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An absurd tactical ploy – and the paradox of the
new Liberal Democrat leader's position

Dominic Lawson 2008 02 29

Nick Clegg is so angry that he has started hurling metaphors. Following the Speaker's decision not to allow a Parliamentary debate on his party's suggestion of a referendum on whether to leave the EU, the new leader of the Liberal Democrats has declared: "It is like allowing the British public to choose their mode of travel without asking whether they actually want to continue on the journey at all."

Well, if we are to descend to metaphors, here's another one: Imagine you are at a restaurant with some friends, sharing the bill. You have all eaten two courses and are now discussing whether to order some pudding. Suddenly one diner says that the debate should actually be about whether it was a mistake to have eaten the previous dishes. When he is politely told not to be so silly by his companions, he walks out of the restaurant.

This, it seems to me, is a reasonable description of the Liberal Democrats' behaviour as they stagily stalked out of the House of Commons after the Deputy Speaker declared that their suggested amendment really had nothing whatever to do with the contents of the Lisbon Treaty bill, and therefore would not be put to a vote.

It is possible to have some sympathy with the Liberal Democrats. Theirs is a bleak and arduous struggle to capture the attention of the media. Finally they manage to arrange a notable Parliamentary stunt – and their coup de theatre is simultaneously and coincidentally trumped by five activists from a group called Plane Stupid who had clambered onto the roof of the House of Commons. No wonder Mr Clegg is angry.

Sympathy, however, can only go so far when the victim's claim to be suffering over an issue of high principle is so obviously absurd: the Liberal Democrats had followed Gordon Brown in deciding to renege on a manifesto commitment to a referendum on what was called the European Constitution and now, for entirely cosmetic reasons, is redesignated as "The Lisbon treaty".

Nick Clegg, in fact, had long been a powerful advocate of a referendum on the proposed new EU constitution – whose "substance is preserved by the Lisbon Treaty" according to no less an authority than Angela Merkel. In a newspaper article chastising Tony Blair for not offering such a referendum – before the then Prime Minister changed his mind – Mr Clegg wrote: "The real reason, of course, why the Government does not want to hold a referendum is the fear that it may lose. "It is the same fear that led Peter Hain to camouflage the constitution with comic inaccuracy as nothing more than a tidying up exercise."

Nick Clegg, then a Liberal Democrat MEP, went on to argue that Blair had thereby "allowed the Europhobes to shift the argument away from the constitution itself and onto shriller claims about the democratic legitimacy of the whole EU. "By forcing the phobes to argue on the substance of the text, a referendum [on the Constitution] would expose the hollow hysteria of their polemic."

This is the same amiable and charming Nick Clegg – I am assured that it is – who now demands a vote "on the democratic legitimacy of the whole EU" instead of one on the "substance of the text" of the amended Constitution. Mr Clegg will insist that, unlike those he calls "phobes", he will argue that the public should support continued membership of the EU. Yet in this, he is gratuitously picking a fight with nothing more than the UK Independence Party (UKIP) – hardly an elevated or highly evolved form of political struggle. Now that The Speaker's office has understandably decreed that the Liberal Democrat amendment had no connection to the measures contained within the Lisbon Treaty Bill ( a point which Mr Clegg airily described as "clapped-out 19th century procedure") it would be possible for LibDem MPs to vote for, or against, an amendment calling for a referendum on the Treaty itself. Instead, however, Mr Clegg has imposed a three line whip on his party not to vote at all on this measure. It seems unlikely that every single one of the LibDem MPs will obey this extraordinary attempt to deny them a vote on an issue of such importance.

The party's Justice spokesman, David Heath, has said that he was prepared to lose his front bench job "if that is a consequence of voting for a referendum on the treaty."

Such a split would be especially painful for Nick Clegg, since the real reason why he is adopting this peculiar line is precisely to hold his party together. In fairness to Mr Clegg, this is a ruse which was hatched by his predecessor, Ming Campbell, just before his final party conference as leader of the Liberal Democrats.

Nick Clegg a Europhile

Nicholas William Peter Clegg (born 7 January 1967), known as Nick Clegg, is the British Member of Parliament for Sheffield Hallam and, since 18 December 2007, leader of the Liberal Democrats. Clegg was born in Chalfont St Giles, Buckinghamshire in 1967, the third of four children. His half-Russian father, Nicholas, was a banker, and is chairman of The Daiwa Anglo-Japanese Foundation. His great-great-grandfather, the Russian nobleman Ignaty Zakrevsky, was Attorney General of Senate in Imperial Russia. His great-great aunt was the writer Baroness Moura Budberg. His Dutch mother Hermance van den Wall Bake was a teacher of children with special educational needs who, as a girl had been interned with her family by the Japanese in Batavia (Jakarta) in the Dutch East Indies. He was brought up bilingually in Dutch and English and also speaks French, German and Spanish.

Clegg was educated at the Caldicott and Westminster schools in London. As a 16-year-old exchange student in Munich, he performed community service for a minor case of arson (in Germany arson has a more general-purpose meaning - in England and Wales, the charge would have been criminal damage): he and a friend burned some cacti belonging to a professor, something which he said he was "not proud" of, when it re-emerged during his time as Lib Dem Home Affairs spokesman. He attended Robinson College, Cambridge, after spending a gap year as a ski instructor in Austria and as an office junior in a Helsinki bank. At Cambridge, Clegg studied Archaeology and Anthropology. He was active in the student theatre, captain of the college tennis team, and campaigned for Survival International, protecting the rights of threatened indigenous peoples. After university he was awarded a scholarship to study at the University of Minnesota for a year, where he wrote a thesis on the political philosophy of the Deep Green movement. He then moved to New York, where he worked as an intern under Christopher Hitchens at The Nation, a left wing magazine. Clegg next moved to Brussels, where he worked for six months as a trainee in the G24 Co-ordination Unit, which delivered aid to the countries of the former Soviet Union. After the internship he took a second Master's degree at the College of Europe in Bruges, where he met his wife, Miriam Gonzalez Durantez, whose father, José Antonio Gonzalez Caviedes, was a member of the Spanish Senate.

In 1993, Clegg won the Financial Times' David Thomas Prize, set up in memory of David Thomas, a FT journalist killed on assignment in Kuwait in 1991. He was the first recipient and was sent to Hungary, where he wrote articles about the mass privatisation of industries in the former communist bloc. In April 1994 he took up a post at the European Commission, working in the TACIS aid programme to the former Soviet Union. For two years he was responsible for developing direct aid programmes, worth €50 million, in central Asia and the Caucasus. He was involved in negotiations with Russia on airline overflight rights, and launched a conference in Tashkent in 1993 that founded TRACECA – the Transport Corridor for Europe, the Caucasus and Asia, otherwise known as the 'New Silk Road'. Vice President and Trade Commissioner Leon Brittan then offered Clegg a job in his private office, as a European Union policy adviser and speechwriter. As part of this role, Clegg was in charge of the EC negotiating team on Chinese and Russian accession talks to the World Trade Organisation.

Clegg was selected as the lead Liberal Democrat Euro-candidate for the East Midlands in 1998, and was first tipped as a politician to watch by Paddy Ashdown in 1999 in the Nottingham Evening Post. On his election in 1999, he was the first Liberal parliamentarian elected in the East Midlands since Ernest Pickering was elected MP for Leicester West in 1931, and was credited with helping to significantly boost the Liberal Democrat poll rating in the region in the six months after his election. Clegg worked extensively during his time as an MEP to support the party in the region, not least in Chesterfield where Paul Holmes was elected as MP in 2001. In Europe, Clegg co-founded the Campaign for Parliamentary Reform, which led calls for reforms to expenses, transparency and accountability in the European Parliament. He was made Trade and Industry spokesman for the European Liberal Democrat and Reform group (ELDR), and led on legislation for "local loop unbundling", opening up telephone networks across Europe to competition. It was the fastest piece of legislation ever to go through the parliament, and the subject of an in-depth BBC Open University documentary on EU decision making. Clegg campaigned extensively against illegal logging, and wrote a report which advocated that World Trade Organization (WTO) rules should be waived to allow an embargo on illegally logged timber. Clegg worked with fellow MEP Chris Davies on legislation to ban cosmetics tested on animals, pushing the law through despite arguments from the government that it was impossible under WTO rules. He also worked extensively with Green MEPs on legislation to liberalise the EU's energy sector, arguing that liberalisation was a crucial tool to promote greater green energy-efficiency and sustainability. Clegg took a leading role in providing Parliamentary oversight in the ongoing WTO world trade talks and attended WTO summits.

Clegg played an active role in persuading Conservative MEP Bill Newton Dunn to defect to the Liberal Democrats. Newton Dunn subsequently succeeded him as MEP for the East Midlands. Clegg decided to leave Brussels in 2002, arguing in an article The Guardian newspaper that the battle to persuade the public of the benefits of Europe was being fought at home, not in Brussels.

Clegg's work in the East Midlands included campaigning together with the neighbouring MP Richard Allan, in the Sheffield Hallam constituency. When in November 2004, Allan announced his intention to stand down from parliament, Clegg was selected as the new candidate for Sheffield Hallam. He then took up a part time teaching position in the politics department of the University of Sheffield, combining it with ongoing EU consultancy work which he took up after his departure from the European Parliament. He also gave a series of seminar lectures in the International Relations Department of the University of Cambridge.

Clegg worked closely with Allan throughout the campaign — including starring in a local pantomime — and won the seat in the 2005 general election with over 50% of the vote, and a majority of 8,682. This result represents one of the smallest swings away from a party in a seat where an existing MP has been succeeded by a newcomer - 4.3% - see Sheffield constituency article. On his election, Clegg was elevated by leader Charles Kennedy to be the party's Spokesperson on Europe, focusing on the party's preparations for an expected referendum on the European constitution and acting as deputy to Foreign Affairs Spokesperson Menzies Campbell.

Clegg's ability to articulate Liberal values at a very practical level quickly lent him prominence, with many already seeing him as a future Liberal Democrat leader. Following the resignation of party leader Charles Kennedy on 7 January 2006, Clegg was touted as a possible leadership contender. He was quick to rule himself out and to declare his support for Sir Menzies Campbell, who won the ballot. The Liberal Democrat party conference in 2007 came during a period of increased media speculation about Sir Menzies Campbell's leadership. Clegg therefore caused a degree of controversy when he admitted his leadership ambitions to journalists at a fringe event, for which he was rebuked by some of his frontbench colleagues. This followed a report that Clegg had previously failed to hide his disloyalty to Sir Menzies Campbell's leadership.

Since his election to parliament, Clegg was consistently mentioned as a potential candidate for the leadership of the Liberal Democrats. Although he did not stand in the Liberal Democrats leadership election, 2006, he admitted on 18 September 2007 that he "probably would" stand for the leadership upon the retirement of Sir Menzies Campbell, an event which took place on 15 October 2007. Clegg's comments were seen by media commentators as a swipe against Campbell's leadership, and he was rebuked by other senior Liberal Democrats including potential leadership rival Chris Huhne. After the resignation of Campbell, Clegg was regarded by much of the media as front-runner in the leadership election. BBC Political Editor Nick Robinson stated the election would be a two-horse race between Clegg and Huhne. On Friday 19 October 2007, Clegg launched his bid to become leader of the Liberal Democrats. The campaign was largely good-natured, with Clegg and Huhne clashing over Trident but largely in agreement on many other issues. It was announced on 18 December 2007 that he had won.

Clegg appointed erstwhile leadership rival, Chris Huhne, as his replacement as Home Affairs spokesperson. Following his strong performances as acting party leader, Vincent Cable was retained as the main Treasury spokesperson. Media commentators have noted that the Clegg-Huhne-Cable triumvirate provides the Liberal Democrats with an effective political team for the coming years.

In his acceptance speech upon winning the leadership contest, Clegg declared himself to be "a liberal by temperament, by instinct and by upbringing" and that he believes "Britain [is] a place of tolerance and pluralism". He declared his priorities as: defending civil liberties; devolving the running of public services to parents, pupils and patients; and protecting the environment.

Clegg contributed to the Orange Book, a collection of essays by prominent Liberal Democrats offering market liberal solutions to contemporary political issues.

In an interview on BBC Radio 5 Live on the morning after his election to the leadership, Clegg stated that he does not believe in God.

The idea of a referendum on the Constitution has had solid support from what one might describe as the "Liberal" end of the merger between the old Liberal Party and the Social Democratic Party: their historic strength is in the South West of England, where a hearty Euroscepticism – provoked above all by the Common Fisheries Policy – is more or less endemic.

However, the Social Democratic Party was created by ex-Labour MPs – notably Roy Jenkins and Shirley Williams – horrified by the way in which Tony Benn's supporters were manoeuvring the Labour Party towards adamantine opposition to British integration into the European political mainstream.

The old Social Democrats had been shocked when Tony Blair, purely in order to steal the Conservatives' one distinctive and popular policy, had suddenly agreed to hold a referendum on the European Constitution.

They knew what Blair, in his characteristically hubristic manner, chose to gloss over: that the public would most probably vote 'no' to the Treaty – and the so called 'pro-Europeans' in British politics would thereby suffer a stunning defeat. I'm told that after Gordon Brown had decided to abandon the Blair commitment to a referendum Shirley Williams, now Baroness Williams of Crosby and former leader of the LibDems in the House of Lords, had threatened to resign and rejoin the Labour Party, unless Ming Campbell likewise abandoned the dangerous policy of giving the British people a vote on the Lisbon treaty.

The artificial and insincere idea of offering us instead a vote on 'in or out of the EU' was Ming Campbell's way of wriggling out of the Liberal Democrats' commitment to a vote on the amended constitutional treaty without making the party look 'undemocratic'. This was a particular concern given the LibDems' constant refrain that it is much closer to the grass roots than the two 'old' parties, which are supposedly more divorced from public opinion (a claim which seems always to survive the awkward fact of those parties' much greater public support).

That is one paradox.

The other is that a Liberal Democrat leader who constantly stigmatises "the narrow politics of Westminster" has been reduced to impotent rage because of the failure of a contrived policy designed purely to accommodate the divisions in his own Parliamentary party.


Nick Clegg 'will sack Lib Dem EU treaty rebels'
By James Kirkup 01/03/2008

Nick Clegg, the Liberal Democrat leader, faces having to sack several members of his front bench team next week in a damaging internal row over Europe. He will spend this weekend trying desperately to contain a growing rebellion over the controversial Lisbon treaty.

As many as a quarter of Lib Dem MPs are preparing to defy Mr Clegg's orders and vote in favour of a referendum on the treaty in the Commons next week. The rebels include members of Mr Clegg's shadow cabinet and frontbench spokesmen, who have been told they will be sacked if they insist on backing a referendum on the treaty, which is based on the defeated European Constitution. The treaty is being debated in the Commons and on Wednesday, MPs will vote on a Conservative move to call a referendum on it.

The Lib Dems fought the 2005 general election promising a referendum on the constitution. But like Gordon Brown, Mr Clegg now argues that the new treaty is a different document so no referendum is required. That has left many Lib Dems facing a backlash from constituents and pro-referendum campaigners. MPs with seats in the South West who face Tory challengers are under particular pressure.

David Heath, the constitutional affairs spokesman, and Nick Harvey, the defence spokesman, have promised constituents that they will vote for a referendum. Both have been undeterred by threats that they will be sacked if they vote with the Tories. Alistair Carmichael, the Scotland spokesman, and junior frontbenchers including Lembit Opik, Sandra Gidley, Tim Farron, Colin Breed and Richard Younger-Ross have all expressed sympathy for the referendum cause, though some could still he persuaded to abstain. A significant number of backbenchers could also rebel. John Pugh, the Lib Dem MP for Stockport, yesterday became the latest backbencher to declare his intention to back a referendum despite Mr Clegg's attempts to dissuade him. "The chances are not good of me changing my mind at this stage," he said.

Mr Clegg has been trying to paper over the split in his party by tabling his own amendment that would trigger a referendum on Britain's membership of the EU, hoping that his Euro-rebels could vote for that instead of a treaty referendum. But Michael Martin, the Speaker, has so far declined to call Mr Clegg's amendment for a vote, a decision that sparked a Lib Dem walkout in the Commons earlier this week. Mr Clegg held private talks with the Speaker on Thursday, but still does not know if his amendment will be accepted next week.

In the event that Mr Clegg fails to get an "in-or-out" amendment debated in the Commons, he will put Lib Dem MPs on a three-line whip to abstain from voting on the Tory amendment.

See also
Brown faces Labour revolt over EU referendum
Tony Blair 'cannot be president of EU'

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