When Nick Clegg takes a knee in front of the Queen to receive his knighthood later this year, it will not be obvious what he has achieved in two decades of public office.
To be sure, as leader of the Liberal Democrats he was the first yellow tie in government since the Second World War. But his Commons seat loss at the hands of Corbynite Jared O’Mara – later disgraced for Internet rudeness – capped a year of Liberal destruction, in an election that has all but ensured Brexit by securing Jeremy Corbyn as Labour leader.
Even writing as a privately-educated man, Clegg’s establishment credentials put mine to shame, albeit in a European vein. In parentage, education, career, bibliography, and talents, Clegg is the son EU architect Jean Monnet could hardly have bettered – even in their shared discomfort with popular consent legitimising government.
Still, How to Stop Brexit, published in 2017, is less brazen than the title would suggest, with Clegg arguing that Britain should exit to an outer orbit of the EU rather than reverting to the pre-referendum arrangement. As he puts it: ‘We must find a new accord, forge a new deal, in which Britain is neither a core member of the European Union nor stuck on the outside, looking in.’
In one sense, the tight referendum reflected the historic ambivalence of Britain towards the EU, and it is understandable that some have felt able to argue half-membership fits the referendum result. The trouble is that the EU has so often proved unpliable to that other than ‘ever closer union’.
Much of this is the legacy of Monnet, who in the post-war years skilfully skirted attempts by the British to set out European co-operation on an intergovernmental basis rather than the supranational model of the EU.
Though the decades have since diluted this (see Britain’s opt-out from the Schengen Area) the supranational impulse still dominates much European thinking (see the eastern bloc’s obligation to join the euro at some unspecified time). Arguably it is its default setting.
At the heart of my disagreement with Clegg, and Europhiles more widely, is in our forecasts of how the EU will develop in future. Clegg’s view is that a multi-track Europe is already emerging.
Looking across the Channel, he says, ‘you can begin to make out the outline of a new European vessel emerging from the mist, an EU under reconstruction, which is sleeker, more nimble and perhaps [my emphasis] more accommodating to us Brits than that which came before’.
The EU will surely have to change in order to tackle migration from outside the bloc and the various cultural problems that come with it, and reconcile the barmy plans to introduce a single currency without a single economic policy, or a shared travel area without an external border force. But there seems no reason to believe any reforms will deal with Britons’ concerns over migration and self-government, or abandon Monnet’s centripetal blueprint.
Clegg also never deals convincingly with the migration issue in this book, and seems in denial about the legal position of ‘pooled sovereignty’.
It is of course true that a single collective entity should hold more sway in global politics than each of its members individually. But how well each of those members’ interests are being defended depends on the disparity between the collective and individual positions.
This is a position well understood by the Scots and the Irish nationalists. The Scottish administration, as part of the UK, has no legal authority to negotiate its unique interests during the Brexit talks. Meanwhile Ireland can assert its own interests during the Brexit talks only through use of a veto – a mechanism whose absence in many areas indicates the subordinate status of member states to the EU as a whole.
On the migration point, Clegg is a classic remoaning sophist, noting that Britain declined to use some minor controls on freedom of movement that other member states employed. He complains elsewhere about the decision not to enact transitional migration controls when Poland and others joined the union in 2004.
This ‘enabled populists like Nigel Farage to claim that the EU was the source of uncontrolled migration’. But this is not a claim – it is a fact.
The EU and its proponents are keen advocates of uncontrolled migration because they think, with some justification, it is good economically and contributes to a wider sense of pan-Europeanism. As Clegg himself admits, since the Treaty of Rome ‘the [European] project has held the free movement of people to be a good in itself’.
Much else of How to Stop Brexit is also out of the classic remoaner handbook, and highly contemptible for it. Complaints about a ‘Brexit elite’ sound just as hollow as in the pages of The Guardian, the remain campaign having the backing of most politicians, civil servants, big business and broadcasters.
Various Eurosceptic groups have over the decades had the backing of rich men, but this is a tautological point – only the rich have enough money to set up think tanks and lobbies. Complaints about the Mail, Express and Telegraphs owners are similarly bizarre. If people believed anti-EU stories of dubious accuracy, presumably they were hostile to the EU anyway.
But nothing will change the fact that in a straight vote on participation in the European project, more people rejected it than consented. Clegg once recognised that such consent was needed, and if he backed a referendum he should have backed whatever result came out of it.
‘In a mature democracy, the winner simply cannot take it all,’ Clegg writes. But many decisions in politics are binary, and upsetting swaths of the population is normal. The various soft Brexits proposed invariably include submission to EU law and migration rules – membership by another name, and a snub to those who won the referendum.
That in mind, it’s gratifying to know that Clegg is firmly behind elite plots to overturn Brexit. Having put the Lib Dems on life support and laid the groundwork for the Brexit referendum through his time in government, he’s exactly the opponent most leave campaigners will want.
Thanks to Leena Norms of Vintage Books for copies of the book. Image based on Nick Clegg eyes the crowd, May 2010 by Ben Sutherland and Union Jack Cover Photo, October 2007 by PPHS Music