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

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

BC2

£50000 - £70000 per annum: Harrington Starr: Business Analyst Consultant (Fina...

SAP Data Migration Consultant

competitive: Progressive Recruitment: My client, a FTSE 100 organisation are u...

Programme Support, Coms, Bristol, £300-350p/d

£300 - £350 per day + competitive: Orgtel: My client, a leading bank, is curre...

Linux Systems Administrator

£33000 per annum + pension, 25 days holiday: Ashdown Group: A highly successfu...

Day In a Page

Read Next
A still from the BBC's new rap about the outbreak of WW1  

Why give the young such a bad rap?

David Lister
Israeli army soldiers take their positions  

Errors and Omissions: Some news reports don’t quite hit the right target

Guy Keleny
A History of the First World War in 100 Moments: Peace without magnanimity - the summit in a railway siding that ended the fighting

A History of the First World War in 100 Moments

Peace without magnanimity - the summit in a railway siding that ended the fighting
Scottish independence: How the Commonwealth Games could swing the vote

Scottish independence: How the Commonwealth Games could swing the vote

In the final part of our series, Chris Green arrives in Glasgow - a host city struggling to keep the politics out of its celebration of sport
Out in the cold: A writer spends a night on the streets and hears the stories of the homeless

A writer spends a night on the streets

Rough sleepers - the homeless, the destitute and the drunk - exist in every city. Will Nicoll meets those whose luck has run out
Striking new stations, high-speed links and (whisper it) better services - the UK's railways are entering a new golden age

UK's railways are entering a new golden age

New stations are opening across the country and our railways appear to be entering an era not seen in Britain since the early 1950s
Conchita Wurst becomes a 'bride' on the Paris catwalk - and proves there is life after Eurovision

Conchita becomes a 'bride' on Paris catwalk

Alexander Fury salutes the Eurovision Song Contest winner's latest triumph
Pétanque World Championship in Marseilles hit by

Pétanque 'world cup' hit by death threats

This year's most acrimonious sporting event took place in France, not Brazil. How did pétanque get so passionate?
Whelks are healthy, versatile and sustainable - so why did we stop eating them in the UK?

Why did we stop eating whelks?

Whelks were the Victorian equivalent of the donor kebab and our stocks are abundant. So why do we now export them all to the Far East?
10 best women's sunglasses

In the shade: 10 best women's sunglasses

From luxury bespoke eyewear to fun festival sunnies, we round up the shades to be seen in this summer
Germany vs Argentina World Cup 2014: Lionel Messi? Javier Mascherano is key for Argentina...

World Cup final: Messi? Mascherano is key for Argentina...

No 10 is always centre of attention but Barça team-mate is just as crucial to finalists’ hopes
Siobhan-Marie O’Connor: Swimmer knows she needs Glasgow joy on road to Rio

Siobhan-Marie O’Connor: Swimmer needs Glasgow joy on road to Rio

18-year-old says this month’s Commonwealth Games are a key staging post in her career before time slips away
The true Gaza back-story that the Israelis aren’t telling this week

The true Gaza back-story that the Israelis aren’t telling this week

A future Palestine state will have no borders and be an enclave within Israel, surrounded on all sides by Israeli-held territory, says Robert Fisk
A History of the First World War in 100 Moments: The German people demand an end to the fighting

A History of the First World War in 100 Moments

The German people demand an end to the fighting
New play by Oscar Wilde's grandson reveals what the Irish wit said at his trials

New play reveals what Oscar Wilde said at trials

For a century, what Wilde actually said at his trials was a mystery. But the recent discovery of shorthand notes changed that. Now his grandson Merlin Holland has turned them into a play
Can scientists save the world's sea life from

Can scientists save our sea life?

By the end of the century, the only living things left in our oceans could be plankton and jellyfish. Alex Renton meets the scientists who are trying to turn the tide
Richard III, Trafalgar Studios, review: Martin Freeman gives highly intelligent performance

Richard III review

Martin Freeman’s psychotic monarch is big on mockery but wanting in malice