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British Liberal Democrat Politician
Born 1967

A former Member of the European Parliament for the East Midlands between 1999 and 2004, Nick Clegg has been the Member of Parliament for Sheffield Hallam since 2005 and is currently the leader of the Liberal Democrats.

Early life and Origins

Nicholas William Peter Clegg was born at Amersham in Buckinghamshire on the 7th January 1967, the third of four children born to Nicholas Clegg and Hermance van den Wall Bake. The elder Nicholas Clegg followed a career as a City banker and was a former director of Hill Samuel Co Ltd, chairman of Daiwa Europe Bank plc and was once a senior adviser to the Bank of England on banking supervision. He was himself half-Russian, as his mother the Baroness Kira von Engelhardt was the daughter of the Tsarist senator, diplomat and landowner Ignatiy Platonovich Zakrevsky, and fled Russia after the Communist revolution.

To add further exotic colour to his background, there was also great-great-aunt Moura Budberg the "sexy Russian spy", who managed successive affairs with Robert Bruce Lockhart, Maxim Gorky and H.G. Wells, whilst his mother Hermance was of Dutch origin, born in Indonesia and spent her youth in a Japanese prisoner-of-war camp in Jakarta, before coming to Britain at the age of twelve.

Education and early career

Young Nick was sent to Caldicott Preparatory School and then Westminster School, although the most notable event in his educational career happened when he was an exchange student in Germany at the age of sixteen and he secured a criminal conviction for arson after he and a friend "torched two greenhouses of cacti belonging to a professor" in what he later claimed was a "drunken prank". This was doubly unfortunate as the professor in question was Germany's foremost cactus collector, and Nick spent much of the summer hunting down replacements for the professor's collection. He nevertheless survived his brush with the German criminal justice system, and after spending a gap year working as a ski instructor in Austria and at a bank in Helsinki, he went up to Robinson College, Cambridge where he read Archaeology and Anthropology. There he was captain of the college tennis team, and became active in Survival International, although apparently "his forte was acting" and he once acted opposite a young Helena Bonham-Carter.

Clegg then spent a year at the University of Minnesota studying for a Masters degree and wrote his thesis on the "political philosophy of the Deep Green movement". From there he went to New York where he worked as a trainee journalist on The Nation for his fellow Brit Christopher Hitchens, and then onwards to Brussels where he spent six months as a trainee in the G24 Co-ordination Unit. He subsequently returned to academia and took a second Masters degree at the College of Europe in Bruges, which is where he incidentally met his wife.

In 1993 he became the first recipient of the Financial Times David Thomas Prize and went to Hungary and wrote of their experience of privatisation. Then in April 1994 he went to work for the European Commission on their TACIS aid programme and managed aid projects in Russia, before being hired in 1996 by Leon Brittan, the European Commissioner for Trade as a policy adviser and speechwriter and led the European Union team negotiating China and Russia's entry into the World Trade Organisation.

Political Career

Clegg has claimed that he became a Liberal "in conversation with my mum" citing "her despair at the class system, and her total belief in justice". His first break came when he was chosen to head the Liberal Democrat list of candidates in the East Midlands for the European Parliament in 1998, and was duly elected at the 1999 European elections. As an MEP he helped found the Campaign for Parliamentary Reform, one of the many organisations established to campaign for greater transparency and accountability in the European Parliament, and also became the Trade and Industry spokesman for the European Liberal Democrat and Reform group. He later claimed some of the credit for the European legislation on 'local loop unbundling', which opened up telephone networks across Europe to competition, although this was simply a case of reproducing the arrangements that already existed in the United Kingdom.

He also argued in favour of the ban on cosmetics testing on animals, became involved in various discussions regarding the World Trade Organization, whilst in his spare time he quote a column for the Guardian. But despite all this political activity he became disillusioned with European politics, or at least disillusioned with what he believed to be the British attitude to European politics. Indeed virtually the first of his Guardian columns appeared under the headline of 'Why I'm quitting Europe' on the 27th November 2002, as he announced that he would be standing down as an MEP at the 2004 election. However this simply appeared to indicate a preference for a career in domestic politics, where the "key arguments on the country's future will be settled" and "where all politics finally begins and ends".

When Richard Allan, the Liberal Democrat member for Sheffield Hallam announced his intention to stand down from the Commons in November 2004, Clegg was rapidly chosen as his replacement. He then stood down from the European Parliament in order to concentrate on national politics and found himself a part time position at the politics department of Sheffield University, whilst also doing a bit of consultancy work on the side. He was later elected in the General Election of 2005 with a majority of 8,682, and was very soon afterwards appointed the party's spokesperson on Europe by Charles Kennedy.

The Contender

Speculation that Nick Clegg would one day stand for the party leadership began almost as soon as he was elected to the House of Commons. Within a few months of his election he was one of those who signed the round-robin letter circulated by Vincent Cable expressing their lack of confidence in Kennedy's continued leadership. When Kennedy duly announced his resignation on the 7th January 2006, Clegg was mentioned as a potential contender, but rapidly announced that he would not be standing and threw his weight behind the eventual winner Menzies Campbell. It was claimed by some that he reached an understanding with Campbell, in that he would become Campbell's chosen successor in return for giving Campbell a clear run this time around, although Clegg himself dismissed such suggestions as "rubbish".

In any event Clegg was promoted to the status of the party's Shadow Home Secretary replacing the disgraced Mark Oaten, in which capacity he argued against the government's introduction of identity cards, proposed a Freedom Bill, and launched the We Can Cut Crime initiative in January 2007 with its Five Steps to a Safer Britain. However whilst all this was going on, many in the party began to have second thoughts about their previous choice, and speculation about Campbell's leadership continued throughout 2006 and 2007. Clegg himself added fuel to the fire when he admitted at the Party conference on 18th September 2007 that he "probably would" stand for the leadership when and if Menzies Campbell decided to stand down. This statement was regarded as unhelpful by many of his colleagues who then rebuked him for saying so, including Campbell's wife, Elspeth, who notably confronted him in the foyer of the Grand Hotel in Brighton.

When Campbell finally decided to resign on the 15th October 2007, Clegg confirmed that he would contest the leadership on the 19th and was soon regarded as the odds-on favourite by the bookmakers, given that he had the support of over half the Liberal Democrat front bench and seemed to be the choice of the overwhelming majority of the parliamentary party as well as receiving the endorsement of such party grandees as Paddy Ashdown.

His only opponent was Chris Huhne, previously the runner up to Campbell, with whom he appeared to share a great deal in common. Or as the Guardian put it, "Actual policy differences between Huhne and Clegg appear vanishingly small" whilst the Sunday Times referred to the whole leadership contest as a "Tweedledum v Tweedledee contest"; or as Charles Kennedy put it, "Same school, both Oxbridge, shared previous European parliamentary experience .... Healey v Benn this is not".

Nevertheless the two-month contest turned out to be rather fractious, during which both he and Huhne bickered about which one of them was the more right-wing. The leaking of so-called 'Calamity Clegg' attack dossier seemed to throw him off balance and his performances on the hustings were regarded as "cautious and lacklustre". This might possibly explain why the result of the contest announced at St Martin's Lane Hotel in London on the 18th December was "astonishingly close" with perhaps the narrowest margin in British party political history. Clegg scraped home by 20,988 votes to 20,477, a margin of only 511 votes or 1.2%, although perhaps more worrying was the fact that some 10,000 fewer party members voted compared to the previous Campbell-Huhne contest, which suggested a certain lack of enthusiasm from the party rank and file.

As Andrew Gimson of the Daily Telegraph noted, the announcement of the result left Clegg looking "pale and drained", as it was hardly the ringing endorsement from the party faithful that a new leader generally expects. Nevertheless Clegg appeared optimistic about his party's prospects now that he had been elected leader and pronounced that he now wanted "a new politics, a people's politics".

The Intellectual

Together with Duncan Brack he wrote Trading for the Future: Reforming the WTO (2001) and was also the author of Doing Less to Do More: A New Focus for the EU (2000), in which he advanced the idea that certain powers over social and agricultural policy should be removed from European institutions and restored to national governments, an argument which he repeated in his contribution to The Orange Book: Reclaiming Liberalism in 2004. He has also called for the partial privatisation of the Royal Mail and argued in favour of "breaking up the NHS". Such views place him on the 'economic liberal' wing of the party whose pronouncements are often indistinguishable from what was at one point in time referred to as Thatcherism. It is for these reasons that he has been dismissed by his critics as nothing more than a "David Cameron clone"

Nick Clegg is married to the "glamorous Spanish lawyer" Miriam Gonzalez Durantez, the daughter of Jose Antonio Gonzalez Caviedes, a former member of the Spanish Senate. Although his wife is Catholic and that his children are being raised as Catholics he is apparently an atheist. Given his cosmopolitan origins it comes as no surprise to learn that he claims to be fluent in five languages, including Spanish and English.


SOURCES

  • Greg Hurst, Profile: Nick Clegg finally gets taste of sharp end Times December 18, 2007
    http://www.timesonline.co.uk/tol/news/politics/article3069708.ece
  • About Nick
    http://www.nickclegg.org.uk/index.php?option=com_content&task=view&id=183&Itemid=53
  • Profile: Nick Clegg The Sunday Times October 21, 2007
    http://www.timesonline.co.uk/tol/news/politics/article2702755.ece
  • Sam Coates, Leadership ambition earns one Young Turk a swift handbagging, The Times, September 20, 2007
    http://www.timesonline.co.uk/tol/news/politics/article2492767.ece
  • The Nick Clegg story, BBC News, 19 December 2007
    http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/uk_politics/7046587.stm
  • Martin Delgado and Jonathan Oliver, The sexy Russian spy in Lib Dem leader hopeful Nick Clegg's past, 21st October 2007
    http://www.dailymail.co.uk/pages/live/articles/news/news.html?in_article_id=488824&in_page_id=1770
  • Why I'm quitting Europe, The Guardian, November 27, 2002
    http://www.guardian.co.uk/comment/story/0,,848483,00.html

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