When the event popped up on Facebook via the page of Wells councillor and former MP Tessa Munt that none other than former Deputy PM and leader of the Liberal Democrats Nick Clegg was going to be speaking at a lunch in Mark village hall, I have to admit, I blinked. Mark is an utterly lovely village on the Somerset levels, a few miles from where I live, but it’s not exactly the kind of place you’d expect to find the former coalition government’s second in command. Realising that this was too good a chance to miss, I booked a ticket immediately. He was appearing later at the Wells Literary Festival, and this was a good warm up gig.
Back in 2010, just after I’d given birth to the first of my daughters, I was on maternity leave, and the Westminster soap opera became required viewing/listening. I was full of hope that Nick and his MPs would help to mitigate the evil of the Tories, and that we were entering a new political dawn. The five years of coalition had its ups and downs, but I always had faith that it would stand the test of time, and it did. The decimation of the Liberal Democrat party in 2015 was unforgivable, and the first few months of government left me feeling nostalgic for the Cameron-Clegg headed alliance. Now, in this age of Brexit and its uncertainties, I find myself looking back even more.
Fast forward to today, and I rocked up to the venue, feeling a little nervous since I was flying solo and wouldn’t know anyone at all. I got chatting to a guy called Steve, and then when we sat down we met two other lovely people, a mother and daughter, who both had a really strong interest in the area, and the impact of Brexit. It was a really nice introduction to the Somerset Liberal Democrats. When Tessa came over to say hello, that confirmed my opinion that Lib Dems are a very positive, happy group of people, despite the clattering they’d received in the polls again this summer, and the fears for Brexit.
After a bowl of soup and some rather lovely cake, Nick got up to speak. I’d already clocked a couple of things about him when he walked in – he’s VERY tall, looks about twenty years younger than he is, and he’s got the knack of putting people immediately at their ease, as evidenced by the way he was chatting so freely. I think a few of our local politicians could learn from him!
Nick was interviewed by Lois Rogers, formerly of The Sunday Times, who alternated her questioning between trips down memory lane (the time in coalition, what would you do differently) and more current issues; Brexit, of course, figured large. The two were very interesting, and kept the conversation entertaining but very informative. Nick always came across as a passionate politician in the media, and I can confirm that, in person, this passion is still very much in evidence. His conviction that Brexit is not a fait accompli, and his knowledge of the subject, and the broader issues around it, was fascinating.
The questions from the floor were erudite and allowed Nick to become more expansive on his themes, and varied from the situation in Ramala to where did he see the UK in twenty years. While admitting that his abilities to forecast were rather less than accurate, he spoke without hesitation on every topic that the audience raised. I was dithering over whether or not to ask my question, which was, by my own admission, rather fluffier than the ones that had gone before, but in the end, I took a deep breath and managed to catch Tessa’s eye. It was with a laugh that Nick then said he couldn’t answer it! (I’d asked him what his best/funniest memory from the coalition days was). After a moment’s thought, he did answer – Liam Fox. Whether that was a harkback to David Cameron’s joke about him in the Rose Garden, I don’t know, but since I work in Dr Fox’s constituency, it certainly tickled me!
After the questions closed, I managed to grab Tessa and ask if it would be OK to take a couple of snaps for this blog post, and she very kindly obliged. It was then really lovely to have a bit of a longer chat with Nick, who told me an anecdote about his time in Argentina. I have to admit to being a little bit starry eyed at this point, as that Clegg charisma is very infectious when you’re standing next to him (and my knees were shaking!). Tessa took lots of snaps, and then I headed off, still not quite able to believe that I’d had a natter with the former Deputy PM.
So, all in all, it was well worth the (very reasonable) entry fee, and it’s definitely reignited my interest in local as well as national politics. While I’m not sure I’ll actually be taking the plunge and joining the party, I will certainly be keeping an eye out for more events like these, which show that the grass roots are very much alive and growing (no pun intended, deep here in farming country!).
*The first three images were borrowed from Clive Bond’s Facebook post – hope this is OK!