public service’), Clegg received a knighthood in the 2018 New Year Honour’s List. But this was merely the stepping stone to further greatness.

In the same year as he was made a Knight Batchelor by Queen Elizabeth II, Mark Zuckerberg offered Clegg a job as Facebook’s joint head of policy and communications — a role he retains to this day. 

In a period when Facebook was increasingly coming under attack for its inability or unwillingness to tackle political fake news, Clegg’s appointment was widely regarded as an attempt by Zuckerberg to project an image of global institutional legitimacy.

Again, as with his pact with Cameron, Clegg’s Facebook tryst exemplifies his knack for offering up his wares to powerful operators looking to clean up otherwise contentious political manoeuvrings.

Alongside the parallel case of fellow corporate playboy Tony Blair, Clegg’s repeated useful idiocy reminds us how far and how easily centrists are willing to exploit the more radical instincts of their supporters in the service of personal gain, with ‘pragmatism’ and ‘compromise’ acting as convenient smokescreens.

The hero of Cleggmania was the first British politician to rise to prominence with the aid of millennial idealism. He was also the first to royally screw this demographic for the sake of governmental power. Sadly, it seems, he will not be the last.