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Nick Clegg: How to guard against ‘strong man’ politics

Former Lib Dem leader Nick Clegg (PA Wire/PA Images)

In an uncertain global landscape, the former deputy prime minister outlines reforms needed to safeguard the international order against nationalism and ‘strong man’ politics


This the tenth, and final, Lord Garden memorial lecture, a series of talks established following Tim’s death by the Liberal International British Group, and in particular Robert Woodthorpe-Browne, who will be familiar to all of you with links to Chatham House and the Liberal Democrats.

Fittingly, given the many aspects of Tim’s remarkable career, a distinguished range of academics, journalists, and politicians make up the cast of lecturers who have spoken before me.

Former defence secretary George Robertson, who gave the inaugural lecture, Professor Peter Hennessy, Jon Snow of Channel 4 News, and my party colleagues, and friends, Shirley Williams, Menzies Campbell and Paddy Ashdown have given speeches on subjects ranging from the future of Europe to the rise of Barack Obama, the importance of global defence cooperation to the implications of the 2010 general election.

It is an honour to follow them here today, and to speak in honour of the memory of Tim Garden.

He moved effortlessly between many varied worlds: the military, academia, journalism and, of course, politics, which is how I came to know him.

And wherever Tim worked, whoever he spoke to, whatever he argued, he was respected as a voice of authority and of reason.

For three decades he served in the RAF, a period during which the terrifying prospect of nuclear war was more real than at any time since the Cuban Missile Crisis, and when there seemed little hope of a thaw in US-Soviet relations.

His military career was varied and distinguished. Tim flew Vulcan planes and Chinook helicopters, commanded an air base, worked in senior roles at the Ministry of Defence, and later had a spell as director of the Royal College of Defence Studies.

He retired from the RAF in 1996 with the rank of Air Marshall, embarking on an equally varied second phase of his career which, of course, included a spell as director of this place, Chatham House. He had a deep knowledge of the inner workings of the MoD, of military strategy and of international politics, but his lightness of touch meant he was equally at ease explaining highly complex geopolitical issues across the rarefied think tanks of London as he was in the television studios.

When Tim joined the House of Lords as a Liberal Democrat peer in 2004, those in the party who knew him were thrilled. The rest quickly realised that a considerable talent and real asset had joined our team. Working closely with Charles Kennedy, our then leader, Tim led the challenge to the Labour government as it took the country into the disastrous Iraq War. His was also a crucial voice in debates on British military engagement in Afghanistan, the renewal of the Trident nuclear deterrent, and, during the passage of the Electoral Administration Bill, in addressing the problems of registration and voting for members of the armed forces and their partners.

It is hard to believe that his Parliamentary career lasted only three years.

Global volatility

And it is not hard to see how valuable his sage advice could have been in today’s increasingly volatile world.

As the UK’s future in Europe is shaped by a Conservative Party in collective meltdown….

As America is led by an unpredictable President who appears unconvinced of the merits of global leadership – let alone the special relationship….

As nationalist leaders tighten their unforgiving grip in Moscow, Budapest, and Istanbul….

And as conflict rages across the Middle East and in parts of Africa….

… I am sure I am not alone in wishing Tim was here to provide some of his characteristic wisdom and, perhaps, reassurance.

Throughout much of his military career he faced a world of competing ideologies, as capitalism and communism collided. And when the end of the Cold War eventually came, with the reunification of Germany and the re-shaping of Europe, Tim had to respond to an era of considerable uncertainty and disruption.

Today, nearly three decades on, we find ourselves in a world in which, once again, old certainties are being questioned, and the values we cherish are under threat.

A Chatham House audience hardly needs to be told how we have arrived in this most unsettling of places, where a critical cocktail of historical events, sociological change and geo-political shifts have combined to make the world feel very different today than it did even a decade ago, when the first of these lectures was given.

The ending of the Cold War. The rise of the internet and social media, and the challenge that has posed to traditional sources of news and information. The end of class-based politics. The global economic crash of 2008 and its disruptive effects. The way that people on low incomes have been left searching for explanations and solutions to their predicament in the years that have followed. And then, as a result, an acute outbreak of populism, nowhere more so than in the Anglo-Saxon world with the vote for Brexit and then Donald Trump.

Re-asserting our values

So how do we reassert the values of internationalism, multilateralism and liberalism?

First, don’t give up.

Multilateralism is slow and imperfect, but there is no remedy to the challenges faced by modern liberalism which does not require countries to work together.

The truth is we have to pool our sovereignty in order to survive in the modern world. This has to be restated again and again, with conviction and with passion. To pool decision making with others for mutual benefit isn’t a loss of sovereignty, it is the way in which we secure our strategic interests and guarantee our prosperity in a globalised world.

An abject example of failure to make the case for multilateralism is this government’s inability to prepare the British people for the significant compromises that Brexit must entail.

The talks, which finally commenced this week, will not be easy. In my view, with the clock ticking, there are now three possible scenarios: a disastrous collapse, an extension to the timescale, or a significant softening of the government’s negotiating stance to allow a generous transition period in which many of the features of EU membership continue to apply.

The humiliating climbdown this week on the sequencing of the discussions has already revealed the hollowness of the government’s rhetoric, and highlighted the inevitability of compromise.

The Boris Johnson / Daniel Hannan view of our place in the world is as a swashbuckling nation which can duck and weave if it weren’t held back by others. This seductive idea – that we can recapture the imperial reach of the past by throwing off the shackles of multilateralism – is a dangerous illusion.

They, and other critics of the European Union, like to claim that the EU is part of the past. Instead they talk up a future in which a ‘global Britain’, unencumbered by EU membership, is the future. In truth, it’s exactly the other way round: ‘global Britain’ is in fact a euphemism for imperial nostalgia; while pooling sovereignty in our own hemisphere is the only way to influence those aspects of the modern world, from terrorism to trade, from climate change to fisheries, which cross borders.

Those who dismiss the European Union, and the UK being a part of it, are not only rejecting multilateralism. The are also rejecting the idea that we need to stand tall in our own backyard in order to stand tall in the great capitals of the world.

Far from increasing our standing in Washington or Beijing, the decision to leave the EU is already seen as a sign of Britain’s decline, pushing us to the margins in international affairs.

Take the recent visit of Prime Minister Modi and President Xi Jinping to Europe for the G7 meeting in Italy. Both visited a number of other EU countries (including Germany & Belgium) without coming to the UK or holding any one-to-one talks with Theresa May around the G7.

Both China and India clearly see working with the EU, and not the UK, as the priority.

For example, China and the EU issued a joint statement on forging ahead with the Paris Accords – from which the UK was noticeably absent.

And ahead of an EU-India summit later this year, Prime Minister Modi has talked about the India-EU trade and investment agreement being restarted during his visit. A deal which, irony of ironies, had been stymied by the stubborn approach of the British government – in particular its former Home Secretary, one Theresa May – in refusing to grant admission to Indian visitors who want to come to the UK for business, work or study.

So it is clear to me that to make a difference to the world you have to have an anchor in your own hemisphere.

This applies to security as much as it does to trade. We don’t know what the long-term impact of Brexit will be on our security relationship with America, our leadership role in NATO, or our place on the UN Security Council.

But all of those security fundamentals will be weakened if we pursue the vision for Britain favoured by the Brexiteers.

Second, we must be aware that to fix populism also requires us to fix our economy.

I’m not going to pretend that all of our problems can be solved by achieving a soft Brexit, or indeed by persuading the public to think again about leaving the EU, although I would be the first to celebrate if they did. The discontent that underlies Donald Trump and Nigel Farage’s politics of chauvinism is real. If we are to beat them, we have got to address the fundamentals.

Of course we need to overhaul our international institutions, from the EU to the UN, to make them more efficient and more accountable to the people they serve.

But that’s the easy answer. We need to be much tougher on ourselves – the genesis of these problems are socio-economic.

Mainstream politicians of all stripes are failing to deliver on the bread and butter issues that matter to voters. The housing problem in particular has been festering for years, with social housing in decline, too little affordable housing, skyrocketing rents, and an over-reliance on a dysfunctional private sector that has not built enough homes, and not enough good-quality homes.

Real-terms incomes have been stagnant since 2008. The prosperity and growth that was promised hasn’t arrived. According to the IFS, the average British family will be 18% – or £5,000 – worse off in 2022 than they would have been had the crash never happened – a decline which is unprecedented in the last 70 years.

That this has erupted into a populist backlash, from Syriza in Greece to Podemos in Spain to the right-wing movements of Marine Le Pen, Gert Wilders and Nigel Farage – none of this is surprising.

But I think we can, and should, ask why Anglo-Saxon economies appear to be less resilient to this wave of populism than mainland European countries.

Populism has not been defeated in mainland Europe, but it does appears to have been contained. We were told a few months ago that Wilders would win in the Netherlands, that Le Pen would take the presidency and pull France out of the Euro, and that Angela Merkel’s position was in doubt. None of those things have happened.

Yet in Britain, a revolution overturned four decades of EU membership, and in the States, a completely unsuitable candidate was elected President.

It it perhaps too early to tell, but it will be important for the future to understand the impact of the different responses in the US/UK and Europe to the economic crisis.

Here we kept people in work on reduced or stagnant pay; in fact, the UK stands alone as a rich economy that experienced a strong economic recovery in which the real wages of workers fell.

On the continent, by contrast, they experienced mass unemployment, but the majority were protected by a generous welfare state. Those who did not lose their jobs, remained in employment and saw their wages grow.

Did this create a body of voters with an in-built incentive to protect the status quo?

It may prove that the much-maligned European welfare model did a better job of preserving a sense of common purpose at a time when our society and politics feel like they are fraying at the seams. We need to understand whether low-regulation, low-pay economies are as a result less well insulated from the political storms than our continental neighbours.

Thirdly, to beat populism, we must always remind ourselves of the people we are up against.

Tomorrow marks a full year since the referendum, and the vote to leave the European Union.

But time, it would be fair to say, has not healed, and the language of that wretched campaign remains very much in use today.

The liberal elite.

The global elite.

Or, to quote or own prime minister, the citizens of nowhere.

Those of us who argued for Britain remaining part of the European Union. Those of us who believed in a global outlook. Those of us who support an internationalist view of the world, were dismissed – flippantly, aggressively, incorrectly – by people who did not share those values.

But it is these people who are truly an elite. They are the Brexit elite.

While the Brexit eruption of June 23rd 2016 was at times angry, in part built on an ugly nationalism, and yes, fuelled by a grassroots discontent, the ideas, money and propaganda of the Brexit campaign were fuelled by an unholy constellation of vested interests:

The hedge fund managers for whom EU-wide regulations are an overburdensome hindrance to their financial aspirations.

The owners and editors of the right wing press, whose visceral loathing of the European Union has shaped their respective papers’ tone and coverage for decades.

The Tory backbenchers, many of whom still inhabit a preposterous past in which Britannia still rules the waves and diplomacy is best conducted from the Royal Yacht.

A handful multi-millionaire businessmen who have, in some cases over thirty years or more, bankrolled whichever party, or politician, stands on the most aggressive EU-bashing platform.

And, perhaps most sinister of all, dizzyingly wealthy individuals in the US whose money is now being traced from libertarian think tanks to Donald Trump’s presidential campaign and now to those who fought to take the UK out of the European Union.

What unites them?

A shared vision of Britain as a low tax, low regulation nation, a Singapore on stilts standing precariously on its own, cast adrift from Europe and, so they argue, able to do as it pleases.

Or rather, in the case of this elite, able to do as they please.


Nothing would guarantee greater turbulence and fear than their vision of the future.

For reasons which she has never managed to explain, this vision was, and perhaps continues to be, Theresa May’s vision too. Brexit meant Brexit, she told us endlessly, and in her case it meant the most extreme and ideological of all Brexits.

Dragging Britain out of the Single Market and the Customs Union. Ending freedom of movement. Pulling Britain out of the jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice and – as a result – denying this country vital access to EU-wide security databases.

With so much uncertainty in the world today, it is a truly dangerous vision for Britain.

But it was a vision comprehensively rejected at the election.

And it is a vision that we must never, ever, allow to succeed at the ballot box.

And to ensure it never does, we must respond – with urgency and with careful thought – to the challenges that liberalism, internationalism, multilateralism face today.

This speech may not have focused in depth on global affairs, but that is because at root the crisis that liberal internationalism finds itself in today is not about foreign policy. It is about domestic policy, about the socio-economic conditions that people have to contend with, and most importantly the disruptive aftershocks of the 2008 economic crash.

And these are challenges that must be – and can be – addressed.

With deep and radical thinking.

With a patient commitment to the causes that drive us.

And with a refusal to give in, even when it seems that those very causes are under sustained and relentless attack.

If we do that, if we work together, then liberalism, internationalism and multilateralism can thrive.

And the problems of recent months will be seen for what I hope they are – a series of bumps on the road to a more open world.

This article is based on a speech delivered by Nick Clegg at Chatham House.

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