life in pixels

Nick Clegg Isn’t Leaving the World of Politics, He’s Reentering It

Nick Clegg. Photo: Ben Stansall/AFP/Getty Images

What do you do after you’ve been the deputy prime minister to the United Kingdom? Historically, the answer is usually “retire” or “become prime minister.” For Nick Clegg, former leader of the Liberal Democrats and deputy prime minister between 2010 and 2015 under David Cameron, the answer is “move to Palo Alto, California, to work for Facebook.” “Instead of the gothic splendour of Westminster, I will be surrounded by the gleaming glass and steel of Silicon Valley,” he wrote in a Guardian op-ed officially announcing his new position on Friday. “Instead of the clout of the state in Whitehall, I will now experience the dynamism of the private sector in Palo Alto.”

“Vice-president of global affairs and communications” — Clegg’s new title — might lack the magisterial ring of “prime minister,” but it’s certainly better compensated. Indeed, it’s easy to read the move as Clegg cynically trading political principle and public service for a higher salary and a more glamorous position. As the Observer’s Carole Cadwalladr asks, “If you’re on the side of democracy, Nick Clegg, why are you going to work for Facebook?GQ UK puts it quite directly: “Nick Clegg’s Facebook job shows he loves power more than progress.”

These are versions of the same dark joke that haunts any announcement of a political figure moving to the tech industry: It’s a promotion! The idea being that, say, a Facebook executive is more powerful than, say, a deputy prime minister — a sentiment that isn’t wrong, exactly, but doesn’t quite get at the exact relationship between government and the tech industry.

The trend of advisers and wonks and politicians moving from politics to the tech industry is real, but isn’t just a product of those individuals’ personal ambition or desire for power. It’s also a reflection of their political principles, and those of the companies they turn to. The ideology of Clegg’s Liberal Democrats — centering around the economic liberalism of free trade, free markets, and the free movement of people — has fallen deeply out of favor in electoral politics in the U.K., as it has in most of the rest of the world, but it’s still the main political current in Silicon Valley — and at Facebook especially. The center of power for technocratic, market-focused liberalism is no longer in Westminster or Washington, but in Palo Alto. Why waste your time on the unreceptive world of electoral politics when platform politics welcomes you with open arms?

Clegg is known best for his, let’s say, transformative leadership of the Liberal Democrats. After taking over the party in 2007, he promoted what he described as “politics of the radical center,” and what others tend to deride as “neoliberalism”: social liberalism combined with policies that sought solutions in free markets, trade, and individual choice. This message appealed to enough voters in the elections of 2010 to deliver the Lib Dems their best-ever results, and to hand Clegg the deputy prime ministership of a coalition government.

But it was a losing formula for, well, ever since. Clegg’s partnership with Cameron was disastrous for Liberal Democratic priorities, and he led the party to its worst-ever results five years later. The Liberal Democrats were reduced to only eight seats in the House of Commons, and Clegg resigned as leader. Things did not really improve from there. In 2016, he campaigned loudly against Brexit (we know how that one went); last year, he lost the election for his own seat to the Labour Party candidate.

An impressive capsule biography like that does raise the question: Why, exactly, would Facebook want a man best known for a string of failures to run its “global affairs”? The obvious answer lies in the E.U., and Clegg’s relationship with it: Europe is Facebook’s second-most-profitable market after North America, but also, between its expansive new digital-privacy protections and its aggressive antitrust stance, its biggest regulatory headache. Clegg, a former member of the European Parliament, is well-positioned to help the company reset its relationship with skeptical European regulators and politicians, not to mention with governments around the globe. (Maybe a pithier way of putting this is that “global affairs” at Facebook have reached such a nadir that not even Nick Clegg can make them worse.)

Arguably, though, the reasons for that string of failures are exactly why Clegg and Facebook are such a natural fit. Since the financial crisis, Clegg’s 2010 victories notwithstanding, the public appetite for free markets and free movement has dramatically declined. In the U.K., the left-liberal leadership of Labour has been supplanted by the stalwart socialism of Jeremy Corbyn, while the liberal wing of the Conservative Party was embarrassed out of power by the victory of the xenophobes and nationalists backing Brexit. Clegg’s electoral defeats reflect a changed political landscape as much as they do his specific failures as a politician and leader (numerous though they may be). He no longer has a viable political home — in U.K. politics, at least.

But while the left-liberal vision of an “open society” has increasingly failed to move voters over the last decade, over that same period of time it’s been an animating principle of one of the world’s largest and most powerful companies. Facebook may be used around the world to stoke nationalism and populist anger, but its ostensible guiding values are remarkably similar to those of the Liberal Democrats. One imagines that Clegg, a longtime proponent of the open society — with its premium on “the sharing of knowledge and information,” its “internationalist outlook,” and its belief that “all are free to rise” — might have looked at Facebook and seen a group of ideological fellow travelers. More to the point, doesn’t it seem likely that Clegg, examining the dire state of the Liberal Democrats in the U.K., might see in Facebook a better political partner for the pursuit of his goals? In that sense Clegg isn’t leaving politics for tech so much as exchanging one form of politics — the ballot box — for another — the platform. If you can’t win at the polls, win in the app store, maybe.

Granted, Facebook’s value system is not a one-to-one match to the ideals of Clegg’s Liberal Democrats. It’s difficult to square, for example, the open-society value of “dispersed power in politics, the media, and the economy,” with Facebook’s outsized clout on the internet. It’s similarly hard to see the democratic values implied in the Lib Dems’ name in Facebook’s top-down corporate structure. Clegg has been a strong advocate for the kinds of civil liberties that privacy activists regard as being threatened by Facebook. He may want to talk to WhatsApp’s Brian Acton, who left Facebook last year over user-privacy concerns, about how those kinds of principles tend to work out at the company.

But if there’s one thing Clegg has made clear, it’s that he’s willing to compromise if he sees a clear benefit. And he sees the benefit in Facebook. As he himself wrote last year, “Social media has its downsides — all means of communication do — but it nonetheless enables billions of people to access information and connect with each other on a scale and at a velocity never seen before.” To Clegg, at least, that must seem worth compromising for. And once you’ve formed a coalition with David Cameron, how bad can one with Mark Zuckerberg really be? I’m sure this one will be more successful.

Nick Clegg Isn’t Leaving Politics, He’s Reentering