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Nick Clegg: “What I regret most is supporting military action in Libya”

Former deputy prime minister and Liberal Democrats leader Nick Clegg discusses the highs and lows of his time in No 10 – plus a teenage prank that resulted in community service

I grew up in the countryside then went to school in central London at the height of the Thatcher government. I didn’t take to the dog-eat-dog ethos of that time – full of the sound and fury of the Falklands war – at all. I wasn’t remotely political with a big ‘p’; I just stared at politicians on the telly and thought they were from a different galaxy, as I’m sure many teenagers stare at me now. But my family had been shaped and buffeted about by big events in previous decades. My mum spent her formative years in a Japanese prisoner- of-war camp and my grandmother had lost much of her family in the Russian revolution and was part of that diaspora of so-called White Russians who moved to London. So though I wasn’t close to being a card-carrying William Hague-style activist, I knew there was a big wide world out there and big political ideas mattered.

At 16 I had no idea what I might do in later life. I don’t think any teacher would call me a goody two-shoes. I talked too much, made far too much noise. I was more interested in parties, sport, getting up to no good. And my advice to my 16-year-old self would be to do more of that. You have such a small window of freedom to mess around, experiment, do things you shouldn’t do, make friends for life, find yourself, develop your own tastes. You should use it.

I’m not proud of it but when I was around 16 I did get into some trouble while I was on an exchange with a family in Munich. Me and a friend, much the worse for wear after a night on Bavarian beer, were wandering around another friend’s house which had huge greenhouses with lots of cacti in them. I don’t quite know how it all started but… well, we noticed that some of the hairiest cacti glowed beautifully in the dark if you put a match to them. So we did. I don’t recommend anyone tries it but they do really do glow, those very fine cacti hairs. However, it turned out we’d destroyed one of Europe’s leading private collections of cacti. So we ended up doing some community service for that one.

I did a lot of things before I went into politics. I worked as a kids’ ski instructor in Austria. I spent a bit of time with the Financial Times in Hungary. I spent a year in the freezing Midwest doing a post-grad at the university of Minnesota. Then I worked for Leon Brittan for a while – not in a political capacity, as a civil servant. And he turned round to me one day and said: “You keep yelling at politicians on the TV. If you’re so opinionated why don’t you put your own neck on the block?” I was dumbfounded, I had never cons-idered anything like that. But that was the start of a long journey and it ended up in 2010 with me going into government as deputy prime minister.

it turned out we’d destroyed one of Europe’s leading private collections of cacti. So we ended up doing some community service for that one.

If someone had pointed across at the House of Commons from our school playground in Westminster and said, one day you’ll be working in there, I’d have scoffed at them. Though I wouldn’t be surprised that I went for the Lib Dems. Obviously, I was never going to be a Tory. And the Labour Party at that time seemed to be about beer and sandwiches and gruff-looking men running things from smoke-filled rooms. But I remember as a youngster seeing Paddy Ashdown arguing for passport rights for British people in Hong Kong, talking like no other politician talked at the time, arguing for something unfashionable that seemed like the right thing to do. If you’d told the younger me that Paddy was going to be one of my closest friends, I’d have been delighted. But more than any of that, my 16-year-old self would be surprised and delighted to hear he was going to marry a very beautiful and wonderful Spanish woman.

Would the younger me have been appalled to know he’d go into government with the Conservatives? (He laughs.) Well… I wouldn’t have been appalled by the idea of a coalition. Most of us work with people we don’t like every day. We did a lot of good. We stopped some really big, cruel welfare cuts, like removing housing benefit for young people, which they’ve now just done. Without us the poorest two-year olds wouldn’t have received free pre-school support. You wouldn’t have had shared parental pay or equal marriage. Of course, some of the good things we did worked out so well the Conservatives claimed them as their own ideas. And oh, I tried to make that clear. I spent half of every interview for half a decade making that point over and over again. But hey, there’s no point whinging about it. The big parties have a much bigger loud-hailer than us. They have big supporters in the press who just turn off the volume when they feel like it.

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Obviously I regret the university funding… my own view is that we were caught between a rock and a hard place

I do have regrets about things that happened when we were in government. The thing I regret most is supporting our military action in Libya. That was not the right thing to do. It hadn’t been thought through, the knock-on effects. I also regret the changes in legal aid. Obviously the university funding… my own view is that we were caught between a rock and a hard place. You can see that now with Labour. They’re promising to spend 11 billion quid – 11 billion quid! – so the richest graduates in the best-paid jobs in the future won’t have had to make any contribution to their university education. And for that Labour won’t be able to spend money raising welfare benefits for some of the poorest people in the country.

I was very busy when my kids were young but I strained every sinew to be with them whenever I could. It didn’t do my health much good but I would get up at 5.30am, do two hours of paperwork, help get the kids ready for school, go to work, go home in the evening, put the kids to bed with a bedtime story, then work till very late, often back in Westminster. Miriam and I have always been pretty good at book-ending the kids’ day. She was working full-time when I was in government, so it would have been very unfair on her if I hadn’t pulled my weight. No doubt my kids will tell me in 20 years’ time that I didn’t do enough but I definitely tried my best.

If I could go back in time, it would be to the moment I started a family. I remember vividly when our first boy was born. Miriam was fast asleep and I was sitting in the hospital room with little Antonio on my chest, just breathing. I remember thinking, oh! Now I finally know why I’m here. Now I know what the point of existence is. It gave my life a sense of meaning and purpose it just hadn’t had until that point. It’s a completely transformative moment and by far the happiest in my life.

Politics: Between the Extremes is out now (Vintage, £9.99)

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