It's time to defend liberal values, says former Lib Dem leader Nick Clegg

“Any individual, any community, that is attached to the long-standing British traditions of political stability, equality under the law, openness and tolerance should be very worried.”


Tucked away in the corner of a plush central London hotel bar, Nick Clegg displays none of the panic and stress usually found around candidates in a general election campaign.

But then Mr Clegg is not really a traditional candidate any more. The former Deputy Prime Minister and ex-leader of the Liberal Democrats is hoping to win again in the Sheffield constituency he has represented for 12 years, but he speaks now as an elder statesman, albeit one only a few months past his 50th birthday.

Freed from the supposed shackles of serving in the Conservative-Lib Dem coalition government for five years, he speaks openly, highlighting the dangers posed not only to British Jews by populism, but, Mr Clegg believes, to society more widely.

“Any individual, any community, that is attached to the long-standing British traditions of political stability, equality under the law, openness and tolerance should be very worried,” he warns.

“One of the things that’s extraordinary and unusual about our country is this centuries-long tradition of political stability, and allied with that is a bedrock British belief in being open, not closed to the outside world. All of that I think is now seriously in jeopardy.”

Despite the gloomy outlook, Mr Clegg displays the enthusiasm and vigour of a man heading out to face the electorate for the first time, not one who many commentators expected to be in the twilight of his political career two years after he oversaw a crushing election defeat which reduced his party to a mere eight seats in the Commons.

A life-long Europhile, the result of the EU referendum has given Mr Clegg a new lease of life after five years in government. He is now the party’s Shadow Brexit Secretary and has played a leading role in challenging the Conservatives’ approach to leaving Europe.

For Britain’s Jews, the implications of Brexit cannot be “reduced”, he says, to merely considering “a policy or a measure or a directive” such as legislation on brit milah or shechita.

“It relates to the wider prosperity, stability and tolerance of our whole nation,” Mr Clegg says. But he does worry that the fall-out from the referendum has led to unpleasant trends emerging, including the legitimising of “behaviour which previously was just considered to be completely beyond the pale”.

The election campaign has seen many Jewish voters on the left, turned off by Labour’s antisemitism crisis, mulling over voting for the Lib Dems as a progressive alternative. Last September, Tim Farron, the party leader, told the JC he wanted the Lib Dems to be a “warm home” for Jews.

Mr Clegg admits that under his leadership the party “took a hell of a hit” from the Jewish community in 2015, but hopes next month’s poll will be the opening gambit in “clawing back some of that support”.

“The key thing is, are people comfortable with what’s happening in the Labour and Conservative parties? Are they comfortable with the Seumas Milne [Jeremy Corbyn's director of strategy] view of the world, which has had this barely disguised, lip-curling cynicism of many of the sensitivities in the Jewish community? And which has sailed very close to the wind on conflating legitimate criticism of the government of Israel with something wider and more unpleasant?

“Are people comfortable with the mutation of the Conservative Party into a sort of Ukip-lite mainstream party? It is quite extraordinary. The real coalition of nastiness lies to the right.”

Mr Clegg recalls working as an adviser to Leon Brittan, former Conservative Home Secretary, and witnessing “the barely concealed antisemitism which was often whispered behind closed doors by parts of the British establishment”.

“What is worrying now is that the era of identity politics and the willingness of mainstream politicians to pander to the most powerful but corrosive emotion of all, fear, legitimises the appearance of a lot of these views out in the open, where in the past they were more artfully hidden.”

Mr Clegg’s own relationship with the Jewish community has often been questioned. A harsh critic of Israel’s military action in Gaza, he also railed against antisemitism during his time as leader.

The last time we spoke, in 2013, I was chasing Mr Clegg down corridors in the bowels of Parliament demanding to know why he had not taken more stringent action against David Ward, the then Lib Dem MP, who had made antisemitic remarks about Jews “inflicting atrocities on Palestinians”.

Ironically, four years later, Mr Ward remains on the agenda. He was sacked as a Lib Dem candidate by Mr Farron last month after outrage in the community at the thought he could once again represent the party.

Mr Clegg is reflective about his own, much-criticised, role in the original episode. He eventually oversaw Mr Ward being stripped of the party whip, but only months after the first offensive comments.

“I think looking back on it, probably right at the outset we could have maybe just been a bit tougher,” he admits for the first time, “but, if you lead a political party it’s incredibly important that when candidates or MPs transgress the principles of the party, that due process is followed. I did that and I took action, and it was during my leadership that Jenny Tonge left the party.

“Tim quite rightly deployed exceptional powers which the leader has during an election campaign which obviously was not the case when David Ward made some of his remarks in the past.”

Vince Cable, the former Business Secretary, tried to push through an arms embargo on Israel during the 2014 Gaza conflict, a position which led to a row with the Lib Dems’ pro-Israel Tory coalition partners.

On the past hostility of some in his party towards Israel, Mr Clegg is less open-minded: “I’m afraid there’s a straightforward legal judgement to be made about whether military force is being deployed in a proportionate way or not – that’s a debate I don’t want to repeat now.”

There is a need, he acknowledges, to “strike the right balance” between supporting Israel’s right to live peacefully and opposing boycotts while challenging settlement activity, but adds: “When opinions are very polarised, you often end up being shouted at from both sides.”

Perhaps that is the essential existence of a Lib Dem, to find a way of accepting, effectively, a parev political life?

“It is a bit,” Mr Clegg nods. “Oddly now, because of the shock of Trump, the shock of Farage, I actually think whereas in the past people thought the centre ground was neither one thing nor the other - neither fish nor fowl if I can put it like that – people are coming to appreciate that what were previously just assumed, unspoken values need to be defended.

"Stuff that we have taken for granted, tolerance, openness, internationalism, has to be re-defended.”

In reality, even if this world view is attractive to the community, it is unlikely to see Lib Dem candidates elected in the constituencies with the largest proportions of Jewish voters. In 2015 the party finished tens of thousands of votes behind Labour and Tory winners in those seats, making victories next month almost inconceivable.

“To be fair, I don’t think Tim is only regarding our relationship, or appeal, to progressive folk in the Jewish community through a crude electoral lens,” Mr Clegg fires back.

“I happen to think the liberal values are held very strongly in the British Jewish community for all sorts of very obvious reasons. I would see it through a lens of values rather than psephology.

“This is a time when people need to vote with their heart, to vote with their values. We have a Conservative leader almost ventriloquising for Nigel Farage, we’ve got this very stark shift towards isolationism and introversion in politics, we just don’t have the luxury to make huge calculations about whether our vote will or will not make a difference in this or that area.

“At the end of the day, if you believe in those values, vote for those values.”

See all our Election 2017 coverage here

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