Nick Clegg

Nick Clegg, the British politician, has just engineered the biggest success of his career. The polite, soft-spoken man is the leader of Britain's third biggest political party, the Liberal Democrats, and until recently was largely unidentifiable across the country. He is now deputy Prime Minister of Great Britain. In both his life and politics, Nick Clegg represents the modern European at the very top of his profession.

In the recent elections Clegg performed well in the television debates and raised his profile dramatically, achieving popularity poll ratings of 32%. From this popular basis, he reversed conventional wisdom on how politics in Britain should work and strove the hardest to pursue a fairer, different form of democracy through electoral reform. Nick Clegg's achievement was to break the Labour / Conservative dichotomy of generations that had become hardwired into the British system and to build a position from which to form a coalition government with the Conservatives.

The values of Nick Clegg

Amongst Clegg's strongest values is the pursuit of Proportional Representation, by distributing seats nationally rather than it being centered on each local 'constituency'. This attempt was infused with the language of 'having your vote matter' and attacked the current system of effectively 'discounting' the voice of those who did not vote for the winner in each area. This passion for the advancement of representation exists across the spectrum of European liberals and is written into the very language and aims of the European constitution.

Voting in the UK

Each Member of parliment (MP) is elected in regional elections to represent his 'constituency' in the national Parliament.

Any party with 326 or more MPs (from 650 in Parliament) can form a Government, irrespective of their national vote percentage.

The system provides stability but is less representative, as all 'losing' constituency votes have no influence over the national outcome.

The last time this system produced no clear winner was in 1974, and the coalition lasted just 7 months.

The Liberal Democrat manifesto also established a strident line on more controversial European topics such as the Euro by arguing that at the right time, 'it is in Britain's long term interest to be part of the Euro.' Clegg's vision of Europe is based upon co-operation and mutual benefit through supranational organisation. This is in sharp contrast to the Conservative party who joined the strongly eurosceptic “European Conservatives and Reformists” group last year. Whilst both may wish to be friends with the European states, any action that strengthens the EU will be seen as weakness by the influential hardliners within the conservative party.

As the integral coalition partner however, Clegg could, and is, using his position to stand up against the excesses of the Conservative's confrontational policy. An attempt to outlaw further EU integration through a British 'Sovereignty' Bill had already been dropped by Cameron as part of the Coalition agreement. For Clegg to make real difference though, he would have to risk public animosity against Europe, something he may not be willing to do. The Foreign Office remains under the leadership of the Conservatives, and Europe at the moment cannot expect to witness a dramatic change in Britain's stance towards it.

Clegg's Europe

Before entering British politics Nick Clegg worked as an MEP from 1999-2004. After reporting on the effects of mass privatisation in Hungary to much acclaim, he became heavily involved in the TACIS aid programme to the former Soviet Union states, as well as Cyprus and Malta. This organisation paved the way for the creation of an integrated European market, equalising, as best it could, the vast difference between the small, and communist, economies across the new Europe. Clegg's involvement in administrative and financial aid stands out even more as his nation was officially sceptical on enlargement to the East.

Both in his European roots and stance towards Britain's continuing involvement in the EU Clegg brings a positive air to the mainstream of Britain's domestic politics.

Experience of the benefits of co-operation in the EU undoubtedly plays into Clegg's current thinking. His support for a new regulatory board for banks across Europe, commonly seen as a necessary step in protecting people from another economic catastrophe, displays this. He does however follow the line that he argued upon his resignation from MEP in 2002 that the battle to convince people of the benefits of the EU must begin at home and not in Brussels. It is this mindset more than anything that seems to be the antidote to the increasing fear that the EU after the banking crisis can only be considered a burden to its citizens.

Nick Clegg and David Cameron
Photo: The Prime Minister's Office
Can Nick Clegg (left) in his coalition counter-balance the UK's eurosceptic Prime Minister David Cameron (right)?

Europe runs quite literally through Clegg's veins. Born in 1967 to a Dutch mother and an English father, he is now married to a Spaniard and it is not surprising that Clegg speaks five European languages. In Britain he is considered a gentleman, but caused a minor scandal when he admitted to having slept with 'no more than 30' women before meeting his wife! His education at Cambridge in social anthropology put him in good stead to take on a master's degree in the prestigious College of Europe, a university known for bringing together the brightest minds of Europe and producing leaders with a distinctly transnational understanding of the world.

A European on Top

Detractors of Nick Clegg will argue that in gaining one of the country's top jobs he sold out his values and his party to do a deal with the Conservatives. But as a lot of European countries experience, political stability rests on the sacrifice of some partisan positions, such as the increase in VAT in this year’s Budget. Clegg's party is now in government and this can only be a positive thing for Europe.

Both in his European roots and stance towards Britain's continuing involvement in the EU, Clegg brings a positive air to the mainstream of Britain's domestic politics. Whilst many at the top of politics are turning in on themselves, he has maintained clarity of vision that Europe is a project that can aid states and their people to survive the toughest political and economic trials and promote liberal values throughout the world. For this he is a top European, at the top of his game.

Cover illustration: Laura Hempel

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