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Nick Clegg on his Favourite Books

Much as some Brexiteers like to pretend it isn't, England is not only in Europe, but has been, in various centuries and in various ways, at the very heart of it. The former Deputy Prime Minister of the UK, Nick Clegg, discusses his favourite European novels and the founding text of his own political ideology, liberalism.

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Nick Clegg

Nick Clegg is a British politician and former deputy Prime Minister. He is a member and former leader of the centrist Liberal Democrat party in the UK and MP for Sheffield Hallam constituency. His book, Politics: Between the Extremes, reflects on his life as a politician and the future of politics in the digital age.

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Nick Clegg

Nick Clegg is a British politician and former deputy Prime Minister. He is a member and former leader of the centrist Liberal Democrat party in the UK and MP for Sheffield Hallam constituency. His book, Politics: Between the Extremes, reflects on his life as a politician and the future of politics in the digital age.

Save for later
 

As a politician, do you find much time to read?

Yes, I do, because—either by necessity or choice—I find that my brain doesn’t switch off and I can’t go to sleep unless I’ve read a few pages of a good novel. I read every day. Sometimes I will read late into the night and other days I will read literally a paragraph and then zonk out. At the moment I’m reading Portraits of a Marriage by a Hungarian novelist, Sandor Marai.

I constantly read but I don’t like reading about politics. Given the life I lead, I like to escape and wallow in good fiction. So, I almost always have a good book of fiction on the go at any time.

I thought that, as we get older, we start edging more towards nonfiction. You haven’t found that?

My mum was telling me that the other day. I’ve inherited my nocturnal reading habits from my mum, I think. Unlike me, she is quite a devout Catholic and now reads heavy theological tomes at night. She was saying that now she’s older—she’s in her 80s—she sometimes finds fiction a bit unsatisfactory.

“I read every day. Sometimes I will read late into the night and other days I will read literally a paragraph and then zonk out.”

I don’t, but I have become much more intolerant of bad literature or bad writing—or simply writing which is just not to my taste. Whereas before I would stubbornly plough on and read a book that didn’t really suit me, I will now be more ruthless and abandon it and move on to something else. So, maybe I am edging towards nonfiction by taking a more exacting approach but, at the moment, I am still firmly in the fiction camp.

Maybe it’s also because you’re in a job where you need some escapism in the evening.

Maybe. One thing that everyone deals with as you get older, and particularly as you become a parent and then a grandparent, is that you become more acutely aware of the string-beads of time that link what’s happening to us now to earlier generations. So, I do feel interested in reading more about British and European history. I can imagine that coming about.

Let’s look at some of the books you’ve chosen. Actually, the first one I encouraged you to put on the list because, even though it’s nonfiction, you often mention it. This is John Stuart Mill’s On Liberty (1859). Didn’t you give it to Tim Farron when he took over as leader of the Liberal Democrats?

The tradition is that it is given to the president of the Liberal Democrats rather than the leader, which is a subtle but important distinction in Lib Dem land. But you’re quite right. The traditions of J. S. Mill are still handed down like some sort of totemic emblem of everything that we’re supposed to still believe in, even now. It’s extraordinary, given it was written in 1859.

John Stuart Mill spawned the British liberal political tradition—not entirely singlehandedly but he was instrumental in it—that then came to shape and define so much of modern democracy all around the world. Of course, he was a man of his time and he had what we would now regard as outdated views on some subjects. But on other subjects—from workers’ councils to feminism—he was actually remarkably forward thinking and prescient, even by today’s standards.

Your book, Politics: Between the Extremes, is a powerful defence of liberalism. On Liberty, as you say, is a key text in that tradition. But, for those of us who don’t follow politics as closely, what is liberalism?

It begins with the individual, unlike any other political tradition that I’m aware of. Socialism is about the ability of collective action, and particularly the state, to act as a battering ram for progress. Conservatism, as the name implies, is about conserving—broadly speaking—the pecking order and the way that things are.

I think what distinguishes liberalism, and why it’s very radical and is still radical, is that it believes that there is something beautiful and good and dynamic and positive about the freedom that individuals have to shape their own lives as much as possible—as long as it doesn’t intrude negatively on other people’s lives and other people’s freedoms.

That sounds very trite now because for a long time, particularly in the wake of the collapse of the Berlin Wall and the period when people like Francis Fukuyama were declaring the ‘end of history’, there was a complacency settled on liberals. There was a feeling that, ‘Well, we’ve won. The belief that privacy, the sanctity and the rights of the individual should be protected has won out against the collectivism of the 20th century.’

“John Stuart Mill spawned the British liberal political tradition…that then came to shape and define so much of modern democracy all around the world.”

I should immediately draw a very sharp distinction between liberalism and libertarianism. It’s not a sort of dog-eat-dog capitalism. Liberalism accepts that there is a role for the state and collective action and that there are all sorts of things that you can’t do without being in concert with others. Its philosophical roots are about how arbitrary and random power—whether it’s in the hands of monarchs or governments or the nobility or religious leaders—should not trump (excuse the pun) and be given priority over the innate rights and freedoms of individuals.

So we became complacent after the fall of the Berlin Wall because we felt that it was now a settled assumption that would no longer be questioned. And, of course, the extraordinary thing over recent years has been the eruption of angry populism and the politics of identity. There is this wall-building view of life in which populists harness the legitimate anger that many people have about the status quo and direct it, through the politics of blame, at a particular group—whether it’s Islam or the European Union or Mexicans. What we’re having to relearn now is the fire-in-the-belly liberalism that drove Mill to write On Liberty in the first place.

Mill was born quite soon after the French Revolution and he writes, famously, about the ‘tyranny of the majority.’ He’s responding to the problem that, in some situations, democracy can become mob rule.

Yes. If you look at the language now deployed by Paul Dacre—aka Darth Dacre—in the Daily Mail, which has these chilling echoes of the language of the 1930s, what is so striking is that he seeks to vilify and condemn everyone from Mark Carney to the judges to anyone who had the temerity to vote to remain in the European Union. He is seeking to delegitimize—not just discredit or disagree but actually delegitimize—the right of the losing side in a democracy to continue to hold the views that it does.

That is an astonishing turn of events, because a liberal pluralist democracy relies on the idea that no one segment of the population ever has the right to emphatically and irreversibly bury the aspirations and the needs and the hopes of other parts of society. In other words, a liberal pluralist democracy is all about competing interests and viewpoints constantly jostling side-by-side. One moment, one side wins. The next moment, another side wins. It’s a constant ebb and flow.

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But what we’re entering now, particularly through the prism of Brexit, is a wholly different political culture in which we basically are being told that those in British society—and particularly the youngsters—who clearly hold the view that we should be going in a different direction, are no longer entitled to hold those views.

That is an extraordinarily dangerous turn of events. That’s one of the reasons why—bringing it bang up to date—I think there is a wider significance to the one-eyed, partial interpretation that this present Conservative administration has imposed upon the Brexit referendum. They have taken a mixed mandate—which actually revealed a rather deeply divided country with lots of diverse views—and homogenised it by claiming that it can only be applied in one very particular, narrow way.

But in a complex, diverse, plural society, you can’t just brush the needs and aspirations of many, many of your fellow citizens under the carpet for very long without there being a reaction. I think that’s the thing that J. S. Mill and liberals down the ages have always understood.

Taking a step back—to make a huge generalization and succumb to stereotypes—I always think of the British as quite quirky and individualistic. You’d think liberalism would appeal to us. I’m sort of surprised that liberalism hasn’t been more widely embraced—rather than always being this tiny party in the middle.

I feel part of the reason is that we have a slightly misleading and at times self-congratulatory image of ourselves as a nation of uniquely free people. We’re plucky islanders, and each and every one of us stands on our own feet. We’re not like Johnny Foreigner across the channel who relies on the heavy hand of the state and religion or the region or other collective forms of identity.

We slightly flatter ourselves because, of course, what we have in British society—which many foreign ministers have always found quite difficult to grasp—is this astonishing grip of class identity. Class identity still, I think, smothers and distorts true liberal individualism as much today as it did in the more overtly class politics of the 1950s.

“What we’re having to relearn now is the fire-in-the-belly liberalism that drove Mill to write On Liberty in the first place.”

Of course, it’s becoming more complicated. One of the things that is complicating it is that place and location is now becoming a bigger determinant of social and political identity than it was in the past. You see that in Scotland, and you see that in Sheffield. Many good, decent, lovely people I’ve known for years in my constituency in south-west Sheffield, who voted to leave the European Union last year, would tell me that the reason they were doing it was because they wanted to poke London in the eye. They disliked being constantly told what to do by London.

So, you have this extraordinary phenomenon of lots of people in the north of England voting against Brussels to make a point against London. Now that’s not new but it is accompanying the more traditional class-based forms of identity.

But I think that every country, every community, every tribe needs a narrative—a story—which nations, communities, and tribes tell themselves about themselves. And, by definition, stories are part fact and part fiction. I think we have this long British tradition of liberal individualism but I think it has been papered over—and still is—by class-based politics.

So getting to the core of your book choices, they are all fiction or basically fiction. Three are really gorgeous novels and all of them are European. This leads me to ask you a question about Brexit. From an economic point of view, it’s a no-brainer: being part of a strong trade bloc is always going to be better for the UK. Personally, I also feel more protected as a consumer within the EU, with the competition authorities in Brussels standing up for my rights against the mobile phone operators, Amazon, Google etc.

But for people I speak to who voted for Brexit, it seems to be, above all, an emotional thing. They seem to be saying ‘Okay, the economics is maybe going to be worse but we have a vision of Britain that is different from yours.’ In your case, your wife is Spanish, you love European novels, you’re clearly more emotionally tied to Europe than the average Brit. Is this more about the emotional feelings we all have about Europe rather than pragmatism?

Of course. Emotion always trumps fact when it comes to determining people’s votes. The heart is a much stronger organ than the brain when it comes to the ballot box. I’m in a somewhat atypical position—with a Dutch mum and half Russian dad. One of the books that I’ve chosen—The Master and Margarita—I wouldn’t have read if my Russian grandmother had not recommended it to me. I wouldn’t have read Axel Munthe’s book, The Story of San Michele, unless my mum had said that she loved reading it. And, obviously, I’m married to Miriam with kids who are comfortable both in the UK and Spain. I’m not pretending that my experience is typical and I’m certainly not saying that my experience is any more valid than anyone else’s.

The only thing I would say, however, is that whether you trace your ancestry to the Norman invasion, Celtic chieftains, or Cornish tin miners, we are and always have been geologically, tectonically, geographically and culturally a European nation. One of the things that the Darth Dacres of this world have done—and they’ve done it brilliantly, from their point of view—is that they have somehow encouraged the belief that we are nothing to do with the hemisphere that we inhabit.

“The heart is a much stronger organ than the brain when it comes to the ballot box.”

And I find that so curious because we have been bound up with Europe, and helped to shape Europe, and—at times—led Europe for millennia. It’s a source of great sadness to me that we don’t give ourselves, as Brits, more credit for what a wonderfully pioneering and leading European nation we have always been.

And I don’t just mean that in referring to our role in World War II or the Industrial Revolution or the Enlightenment but also, more recently, within the European Union. Two of the three biggest innovations that have shaped it in recent decades—the enlargement of the European Union to Central and Eastern Europe, and the creation of this huge, borderless marketplace, the single market—were invented in London.

I think one of the things that the vested interests—who have successfully won the argument to pull us out of the European Union—had to do was very unpatriotic. They had to constantly downplay how European we were, and how successful we were as a European country, because they had to portray the European Union as something alien that had been imposed upon us. That’s just not true—but they were successful in that.

So, one of the things that I’d like to play a small role in is reminding people how intimately European we are. Axel Munthe, the author of ones of the books, for instance, was married to a Brit. Even though it’s about a Swedish doctor who has bought this chapel in Capri, he was heavily influenced by British thinking. I see my dad’s mother—my grandmother—who was part of that white Russian diaspora that left Russia, and whose family was expelled at the time of the Revolution. They settled in both Paris and London, but they all drank deeply from the well of British liberalism—a belief in fair play and internationalism.

“Whether you trace your ancestry to the Norman invasion, Celtic chieftains, or Cornish tin miners, we are and always have been geologically, tectonically, geographically and culturally a European nation.”

That’s why when you speak to people in the Netherlands and other European countries that feel associated with the United Kingdom they feel so sad. It’s because they feel that we’ve generally been—not always—this very large and benign influence. I don’t want to extrapolate too much from my own experience, because every family is different, but I just think what we have witnessed, in recent times, is a grotesque rewriting of our own very European history.

There is something astonishing about our continent. It’s a quilt—a patchwork—of large and small nations with their own weird traditions and languages and histories. We’ve had a huge amount of conflict—we’ve had the two world wars in the last century, which disfigured not only our continent but the whole world. We have created some of the greatest art, some of the greatest inventions, some of the greatest figures in world history.

And yes, sure, we’re now no longer a young, growing continent like parts of Asia or Latin America are. But it’s still an astonishing place. The amount of diversity in such a concentrated corner of the globe is, I think, without parallel anywhere in the world. And I just think we should rejoice in that rather than constantly denigrate it.

Having lived in China and the US, I couldn’t agree more. Let’s talk about what you like about each of the remaining books. Firstly, we have The Master and Margarita (1966), which is this fabulous Russian novel, written in the 1930s, about the devil coming to Moscow. You said your grandmother recommended it to you. When did you read it?

I think it was in my late teens and I found it very, very unsettling. I’m not going to pretend that I fully understood it. It’s a book that mixes a cat called Behemoth and Pontius Pilate and an anguished writer—the Master—who burns his texts, and this astonishing figure, Margarita. It’s so weird and it’s so unsettling. My memory of it is just of lots of extraordinary images and I defy anyone to read those opening pages—where someone gets killed on the street by a tram and then the cat appears—and not have it slightly get under their skin and haunt them.

I believe that there’s been a lot of dispute about whether Mikhail Bulgakov was writing against Soviet atheism or in favour of it, against religion or in favour of it. Like all great art, it’s shot through with ambivalence. But I don’t think he could ever have written this other than through the collision of the creative impulse and the soulless worldview of Soviet communism. I just don’t think it would have been created other than through that rather disfiguring collision between creativity and conformity. And, for that reason alone, I just think it’s an astonishing book.

The next one you’ve chosen is the great Italian novel, The Leopard (1958) by Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa, which actually we’ve just read at our Italian book club at Waterstones, Oxford. Tell me why you like it.

This is one of the very few novels that I’ve read twice. My lasting memory of it, and I think why it plays such a special role for me, is that it’s such a poignant and touching and unflinching depiction of change, and of when people feel caught out by change, and how the old order feels about the introduction of new customs and new regimes. There’s this kind of wistful way in which the prince describes his own inability to move with the times.

For anyone who’s interested in Europe, where we’ve just seen this ceaseless ebb and flow of the new replacing the old, I just don’t think you can find a better book to summarise the wisdom and the conservatism and nostalgia that any order that is having to make way for a new order feels.

You’ve already mentioned The Story of San Michele (1929) by Axel Munthe — which is set on the Italian island of Capri. Why did this book make your list?

I have to say I wouldn’t count The Story of San Michele as some great work of literature—I don’t think it is. It’s much more a digestible series of bite-size vignettes compared to the other novels. I would never put it in the same category as the others, but it’s just so quintessentially European—not least if you know anything about Axel Munthe himself.

He was a Swedish doctor who was the personal doctor of the Swedish queen, and an animal lover, married to a Brit, who fell in love with this church when he first saw it, and came back later in life to buy it. In a sense, he’s almost an aristocratic figure but he also did a great deal for the poor and the diseased in Naples and in Paris.

It’s a good book for anyone who wants to be reminded of how the patchwork of European languages and cultures can blend into each other and do so very beautifully. In many ways, it’s a reminder of some of the very best of what Europe can be.

Finally, you’ve chosen a French novel that was huge in its day and read around the world. In fact, it’s the reason F. Scott Fitzgerald called his novel The Great Gatsby. This is Alain-Fournier’s Le Grand Meaulnes (1913).

I read this in my teens—and haven’t read it since. There are endless twists and turns in the plot with this person falling in love with that person, and this person going missing. The reason I picked it is because it is just so unapologetically romantic and in a very, very European way. One of the principal characters falls in love with a girl who he comes across in a chateau in the woods, which he then can’t find again. It’s kind of absurd, and it’s easy to scoff at, but there is something comfortingly European and romantic about it.

It’s almost stereotypically French, I suppose, in the way that smouldering, serious-looking black-and-white French films are almost comically stereotypical in their Frenchness.

As I read it in my late teens, I almost don’t want to ever read it again because I have a horrible feeling, in my slightly more jaded 50s, that I won’t take to it as much. But I just absolutely wallowed in the romance of it all.

Interview by Sophie Roell

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