The new (and in fact only) biography of Nick Clegg is very much a book of two halves. The first – a fascinating tale of Nick’s multinational family; the second – a fairly standard recount of some of the political events of the last few years, with little in the way of revelations. If you do not follow political news closely, you will still find in the second half much of interest, but whether or not you do the first is illuminating not only because of the colourful relatives (as one newspaper put it, think Tenko meets Reilly, Ace of Spies) but also because the clues it gives as to Nick Clegg’s liberalism.
There is always a risk of mixing hindsight with tidiness so as to draw too neat a line between events in someone’s past and their subsequent believes. It is though very tempting to link Nick’s passion for the pupil premium and lukewarm views on tuition fees with his mother having been a special needs teacher. From his own early years, it is early years education that has been at the centre of attention. Tempting also – and on perhaps more solid ground – to link the multiple nationalities of Nick family with his own very internationalist outlook along with the obvious linking of his liberalism with his own family’s continental liberal traditions.
The biography rightly reminds readers that although Nick’s ascent of the political ladder was very swift, it has involved three hard-fought membership contents – to be selected for the East Midlands Euro list, then to become the candidate for Sheffield Hallam and finally the party leadership contest. In each case he was up against at least one very strong rival candidate.
That background helps explain why Nick Clegg has consistently been a regular visitor to local parties around the country, even despite the pressures which normally befell people who become party leader or go into government, let alone those who do both.
He has not disappeared off into a bubble. If anything his cycle of meetings with local parties and their members is now more intensive than it has even been. Both consciously and subconsciously a political career based on having to win over members is serving him well.
Yet it is also a rather top-down heritage: you go to meet people, you persuade them you are a good thing. It is not a campaigning heritage: you go to meet people, you persuade them to go out campaigning.
Hence perhaps the usual absence from his rhetoric and actions about the need to build the party’s campaigning infrastructure and foster activity at the grassroots. He certainly isn’t hostile and the party has made some good changes since he became leader (such as the move to VAN) and the Bones report certainly tried to deliver much. But you rarely hear the sort of enthusiastic exhortation on the topic that featured regularly in Paddy’s early years as leader.
Moreover, the party’s local government basis has featured very little in Nick’s ascent. He has never stood for a local council, let alone been a councillor or taken part in running a council, and nor has his route to being Deputy Prime Minister rested much on securing local government victories first, unlike those MPs who got elected after first nurturing a growth in the council base in their patch.
Add to that a working career centred on working in that most bureaucratic of places, the European Union, and you can easily see why Nick combines a healthy scepticism about under-performing centralised public bodies with what would otherwise be a somewhat puzzling almost complete absence of talk about community politics.
What he has rarely had to do in the past is directly attempt to improve the quality of public services – explaining perhaps why his views in this area are ones that most often leave people asking questions about where his instincts lie. On that the past gives very little in the way of clues; the present is however rapidly making up for that.