Books

BOOK REVIEW: Politics - Between the Extremes by Nick Clegg

15 Oct 2016 at 21:02

I like Nick Clegg. Always have. He’s a transparently nice guy. I suspect he’s a very loyal person, and someone who tries to see the best in people. This can sometimes be a fatal flaw in a politician.

I remember seeing Nick Clegg at the 2008 LibDem conference, less than a year after his election as the party’s leader. “You’re a risk taker,” I said. “I like that in a politician.” He wasn’t afraid to take the risk of going into full coalition with the Conservatives and he wasn’t afraid to suffer the consequences. I think history will be much kinder to Nick Clegg than many commentators have been so far. He may have sacrificed his party, but he did it for the right reasons, and the country ought to be grateful to him. It isn’t of course, but that’s just ‘realpolitik’ in today’s unforgiving world of instant political commentary.

When I heard that Nick Clegg was writing a book I must admit I was slightly surprised by the title and totally put off by the marketing press release which his publishers put out. “Politics: Between the Extremes” has to be one of the worst titles ever thought of in the history of book publishing. I’ll read anything political but the blurb describing the book even put off a political geek like me. Well, they bravely stuck with the title…

This book is not an easy read. The first half amounts to one long whinge about how everyone is so beastly to the sainted Liberal Democrats and to the man who took them to power for the first time in eighty years. Up to a point, Lord Copper.

This book might have been better had it been a conventional autobiography. Clegg has a fascinating personal narrative and story, yet we only get to hear about it almost in passing in this book. We hear a little about how his political narrative developed, but he skates over too much.

Throughout the book he jumps from event to event and back again. What you think he’s finished discussing in one chapter then appears again in another. At times the text is almost impenetrable. At others it’s very chatty.

He’s at his best when writing about issues he cares about, like Britain’s role in (or not) Europe. The passion oozes from the page. When he writes about the business of politics and government it’s written with a sense of ennui, as if it’s rather beneath him.

I interviewed Nick Clegg about the book recently, and when we were chatting afterwards I said how nice it was to see him so relaxed. When he was leader of the LibDems he always seemed to live in a state of slight irritation. It came across in interviews and phone-ins. It was as if he was subconsciously sending out a message to people saying: “Why can’t you see that what I am doing is right and give me the credit for doing it?”

Back in March I published David Laws’ book, COALITION. OK, I am biased, but if I wanted to read a book about the coalition, I know which I’d choose. David Laws has his moments when he can’t see the LibDem wood for the Conservative trees, but in Nick Clegg’s book the principled and idealistic LibDems were almost always right, and the beastly unprincipled Conservatives always had malign motives, if they took a line which was different to their coalition partners.

Having said that, at times, Clegg seems to rather admire the sheer ruthlessness of the Conservatives. He makes a lot of this when talking about the AV referendum.

Where Clegg is at his best is when he writes about the perils in being a junior partner. He compares the position of the LibDems to other liberal parties in Europe, like the German FDP, or their Dutch counterparts, and muses whether post government decline is always inevitable for smaller coalition parties.

This is not a bad book, but it could have been better. It adds to our knowledge of contemporary history, but one suspects it’s not the whole truth.

We know that Nick Clegg kept a diary. We don’t know if it was just for his period in government or also the years before. I suspect we’d learn a lot more about Nick Clegg’s motives and beliefs if that diary were ever published. We know that David Laws had access for it for his book, and no doubt Nick Clegg referred back to it for this book, but in the end he should publish the diaries, assuming they amount to more than just a record of events. I suspect they amount to far more than that.

Nick Clegg is still not 50 years old. I hope he doesn’t stand down in 2020. I rather think he might one day return to lead his party, and if he does, it’s entirely possible that at some point they could return to government.

With the decline of Labour, the LibDems have a fantastic opportunity to grow. They might not return to the giddy heights to the Cleggmania of May 2010 and of winning 50 or 60 seats in 2020, but I suspect they will win far more than eight.

When Corbyn stands down in favour of John McDonnell in May 2020 (which is surely more than 50-50 likely), that’s the point that the LibDems can again come to the fore. Tim Farron may be the man to take them forward, or he may not. If he isn’t, then I can think of a man who could, assuming he is still in Parliament – Nicholas William Peter Clegg.

Politics: Between the Extremes by Nick Clegg is published by The Bodley Head in hardback at £20.

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