Until last Thursday, most Britons had no idea what Nick Clegg, the leader of the UK's third-largest party, even looked like. Now, he's first or second in all national opinion polls. What's going on here?
Clegg is the 43-year-old leader of the Liberal Democrats, a party which received almost a quarter of the vote in the last election but has always been derided as an ineffective group of bicycle riders and vegetarians. They hadn't made much of an impression on the national consciousness. Less than two weeks ago, Clegg was campaigning at a senior citizen's center. Afterwards, a reporter asked retired roofer Ken Stacey what he thought of Mr. Clegg:
"I haven't seen him yet," said Mr. Stacey, staring expectantly into the car park. "You just shook hands with him," said an exasperated member of staff.
The Lib Dems were always a bit of an afterthought, even when most of the country joined them in opposing Britain's involvement in the Iraq War, an action supported by the two major parties, Labour and the Conservatives. For the last year, the UK has been rocked by a scandal about the misuse of expense accounts for members of parliament. While every party had its embarrassing revelations, the two largest parties had the worst violators, both of which claimed reimbursement for such expenses as moat-cleaning and the purchase of a duck house.
Clegg's obscurity faded almost instantly last Thursday, with the first debate on live television in the country's history. Gordon Brown, the Labour Prime Minister unloved even by his party's stalwarts, was his usual dour, awkward self. David Cameron, the young Conservative leader with an impeccably upper-class background, did not distinguish himself. By contrast, goofy Nick Clegg seemed like a regular guy providing common-sense critiques of the government. The soundbite of the evening came when Clegg turned to the audience and said of the other two leaders, "If you're anything like me, the more they attack each other, the more they sound the same." Sixty-one percent of viewers thought Nick Clegg won the debate, and even David Cameron later conceded, "Clegg had a good debate."
Like Obama, Clegg had a big introduction, and he represents a change from the status quo. He seems to have the youth vote, judging by the uncertain metric of Facebook fans. (Gordon Brown's page, a distant third, for a while had the status message "Can't believe I got so totally owned last night.") There's already a Fuck Yeah Nick Clegg tumblr.
Even if he does becomes prime minister, an unlikely though increasingly viable possibility, his election will not be the social milestone that Barack Obama's was. Class, Britain's historic divide, is more difficult to straddle than race. Clegg may have a Spanish lawyer wife, a Dutch mother, and a half-Russian father, but his upbringing is still more conventional than our president's. Clegg's pretty normal, and that's the source of a lot of his charm. Maybe Britain doesn't need a Barack Obama. Maybe they just want The Office's Tim Canterbury.