Nick Clegg: An instinctive liberal
Nick Clegg is having a good week. When the opinion polls narrow, thoughts turn to a hung parliament, and to the man who might hold the balance of power. Journalists start treating him as a potential king-maker, rather than the head of a pressure group. When the polls widen again, they turn away. Clegg, though, is an interesting politician. I've just interviewed him for the Radio 4 programme Political Roots. (There's a taster piece on the BBC website).
What did I learn? Three things stood out.
First, Clegg is an instinctive liberal rather than an intellectual one. His liberalism was almost passed to him genetically: his grandmother fled the Russian communists; his mother spent years in a Japanese POW camp. 'There was something floating around my family,' is how he puts it. 'There was something very much in my upbringing which had an almost romanticised view of Britain as a home of liberty.' Clegg's rebellion against arbitrary power is what drives his gut-liberalism. It is paradoxical, then, that he has arguably turned his party into a more recognisable liberal one than any of his recent predecessors, not least through an emphasis on taxing wealth rather than income. And in a pamphlet for Demos, The Liberal Moment, he articulated a clear intellectual framework for his party.
Second, he is a natural optimist. Indeed, he sees optimism about human nature and the possibility of human progress as an essential ingredient of liberalism. 'I see Liberalism funnily enough not really even as a political label,' he says. 'I see it as a description of a state of mind - a generosity of spirit, generosity of heart, great optimism - because it starts with a very intuitive belief that individuals can do great things if they’re, if they’re empowered to do so. It’s very, very optimistic.'
Third, the chances of a long-term meeting of minds with Labour is much greater than with the Tories. Of course he has to try and be neutral. Of course he has to say he'll support the party that has won the 'mandate' of the British people. But there is a clear difference in his assessment of the claims of the other two parties to the 'progressive' label. To be progressive is to be optimistic about the possibility of human betterment, he thinks. Are the Tories progressive? 'I so happen to believe that the Conservative Party represents a world view that is relatively sort of modest in its ambitions of what it thinks we’re capable of doing together.' OK, so that's a no, then. What about Labour? 'Labour I think has progressive instincts as far as social progress is concerned, believes that there’s a sort of onward march towards greater equality, greater fairness. I think the great tragedy of Labour - and it’s a real tragedy, it’s an absolute tragedy - is that despite those progressive instincts, it has deployed deeply regressive and authoritarian means.'
I think that this means a more liberal Labour party, under a more liberal leader, would be a much more attractive proposition to Clegg than Cameron is ever likely to be. But even if this was true, he'd be mad to say so.