Clegg's immigration speech was an opportunity missed for the supposedly liberal Lib Dems

Lib Dem policy should not be based on the likely reaction of the right wing

As Britain’s only liberal party, there are certain obligations on Liberal Democrats. Being uncompromising defenders and protectors of civil liberties is one of those tasks, and the party leadership’s failure to do so over ‘secret courts’ has caused anguish to many members.

Immigration is another area where the party has not just the opportunity but also a duty to shift the balance away from the negative rhetoric of the other parties and much of the media. Liberal immigration policies might not be politically popular, but it is the fate of liberals to be frequent holders of minority opinions, and we should do so proudly.

In a globalised world economy, where prosperity depends on succeeding in a global competition for innovation, resources and investment, doing anything that makes the job of attracting people and businesses to the UK more difficult is a major folly.

We have already seen how a combination of ill-thought-out rule changes and intemperate rhetoric has significantly reduced the number of young people coming to study in the UK from India, reducing both economic growth and the supply of skilled labour.

The Liberal Democrat record in government of tempering Tory excesses when it comes to immigration policy is commendable, and no doubt Vince Cable will go on resisting lurches to the right by his Conservative colleagues.

But the fundamental problem in Britain’s immigration debate is cowardice and dishonesty on the part of political leaders.

The prime minister’s rash promise to cut net migration to the tens of thousands is a case in point. Given that the government has no control over either the number of people who choose to leave Britain or the number of EU nationals who decide to come and work here, the only policy lever is to cut drastically the number of immigrants from outside the EU. That means limiting the number of foreign students in British universities – a key UK export – and restricting businesses based in the UK from hiring the skilled workers they need to grow. In an economy this weak, those are measures we can ill-afford.

Clegg’s speech was an opportunity to level with the British public. To tell them that immigration increases the prosperity not only of individual migrants and the country as a whole, but of British nationals too. To tell them that if we want generous, well-funded health and pension systems in our ageing society, young, hard-working immigrants will be the ones to pay for it.

Instead he chose to make a speech that frankly could have come out of the mouth of any Tory or Labour politician from the last decade. His ‘security bond’ system is worth considering when we see the detail, but if it is anything more than a headline for tomorrow’s newspapers it is seems more likely simply to increase the complexity of our already Kafkaesque immigration system.

He also used the speech as an opportunity to ditch the party’s policy of an earned route to citizenship for some illegal immigrants, which saw the party come under sustained attack during the 2010 general election campaign. But what will replace it? As Clegg has said himself on several occasions, deporting every person here illegally is simply not going to happen. So why not formalise the status of those people already in work, give them the protection of employment laws and get them paying the taxes that we sorely need?

Even right-wing Republicans in the US have begun to realise that pragmatic solutions like this are the only option to tackle the related problems of undocumented workers and public trust in the system.

Clegg is understandably bruised from his experience in 2010, but Liberal Democrat immigration policy should not be formed based on the likely reaction of the right wing. These sections of the media will ultimately always find sticks with which to beat the Lib Dems when they think we pose a threat to the Conservatives.

Liberal Democrats are used to being the standard-bearers of unpopular policies. But when those policies are fundamental to our liberalism, we shouldn’t change them or shy away from them. There is a positive, liberal case to be made on immigration, and if the Liberal Democrats can’t make it, we are bound to ask: who will?