Nick Clegg's scapegoating of immigrants is his most unforgiveable Tory collaboration yet

Historians of the future may say the Lib Dem did as well as he could have – nonsense

Share

What a miserable charlatan Nick Clegg is. As a rule, I object to personalising politics like this, to injecting venom into public discourse rather than sticking doggedly to the substance. It is about policies, not personalities, as Tony Benn once said. But I know that, years after the event, a breed of contrarian, revisionist historian will emerge, challenging the narrative that the Lib Dems were anything other than voting fodder for an increasingly hard-right Tory party that failed to win the general election. Clegg did as well as he could with the hand he was dealt, Professor Contrarian Historian of 2031 will write. So consider this a message left in a time capsule as a contemporary rebuttal of such nonsense.

There was the whole thing of inspiring hundreds of thousands of young people who were alienated from politics – and then going on to treble the tuition fees that the Lib Dems pledged to abolish. Many of those young people will never trust a politician again, leaving bitterness as their first taste of democracy. So well played there. Then there was campaigning against Tory proposals for harsh first-year cuts – before making biting austerity a condition of a coalition with Labour in the post-election stitch-up. There was a Lib Dem-led poster campaign against a Tory VAT “tax bombshell” – which the party then voted for. All of these instances are well-covered, of course.

But it is the Lib Dem capitulation on immigration that really sums up what a wretched waste of political space this party is. In the 2010 general election campaign, Clegg spoke of an amnesty for illegal immigrants, a suggestion endorsed by London Mayor Boris Johnson. It was a pragmatic commitment: given they are unlikely to be deported, why not get them to pay tax and fully integrate instead? It helped inject some common sense into what is an increasingly hysterical “debate”.

But Clegg has now swung to indulge the Tories’ ever-more hysterical campaign on immigration, backing a crusade devised by the Australian spinmeister Lynton Crosby. The Tories know they are unable to win the next election on the basis of hope, of actually lifting the living standards of an ever-poorer electorate. So, instead, they will fight on the basis of fear and despair. Blame the immigrant, rather than the bankers, the tax-dodgers, the low-paying bosses and the politicians who have plunged this country into this mess. It is clever, it is cynical and it is grim.

The Tory crackdown on benefits for EU immigrants is a ruse to redirect anger, to toxify political debate, to make sure the real villains are protected. It aims to inflame the idea that those pesky foreigners are invading our shores to leech at public expense. The evidence isn’t there, of course. According to a study by University College London, immigrants who have arrived since the end of the last century are 45 per cent less likely to claim either in-work or out-of-work benefits than native Brits, and less likely to live in social housing. European immigrants have actually paid 34 per cent more in tax than they received in benefits. The OECD reckon immigrants throw in about £16.27bn to Britain’s Exchequer each year. Immigrants are basically a deficit-reduction programme.

Immigrants come over here and flood our public services all right: in the case of the NHS, they make up around 30 per cent of our doctors and 40 per cent of our nurses. They help deliver, yes, native-born Brits into the world; they tend to us when we are sick, from birth to our final moments.

But immigrants remain a convenient scapegoat for all the ills of British society. Successive governments, both New Labour and the Tories, have allowed a housing crisis to fester, partly because they will not let councils build homes. Some 5 million people languish on social housing waiting lists, many at the mercy of rip-off private landlords, and forcing the taxpayer to splash out billions to subsidise extortionate rents. How convenient for politicians to let themselves off the hook by blaming immigrants.

The same goes for low pay. The research does not back up the oft-repeated assertion that immigrants depress the pay of the British-born worker. There is evidence they can have a small impact on the pay of those right at the bottom: ironically, in fact many are ex-immigrants competing for jobs that don’t need a high level of spoken or written English. Introducing a living wage and forcing bosses to hire workers on the same terms and conditions is the obvious solution. Instead of pointing the finger at weak trade unions, free market globalisation, and a minimum wage that is falling in real terms, immigrants are blamed for a fall in living standards that set in around a decade ago.

Driving back this poison is hard. I remember at the last election struggling to understand a middle-aged woman with a strong Punjabi accent: she was berating immigrants for her son being unemployed. This grand deflection of blame is endemic indeed. And the job is made all the harder by the Lib Dems’ capitulation, and Labour’s counterproductive indulgence of anti-immigration sentiment, which merely helps drive it up the agenda.

A rival populism that blames the real targets – the booming wealthy and our political elite – has to be built. It will need courage, principle and determination: everything, in short, that Nick Clegg lacks.

More from Owen Jones this week here: http://www.independent.co.uk/voices/comment/martyrs-guesthouse-owners-who-turned-away-gay-couple-on-religious-grounds-are-nothing-of-the-kind-8967077.html

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
SPONSORED FEATURES
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Project Assistant

£17000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: They are a leading company in the field ...

Recruitment Genius: DBA Developer - SQL Server

£30000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an exciting opportunity...

Recruitment Genius: Office Manager

£26041 - £34876 per annum: Recruitment Genius: There has never been a more exc...

Recruitment Genius: Travel Customer Service and Experience Manager

£14000 - £17000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: The fastest growing travel comp...

Day In a Page

Read Next
A pack of seagulls squabble over discarded food left on the beach at St Ives on July 28, 2015  

Number of urban seagulls in Britain nearly quadruples: Hide food and avoid chicks to stay in gulls’ good books

Tom Bawden
 

Blairites be warned, this could be the moment Labour turns into Syriza

Andrew Grice
Blairites be warned, this could be the moment Labour turns into Syriza

Andrew Grice: Inside Westminster

Blairites be warned, this could be the moment Labour turns into Syriza
HMS Victory: The mystery of Britain's worst naval disaster is finally solved - 271 years later

The mystery of Britain's worst naval disaster is finally solved - 271 years later

Exclusive: David Keys reveals the research that finally explains why HMS Victory went down with the loss of 1,100 lives
Survivors of the Nagasaki atomic bomb attack: Japan must not abandon its post-war pacifism

'I saw people so injured you couldn't tell if they were dead or alive'

Nagasaki survivors on why Japan must not abandon its post-war pacifism
Jon Stewart: The voice of Democrats who felt Obama had failed to deliver on his 'Yes We Can' slogan, and the voter he tried hardest to keep onside

The voter Obama tried hardest to keep onside

Outgoing The Daily Show host, Jon Stewart, became the voice of Democrats who felt the President had failed to deliver on his ‘Yes We Can’ slogan. Tim Walker charts the ups and downs of their 10-year relationship on screen
RuPaul interview: The drag star on being inspired by Bowie, never fitting in, and saying the first thing that comes into your head

RuPaul interview

The drag star on being inspired by Bowie, never fitting in, and saying the first thing that comes into your head
Secrets of comedy couples: What's it like when both you and your partner are stand-ups?

Secrets of comedy couples

What's it like when both you and your partner are stand-ups?
Satya Nadella: As Windows 10 is launched can he return Microsoft to its former glory?

Satya Nadella: The man to clean up for Windows?

While Microsoft's founders spend their billions, the once-invincible tech company's new boss is trying to save it
The best swimwear for men: From trunks to shorts, make a splash this summer

The best swimwear for men

From trunks to shorts, make a splash this summer
Mark Hix recipes: Our chef tries his hand at a spot of summer foraging

Mark Hix goes summer foraging

 A dinner party doesn't have to mean a trip to the supermarket
Ashes 2015: With an audacious flourish, home hero Ian Bell ends all debate

With an audacious flourish, the home hero ends all debate

Ian Bell advances to Trent Bridge next week almost as undroppable as Alastair Cook and Joe Root, a cornerstone of England's new thinking, says Kevin Garside
Aaron Ramsey interview: Wales midfielder determined to be centre of attention for Arsenal this season

Aaron Ramsey interview

Wales midfielder determined to be centre of attention for Arsenal this season
Community Shield: Arsene Wenger needs to strike first blow in rivalry with Jose Mourinho

Community Shield gives Wenger chance to strike first blow in rivalry with Mourinho

As long as the Arsenal manager's run of games without a win over his Chelsea counterpart continues it will continue to dominate the narrative around the two men
The unlikely rise of AFC Bournemouth - and what it says about English life

Unlikely rise of AFC Bournemouth

Bournemouth’s elevation to football’s top tier is one of the most improbable of recent times. But it’s illustrative of deeper and wider changes in English life
A Very British Coup, part two: New novel in pipeline as Jeremy Corbyn's rise inspires sequel

A Very British Coup, part two

New novel in pipeline as Jeremy Corbyn's rise inspires sequel
Philae lander data show comets could have brought 'building blocks of life' to Earth

Philae lander data show comets could have brought 'building blocks of life' to Earth

Icy dust layer holds organic compounds similar to those found in living organisms