Cleggmania is sweeping Britain.  On the basis of his performance in the first two televised debates between the three political party leaders, Nick Clegg is the new golden boy of British politics. People are talking of him as the leader Britain needs.

Most watchers of the debates — the first in British electoral history — scored the contests as a surprise victory for Nick Clegg, leader of the Liberal Democrats, over Prime Minister Gordon Brown and Conservative leader David Cameron.

Expenses scandals have left electors deeply contemptuous of parliamentarians. Clegg, as the outsider, managed to convince the audience that he was one of them and not part of a cozy old political machine.

His big problem is his name. Clegg.

Britain has come a long way from the noblesse oblige era of aristocratic, Eton-educated political leaders, but not quite far enough for the Cleggs, I fear.

It was a sure sign of the times when the Right Honourable Anthony Neil Wedgwood Benn, 2nd Viscount Stansgate, renounced his peerage in the Sixties and reinvented himself as man-of-the-people ‘Tony Benn’ to pursue a career in British politics. It was said he had his shirt collars specially frayed at Harrods for the role.

And Eton-educated* Anthony Charles Lynton Blair led ‘New Labour’ out of the political wilderness as plain Tony Blair.

But Nick Clegg has no where else to go.

What’s wrong with Clegg might not be apparent to America ears, but to the British there is plenty wrong with it, although people probably wouldn’t say as much. Clegg is brass-necked working class, a clunkingly Anglo-Saxon, irredeemably Northern, below the salt name.

Clegg is, in fact, one of the oldest Anglo-Saxon surnames on record, pre-Domesday Book and all that, but it doesn’t count for much in modern Britain. Clegg would be the name of the dunderhead in a TV sitcom, or the feckless foot soldier in a Shakespeare historical drama.

Gordon Brown can’t be anything other than he is – all Brown, no gloss. Eton-educated David Cameron hasn’t yet reduced himself to ‘Dave’, but he might still before Election Day on May 6 if the Clegg continues to live up to his ancient family motto:

“Let him take what he is able to take”.


Qui potest capere capiat

*Tony Blair was educated Fettes College and not Eton. I am indebted to Alan Stephen for pointing out the error.


  1. Walter Ellis

    Worth pointing out that Clegg’s mother is Dutch and his father half-Russian. One might also mention that his wife is Spanish and that his children are therefore half-Spanish, one quarter Dutch, one eighth Russian and only one eighth English. Clegg is multilingual and, in addition to studying in the U.S after Cambridge. took a master’s degree at the College of Europe in Bruges and bagan his working life as a banker in Helsinki. In the unlikely event that he becomes British Prime Minister, he will be the least likely parliamentarian since Boris Johnson – now Mayor of London – who is, I believe, a mixture of Russian, Turkish, Italian and French. Clegg, by the way, is the name given in Ireland to a type of lice, or small beetle.

  2. Alan Stephen

    Alas, I must correct an error: Tony Blair was educated at Fettes College and not Eton. I would have expected a former FT journalist to know that or to have at least checked facts.

    Secondly, you have made a snide insinuation about former MP and Secretary of State Tony Benn’s supposed rebranding of himself as a man of the people. You may not understand the workings of Benn’s renunciation of his peerage so I’ll help you out.

    Benn’s father was awarded the hereditary title Viscount Stansgate. This should have passed down to his eldest son – who was killed in WW2. By the time Benn’s father died Tony was already Member of Parliament for the Bristol South-East constituency. The title passed to Tony who was expected to renounce his seat in the Commons because titled folk could not be members of that house. A by-election was called and Benn defiantly stood again as candidate and won a handsome majority – but was refused permission to enter the Commons. There was wide recognition that the will of the people had been frustrated. Benn subsequently fought a campaign to make possible the renunciation of hereditary peerages and, upon its success, continued with his 51-year career as an MP, Minister and Secretary of State holding Energy, Telecoms, Technology and Industry portfolios – not hippy stuff.

    As for your snide assertion that Benn had his collars frayed by Harrods – perhaps you should fact-check that too. That aside, I spent over twenty years as an editorial photographer and met many leading politicians of the 80s and 90s. It’s always seemed to me that, far from doing some sort of cynical ‘common man’ routine, Benn has remained himself – one of the last of the Attlee era upper class Christian Socialists. And his current popular status as unofficial Patriarch of Brit politics confirms that most people here know a man of integrity when they see one.

    So, while we’re always interested to hear American views on British politics you really must get your facts right before hitting the keyboard!

    1. Alan, grateful for the correction about Tony Blair’s schooling. As for Tony Benn – whatever his intentions were as an upper-class Christian Socialist I write according to what I saw at that time as a child in a Christian working-class family in Manchester in the 1960s: here was a politician who had no conception of how we lived in the North pandering, so it seemed, to working class families with hollow man-of-the-people symbols – pint mugs of tea, anoraks, and frayed shirts (real or not). My Dad was a bus driver for Manchester Corporation and I recall how unconvinced he was by Tony Benn. He had more time for Harold Wilson. His Yorkshire accent helped and his support of Huddersfield Town Football club seemed to be genuine. At least he knew where the place was, and he voted for him. The Harrods comment on my part is indeed snide (and not original) but it remains the perfect metaphor for how I saw Tony Benn’s opportunistic pretensions at the time. But it is no less snide, I would say, than your comment based on an incorrect assumption about American views on British politics. My views are first hand British. But thanks for hitting the keyboard.

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