Thursday 5 October 2017

Can Clegg save us from Brexit?

Notes from the Henley Literary Festival 2017

I've always been slightly intrigued by Nick Clegg. A silver-tongued, liberal politician with a touch of eurotrash glamour (Dutch mum, Spanish wife and a half-Russian dad). Yesterday at the Henley Literary Festival, my passing interest in this former deputy prime minister tipped over into something stronger - admiration? School-girl crush?

Former deputy prime minister Nick Clegg with Emma Clark Lam & friend
Starstruck at #HLF2017 with Nick Clegg and my friend Jo
During a lively interview, Mr Clegg was unequivocal about his support for the European project, charming his audience (not just me) with articulate and impassioned arguments, as well as giving an honest account of his time in government. 

He was there to promote his new book, How to stop Brexit (and make Britain great again)we were there to listen and perhaps buy an early copy (except, annoyingly, they ran out).

Ironically, over the past few months, I have been trying to make my peace with Brexit. I still sign the odd petition in a gesture of hopeless defiance, but it feels as if the Brexit pony has bolted. Yesterday morning, however, in the genteel surroundings of Henley's Phyllis Court Club, Nick Clegg got us all fired up again.

"There is a gap between what we were promised and what we will get," he told a room stuffed full with all the liberals Henley could muster"One of the many myths," continued Mr Clegg, "is that we are not entitled as a democracy to change our mind." He then quoted (with an impish smile) from a 2012 speech on the European Union by Brexit secretary David Davis: "If a democracy cannot change its mind, it ceases to be a democracy."

Cue spontaneous applause and laughter from the audience.

As the father of three boys, Mr Clegg also voiced his anger at how the younger generation had lost its right to live and work in Europe. "It is an abrupt, radical decision against the explicit wishes of those who have yet to experience this future," he said, before adding with deft comic timing, "Sorry, rant'll be over in a moment."

The builder who wanted to leave...

Despite his passion for Europe, Mr Clegg acknowledged that the referendum was affected by a widening gulf between the 'haves' and the 'have-nots'. He, himself, failed to persuade a builder from his former constituency in Sheffield Hallam to vote remain. The builder said he couldn't tick the 'remain' box because he didn't want things to stay the same. He was fed up with working longer hours for less money. 

Nonetheless, Mr Clegg was adamant that Brexit would not solve these trenchant problems. "It makes me very angry," he said, "how the elite is playing this huge con trick on [the working classes] who are experiencing less in their pay packet... Farage, Gove, Johnson. Brexit won't affect them and their families, but it will affect others."

He also addressed the common complaint that Britain is/was being run by European bureaucrats. (Many voters failed to realise that the UK was a key architect of the European Union, after the second world war, designing and implementing many of its central tenets.) "We were very instrumental in the creation of the largest borderless market in the world," Mr Clegg pointed out to yet more rapturous applause. 

A country at odds

One of my personal bugbears is how Conservative politicians continually refer to 'will of the people' in their speeches about Brexit. As Mr Clegg was keen to emphasise, our future in Europe was decided by 37% of the eligible vote. On Twitter last month, author J.K. Rowling made a similar point:

In light of this, Mr Clegg argued that Theresa May missed an opportunity, when she became prime minister, to embrace the country as a whole. "You can't airbrush out of the equation millions of voters who wanted something different. You need to heal those divides, not exacerbate them."

Ultimately, however, he believes the EU will evolve into a club of concentric circles and that the UK will "re-dock itself in the outer circle of a reconstituted European membership".

In all this pro-European fervour, no one in the room thought to press him on how we could actually stop Brexit, but I guess I'll just have to read his book for that.

Nick Clegg was interviewed by writer Daniel Hahn for a session at the Henley Literary Festival on 4 October, 2017. His book, How to stop Brexit (and make Britain great again) is available for pre-order. #HLF2017

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