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Book Review: Nick Clegg - The Biography by Chris Bowers

Tue 13th Sep 2011

Nick Clegg, The Biography by Chris Bowers explains a lot about the man but maybe not so much of his politics.

The Deputy Prime Minister’s family history is explored and it goes some way to explaining some of Clegg’s convictions. Some of the content is a little sycophantic and defensive of the man but this could be explained by the fact that the author is a Liberal Democrat district councillor (Lewes) and stood for Parliament in 2010.

Given the comparisons made with David Cameron (he has at times been dubbed by the media as ‘Cameron-lite’) the book also explores Clegg’s journey through the British education system, making the point that, although both men went to public (independent) school, the two schools – Eton and Westminster respectively - were vastly different in their in size and location. and as Bowers says “If Eton has always been a traditional school for the offspring of affluent English families. Westminister has prided itself on its liberal arts and internationalist background.”

The Prime Minister and Deputy Prime Minister both completed their tertiary education in Oxbridge but again, differences lie in both the colleges they went to and the subjects they choose to study, with Cameron studying PPE at Brasenose College, Oxford, and Clegg studying anthropology at Robinson College, Cambridge. The former dates from 1509, whereas Robinson College was founded in 1981. Clegg is quoted as saying that what he liked about Robinson was that ‘it had none of the stuffiness of the established colleges. There was a very human, unpretentious attitude about it.’

Much of Clegg’s schooling and the Dutch egalitarianism of his mother goes a long way to explain Clegg’s deeply held liberalism and idealism, according to Bowers. He tells us that Clegg “believes in the intrinsic goodness of people.”

Throughout the biography the reader is given many examples of this idealism such as his fury against Margaret Thatcher’s attempts at social engineering of which the author quotes Clegg as saying ‘I remember being immensely angry at this dog-eat-dog sort of social view that she took – it was very a ungenerous, harsh, political environment at the time.’ Another example given was Clegg’s insistence that, when standing to be a Lib Dem candidate for MEP in the East Midlands, a website created for him carry the Lib Dems’ audited accounts - this proved to be a good move when the expenses scandal hit and the media wanted to know details of his accounts during ‘Cleggmania’ in April 2010.

Clegg’s Europeanism (something that, again, separates him from Cameron) is explained in part by his family: his wife is Spanish, his mother Dutch, and his grandparents were Russian, Dutch and one was British. He is clearly at ease at communicating in languages other than English (including French and German) and gained his second postgraduate degree from the College d’Europe in Bruges (where he met Miriam, his future wife). He later worked for the external trade directorate of the European Commission (where he gained the patronage of Sir Leon Brittan and later Paddy Ashdown, all of which is very interesting as they helped Clegg into position) and later became an MEP.

A close relationship with Europe is an issue that he is clearly passionate about, as is his party by and large. However, he is less zealous about environmental matters, something that could have
stymied his election as party leader when he stood against Chris Huhne. However, he has, what is described by Bowers, as a natural charm that appears to win over young and old alike, whatever their class or status, and must have helped him in the pre-election televised debates.

The book also tackles the perception by some that Clegg is essentially a Conservative (and including allegations, not entirely proven, that he was a member of that party in his first year of Cambridge), the tussles that led to the Conservative–Lib Dem coalition (and the Labour Party’s courtship of the Lib Dems) and, what might be seen as the mistakes that Clegg may have made through his relative political inexperience.

The author clearly admires his party leader and though a considerable part of the book focuses on Clegg’s early years and his almost unheard of meteoric rise to party leader. Bowers also tackles the travails Clegg suffered over tuition fees and the hubris he received at the hands of the media as Cleggmania waned. The biography gives a useful insight into the man responsible in running the country in Cameron’s absence.
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