Nick Clegg: Lib Dem leader who smashed open British politics

3rd May 2010, Comments 0 comments

Liberal Democrat leader Nick Clegg was always tipped for great things -- but nobody could have predicted his meteoric rise over the past few weeks from bit player to the star of the May 6 election.

His confident performance in three TV debates opposite Labour Prime Minister Gordon Brown and Conservative leader David Cameron thrust Clegg's third party into second place in the polls and broke open the decades-old duopoly.

The 43-year-old -- named in one poll last week as the most popular British party leader since Winston Churchill -- will now almost certainly hold the balance of power if neither of the main parties win a parliamentary majority.

And the energy and opportunity for change that many believe he has brought to the campaign has sparked comparisons with US President Barack Obama -- something Clegg himself says is "absurd".

How times have changed. A BBC poll in September found 36 percent of voters had never heard of Clegg, and his often futile attempts to get heard in weekly House of Commons debates would have defeated a less ambitious man.

But he took over as Lib Dem leader in December 2007 with grand plans and quickly made a name for himself with his strong defence of civil liberties and by breaking parliamentary taboo by openly criticising the war in Afghanistan.

His fervent support of the European Union and the euro and his international background certainly single him out, but his privileged past has also drawn comparisons with the Eton-educated Tory leader.

Nicholas William Peter Clegg was born on January 7, 1967, and brought up in the affluent village of Chalfont St. Giles in Buckinghamshire, northwest of London, with two brothers and a sister.

His family history is exotic -- his mother was Dutch, having been born in Indonesia and held in a Japanese internment camp before she came to Britain aged 12, while his wealthy banker father was half-Russian.

His wife Miriam is a Spanish commercial lawyer. The married in 2000 and their children -- Antonio, Alberto and Miguel -- are all bilingual. Clegg himself speaks Dutch, French, German and Spanish.

Clegg's internationalism prompted the right-wing Daily Mail newspaper to question his Englishness and, citing a 2002 essay in which he said Britain had a "tenacious obsession" with World War II, to accuse him of being unpatriotic.

Clegg attended London's elite Westminster school alongside a young Helena Bonham Carter, the future Hollywood star.

He got into trouble as a 16-year-old there when he got drunk and set fire to a collection of rare cacti on a school trip to Munich.

He went on to study social anthropology at Cambridge university, where he starred in a play directed by Sam Mendes, who remains a friend.

He completed his education at the University of Minnesota and the College of Europe in Bruges, where he met his future wife, the "love of his life".

Before that, Clegg enjoyed the single life -- he told GQ magazine in a now notorious 2008 interview that he had slept with "no more than 30" women, earning him the nickname "Nick Clegg-over".

Clegg worked briefly as a journalist and a political consultant before joining the European Commission where he worked for five years, including as senior aide to Commission vice president Leon Brittan, a Conservative.

He subsequently stood as a Liberal Democrat member of the European Parliament in 1999, a job he held until 2004.

At that point, finding the travelling too much for his young family, Clegg stood down and returned to England where he worked as a lecturer and a part-time lobbyist -- a job he has since been criticised for.

In 2005, he entered the British parliament as lawmaker for Sheffield Hallam in northern England, the beginning of a spectacular rise.

© 2010 AFP

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