Nick Clegg‘s sudden forward sprint in the British elections has the political establishment in Britain in an uproar – and the Americans are suddenly noticing that they might have a slight problem on their hands. As a symptom of the vast discontent of the English-speaking peoples, his surge in the polls – after a scintillating performance in the first debate – confirms a trend that began in the last US presidential election, and has apparently leaped the Atlantic to implant itself in British soil. In Britain it is the year of the insurgent, as it was in America in 2008 – and yet that is where the similarities end, for the most part.
With Barack Obama, there was the appearance of change, but the reality soon proved to be quite different. On the domestic front, the Obama administration has committed itself to the same corporatist policies as its predecessor, except for being more willing to use the instrument of the State to benefit its corporate and labor supporters. In the realm of foreign policy, Obama – a candidate who rose to prominence on the strength of his criticisms of the Iraq war – is escalating the war in Afghanistan, starting a new war in Pakistan, and openly preparing to attack Iran. Change? Not so much.
However, the Obama-ites rightly point out that, at least when it comes to foreign policy, Obama the candidate never did promise anything other than what he’s delivering: sure he was against the Iraq war, but that’s because he wanted to escalate the Afghan war and go into Pakistan, and said so during the campaign.
Obama ran as a committed interventionist, refusing to take an attack on Iran off the table, and emphasizing that he wanted to implement a "smarter" and stylistically more palatable — albeit no less energetic — brand of interventionism. Clegg, on the other hand, is explicitly offering British voters a real alternative to the "Atlanticist" policies loyally upheld by "New" Labor and the Conservatives, and that is a foreign policy that puts Britain, and British interests, first. He mocks the "lopsided asymmetrical" nature of the "special relationship," and descries "subservience" to Washington. His enemies characterize this as "anti-Americanism," as Gordon Brown did repeatedly during Thursday’s foreign policy debate, but as usual he misses the point: Clegg’s not "anti-" anything, he’s pro-British. That is, he intends to implement a policy whereby the "default Atlanticism" that has dominated British foreign policy since the end of World War II — in which "every time a decision is made we have no choice but to follow the decisions made in the White House," as he put it in his speech to Chatham House – is abandoned, and a new paradigm, Britain’s national self-interest, is put in its place. What this means, concretely, is that, under a Clegg government, Britain will cease to be a military appendage of the US. Why is it, Clegg wants to know, that
"I find myself as the only leader of a political party asking the obvious question of whether we, as a country, should be spending 120 billion pounds over the next 20 years on the like for like replacement of the Cold War Trident Missile System? I think there is no case for a nuclear deterrent. I certainly think there is no case for the like for like replacement for that system. I believe one of the reasons there is a deafening silence on that issue is because that missile system is cemented by a sense of indebtedness to our American friends."
The Trident system was a deterrent against the possibility of a Soviet attack – a threat that vanished twenty years ago. Yet still it remains in place, supported by the British political establishment, both Labor and the Conservatives — a drain on valuable resources at a time when the nation can least afford it.
Clegg, in short, is talking sense, and that’s the reason he’s made this tremendous breakthrough: indeed, it is a radical idea to suggest that there is "no case for a nuclear deterrent," and yet even those who might not completely agree with him are impressed to hear the subject being raised at all. He’s challenging people’s assumptions, and making them think – that’s what we used to recognize as the quality of leadership, before a stultifying groupthink began to dominate discourse on both sides of the Atlantic.
Another hot-button issue he isn’t afraid to speak out on is the rather touchy question of Israel’s relationship with the West. The moral outrage many in Britain felt at the horrific tactics employed by the Israelis in Gaza has been effectively and reasonably expressed by Clegg, who wrote:
"The past two weeks have been a telling indictment of the international community. We have an outgoing US president sanctioning Israel’s military response and an aching silence from the president-elect. We have a European Union encumbered by clumsy decision-making and confused messages.
"And at home we have a prime minister talking like an accountant about aid earmarked for Gaza without once saying anything meaningful about the conflict’s origins. Gordon Brown, like Tony Blair, has made British foreign policy effectively subservient to Washington. But waiting for a change of heart in Washington is intolerable given the human cost."
Can you imagine the presidential candidate of a major party saying something similar in these United States? He’d be pilloried on the editorial pages of the nation’s newspapers, likened to that nutjob who attacked the Holocaust Museum, and harried by the pundits until he was forced to apologize – and still they’d never forgive him.
Yet unconditional support for the policies of the current extremist Israeli government is neither in Britain’s interests, nor our own. Again, Clegg is talking unvarnished sense: the plight of the Palestinians, no better than that of the Jews in medieval Europe, is a constant source of anger in the Arab and Muslim worlds, and the prime recruiting tool for al-Qaeda and its allies.
In spite of all the sanctimonius assurances that Israel is our best friend in the Middle East, Tel Aviv’s policies are hurting the West. What’s more, our rulers know all too well what a liability Israel has become – there’s a reason why the Obama administration is so eager to settle the Palestinian question, and pronto. Yet the Obama-ites lack the political will to defy the powerful Israel lobby, and find themselves caught between two forms of realism – in the area of pure policy, where realism demands a more even-handed approach, and in the domestic political arena, where realism (or, perhaps, an inordinate caution) dictates appeasing the lobbyists and the Israel Firsters.
Clegg, however, has no such compunctions, and he’s taken the risk of having a high profile on a controversial issue because he sees a problem – for Britain, and for the world – that needs to be solved. In that sense, he’s a "pragmatist" in that he realizes one can’t be afraid to take a firm stance on an issue of such importance – because failure to solve the problem will have certain consequences, all of them unpleasant.
This hard-headed realism is some of what British voters find so attractive in Clegg, but there’s more to his appeal. In the second debate, he attacked the entrenched political class, characterizing them as distant from and insensitive to the needs of those they supposedly represent. He attacked the other two parties for opposing political reforms such as the parliamentary recall, and the use of referendums to decide controversial issues, as a counterpoint to the increasingly rigid, stratified, and authoritarian style of British political life. He also counterposed his own views on breaking up the "too big to fail" banks to those of New Labor and the Conservatives, both of whom are loyal servants of those powerful colossi.
Of course, as a libertarian, I can hardly endorse many of Clegg’s "centrist" economic ideas, and some of his other views, but, unlike Brown and New Labor, both of which basically want to preserve the creaky and increasingly shaky British welfare state, the Liberal Democrats – who began as a right-wing split from the Labor party – are at least willing to admit that the old paradigm has had decidedly mixed results, at best. In the context of severely straitened economic circumstances, it seems to me that the business-like no-nonsense problem-solving Clegg is more likely to be successful at actually cutting back the Brits’ "cradle to grave" social welfarism – far more so than the wimpy, apologetic, "more-in-sorrow-than-anger" David Cameron, whose attempt to reinvent the Tories makes one nostalgic for Maggie Thatcher.
It was revealing to watch the supposedly "left-wing" Labor party candidate, the baggy and tired-looking Gordon Brown, accuse Clegg of being a "risk to our security," and tout the Afghan war. Yet Clegg is far from perfect on the Afghanistan issue, and there is always the chance that his protests to the effect that he is indeed an Atlanticist may turn out to be all too true.
In any case, however, Clegg’s personal poltical fortunes and trajectory aren’t the point: what’s important is that he is mining a rich lode of votes from those who are tired of hearing the same old homilies, and the same old demagoguery, and yearn for a real shift – a radical one – in the course being set for the ship of state. That course has taken both Britian and the US through a ruinous series of wars, and now has us shipwrecked on the shoals of a global depression: no wonder people are turning to previously obscure political figures for leadership.
A Clegg victory will be a crushing blow to the Atlanticist alliance that has dominated the making of British foreign policy since Churchill’s time. Such a development has the capacity to transform the Anglo-American "special relationship" from one of a vassal serving a master to an alliance of equals. You can’t blame the British people if they throw the bums out, no matter how ostensibly "pro-American" they may be: and, in any case, what every American should want is not unthinking, reflexive support for US government policies, but an ally who will tell us when he thinks our government has gone wrong, as in Iraq.
Instead, we had Tony Blair "sexing up" intelligence dossiers, and echoing whatever nonsense was coming out of Washington: that’s not healthy, and it’s beneath the dignity of the British people, who deserve far better than a poodle who barks at Washington’s command. That isn’t anti-Americanism: it’s British nationalism, and it’s common sense.