Nick Clegg’s speech on immigration: baby steps in a liberal direction

Nick Clegg Q&A 12When I read Nick Clegg’s immigration speech yesterday I breathed a sigh of relief. It’s sensible and mostly liberal.

Which means it’s a stark contrast to his March 2013 attempt: that was probably the most dire speech I’ve ever heard from a Lib Dem leader. Back then, Nick took credit for net migration having fallen by a third, even though net migration is, as Vince Cable has repeatedly pointed out, an absurd measure of success. He also came up with the unworkable proposal for security bonds (ie, upfront cash payments) for immigrants from ‘high-risk’ countries entering the UK.

Fast forward 18 months and both have been ditched. The security bond was stopped in its tracks last year when Theresa May adopted a far more draconian version of the idea. And yesterday Nick delivered his first ringing denunciation of the Tories’ obsessions with reducing net migration:

The Conservatives were completely fixated on the net migration target, and, specifically, their pledge to get it down to 10s of 1000s – a Tory rallying cry in opposition. I told David Cameron during the Leader’s debates – and in the early part of Government: ‘you’ll never deliver it’. I made sure it wasn’t in the Coalition Agreement precisely because it’s unrealistic; because it’s based on a fallacy: if a million Brits leave and a million migrants come you get net migration of zero – does that mean you’ve done the job?

Quite why it’s taken Nick four years to make public his concerns is a mystery to me. I’m assured he has always been utterly opposed to the net migration target and has fought tooth-and-nail behind-the-scenes to stop the Home Office sneaking it in as a Government measure when it has only ever been a Tory aspiration.

If that’s the case – and I’ve no reason to doubt it – why did Nick claim credit for the fall in net migration last year? And why did he not add it to the list of 16 Tory measures he highlighted he’d blocked in his 2013 conference speech? It would have been a good line (“I told them No when they demanded a net immigration target which would have hurt our economy”) guaranteed applause.

But better late than never. And the speech deserves some credit. Three specific proposals – proper border checks to clamp down on illegal immigration, ensuring the English language is a requirement of gaining a driving licence and British passport, attracting the brightest and best to come and work and study here – are welcome.

I’m less enamoured of the proposal to toughen up transitional controls for any new countries accepted into EU membership. This concedes too much ground to the migrant-phobes: the UK has massively benefited from the influx of workers from the EU in the last decade. As the economist Jonathan Portes has observed, “new migrants get jobs, contribute to the economy, pay taxes, don’t use many public services, and don’t take jobs from natives. What, exactly, is the problem?” While Nick Clegg was right to attack the last Labour Government’s mismanagement of the process he should also have praised both the policy and its intent. Even if senior Labour figures like Yvette Cooper and Jack Straw won’t stick up for their party’s record on this, liberals should.

However, we are where we are. With the right-wing media and Ukip whipping up absurd fears of 485 million Europeans wishing to descend on the UK we’ve got to the stage where it’s no longer apparently possible simply to state facts and expect them to be listened to. The Daily Express or Nigel Farage can name any figure and some people will believe them; repeat it often enough, as the rest of the media and the Tories do, and their risible claims become hard-to-demolish folk wisdom. In the circumstances, I can understand why Nick Clegg has felt compelled to accept the need to be “stricter and clearer on the transition controls” with any future EU enlargement. He’s wrong to do so, but at least I understand the political imperative — and if that were to be the price of eventual entry for Turkey or Ukraine (should their voters choose to join) then it’s worth paying.

What I don’t yet see from Nick Clegg — and I don’t pretend for a moment it’s an easy task — is a real attempt to turn back the tide of right-wing scaremongering on immigration. Sure, there were lofty appeals to our better instincts yesterday (“this nation is always at its best when we are open and outward-facing”) but there wasn’t enough appeal to our national needs. It’s quite simple: the British economy needs young, productive migrants to counter the effects of our ageing population. Without migrants we will all be poorer.

There are sensible politicians in all parties who understand this — those such as Boris Johnson and Migration Matters, which includes Labour’s Barbara Roche, the Tories’ Nadhim Zahawi as well as the Lib Dems’ Navnit Dholakia. We need to work together, across parties, to win support for humane, liberal policies which offer the country a more prosperous future.

I could, for example, berate Nick Clegg for U-turning on the Lib Dems’ (very sensible) idea of an earned route to citizenship for undocumented migrants. But the plain fact is the policy just isn’t currently acceptable to the public (there are Lib Dems who claim, maybe correctly, that it lost the party half-a-million votes in the last week of the 2010 election). We need to recognise where the public starts on this issue: and that’s a long way from being liberal. What we need to develop is a way of making clear not only why our approach to immigration is fair for all, but also why we’ll all be better off.

* Stephen was Editor (and Co-Editor) of Liberal Democrat Voice from 2007 to 2015, and writes at The Collected Stephen Tall.

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  • James Brough 6th Aug '14 - 10:22pm

    I’m sorry, but I see no way in which withdrawing translation services is anything other than a sop to people who believe in the myth of open door England.

  • Andrew Emmerson 6th Aug '14 - 11:01pm

    I’m mostly with you on this actually – it’s a shame that the holders of “liberalism” those who seek to define it, now mostly reject anything but open borders rhetoric. (Although somewhat Ironically I believe in open borders, the party doesn’t and can’t and shouldn’t). It’s also a shame that those who already have a notion of Clegg as badevilman will also reject this out of hand.

    As for your piece – i’m genuinely surprised you agree with the English language thing, that was the piece that I simply wasn’t able to fully square with liberal principles. It’s a sop to the Farage quote about feeling uncomfy with foreign languages. We also know language is a tool of control in so many ways. Sorry to do the preamble thing but forcing everyone to speak a common language with threats of removal of support somewhat jars against the freedom from conformity bit.

    As for your disagreement of transitional controls – i’m again not with you. Even if I do believe in open borders, I think it’s right to admit that a massive increase in immigration can and probably does strain public services and infrastructure in the short term, so in that sense it probably makes sense to delay to ensure that we can cope with the initial big surges. That being said a pure delay seems like to much of a blunt tool, where I think Clegg would be better off is proposing phased transitional controls (i.e. a limited number of visas allowed year on year)

    but i’m with you on the rest. There is a need to be both liberal and practical, we’d be more than decimated if we went for the open borders many members would find acceptable at the moment, and that would seriously affect our ability to be the steady liberal hand on the rudder. Sometimes there’s a need to be truly radical, others it’s better to take baby steps than none at all. On immigration surely this is the latter.

  • @AndrewEmmerson

    I totally disagree with you on the language issue.

    If you want to come and live and work in this country, an ability to speak the language of the majority population is a must if new arrivals are ever going to integrate properly and be accepted.

    In sine respects, we seem to be going backwards – the first couple of generations of immigrants either already spoke English or made great efforts to learn to assimilate.

    Subsequently we have become shy about these issues, and instead of encouraging and assisting the use of English, we have allowed and facilitated the ghettoisation of new arrivals, and unlike the French, instead of insisting on secular education we have again pandered to faith schools of all denominations

  • I’m in favour of the transitional controls because it should help to prevent a brain drain from the country joining. If part of the point of joining the EU is to bring up your economy to the level of other EU nations then you need time to do that without your entire workforce leaving to do poorly paid service jobs in richer countries.

  • “What we need to develop is a way of making clear not only why our approach to immigration is fair for all, but also why we’ll all be better off.”
    So why are you struggling to make that case clear? If what you say is true, it’s clarity should be a cinch to show the residents of Scunthorpe or Swansea?
    How about making this clear? Given the population already residing here, we already struggle maintaining enough housing, health service, school places, roads to alleviate congestion, water and sewage infrastructure…… ( you add to this list of social issues which could frankly run to several lines ).
    So, how does adding 150,000 more new residents per year solve those myriad of problems, and thus prove conclusively to the folks of Scunthorpe and Swansea why,…. we’ll all be better off?
    Could it be that the reason you are struggling to make it clear, is because it is not true?

  • “I could, for example, berate Nick Clegg for U-turning on the Lib Dems’ (very sensible) idea of an earned route to citizenship for undocumented migrants. But the plain fact is the policy just isn’t currently acceptable to the public (there are Lib Dems who claim, maybe correctly, that it lost the party half-a-million votes in the last week of the 2010 election). We need to recognise where the public starts on this issue: and that’s a long way from being liberal. “

    I can’t help wondering whether the death penalty would ever have been abolished if the politicians of 50 years ago had adopted this approach.

  • ” We need to recognise where the public starts on this issue: and that’s a long way from being liberal. What we need to develop is a way of making clear not only why our approach to immigration is fair for all, but also why we’ll all be better off.”

    Why do you need to do that?

    Why can’t you just listen to the people, and act on their concerns.

    It seems that your position is simply to ignore the tens of millions of people who have real concerns about immigration, and impose your own rose tinted partisan view of the benefits of immigration. Benefits that despite the passing of the years, you never seem able to substantiate in economic terms with anything other than a marginal benefit at best, whilst at the same time you choose to completely ignore the social and cultural changes that are causing problems and changing communities across the country, against the wishes of the majority and at no benefit to them.

    It seems to me that all you really want to do is continue on regardless and ignore the public, and the debate you are having amongst yourselves, simply revolves around how you can do so without impacting on the parties shrinking vote.

    Perhaps you should start again with your thinking, and pose two simple questions to yourselves.

    1. What do the public want?
    2. How can we help to give them what they want.

    You can be liberal, and put the interests of the British people who elected you first, they are not mutually exclusive,

  • ” And in any case as EU citizens come here to work, they don’t try to do this (well maybe the odd person out of the 2 million EU citizens here may have tried, but they wouldn’t have got anywhere).”

    If you believe that you will believe anything!

    Large numbers of Somalis for example have come here since the late 1990’s , with a substantial population relocating from the Netherlands under the open door policy, the vast majority of which are on benefits.

    Wake up and smell the coffee for pities sake!

  • Jayne Mansfield 9th Aug '14 - 6:04pm

    @ Raddiy.
    Aren’t many of the Somalis who came here in the 1990s and later actually refugees and asylum seekers?

    What is Ukip’s policy towards refugees and asylum seekers fleeing war torn areas?

  • Raddiy

    It’s strange that the document you link to appears to contain no reference either to the Netherlands or the EU.

    Your comment is difficult to make sense of. Are the “Somalis” you are talking about EU citizens, either by naturalisation or birth?

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