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.