If all political careers end in failure, then at first glance Nick Clegg’s is the exception.
Six years on from humiliation at home, David Cameron’s former deputy prime minister looks to have completed a midlife re-invention. The man who once had to be smuggled into his office via an underground tunnel—while, outside, students burned effigies of him in protest of his breaking a campaign pledge not to raise university-tuition fees—can now cycle unmolested to work in Silicon Valley from a $9.7 million house with requisite pool, hot tub, and outdoor fireplace.
His wife Miriam González Durántez’s Instagram is one long stream of nature shots, baked goods, and the odd news headline. “He’s loving it, really enjoying it,” says a friend who called him recently. “I think he’s landed on his feet.”
Yet living the California dream comes at a price. As Facebook’s vice president of global affairs and communications, Clegg is the public face of a deeply controversial empire. Conservative critics cry censorship over the company’s efforts to curb hate speech and political conspiracy theories across its social-media platforms, which this week culminated in its new, independent Oversight Board upholding the suspension of Donald Trump’s account. (Clegg reportedly not only devised the argument used to justify the ban but oversaw the creation of the board and selection of its members.) Yet left-wing critics accuse Facebook of enabling violent extremism, from France’s rioting gilets jaunes to the Trump mob that stormed the Capitol. That latter charge surely stings, for a man whose own mother narrowly survived internment in a Japanese prisoner-of-war camp as a child.
As a liberal who believes passionately in free speech, Clegg, his friends say, still hopes to harness Big Tech’s power for good. Yet some wonder if he’s repeating the mistake he made in politics, of believing he could change things from the inside only to be swallowed whole.
Clegg is the public face of a deeply controversial empire.
Clegg was born in 1967, into a cosmopolitan family descended on his British father’s side from Russian aristocracy. (His grandmother Baroness Kira von Engelhardt fled Russia as a child after the revolution.) His Dutch mother grew up in Indonesia, where her father worked in the oil industry, and where the family was trapped when Japan invaded, in 1942.
Their globe-trotting son speaks five languages, including Dutch and his wife’s native Spanish, and was elected first to the European Parliament before rising smoothly up the domestic ranks to lead the Liberal Democrats, Britain’s third party. Yet he remains “quintessentially home-counties English at heart,” as his former government director of policy, Polly Mackenzie, puts it.
Like many people shaped by conflict, Clegg’s parents valued the notion of British stability and solidity. They raised their four children in peaceful, rural Buckinghamshire; sent them to traditional public schools (Westminster for Nick, then a Cambridge degree, like his father); and instilled respect for what Clegg calls in his book Politics Between the Extremes the “British traditions of fair play, the rule of law and political moderation.”
It was his boyish air of hopefulness, plus disillusionment with the mainstream Labour and Conservative Parties, that drove the craze known as Cleggmania—a sudden wild surge of enthusiasm for a charming but little-known minor politician—which swept the Liberal Democrats unexpectedly to power in 2010 as the junior partner in a coalition with David Cameron’s Conservatives.
Privately even Clegg feared voters were projecting unrealistic expectations onto him, and so it proved. Going back on his word regarding tuition fees (a policy that didn’t survive the reality of governing in an era of spending cuts) made him a hate figure within six months. He was spat at in the street and had dog excrement posted through his letter box, and his party was subsequently annihilated in the 2015 general election.
Clegg resigned as leader but remained in Parliament, only to lose the argument against Britain’s departure from the European Union, and then, in 2017, his seat. Yet this humiliation became, in a sense, his trump card.
Revelations that Russia had sought to influence the 2016 U.S. presidential election by seeding inflammatory stories on Facebook and other platforms were by now spiraling into a wider backlash against the power of Big Tech. “They weren’t used to being hated. And Nick was really an expert in being hated and trying to do the right thing anyway,” recalls Mackenzie. Arguments Clegg had begun making after leaving office, about harnessing tech’s disruptive powers for good, intrigued Facebook’s chief operating officer, Sheryl Sandberg.
Clegg did not immediately accept her job offer. He didn’t particularly need the money, given his wife’s career as an international-trade lawyer, although the idea of a fresh start abroad appealed after a hellish year in which defeat had coincided with his then 14-year-old eldest son’s undergoing cancer treatment. California could be an adventure for his three boys, and a chance to start over “somewhere people don’t feel like they know everything about you,” as a friend puts it.
He was spat at in the street and had dog excrement posted through his letter box, and his party was subsequently annihilated in the 2015 general election.
But what he really sought, at 50, was purpose. “What do you do after politics, especially when you’ve peaked so early? Nothing’s as exciting, nothing moves so fast,” says Mackenzie. Nothing, perhaps, except Big Tech.
When he flew to California to meet Facebook co-founder Mark Zuckerberg, Clegg had three asks: that this increasingly defensive company open up to the press, accept the case for regulation (now seemingly inevitable), and acknowledge public anger even if it felt unwarranted.
After years of unsuccessfully trying to argue his way out of the university-funding mess, Clegg eventually hit on the idea of regaining the country’s trust with a public apology. The ensuing short film shows a contrite and unusually candid Clegg admitting that “we shouldn’t have made a promise that we weren’t absolutely sure we could deliver,” but also making an appeal that the error not be allowed to cloud everything else the party did. “When we’re wrong we hold our hands up, but when we’re right we hold our heads up, too,” he concludes.
It went viral after the satirical Web site the Poke set it to music so catchy that even Clegg’s young sons started singing it. But despite the widespread mockery, Clegg felt it had helped neutralize the anger. The lesson he drew—that once the public is convinced you’ve done wrong, it’s pointless arguing—now informs his strategy at Facebook.
The path from British politics into tech is well trodden. Netflix chief communications officer Rachel Whetstone used to work with Cameron, Deliveroo chief customer officer Thea Rogers is an ex-adviser to (and now fiancée of) the former British chancellor of the Exchequer George Osborne, and dozens of British political staffers have migrated to Uber, Google, Amazon, and Facebook over the last decade.
They bring insider knowledge of regulatory plans and dazzling non-American contacts, but also insights sometimes lacking in a logical, rational engineering culture. “The ideology of ‘There’s a marketplace of ideas, and if you create a platform that allows people to publish what they want, good stuff will rise and bad stuff will be banished’—that’s genuinely, between 2000 to 2010, what they thought in Silicon Valley,” says Emily Bell, a former British media executive now running the Tow Center for Digital Journalism, in New York. The new recruits, experienced in manipulating public opinion, had no such illusions.
Hiring a deputy prime minister was, however, a significant step up. Clegg’s connections in Europe, an area of regulatory threat to Facebook, were useful. But for a company increasingly pushed to take sides in political crises it was accused of inflaming, his real value was as a kind of in-house diplomat.
The lesson he drew—that once the public is convinced you’ve done wrong, it’s pointless arguing—now informs his strategy at Facebook.
He could smooth relations with world leaders (as he did with New Zealand’s Jacinda Ardern, following a 2019 mosque shooting, which the gunman livestreamed on Facebook) but also anticipate potential fallout from geopolitical shocks worldwide. “They’re forging a P.R. strategy that’s both proactive and reactive to a news cycle, saying, ‘Where are we going to be dinged next?,’ because the instant question now when any kind of uprising or political instability happens is ‘What role has social media played in this?’” says Bell.
Clegg has, in short, found a way of exercising his political brain inside a company more powerful than some governments, and that’s arguably worth more to him than a mansion. “I’m sure he wouldn’t have done it for free, but the attraction is grappling with big political issues and not wanting to be bored,” says a former Liberal Democrat colleague.
Yet the question of whether he sold his soul in the process lingers, just as it did in his government coalition, where the price of implementing cherished Liberal Democrat policies such as tax cuts for low-wage workers was defending Conservative ones through gritted teeth. “You kind of got used to recognizing that that was your job, and in order to do the things you want to achieve, here are some things that go along with it,” the colleague continues. “What we don’t know is what he’s been able to move forward [at Facebook].”
In March, Clegg published a long online essay titled “You and the Algorithm: It Takes Two to Tango,” arguing that Facebook’s algorithm isn’t designed to promote provocative content, and that if angry or sensationalist posts spread faster, that’s down to human responses. The answer, he suggested, lay in new tools allowing users to control more of what they see.
For Clegg to front this argument so personally, following up with a round of TV interviews, suggests that if nothing else he won the battle on opening up. “I do think since he arrived they’re more willing to engage at least with some of the issues, if not actually directly tackle them,” says Bell. Similarly, Mackenzie highlights Facebook’s recent willingness to discuss government regulation—although preferably on the company’s own terms—as “a shift, and an important one.” But is that enough?
Clegg has always argued that the compromises of coalition were worth it, but British voters ultimately disagreed. Now, once again, he runs the risk of small but not insignificant wins’ being eclipsed by a bigger picture beyond his control. As one old Silicon Valley hand puts it, the question may no longer be whether he can fix Facebook; it’s whether, given the number of fires now burning around the world, social media is fixable, full stop.
Gaby Hinsliff is a U.K.-based features writer and political columnist