The British general election began as rather sad stuff. I can’t think that any previous prime minister has been so disliked as Gordon Brown. Some of it is not his fault. For instance, he has a smile that gives him the look of a recently buried corpse. His whole manner, especially the incessant monotony of his way of speaking, gives away a truly misplaced self-importance. His own Labour Party has been trying to get rid of him ever since he took over by some sort of divine right from Tony Blair a couple of years ago. For the Conservatives, David Cameron was cutting him to pieces, the way the picador does to a bull in the ring, so that you can hardly bear to look.
It was courageous of Brown in the circumstances to agree to three television debates with Cameron: That ghastly smile was sure to give the nation an Edgar Allen Poe shudder. Neither man seems to have foreseen what the consequences would be of accepting that a third candidate join the debate, namely one Nick Clegg, leader of the minority Liberal Democrat party. It is safe to say that until then he was a nonentity. Only those with political interests could have identified the man, and few of them could have given a coherent account of any political program he might have.
Personally I thought this Clegg completely blew his chances in the two debates so far. He revealed himself to be determined to abuse the privileges that had given him so many advantages of wealth, education and prospects. This is a very familiar English type, the fortunate upper-class man passing himself of as a Leftist. Clegg wants to abolish the nuclear weapon, to pass an amnesty for illegal immigrants, to have penal taxation, to join the euro and submit further to Brussels – the whole play-kit of these people who exploit their position to abuse everyone else. A would-be Obama, he bleats on and on about Change, (translation: Me in Downing Street, thank you). Freakishly, the public has responded positively. Polls show that the Lib Dems are doing well enough to ensure that no party wins outright, and there will be a hung parliament. In which case Clegg will be the kingmaker, joining with Brown or Cameron in a coalition, presumably on his terms.
Today Ben Macintyre in The Times has an article revealing at last something original about this would-be Obama clone. (To declare an interest, Ben is a very old friend as well as a gifted writer). Clegg’s paternal grandfather married a Russian woman who was the niece of a famous figure, Baroness Moura Budberg. Well, I never! Nick’s great-great-aunt. She was known as Baroness Bedbug, on account of her affairs with famous men, among them Maxim Gorky and H.G. Wells. Gorky took her to meet Stalin and she arranged for Wells to interview him in the Kremlin in 1934. She took money from Beria and the NKVD, but also from the British intelligence services and probably others too. This rather fascinating monster lived not far from me in London and by the time I got to know her she had lost her looks, becoming fat, greedy and needy, and it was as well to come round to her apartment with a little present. She wore long dresses and huge and heavy necklaces, seemingly to appear like the last survivor from the Romanov era. I think Peter Ustinov used to be generous to her. She had a low voice, and according to Ben she told her young nephew Nick, “Boy, you mumble too much.”
Recollection of Moura isn’t going to influence the election. It seems to me that Clegg’s burst of publicity is all hot air, ephemeral, escapist, a wish for something other than Brown’s sepulchral smile and Cameron’s picador style. But there’s one more television debate to go, and the electorate is evidently playing fast and loose.