Nick Clegg: The Biography published today – is it worth reading?

The pre-publication newspaper serialisation of Chris Bower’s biography of Nick Clegg used extracts which covered the Deputy Prime Minister’s early life. When you read the full book the reason for this is amply clear. It has much interesting to say about Nick Clegg’s multi-national family and their close brushes with the tragedies of the early twentieth century. As it gets on to Clegg’s political career, however, it increasingly has little to say that will not already be familiar to close followers of political news from other accounts.

In a few cases it even has less to say than has already come out elsewhere, such as in the speculation about whether the Conservative Party was responsible for some of the personal anti-Clegg smears during the 2010 general election campaign – a responsibility that the Cowley / Kavanagh book has in fact already documented.

It would be wrong to conclude therefore that the book is of more interest to those into family history than politics, for the story of Nick Clegg’s family background does much to illuminate both his strong liberal roots and the form his liberalism takes. The Dutch egalitarianism of his mother and her bemusement at the idiosyncrasies of the British class system has “rubbed off on me too” Clegg says, explaining that she was particularly influential.

With a family that spans Russia, Holland and Spain alongside its British elements, and a mother who was a special needs teacher, his subsequently political concerns for internationalism and early years education naturally flow from his formative years. His grandfather’s time as a path-breaking editor of the British Medical Journal (BMJ) who was well known for his willingness to attack those in the NHS that he saw as not up to scratch may also help explain why Clegg himself so often shows an open-minded scepticism about the quality of parts of the public sector.

An impressively wide range of people were interviewed for the book so despite the relatively straight-forward narrative of recent years, a few details do stand out – such as the confirmation that Clegg was actively planning a leadership campaign several months before Ming Campbell stood down.

To Bower’s credit too, he reports the fallout between Huhne and Laws over the Laws chapter in the Orange Book, an event that seems to have completely passed by a multitude of political journalists who have written of that chapter without mentioning the arguments it caused between the different Orange Book authors.

Most striking are two comments. One is from Vince Cable putting on record his disagreement with Clegg’s initial approach in the summer of 2010 of playing down any differences of view between the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats in coalition. However as the party and Clegg have both since moved on that quote is more of historic interest than practical current political relevance.

That other is from Ian Blair, then Met Police Commissioner, who is reported as telling Clegg that the powers granted to the police had become so widespread that, if the police chose to use them all, the country would be a police state. It is moments such as that in the book that explain why Clegg is a liberal but also a liberal who has grave doubts over how good an ally the Labour Party is for liberalism.

You can buy Nick Clegg: The Biography by Chris Bowers from Amazon here.

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