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Nick Clegg: Springtime for Britain?

Do Americans really have to worry about an outbreak of anti-Americanism in the UK?

Takeaways


  • Refocusing the country on its pressing domestic needs and a more open-minded path in foreign policy offers a refreshing — and long-overdue — change in British politics.
  • Less reflexively anti-European and less reflexively pro-American looks like a sound basis on which to place Britain's future.
  • At a minimum, Britain's elites ought to realize that there are two special relationships — one with Europe, the other one with the United States.
  • Nick Clegg, the leader of the Liberal Democrats, is being made out to be an America-eating monster.
  • Unlike Blair, Mr. Clegg is not just a rhetorical smoothie in love with his ability to manipulate everything under the sun.

This just in from London: A dangerous man is about to make mincemeat of the longest-standing feature of British foreign policy.

Nick Clegg, the leader of the Liberal Democrats and a 43-year-old man who, in a quick courtship during the country's first-ever series of election debates on live TV, is resonating with the British public. To stem his further rise, he is quickly being made out to be an America-eating monster.

The man's crime? He has talked openly about the "slavish" way in which British politicians for too many decades have rather blindly followed the United States in international affairs.

For him to be attacked on this front is rather stunning in a nation that has always prized its own sovereignty above all else. Ultimately, Mr. Clegg's argument boils down to one very simple thing: Let's be sure to always use our own head — and stop reflexively seconding the U.S. government regardless of its political stripe or the specific policy issue in question.

The so-called special relationship has long been a vehicle used by UK diplomats to allow their country to punch above its weight on the world stage. It gave leaders like Tony Blair the satisfying personal feeling of being in the kitchen when the real decisions were made, even if it turned out — as it did on the matter of launching a war against Iraq — that he was very much served a pre-cooked meal in that proverbial kitchen.

Britain, the U.S. government, the EU and the rest of the world can only benefit from a less automatic pattern of support of Washington's policies by London.

Sure enough, this pattern of submission gives the British a special sense of purpose when operating in Washington. But it is ultimately a treacherous path to depend on — having all the hallmarks of what Chinese emperors demanded of other nations in terms of presenting a constant flow of prostrations and tributes.

That is not exactly the way in which a proud nation with a long-standing record in global affairs ought to comport itself in the 21st century.

And indeed, considering that the year 2010 brings the 50th anniversary of various African nations' declarations of independence, some tongues are wagging that it is high time that the UK finally launch its own liberation movement — and declare its independence from the United States.

As regards the internal debate in Britain, it is interesting to see that it is mainly voices affiliated with the Labour Party who are calling out Mr. Clegg for his openness of mind on the issue of dealing with the United States.

The reason for that is straightforward enough: David Cameron, the Conservative shadow prime minister, in a September 2006 speech expressed thoughts regarding the "special relationship" that echo those of Mr. Clegg: “We should be solid but not slavish in our friendship with America.”

The other fascinating dimension of attacking Mr. Clegg is that he might prove to be a replay of what Japan has been experiencing recently when its electorate roundly rejected the old guard.

In a true sea change and a clear sign of their pent-up frustration, the normally calm Japanese voted in a party that had long been on the outskirts of political power, the Democratic Party (DPJ) — and made Yukio Hatoyama prime minister in the hope that he would serve as a broom to clear out a dusty political house.

Compared to Mr. Clegg, Mr. Hatoyama's party campaigned much harder on the issue of Japanese foreign policy needing more independence from the United States. In particular, decades after the end of American occupation, it sought to assert its right to lay down some conditions on the continued U.S. right to station troops on Okinawa island.

As it turned out, Mr. Hatoyama's claim to fame as a new broom lasted only briefly. He has fallen rapidly in the public opinion polls — and there is now open talk about replacing him in his post.

Translated into a UK context, the implication is twofold: First, it doesn't pay politically for any leader of a country traditionally very close to the United States and especially its security apparatus to seek more independence. Try it and you'll sink, the message goes.

And second, anybody who tries to pursue a more independent path will quickly turn out to be a big disappointment, a political novice the country cannot afford.

What's so interesting about the British Labour Party's desperate efforts to paint Mr. Clegg as risky and naïve is that this effectively makes the party the equivalent of the LDP in Japan.

Curiously for a party that used to cast itself as representing modernity (remember "Cool Britannia"?), its messages are: "Anything to avoid young blood. Anything to prevent an opening up of the established political order."

The problem is that, wherever Mr. Clegg's party ends up after the May 6, 2010, elections, voters are expressing a yearning to explode the old structures. They do not want a British politics where one only has two effective choices.

Life is no fun if you are only offered two funds in which to invest your life's savings (and country's future). That smacks of all the "choice" people in Eastern Europe had during the decades of centrally planned economies.

In addition, Labour is hard-pressed (but all the more desperate) to attack Mr. Clegg because, for now at least, he seems like Tony Blair during his rise.

With one important difference: Unlike Blair (or Cameron, for that matter), he does come across as a man of character and real convictions, not just a rhetorical smoothie in love with his ability to manipulate everything under the sun. There is a sense of contemporariness and genuineness about the man that attracts voters.

The fact that Prime Minister Brown attacks his challenger on the issue of the Trident nuclear submarine is rich in irony indeed. Here is a Labour leader who is desperately seeking to support the business interests of the defense industry.

For a party which used to be on the political left, that is charming indeed. Mr. Clegg's comeback on the issue is, of course, as powerful as it is disarming. Ultimately, he says, whatever the merits, Britain can't afford the investment, which he claims would total up to £100 billion.

Considering that Mr. Brown presided over the biggest expansion of wealth in the British economy in many a decade, a fact for which people outside the upper income ranks have remarkably little to show for, he only has himself and his management of the nation's financial affairs to blame if Trident is too costly.

The Conservatives, meanwhile, are in a peculiar box with regard to Mr. Clegg. They seek to attack him on his rational stance to deal with the immigration issue in the UK.

But the effort behind all that — portraying him as insufficiently British — may not work either. True, his mother is Dutch, his father has Russian noble roots, his wife is Spanish — and he has worked in Brussels.

Such a multicultural upbringing, career and family circumstances may not be all that bad for a political leader in the 21st century. Moreover, it is quite in line with the very global roots and expanse of British diplomacy in the heydays of the Empire. What's not to like?

That people feel they might like to invite him over for a beer won't hurt his electoral prospects either. Who wouldn't do the same — especially when the only other choices are a dowdy Scotsman with all the charm of an esoteric country vicar (Gordon Brown) — and a PR frontman-cum-dandy who seems like a conservative makeover of Mr. Blair (David Cameron)?

Mr. Clegg's efforts to refocus the country on its pressing domestic needs and a more open-minded path in foreign policy offer a refreshing — and long-overdue — change in British politics.

Less reflexively anti-European and less reflexively pro-American looks like a sound basis on which to place Britain's future. Traveling grandiosely on the global stage as America's sidekick, while things are falling apart at home, does not seem like a winning combination for the country.

At a minimum, the country's elites ought to realize that there are two special relationships — one with Europe, the other one with the United States.

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About Stephan Richter

Stephan Richter is the publisher and editor-in-chief of The Globalist. [Berlin/Germany]

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