Cleggmania: The Rise of Nick Clegg

The leader of Britain's underdog third party taps into voter anger at Gordon Brown's Labour and the Tories. But can he win?

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EMMA HARDY FOR TIME

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So what might the third choice entail? Electoral reform is the Lib Dems' top, and most self-interested, priority. Clegg also aims to cut Britain's deficit and proposes a substantial budget saving by scrapping the planned $123 billion replacement of Britain's Trident nuclear submarines. On his country's most important alliance, Clegg says he is "infused with a sense of relief" to see Barack Obama in the White House but nevertheless hopes for a recalibration of relations between Washington and London. "We can grow up a bit, repatriate foreign policy. We don't need to be a satellite of the United States."

Such views belong to an ideology Clegg describes as "unambiguously liberal," dedicated to promoting fairness and dismantling vested interests. "Liberal economics starts and finishes with level playing fields," he says. "We've had this grotesque oligopoly in the financial-services sector under both Conservative and Labour parties, where [policy was] twisted and distorted to suit the needs of a particular sector because it was treated as this great goose that was laying golden eggs in the City of London."

"Greedy bankers" feature frequently in Cleggian rhetoric. The antipathy may be mutual. A November poll, the first of many to predict that the elections could produce a hung Parliament, triggered a brief run on the pound. Clegg's opponents continue to warn that an indecisive electoral outcome would weaken Britain's currency, though in truth the pound sank to its lowest ebb against the dollar in March 2008, when the Conservatives' poll lead was substantial. But there's no doubt markets are jittery about the rise of the Lib Dems.

So too are Little Englanders and Euroskeptics and the many other flavors of Brit who see "abroad" as a bit of a threat. Clegg is a passionate pro-European, a former employee of the European Commission and former member of the European Parliament who pokes gentle fun at opponents of European integration for holding the "19th century view that agreeing on stuff with other nationalities is an insult to your national pride." He'd like Britain to adopt the euro as its currency "when conditions are right." And as that bible of Little England, the Mail on Sunday newspaper, pointed out to its readers on April 18, Clegg is "only a quarter English," scion of a Dutch mom and a half-Russian dad. His wife Miriam Gonzalez Durantez is Spanish, their kids have distinctly foreign names — Antonio, Alberto and Miguel — and Clegg employs (sharp intake of breath) "a German spin doctor."

That such a cosmopolitan should find himself cast as Britain's favorite pol is telling. Cleggmania is a sign not only of how devoutly Britons yearn for something new politically but also of how profoundly Britain itself has changed. The country's top-down political system was devised in an age when people knew their place. Modern Britons have no such certainties. Somehow or other, they are beginning to think that Nick Clegg speaks for them.

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