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Donald Macintyre's Sketch: Nick Clegg's harrowing journey back to the days when politicians were beastly to each other


This was no speech for the squeamish. Treating the conference at times like an encounter group, Nick Clegg answered many questions about his personal journey, including several we had never asked. And what a harrowing tale it was. Picture the young Nick, raised “in the 70s and 80s” on a constant diet of “aggressive, us-and-them politics.” He had, he bravely shared with us, “so many memories of my brothers, my sister and I watching television and asking our parents why everyone seemed so upset”.

As if these recovered memories of images no sensitive child should have been allowed to see – Michael Heseltine seizing the Commons mace and brandishing it during a 1976 debate, say – were not traumatic enough, there were “angry shouty Labour politicians, union leaders gesticulating furiously, next to pictures of rubbish piling up on the streets…”

And this dark age, when pestilence stalked the land and the Liberal Democrats had not been formed, was against a “backdrop” of the Cold War. “I even remember a history teacher telling me and my petrified classmates that we probably wouldn’t make it until Christmas because there was bound to be a Soviet strike.”

Was this teacher living up to Westminster School’s high standards? Since the Cuban missile crisis was five years before Clegg was born, this must have been the 1983 Soviet downing of KAL flight 007, which, though perilous, hardly justified terrorising the teenage Clegg in this way. But it reinforced the “world I grew up in” as one of “stark polarised choices: Us vs Them, East vs West, Left vs Right.”

So Clegg naturally needed a spiritual guide, a mentor of iron will and clear vision. “Enter Paddy Ashdown.” Action Man had swept into “the dingy grey bureaucratic office I was working in, in Strasbourg” and “for me that was it. That’s how I found my party.” The rest is history. And the Lib Dems are now a “party of government”. Which is why people “need to know who we are. Who I am.”

So we learnt how he had clapped along to Abba’s “Dancing Queen” to celebrate “my new favourite” piece of legislation – gay marriage (David Cameron may be surprised by this policy colonisation) And we learnt how his children “always” asked on trips to their mother Miriam’s native Spain about his father-in- law’s achievements as the first post-Franco mayor of a small town. And quite a bit more.

Not all he does is popular in Lib-Dem land. His list of Tory plans he had said “no” to did not include the bedroom tax, say, or secret courts, which they had let through. When he pledged to extend free school meals to all primary schoolchildren, a fairly senior Liberal Democrat groaned “oh no” at this trend-bucking universalisation of a benefit.

But it hardly matters. His now total job security as leader and Deputy Prime Minister was accentuated by the large detail of six security men who pushed a path for him through the photographers as he left. And perhaps because his wife didn’t join him on stage, allowing him briefly to savour the applause, a man of destiny, alone. Not personality cult exactly, but quite a lot of today was about “me”.