Published April 26, 2010
In the early 1980s, Nick Clegg, a young challenger riding a surge of voter disgust with Britain's political heavyweights, was a boy at the elite Westminster School in London, a short walk from the Parliament that he seeks to transform in elections on May 6. His routines were hardly ordinary.
Like other students, he ate in a refectory with tables made of wooden slabs from a shipwreck of the Spanish Armada, which sought to topple Queen Elizabeth I in 1588. He walked over engraved flagstones and through arched cloisters to Westminster Abbey, where kings are buried, and sang or maybe mumbled hymns beneath richly hued, stained glass windows.
The clock tower chimes of Big Ben, a world-class tourist draw, marked the tempo of his days.
Decades later, at 43, Clegg — head of Britain's Liberal Democrat party — still wears a dark suit and tie, but it's a uniform of choice. He is a sensation in opinion polls, a relative unknown who ambushed a two-way race between Prime Minister Gordon Brown and Conservative leader David Cameron, whose parties have traded power for decades.
"Old parties," Clegg called them in an election debate last week, his rivals standing at podiums on either side. He burnished his message of change with a couple of references to Barack Obama.
The ascent, however long it lasts, is extraordinary for those who knew him as a teenager.
Clegg was a fellow student and friend of mine at Westminster, an exclusive but progressive setting, in some ways conflicted, that provides a backdrop to the man he has become. The school's individualist credo echoes Clegg's status today as an outsider, even if he built his career with the help of establishment privileges.
As a teen, he was smart and articulate. As today, he indulged in self-deprecating humor and dished tart criticism. He mostly stayed out of trouble in a place where adolescent mischief still clashed with a relatively relaxed disciplinary code.
A sample of Westminster alumni reflects creative, even iconoclastic talent: architect Christopher Wren, philosopher John Locke, author A.A. Milne of Winnie the Pooh fame, actor John Gielgud, and composer Andrew Lloyd Webber. Actor Helena Bonham Carter and rock star Gavin Rossdale were Clegg's contemporaries.
The school has not produced a prime minister since the 19th century; Eton, Cameron's alma mater, groomed more of those. Leftist politician Tony Benn, who in the 1960s renounced his own peerage — a title of the British nobility — is a prominent Westminster alumnus.
Students, many of them foreign, loitered in the pubs, parks and theaters of cosmopolitan London, an exposure less available at schools such as Eton. Westminster students were sometimes seen as aloof and intellectually arrogant compared to their peers, and a breed apart from students at state schools such as nearby Pimlico, a concrete and glass monolith.
John Field, who taught literature at Westminster and produced plays in which Clegg acted, said the teaching was not "subservient" to the university exam system.
"In the first Sixth Form year in English we didn't even look at the A level syllabus, but read Russian novels, asked you to write long essays on topics you had chosen, and spent a lot of time arguing, devil's advocate style, about any matter in the public eye," Field wrote in an email.
Of Clegg, he recalled: "At school, he was one of those who didn't appear to mind what others thought or said about him, but just got on with doing his own thing."
The headmaster at the time, John Rae, was active in educational reform and for the first time appointed a girl as head of school, a role that gave some authority over student interests.
Though private, the school is known under a parliamentary act as a "public" school, meaning it is open to anyone who can afford the steep price - today about 20,000 British pounds (USD31,000) for a day student. It channels students into Britain's top universities, Oxford and Cambridge, at a high rate. Clegg studied anthropology at Cambridge and political philosophy at the University of Minnesota.
Westminster was not entirely shielded from the hard-edged, outside world in Clegg's day. Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher took on trade unions, and miners' protests — at least one near Westminster Abbey — turned violent. The Irish Republican Army was active, and a Westminster student triggered a visit from the bomb squad after leaving an odd-looking contraption with wires in an abbey garden.
In 1982, Thatcher dispatched warships to oust Argentina from the Falkland Islands, and war cries sometimes echoed in the school courtyard. Boys painted an anti-nuclear weapons message on a roof; the headmaster said they were free to express their views, but reprimanded them for endangering workers who had to clamber up and clean the tiles.
Some boys adopted "working class" accents in a repudiation of their genteel surroundings. A few school customs bordered on thuggish. In a ceremony linked to a religious event, a cook lobbed a pancake over an iron bar in the main hall. Selected boys, some in drag and other outlandish costumes, fought to grab the pancake in front of hundreds of spectators, including parents and the abbey dean.
A hierarchical system whereby new boys performed chores for older boys such as making toast or fetching their newspapers was being phased out at that time. Documentary maker Louis Theroux, son of author Paul Theroux, was reported this month as saying he performed duties for Clegg — a report seized on by critics anxious to label Clegg, son of a banker, as an elitist.
The highest sports accolade was a bright pink tie, but wearing it invited catcalls because showing off achievements was viewed with suspicion.
"There was very much an affected culture of playing things down," said Inigo Patten, a former student. "Most people would be pretending to do very little."
In 1991, six years after leaving Westminster, Clegg wrote to me from Bruges, Belgium, where he was studying at the College of Europe.
"Thanks so much for your miserable notelet," the letter began with Westminster-era humor. But he was moving forward, engaged in "useful" study and seeing a "gorgeous young Spaniard called Miriam," who would become his wife and mother of his three children.
Clegg's time at Westminster suggests he should be at ease in a two-hatted role — critic and member of the establishment.
Torchia reported from Istanbul, where he is AP's bureau chief.