Sunday, May 23, 2010

Nick Clegg: A "British Obama"?

A lot of things have been said and written about Nick Clegg over the last month. Some have made a mention of the way that he had styled himself on the campaign trail using the same rhetoric as Obama: the "yes we can" style of politics, and all that.
Well, for my part, here are a few reasons that I can think of to support the view that Clegg does represent something a bit different, like Obama did two years ago. And I don't subscribe to the view that Obama has been a disappointment, or even a betrayer of the ideals he supported before coming to office, by the way: he's a realist, like any smart person should be. And so is Clegg.

First, the background: Obama is an African-American (in the real sense of the word), which makes him, as only "partially" American, an outsider. Clegg is, technically, only one quarter British: his mother was Dutch , his father half-Russian (Nick Clegg's paternal grandfather was English, and married an Russian emigre aristocrat). That makes Clegg, in a British sense, as far from being pure British as is possible.

Second, both Obama and Clegg's life history and viewpoint is of the "liberal cosmopolitan", at odds with a large section of their society. Obama spent his youth in Indonesia and Hawaii, later becoming a lawyer for the underpriveleged in Chicago. In other words, he spent his formative years abroad and out of the loop. The same can be said of Clegg: he spent time in Germany as a student, later in the USA, and spent his early career working in some capacity for the EU, only later getting involved in British politics.

And third, these experiences have helped shaped their viewpoint and involvement in politics: in some way, this makes them slightly "geeky" compared to some other politicians. Clegg may have been inspired by Obama's strategy and political style to some extent: during the election campaign, that seemed the case. Both, since being in office (although under very different circumstances) have tried to use a collaborative approach to politics, that engages the public (Obama with his weekly public internet updates, Clegg with his internet connections to supporters) - the internet, being just one example. And both are trying, in their own ways, to make significant reforms to their countries.

I'm not trying to idealise either Obama or Clegg, of course. They have made mistakes; but it's clear that the sincerity of what they are doing is there. In some ways, they both aspire to be transformative figures in their countries. Obama was given his chance two years ago; Clegg given his chance just recently.
The USA and UK are politically very different places, so the type of politics, and the types of politicians that exist, will be different. But I can see that both these men have a clear idea what they are doing, what they want to do, and how they are going to try and achieve it.

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