Britain is lucky to have a real alternative in the race for prime minister.
Here at the Nation, we like to think that all our interns go on to accomplish great things. But all the same, it’s not every day that one gets compared to Winston Churchill, Barack Obama, Princess Diana, Tony Blair, and even Jesus. But with two weeks to go before Britain’s general election, Liberal Democrat leader Nick Clegg (Nation intern class of 1990) is Britain’s new political superstar. (Clegg, wisely and humbly, has said that any grand historical analogies are "daft.")
After stealing the show from Labour’s Gordon Brown and the Conservative Party’s David Cameron in Britain’s first-ever televised debate on April 15, Clegg and his party have surged in the polls and media attention, creating, as one British reporter described it, "the hysterical condition known as Cleggmania." But in this case, the mania is backed up by hard facts. According to a YouGov poll for the Sun, the party is leading with, as the newspaper put it, "a staggering 33 per cent." This is the first time the Lib Dem party has been in the lead in a general-election race in 104 years.
We’d certainly love to claim that it was Clegg’s internship that launched him into the political stratosphere. After all, since the Nation‘s internship program started in 1978, it has produced an extraordinary cohort of writers, reporters, editors, activists, and a few politicians. Labour’s Ed Miliband, who was elected a member of the British Parliament in 2005 and is now secretary of state for energy and climate change, interned just a year before Clegg.
What marks Clegg as a former Nation intern is not only his dabbling in journalism, but how buoyantly he has axed the political establishment and the status quo. His strong populist message and clear articulation of people’s discontent with politics as usual — the corruption revealed by the MPs’ expenses scandal and the Tories’ dependence on tax-exempt billionaires; the sclerotic political system; and broken promises — has made Clegg a feisty contender.
What gets less attention than Clegg’s telegenic savvy is how the Lib Dems’ surging prominence is healthy for British politics. The inclusion of a credible third-party candidate in national televised debates has shifted the campaign’s dynamic and pushed Brown and Cameron to be more "radical" — a term that has positive connotations in hidebound Britain right now. Perhaps even more importantly, by proposing alternative ideas often excluded from campaigns and debates, Clegg and party have made not-ready-for-prime-time ideas quite appealing! And because many Lib Dem policies are to the left of Labour’s, it has moved the Labour Party to do some smart and left repositioning.
Clegg and his party — which opposed the Iraq war — are campaigning on a platform that would scrap Britain’s Trident nuclear submarines, ensure the wealthy pay their fair share of taxes, restore and protect civil liberties with a Freedom Bill, and make radical changes in the electoral system. (To be fair, on certain issues such as trade policy and deficit reduction, the Lib Dems are more "centrist" than Labour.)
Indeed, Clegg and his party sometimes seem to be channeling Nation editorials — and laying out a model political platform for the left: whether it’s calling for breaking up banks, chastising executives for obscene bonuses, exhorting the wealthy to pay their fair share, supporting a financial transactions tax and the closing of loopholes for the rich and polluters, or calling for investment in a sustainable and green economy.
On Tuesday, as British regulators opened a formal investigation into Goldman Sachs’s London operations, Clegg called for the investment bank to be banned from doing business with the British government, pending the investigation’s outcome. "They are a reminder of the recklessness and greed that have disfigured the banking industry as a whole," he stated.
The Cleggmania may yet blow over. As the Nation‘s British correspondent Maria Margaronis (intern class of 1983) rightly observes in the magazine’s current issue, "Britain’s superannuated winner-takes-all electoral system, and decades of gerrymandering favoring the two main parties, make it unlikely that the Lib Dems can win enough seats to take 10 Downing Street, even with a majority of the popular vote." (As for the United States’ own superannuated electoral system, I’d humbly ask you to read my July 2008 essay, "Just Democracy," which lays out reforms Americans must make before they can achieve a viable multiparty system.)
Whatever the outcome, in these last few days we’ve witnessed an alternative and affirmative channeling of the anti-politics wave that is such a powerful force in Britain right now — and in the United States. And though Clegg’s personal appeal is clearly a major factor in his astonishingly fast political rise, he and the Lib Dems are playing a valuable role by bringing laser-like attention to issues that the two bigfoot parties have ignored for too long.
Some other political cultures I can think of should be so lucky.