What’s this? A senior Western politician questioning American and Israeli criminality? No wonder the political and media elites don’t like him and the public do. He speaks unspoken truths:
Nick Clegg, the party leader dominating the British election campaign, has refused to rule out a push to be foreign secretary in a coalition government.
And in unusually strong language for a prominent British politician, the Liberal Democrat leader also urged greater independence from US foreign policy and a more demanding European attitude towards Israel yesterday.
Mr Clegg said Britain should no longer be “joined at the hip with our American friends”, arguing that Britain’s involvement in the Iraq invasion “was a war about Tony Blair and Gordon Brown doing America’s bidding”.
He said Israel had used disproportionate force in Gaza and kept Palestinians in poverty so Europe should use its “economic muscle”, including arms embargoes, to change the Israeli government’s policies.
“I think, as a European, as a British politician, we can’t only leave it to the US to exert influence in the Middle East,” he said.
Mr Clegg’s tough comments on foreign policy will receive unprecedented attention because of his strong performance in last week’s first-ever British televised leadership debate, which led to the greatest turnaround recorded by polls in the middle of a British election campaign.
The Liberal Democrats soared to the top of opinion polls, producing the exact reverse of the last general election result – with the Lib Dems first, the Conservatives second, followed by Prime Minister Gordon Brown’s Labour Party.
The polls suggest Labour could still win with the largest number of MPs on May 6 but the Lib Dems would hold the balance of power in a hung parliament.
A common feature of coalition governments across Europe has been the appointment of the leader of the second-largest party as foreign minister. Mr Clegg was non-committal when asked whether he would demand that job as one of the prices of Liberal Democrat support for a coalition.
“That really is putting carts spectacularly before horses,” said Mr Clegg, who speaks five languages and began his career as a European Union trade negotiator.
All parties are anxious to see whether Mr Clegg can maintain his momentum in tomorrow’s second televised debate, in which the main topic will be foreign policy.
While reserving some of his strongest criticisms yesterday for George W. Bush’s administration, Mr Clegg had a slap at Moscow, saying Prime Minister Vladimir Putin had “ruthlessly” used Russia’s gas wealth to divide Europe.
He said the conventional wisdom in Britain had long been that “the linchpin around which all the British foreign policy should be organised is the Atlantic relationship between the UK and the US”.
That made sense during the Cold War “but those days are past” and it was no longer smart “to unambiguously be joined at the hip with our American friends”, he said.
“There is nothing wrong with just acknowledging that there are . . . in recent years very profound differences between ourselves and US administrations, particularly at the height of the George Bush-Dick Cheney orchestrated war on terror.”
He added: “I think it is almost sometimes embarrassing the way in which Conservative and Labour politicians talk in this kind of slavish way about `the special relationship’ (with the US).
“If you speak to hard-nosed folk in Washington they say, `Yeah, it is a good relationship but it is not the special relationship’.”
“So if they are moving on, why on earth don’t we?”
Mr Clegg called for united sanctions against Iran but denied military action would stop its nuclear ambitions.
“The great risk of sabre-rattling about the possibility of military action in Iran, of course, is that you strengthen the very forces in Iran that we want to weaken, (President Mahmoud) Ahmadinejad and the other hardline leadership in Iran.”
Mr Clegg described the EU as an “economic giant and a political pygmy in the Middle East”.
“On Israel, my view has always been that whilst the ideology of Israel’s enemies in Hamas . . . is odious, and the use of terror . . . unacceptable, I also feel that it is simply not in Israel’s long-term interests to have 1.5-1.8 million people in a state of wretched grinding poverty in a tiny, tiny sliver of land in Gaza seething with ever greater radicalism, extremism and hatred right on your doorstep and that the military methods used in Operation Cast Lead were disproportionate,” he said.