Today Nick Clegg made a speech on immigration. He was due to deliver it in February but decided to delay it until after the Eastleigh by-election: I guess it wasn’t an issue he wanted to stir-up for Ukip’s benefit. Or perhaps he realised that his position would be as well-received by many activists as a bucket of cold sick.
I have read it all the way through, which is more than it deserved. It’s a lazy, lazy speech. It genuflects in the direction of liberalism with some stirring phrases…
… if every member of an immigrant community suddenly downed tools, countless businesses and services would suffer. The NHS would fall over. And in a globalised economy, where talent is as mobile as capital. No nation can succeed by pulling up the drawbridge.
… before justifying the Coalition’s decision to pull up the drawbridge. “But don’t worry, it’s only been pulled up a bit,” Nick adds. (Actually he doesn’t, but it would be more honest.)
Having stated his clear personal and political belief in the benefits of immigration Nick then makes equally clear that he is personally and politically committed to halting those benefits in the future:
We are bringing immigration under control, and I will explain how.
The rest of the speech is a meander through the jumbled collection of policies which comprise the Coalition’s immigration policies. Tory illiberalism sits side-by-side with Lib Dem illiberalism, ‘but already it was impossible to say which was which’.
Think that’s unfair? Well, let’s quote Nick:
The immigration system must command public confidence. Since we came into government, net migration has fallen by a third. We’ve limited immigration from outside Europe. And within the EU, we have kept the transitional limits on Romania and Bulgaria, until the point where every member state has to remove them.
I expect that kind of litany from David Cameron or Theresa May. I don’t expect it from a liberal politician.
Much of Nick Clegg’s speech is dedicated to the managerialist aim of fixing the system. Once we’ve got a system that lets in the “good” immigrants and keeps out the “bad” immigrants, he seems to reckon everyone will be satisfied. Yet he must know that there’s no reasoning with papers like the Daily Mail, Daily Express, The Sun and Daily Star, which will continue to peddle their xenophobic half-truths no matter what the true facts.
There are two policy ideas in the speech. Both are bad.
The first — ditching the Lib Dems’ earned route to amnesty because our opponents label it ‘soft’ — is weak leadership: yes, I’ve no doubt the Lib Dems took an electoral hit for putting it forward, that it helped deflate ‘Cleggmania’ in 2010. But instead of walking away from a sound policy — one being pursued by both Democrats and Republicans in the USA — we should be making the case for it, building alliances with sensible Tory and Labour politicians (they do exist).
The second — security bonds for immigrants from ‘high-risk’ countries entering the UK — is a measure riddled with complications (which countries and why? how much would they cost and why?) that seems designed simply to act as a deterrent. It’s a prime example of the speech’s dissonance: welcoming immigration and its benefits while looking to make it tougher for immigrants because of their harmful impact.
So what should the speech have said? Well, here’s my 3-points’ worth:
1) Immigration is good in principle — countries open to diverse cultures are more innovative, competitive and interesting places to live — and equally good in practice: we desperately need the economic growth that immigration will bring.
2) Immigration is a crucial growth strategy to address shared social problems. This country does not have an immigration problem. It has big problems that affect UK-born citizens and immigrants alike, in particular a lack of decent, affordable housing. Inventing a scapegoat does not solve the problem. The only way we’ll be able to afford the housing we need is through a dynamic wealth-creating economy.
3) Only the Liberal Democrats have the guts to level with the British people: we need immigrants, we need their determination to achieve, we need the wealth they create. Labour’s failure was not in letting too many immigrants in, it was in their failure to get the UK building the houses needed. The Tories’ failure is to claim they want supply-side growth and yet reject the supply-side measure likely to get Britain growing again.
No-one pretends this is an argument that’s easy to win. It’s not. But what we can’t do — and what no liberal leader worth his salt will do — is cede the ground to the anti-immigrant crowd. We may not win them over. But we should be trying a lot harder than Nick Clegg’s speech attempts to do.
* Stephen Tall is Co-Editor of Liberal Democrat Voice, and editor of the 2013 publication, The Coalition and Beyond: Liberal Reforms for the Decade Ahead. He is also a Research Associate for the liberal think-tank CentreForum and writes at his own site, The Collected Stephen Tall.