As I mentioned yesterday, the Liberal Democrats have been gaining in the polls for the May 6 British general election, ever since their leader Nick Clegg put in a good performance in a televised debate last week. That gives rise to an obvious question: who is Nick Clegg?
Clegg, 43, was elected leader of the Liberal Democrats in 2007. He was first elected to the House of Commons at the most recent general election, which was held in 2005.
Educated at Cambridge, Clegg spent time in two of my favorite places, before and after university. During what the British call a "gap year", before Cambridge, he worked for a while at a bank in Helsinki, the capital of the homeland of my maternal ancestors, Finland. Then, as a graduate student, Clegg studied for a year in my native city of Minneapolis, at the University of Minnesota.
After five years on the staff of the European Commission, the executive arm of the European Union, Clegg was elected to the European Parliament, in 1999. He remained in that legislative body until 2004. The Liberal Democrats have consistently been the most pro-EU of the major British parties, so it's not surprising that their leader has had such close connections with that organization.
Clegg returned to England in 2005 to run for Parliament from the constituency of Sheffield Hallam, in the county of South Yorkshire. That had been considered a safe Conservative seat, until a Liberal Democrat won in 1997, the year of the Conservatives' landslide defeat. The Liberal Democrats have held the seat in the meantime, and Clegg won with 51% of the vote in 2005, as compared to only 30% for his nearest rival, the Conservative candidate.
Clegg quickly moved into a "frontbench" position, becoming his party's Home Affairs spokesperson in 2006. Meanwhile, the Liberal Democrats were having issues with their leaders.
Paddy Ashdown, a dashing former Marine and spy, led the party from the 1988 merger that formed it, until 1999. Sort of James Bond in politician's garb. The party did well under Ashdown's leadership, winning 46 seats in the House of Commons in 1997.
His successor, Charles Kennedy, had a less military bearing than Ashdown. But he continued the Liberal Democrats' uphill climb, increasing their total to 52 seats in 2001 and 62 in 2005. Kennedy's main opponent was not Labour or the Conservatives, but rather the bottle. As alcoholism led to increasingly erratic performance of his duties, Kennedy resigned as leader in January 2006.
Sir Menzies Campbell, who was deputy leader at that time, was elected to replace Kennedy. Sir Menzies represented a safe pair of hands, but, at the age of 64, many Liberal Democrats considered him to be past his prime. After an unhappy 19 months as leader, Sir Menzies resigned in October 2007.
Over the past few years, each of the British parties has tried turning to a Fresh Young Face when seeking a new leader. It worked well for Labour, after they chose the 41-year-old Tony Blair, in 1994. The Conservatives did less well with the 36-year-old William Hague, in 1997. Whether the Conservatives' current leader, David Cameron, who was 39 when chosen in 2005, can win a general election is very much an open question at the moment.
Despite that mixed record, the Liberal Democrats elected Clegg, who was then 40 years old, in 2007. Early indications are positive, in light of the party's poll numbers. The BBC reports on its website that its daily averaging of poll results has improved further for Clegg, putting his party in second place, two points ahead of Labour. This BBC report indicates that the other major parties have, presumably as a result of those numbers, been increasingly targeting Clegg and his party.
As a footnote, I will describe the candidates' joint television appearances as "debates", because they have so labeled them. However, I have not changed the opinion I explained here, that they are not really debates, but merely joint press conferences.