Monday, May 10, 2010

Who is Nick Clegg?

For someone propelled into the political spotlight, Nick Clegg is an oddity. Unlike Blair, who treated attention like a sunlamp, Clegg seems oddly uncomfortable - not just with his situation, but with himself. Many photographs show his head tilted forward slightly, as though manfully resisting the urge to look down; after making key points in the pseudo-Presidential TV debates, his eyes would flick to the floor; and if you cover the top part of the face, look at the mouth - all wrong, somehow.

Like Baroness Ashton (Europe's first High Representative For Foreign Affairs), he looks like a natural loser who's won the Lottery, but is going to have it all taken away from him at some point. True, both are winners in a sense now, but the European setup that gave Clegg his first major political position as an MEP (after some years of service with the European Commission), and Ashton (I think) her last, has carefully arranged matters so that you have a big group of nonentities in a mock-Parliament, while all the real power is vested in the Council of Ministers. In short, these two are perfect stooges and the light of publicity does not flatter them.

It is, I think, significant that Clegg's postgraduate learning included a spell at the College of Europe in Bruges, an outfit whose purpose was described by postwar Euro-idealist Henri Brugmans as "to train an elite of young executives for Europe." I read that as a sort of McKinsey for pliable idiots. Other British Isles alumni include former Tory MP Nigel Forman, Neil Kinnock's sprog Stephen, LD stiff Simon Hughes, ScotNat MEP Alyn Smith (how a nationalist and a federalist? explain!), and Irish-born ex-Gen Sec of the European Commission David O'Sullivan.

Now, for a short spell, Clegg's playing with the big boys, and they're going to have his marbles and the bag they came in. Nothing will persuade any Labour or Conservative leader to agree to PR, a system that would guarantee perpetually recurring crises of governance like the present one. The Single Transferable Vote as some describe it (preference ranking within conflated groupings of constituencies) would tend to a squeeze of minor parties in favour of the largest two; tweaked versions of the Alternative Vote are obvious political fudges designed to include cosy dunroamin deadend spots for loyal, clapped-out Party hacks or political chessmen in search of a sinecure (I believe AV+ was Roy Jenkins' brainchild, if so the connection doesn't surprise).

The best that can be hoped for by LibDems is constituency-level Alternative Vote, and it's by no means certain that AV would prove greatly helpful to them. In habitually Conservative seats, many LD voters may be slightly disenchanted Tories who will return to the fold if they feel threatened by some Lib-Lab combination; in Labour seats, the same situation in reverse; and some Liberal seats could be threatened by odd tactical combinations of their enemies, questioning LD policies on e.g. nuclear disarmament, Eurointegration, immigration.

The best that can be hoped for by Nick Clegg, I think, is to do a Blair: sell out to powerful interests who will springboard him into some position less vulnerable to the people's franchise. Perhaps the reward for his long service to Europe will be a seat on the European Commission (maybe he still speaks to David O'Sullivan and friends - see above). He, and ultimately his descendants, will be accepted into that modern equivalent of the Hapsburg dynasty that is the nascent power support structure of the EU.

Or maybe he'll stand his ground, and watch his party get whittled away back down to six seats, a fate David Steel vividly remembers.

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