Deputy British Prime Minister Nick Clegg rose to stardom during the preelection television debates in which he attacked Conservative leader David Cameron. When Cameron and his party won a plurality but fell short of the majority needed to govern, he unexpectedly turned to Clegg and his Liberal Democrats to form a coalition. Last week The Washington Post’s Lally Weymouth spoke with Clegg in his London office. Excerpts:
Were you friends with Prime Minister David Cameron before you became his deputy prime minister?
No, we barely knew each other.
In a strange way, there is something more open and straightforward about having a government where the prime minister and deputy prime minister are from different parties but are seeking to do things together in the national interest.
During the campaign, you said Great Britain should be more independent from the U.S. Is that what you and David Cameron believe?
We want a relationship which is strong, driven by shared interests, not one of excessive diffidence on our part or excessive dominance on the part of the United States.
Was supporting the Iraq War excessive diffidence?
My own view was that [it] was driven by a judgment that the most important thing was to stick close to the United States. I don’t think it is healthy in any relationship—personal or geostrategic—for a relationship to be driven entirely by sentiments and diffidence.
Why did you decide to join a coalition with the Tories?
We had to create a strong and—crucially—legitimate government. Without legitimacy, no government can do anything. And we have to do some very big, difficult things.
Speaking of big, difficult things, what about your economic program? Can you bring your party along?
I think so. A lot of people are going to feel quite ambivalent and uneasy along the way. And that’s why as we take a lot of these very big, controversial, and frankly unpopular decisions to fill this huge black hole in the public finances, we have got to constantly explain to people two things. Firstly, it is unavoidable: if we don’t do this, the economy can’t grow. And we are trying to do this as fairly as possible.
From the polls, you can see that your party’s approval has gone down.
It has gone down a bit, yeah. I suspect that there were some people who believed the Liberal Democrats should be a sort of left-wing conscience to the Labour Party. But we’re not there to be a chorus on the margins of the Labour Party. What I hope people will see, beyond the immediate issue of the deficit, which dominates the discussion completely, is that over five years [there is] a government which is radical and reforming. And I lead a party which has always stood for radical reform.
During the campaign, you said that a costly defeat in Afghanistan was inevitable. Will this government stay the course?
Two years ago or so, I was very concerned that there was no proper strategy in Afghanistan. So that’s why I raised the alarm. I think now with the troop surge announced by President Obama, built upon by General Petraeus, whom I met in Kabul, we are fighting the military campaign we should have done five years ago. The great dilemma now is, how can we convert that into a political settlement?
I read with great interest your remarks on Israel. You denounced the occupation of Gaza as “a living nightmare for a million and a half Palestinians.” Prime Minister Cameron recently called Gaza “a prison camp.” What is your attitude toward Israel?
What I think is now obvious to everybody—and I suspect it is obvious to the Israeli government as well—is that the long-term safety of Israel itself requires some kind of resolution of what is happening in Gaza, not to mention the settlements in the West Bank and elsewhere.
Can you hold your party together for five years?
I certainly hope so. The Liberal Democrats recognize that we are doing a lot of difficult things early on. We are going to have to grit our teeth and hold on, because the prize is great.