Clegg's plan for immigration "bail bonds" is illiberal and unworkable

Forcing migrants to pay a "bond" of at least £1,000 will only further deter the migrants Britain needs.

The Liberal Democrats' liberal stance on immigration has long been viewed by Nick Clegg as one of the factors holding back support for his party. At the last general election, during the height of "Cleggmania", Lib Dem activists reported that voters' enthusiasm for the party waned once they learned of its policy of an amnesty for illegal immigrants. That pledge will not be repeated in 2015. This shift is one of several aimed at tackling the party's perceived softness on immigration. In his speech this morning on the subject, Clegg will declare his support for a system that is "zero-tolerant of abuse" and will argue that politicians neglected the public's concerns for too long. 

Speaking in his capacity as Deputy Prime Minister, he will also announce plans to introduce a bail-like system of "security bonds" aimed at preventing abuse of the visa system. Under the policy, migrants from "high risk countries" would be required to pay a deposit of at least £1,000 which would only be repaid once they leave the UK. Those who are found to have overstayed their visa will lose the bond. 

The proposal isn't a new one; it was examined (and rejected) by the last Labour government and was included in David Cameron's 2011 speech on immigration but Clegg's decision to take ownership of the policy is significant. One Tory source accuses him of "purloining Conservative ideas" after Theresa May floated it earlier this month. In his speech, Clegg will describe the bonds as a "powerful tool" to deal with individuals "who come over legitimately but then become illegal once they’re already here", adding that he asked the Home Office "to do some work on it, with a view to running a pilot before the end of the year."

But the policy raises far more questions than it answers. For instance, how will Clegg prevent it deterring the "legitimate" migrants he insists he wishes to attract? Many migrants already struggle to raise the funds required to move to UK, an additional payment of £1,000 risks putting them off entirely. A further problem is that it will alienate those migrant communities who have relatives visit from overseas to celebrate a family birth or a wedding. As Keith Vaz noted when the idea was proposed by Labour in 2007, "The real problem with the cultural issues that we have here is that people don't come singly for weddings. If you have, for example, a big wedding in Leicester, you are dealing with 20 people coming and therefore, if you have to put up a bond of £1,000 for each, it's a huge amount of money."

It was objections such as these that persuaded then-immigration minister Liam Byrne not to proceed with the policy. "What people said was look, if someone wants to flout the immigration rules they'll be more than happy to put up £1,000," he said. 

"On the other hand, people said for family weddings and so on you've got to sponsor all the people and people are just not going to have that kind of money." 

When the policy was first floated by Labour in 2000, Simon Hughes, then the Lib Dems' home affairs spokesman and now the party's deputy leader, said: "The idea of bonds as a surety for visitors from some countries was clearly discriminatory.

"When will the government learn that what we need are sensible policies, not tough-sounding but half-baked ideas?"

All of these criticisms remain as valid now as they were then. For largely political purposes, Clegg has embraced a policy that was long ago deemed unworkable. 

Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg makes his keynote speech at the Liberal Democrats spring conference. Photograph: Getty Images.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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To beat the Trump hype, we need a return to old-fashioned political virtues

If we want to resist the Trumpification of politics, what we need is restraint, duty and incorruptibility.

After the 1992 US presidential election, Alistair Cooke’s celebrated BBC radio series Letter from America struck a poignant note. Cooke described Bill Clinton’s worn jeans and checked wool shirt, contrasting them with George H W Bush’s buttoned-up Wasp manners and buttoned-down Ivy League shirts. Clinton’s style, Cooke argued, was a rebuke to a tired social and political establishment. His casualness was the new America.

Cooke, then 83, was honest enough to admit unease about this departure from the old, patrician modes and manners. “Along with the passing of George Bush,” he said, “we shall see, I fear, the passing of the blue blazer.” Cooke seemed right at the time. But don’t write off the blue blazer just yet. As ruling elites change, so does the appropriate counterpoint. To topple Bush’s stuffy golf club elites, Clinton picked up his saxophone, took off his tie and felt everyone’s pain. And now? The subtext of these turbulent months (the inevitable second question, prompted by “How do you beat Donald Trump?”) is: “What should ­tomorrow’s leaders, the leaders we crave, look and sound like?”

My conjecture is that, to beat Trump and his type – bling, shiny suits, dodgy deals – we should push towards centre stage an underestimated set of political virtues: restraint, duty and incorruptibility. If it weren’t for the gender associations, I would be tempted to call this quality gentlemanliness. Aside from personal virtue – signally lacking in the Clinton camp – how might decency inform public debate as it comes under attack from maverick showmen trained in the media circus? How can the middle ground regain its confidence?

First, level with the public. Maybe liberalism hasn’t failed so much as its messaging has failed. Instead of smashing the electorate over the head with the idea that everything is just great, make the case that not everything can be for the best in all possible worlds. As populists reach for empty slogans, a new space has opened up. Accept and exploit those asymmetries: more people are ready to hear uncomfortable truths than politicians imagine.

Kingsley Amis once argued that a writer’s voice should stay close to his speaking voice: not the same, but close. Adapting that idea, if politicians stayed closer in public debate to the truths that they articulate in casual conversation – some things are impossible; almost every policy creates a losing as well as a winning side; there really isn’t any money – they would be surprised how many people are ready to hear that not all problems can be evaporated into thin air. Stray too far from awkward truths and elections become about simple lies v tricksy lies.

Second, centrists do more harm than good when they rush to categorise dissenting opinion as not only wrong, but unacceptable. “Any suggestion that liberal values are not humanly universal,” as John Gray wrote in a recent NS essay, “will provoke spasms of righteous indignation.” Instead, we need to be more tolerant in our tolerance.

Third, stop pretending that everything desirable can be shoehorned into the “progressive” agenda. “I really care passionately about persevering with the common-sense middle ground and doing it quite well” is a problematic political sales pitch, but not for the reasons that are usually given. The gravest difficulty may come at the beginning, with the faux passion, rather than with the substance – public service and competence – underneath.

It is revealing that those closest to David Cameron expended so much energy trying to persuade us that he was not an updated version of Harold Macmillan. That is why the gay marriage reforms, though admirable, were accorded too much significance. Ah, Cameron was a natural crusader! But he paid a price for dressing up as a “radical” when greater challenges arrived. It weakened some of his strongest cards – calmness, perspective, proportion – just as politics was coarsening. Aren’t Tories supposed to understand the virtues of yesterday? In other words, as an electoral strategy to beat Trump (or Nigel Farage), I’d put up a Macmillan type over a Clinton type every time.

Fourth, cut ties with “messaging experts”. It’s a fraud. They teach that everything must be asserted with powerful conviction. Yet ideas unworthy of powerful conviction are best left shorn of them. The electorate has endured a communications version of crying wolf. As a result of the messaging game, when something genuinely important crops up, it sounds simply like the same old shtick.

Fifth, ditch the bogus quantification. Few things signal untrustworthiness more reliably than fake precision. Something shifted in me when George Osborne argued that Brexit would leave households £4,300 worse off. What, no decimal point? Voters understand uncertainty better than politicians imagine. Precise quantification used to sound professional. Now it sounds suspicious.

Finally, think about tone. Conventional wisdom holds that the mainstream must fight the Trumpian revolution on its own terms: a simple solution, memorably expressed, a guiding vision for the country or the world. If anyone has a good one to hand, I’m all for it. But what if – after decades of ­sophisticated argument and counterargument, as politics has solved the easy problems while parking the difficult or insoluble ones – we have reached a state of such evolved equilibrium that no such easy answer can exist?

Pretending otherwise is no longer a point of difference. It takes you towards the lowest common denominator. As Trump has shown, that is well-occupied territory. Perhaps wooing the angry mob is not the solution. Instead, the admirable and successful politician of the future will have to win back the support of moderate, sensible but disillusioned voters. 

Ed Smith is a journalist and author, most recently of Luck. He is a former professional cricketer and played for both Middlesex and England.

This article first appeared in the 01 December 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Age of outrage