What do you do after you’ve been the deputy prime minister to the United Kingdom? Historically, the answer is usually “retire” or “become prime minister.” For Nick Clegg, former leader of the Liberal Democrats and deputy prime minister between 2010 and 2015 under David Cameron, the answer is “move to Palo Alto, California, to work for Facebook.” “Instead of the gothic splendour of Westminster, I will be surrounded by the gleaming glass and steel of Silicon Valley,” he wrote in a Guardian op-ed officially announcing his new position on Friday. “Instead of the clout of the state in Whitehall, I will now experience the dynamism of the private sector in Palo Alto.”
“Vice-president of global affairs and communications” — Clegg’s new title — might lack the magisterial ring of “prime minister,” but it’s certainly better compensated. Indeed, it’s easy to read the move as Clegg cynically trading political principle and public service for a higher salary and a more glamorous position. As the Observer’s Carole Cadwalladr asks, “If you’re on the side of democracy, Nick Clegg, why are you going to work for Facebook?” GQ UK puts it quite directly: “Nick Clegg’s Facebook job shows he loves power more than progress.”
These are versions of the same dark joke that haunts any announcement of a political figure moving to the tech industry: It’s a promotion! The idea being that, say, a Facebook executive is more powerful than, say, a deputy prime minister — a sentiment that isn’t wrong, exactly, but doesn’t quite get at the exact relationship between government and the tech industry.
The trend of advisers and wonks and politicians moving from politics to the tech industry is real, but isn’t just a product of those individuals’ personal ambition or desire for power. It’s also a reflection of their political principles, and those of the companies they turn to. The ideology of Clegg’s Liberal Democrats — centering around the economic liberalism of free trade, free markets, and the free movement of people — has fallen deeply out of favor in electoral politics in the U.K., as it has in most of the rest of the world, but it’s still the main political current in Silicon Valley — and at Facebook especially. The center of power for technocratic, market-focused liberalism is no longer in Westminster or Washington, but in Palo Alto. Why waste your time on the unreceptive world of electoral politics when platform politics welcomes you with open arms?
Clegg is known best for his, let’s say, transformative leadership of the Liberal Democrats. After taking over the party in 2007, he promoted what he described as “politics of the radical center,” and what others tend to deride as “neoliberalism”: social liberalism combined with policies that sought solutions in free markets, trade,…