Lib Dem leader's lesson for the US in politics of co-operation

It is a long way from Liverpool, but New York was not the escape Nick Clegg might have hoped for. First he had to perform Vince Cable damage control before speeding to a New York University town hall event to tell of strange things going on in Britain: opposing parties talking to each, governing together even.

All that was before most of Manhattan had had breakfast. Only much later was the Deputy Prime Minister released into the baffling maze of the United Nations to tell other people about other strange things going on in Britain: an austerity government willing, nay eager, to increase spending on aid abroad.

Mr Clegg might make a decent American politician – he has the town hall format down pat and some say he wasn't bad in the election leaders' debates. On the other hand, he wouldn't last five minutes here on account of his frankness about the lapses of the country he co-governs. Not patriotic enough.

There is, Mr Clegg told NYU, much "uncivilised and irrational debate" going on in Parliament "every day". The way in which power is centralised in Britain "beggars belief", and voters at home are burdened with a political system that is "creaky and clapped out". With good old English irony, he also quipped: "Personally, I like democracy. I think we should start practising it in the United Kingdom."

The discussion, of course, was about the voting reform to be put to a referendum next year. But the students were gripped most by this notion that rival parties can co-operate. The language of "someone's up and someone's down" is giving way, he said, to a "more complex idiom where people are open to all kinds of difference and are grown-up about the differences".

His argument that sustaining Britain's commitment to foreign development aid is about "enlightened self-interest" – his most frequently uttered phrase of the day – was uncontroversial at NYU, at least. Some at the UN, who have not matched their rhetoric on the Millennium Development Goals with cash, might think "pious" while smiling and shaking his hand.

What left the students puzzled, perhaps, was his analysis of shifts occurring in politics not just in Britain but everywhere. Whether he cheered or scared them was hard to tell. But the old status quo, he said, is crumbling. "Something seems to be going on in political democracies and we don't where it is going to evolve," he offered. "The old tribalism is collapsing. All democracies are dealing with this."

If old orders are indeed on their way out, whither Democrats and Republicans? Is America ready for its duopoly of political power finally to falter? Could an independent rule the country, say, with a Tea Party deputy leader or the other way about? Mr Clegg may have just suggested a ticket for 2012: Bloomberg-O'Donnell. Those crazy, naive British. Don't be fooled by this clean-cut leader comes here all sane, sensible and "grown-up". Unhinged.

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