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Falling For the Myth of Cleggmania

Why American liberals got the British election so wrong

Brendan O'Neill
May 13, 2010

Wow, some of you Americans really got the British election wrong.

Reading the frequently frenzied pre-election commentary of America’s liberal hacks, you could be forgiven for thinking that Nick Clegg, leader of the Liberal Democrats, was about to win over the British public, demolish the old establishment, and institute a new politics that was fresh-faced, people-oriented, and all about creating a shiny, happy, progressive future.

They couldn’t have been more wrong. If they had thrown dice to decide the winner of the election, or had consulted some mad tarot reader in Brooklyn to find out what might happen, they wouldn’t have been more wrong than they were, and might accidentally have been more right.

The polar opposite of their predictions occurred: Clegg’s Liberal Democrats lost seats in the election, and now, far from leading Britain towards a progressive new dawn, Clegg has been holed up in shut-off, secretive, and principle-free deal-making sessions which have made him deputy prime minister in a Conservative administration.

Many of America’s journalists achieved schoolgirl levels of overexcitement in relation to Clegg, whose Liberal Democrats are Britain’s third-largest party, after the Conservative Party and the Labour Party. In the run-up to the election on May 6 (under a real suck-up of a headline: “Britain is lucky to have Nick Clegg in the race for prime minister”) Katrina Vanden Heuvel of The Nation boasted that Clegg had once interned at her magazine (in 1990) and is now being compared to “Winston Churchill, Barack Obama, Princess Diana, Tony Blair, and even Jesus.”

Vanden Heuvel claimed that Clegg had “buoyantly axed the political establishment and the status quo” and said “his strong populist message… has made [him] a feisty contender.” If a doctor offered such a wrongheaded diagnosis of the future health of a patient, he’d be sacked for gross misconduct. Clegg proved not to be a serious contender, with his party losing four seats on election night, and he has now thrown what electoral weight he has behind a power-sharing deal with what vanden Heuvel describes as “the political establishment.” Far from axing it, Clegg is a fully fledged member of it.

Vanden Heuvel should be worried about her magazine’s fortunes over here. Pre-election she gleefully claimed that Saint Nick and his party “sometimes seem to be channeling Nation editorials” in their various policy promises. Well, on election night the vast majority of British voters rejected Clegg and his policies—which means we probably wouldn’t much enjoy The Nation either.

Over at Slate, Anne Applebaum suffered from a bad bout of premature speculation, arguing on April 26 that Clegg looked set to be “the beneficiary of the biggest British voters’ revolution in decades.” Oops.

She argued that Clegg represented “an unthinkable, revolutionary change.” The use of the word revolution twice in one article is not only unnecessarily breathless—it also shows how cut off many of America’s commentators are from real life in Britain, where there wasn’t even any electoral enthusiasm, far less revolutionary fervor, for Clegg’s party.

Three weeks before the election, The New York Times reproduced the British Guardian’s mock-up of Clegg’s face on the famous Obama/Hope poster and claimed that Clegg’s party represents a “genuine threat” to politics-as-we-know-it in the UK. The paper listed five similarities between Clegg and Obama, bowing to claims in the British media that Clegg is the “new Obama” who could overhaul “the old politics.”

We now know that there is one important difference between Obama and Clegg: Obama won a clear mandate from the American people, whereas Clegg got the backing of a measly 15 percent of all eligible British voters.

On April 29, The Los Angeles Times gushed over Clegg as if he were a rock star. Britain has gone “Clegg crazy,” it claimed. Clegg was “a comet that no one had predicted would burn so bright” and he might “alter the character of British politics forever.” There must be red faces in L.A. today. Clegg turned out to be more of an asteroid than a comet, crashing down to Earth (but not leaving a very big dent.)

It’s worth spelling out just how wrong these underpants-wetting reports were. Far from leading a voters' revolution, the Liberal Democrats lost seats under Clegg’s tenure. They won 61 in the 2005 election, when Charles Kennedy was their leader, and 57 last week, with Clegg as their leader. The Lib Dems won 23 percent of all votes cast on Thursday, and because of the low voter turnout (which was just 65 percent) this means they won the support of only 15 percent of all British adults eligible to vote. They remain the third party, very much a minority force.

And far from smashing the “old politics,” Clegg has now entered into a coalition with the right-wing Conservative Party, which has agreed to make him deputy prime minister. In return for this privilege, Clegg agreed to ditch what The Nation and others hailed as his "progressive" policies, including his plan for a "mansion tax" on properties costing more than £2 million, his opposition to Britain's Trident nuclear-missile system, and his opposition to a cap on immigration from outside the European Union.

It is not Clegg’s electoral clout that has elevated him to the position of deputy prime minister in a Conservative administration—rather it is the weakness of the other two parties. Labour lost 91 seats last Thursday, taking them to 258. And while the Conservatives won an extra 97, taking them up to 306, that was not enough to pass the threshold required to form a majority government (which stands at 326 seats.) And so, by default, Clegg, the not-very-popular leader of a minority party, wielded king-making powers. He did the political equivalent of a striptease to try to entice one of the two morally-exhausted big parties to bring him and some of his friends into government, finally managing to win over the Conservatives. Progressive? Yeah, right.

How did American observers get it so wrong? I call it the Richard Curtis Effect—what happens when you allow your view of Britain to be determined by the outpourings of Britain’s middle-class liberal elite.

Just as Richard Curtis’s execrable films—from Notting Hill to Love, Actually—have convinced some Americans that Britain is always covered in snow and is packed with posh white people with floppy hair who say “fuck” all the time (and no blacks at all), so the British liberal media’s Clegg-obsessed coverage of the election made some Americans think that normal, everyday Brits were enamoured by Clegg, too. But we weren’t.

Cleggmania was a pathological condition amongst Britain’s leading liberal commentators, who hate the “tribalism” of the old two-party system and who long for someone nice, charming, and polite (like Clegg!) to push forward a new, more agreeable and more sedate form of politics. They anointed Clegg their Messiah—and their colleagues in the U.S. fell into line, drank the Clegg-flavoured Kool Aid, and didn’t think to ask ordinary Britons what they actually thought. If they had, they might have discovered that we thought: “Clegg? Whatever.”

Brendan O'Neill is editor of spiked in London. This column first appeared at Reason.com.



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