Nick Clegg speaks with Douglas Alexander and Ed Miliband before Angela Merkel addresses both Houses of Parliament. Photograph: Getty Images.
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The pro-EU camp is in crisis because no one in Westminster dares to argue for immigration

The deficit is in people who can make the case without sounding like they’ve got grenades stuffed in their mouths. 

Denis Healey once quipped that the sight of a pin flying through the air indicated the presence nearby of John Major with a grenade in his mouth. I was reminded of this old joke by Nick Clegg’s efforts to position himself as the commander of pro-EU forces in the European Parliament elections on 22 May.

The recent televised debates with Nigel Farage were meant to illuminate the Deputy Prime Minister’s courage as he detonated a few Europhobe myths. Getting blasted in the face was not the plan.

Senior Lib Dems deny that is what happened. The goal, they say, was never to stop Farage in his tracks, only to begin the fightback against “the Eurosceptic establishment” – a cute inversion of Ukip’s claim to be maverick insurgents. Inevitably it needs more than two hours of live TV to drill through Britain’s anti-Brussels prejudice – “a Eurosceptic sediment that has built up over 20 years”, in the words of one cabinet minister.

But allies of the Lib Dem leader also admit that they underestimated the likely impact of instant audience polls after the two debates. Both awarded victory to Farage. Any credit due for championing an unfashionable cause was lost in media portrayals of a hapless Clegg vanquished.

Labour and the Tories are happy for the Lib Dems to martyr themselves for Europe, albeit for different reasons. Ed Miliband’s instincts on the subject are hardly distinguishable from Clegg’s. However, the Labour leader wants to use the campaign in May to develop the themes that will be central to his bid for Downing Street next year – the cost of living; the unfair distribution of rewards in a lopsided economy. Labour’s preferred method for countering Ukip incursions into its northern-English heartlands is to depict the party as a virulent new mutant strain of Thatcherism.

David Cameron is more at ease talking about Europe as long as the conversation is limited to Labour’s reluctance to call a referendum and Farage’s inability to deliver one. Things get difficult for the Prime Minister when the question arises of how he would vote in that putative poll. The logic of his position is more pro-EU than he admits. The intent to renegotiate British membership is based on the assumption that any deal would be so attractive that Cameron could sell it as the centrepiece of the “in” campaign. It is also supposed to involve reforms that other member states can embrace as general improvements to European governance. He cannot spell out a plan in detail because Conservative backbenchers would denounce it as insufficient and continental leaders would warn that it is unrealistic. The stability of the Conservative Party currently relies on the pretence that Cameron can broker something that looks simultaneously like a renewal of vows and
a divorce to two different audiences.

Most Tory MPs are aware that the No 10 position is untenable but, with the exception of a hard core that enjoys tormenting the Prime Minister, they play along in the hope that brittle unity will last long enough to get them over the electoral finish line in 2015. None expects it to survive beyond that.

Lib Dem ministers are privately contemptuous of how Cameron buys security from his party by licensing loose talk of quitting the EU, although conspicuous displays of rampant Tory Europhobia help support Clegg’s claim that his party performs a moderating function in government. The Prime Minister’s counterclaim is to depict the Lib Dems as slavish devotees of a European status quo – as fanatical in Brussels idolatry as Ukip is in animus. Downing Street insists Cameron’s reform-and-referendum combination is uniquely aligned with mainstream public preference.

That would help the Tories if the argument were about reforming European institutions but in reality the case for less “Europe” has dissolved in fear of more immigration. Farage exploits the way even mild pro-EU advocates have always internalised but never properly articulated a belief in the economic and cultural merits of a liberal migration policy.

The free movement of labour among member states is a non-negotiable part of the project. Yet politicians who believe the UK gains from the arrangement find the rhetorical muscles they need to make the case have atrophied from lack of use. Abstract arguments based on the aggregate increase in opportunity lack the emotional immediacy of Ukip’s claim that foreign interlopers take UK jobs.

The pro-European cause is in crisis because British politics has for years encouraged the idea that an admirable government is one that stymies the roaming of workers across national borders, while tacitly accepting the condition of EU membership that makes such control impractical. The only honest pro-European argument is one that says it isn’t even desirable.

Clegg has already found to his cost what a tough sell that can be. Labour flinches at the mention of immigration policy, unsure how to resist xenophobia while wooing back voters who abandoned the party because it was too kind to foreigners. The Tories are also split, though more discreetly, between economic liberals who see the benefits of immigration and Ukip-ish gate-slammers. It is a guarded Treasury secret that George Osborne tires of his party’s anti-immigration monomania, since he recognises the relationship between openness to foreign skills and economic growth.

There isn’t a shortage in Westminster of people who know the arguments, whether for Britain’s EU membership or a liberal immigration regime. The deficit is in people who can make the case without sounding like they’ve got grenades stuffed in their mouths. 

Rafael Behr is political columnist at the Guardian and former political editor of the New Statesman

This article first appeared in the 01 May 2014 issue of the New Statesman, The Islam issue

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The rise of the green mayor – Sadiq Khan and the politics of clean energy

At an event at Tate Modern, Sadiq Khan pledged to clean up London's act.

On Thursday night, deep in the bowls of Tate Modern’s turbine hall, London Mayor Sadiq Khan renewed his promise to make the capital a world leader in clean energy and air. Yet his focus was as much on people as power plants – in particular, the need for local authorities to lead where central governments will not.

Khan was there to introduce the screening of a new documentary, From the Ashes, about the demise of the American coal industry. As he noted, Britain continues to battle against the legacy of fossil fuels: “In London today we burn very little coal but we are facing new air pollution challenges brought about for different reasons." 

At a time when the world's leaders are struggling to keep international agreements on climate change afloat, what can mayors do? Khan has pledged to buy only hybrid and zero-emissions buses from next year, and is working towards London becoming a zero carbon city.

Khan has, of course, also gained heroic status for being a bête noire of climate-change-denier-in-chief Donald Trump. On the US president's withdrawal from the Paris Agreement, Khan quipped: “If only he had withdrawn from Twitter.” He had more favourable things to say about the former mayor of New York and climate change activist Michael Bloomberg, who Khan said hailed from “the second greatest city in the world.”

Yet behind his humour was a serious point. Local authorities are having to pick up where both countries' central governments are leaving a void – in improving our air and supporting renewable technology and jobs. Most concerning of all, perhaps, is the way that interest groups representing business are slashing away at the regulations which protect public health, and claiming it as a virtue.

In the UK, documents leaked to Greenpeace’s energy desk show that a government-backed initiative considered proposals for reducing EU rules on fire-safety on the very day of the Grenfell Tower fire. The director of this Red Tape Initiative, Nick Tyrone, told the Guardian that these proposals were rejected. Yet government attempts to water down other EU regulations, such as the energy efficiency directive, still stand.

In America, this blame-game is even more highly charged. Republicans have sworn to replace what they describe as Obama’s “war on coal” with a war on regulation. “I am taking historic steps to lift the restrictions on American energy, to reverse government intrusion, and to cancel job-killing regulations,” Trump announced in March. While he has vowed “to promote clean air and clear water,” he has almost simultaneously signed an order to unravel the Clean Water Rule.

This rhetoric is hurting the very people it claims to protect: miners. From the Ashes shows the many ways that the industry harms wider public health, from water contamination, to air pollution. It also makes a strong case that the American coal industry is in terminal decline, regardless of possibile interventions from government or carbon capture.

Charities like Bloomberg can only do so much to pick up the pieces. The foundation, which helped fund the film, now not only helps support job training programs in coal communities after the Trump administration pulled their funding, but in recent weeks it also promised $15m to UN efforts to tackle climate change – again to help cover Trump's withdrawal from Paris Agreement. “I'm a bit worried about how many cards we're going to have to keep adding to the end of the film”, joked Antha Williams, a Bloomberg representative at the screening, with gallows humour.

Hope also lies with local governments and mayors. The publication of the mayor’s own environment strategy is coming “soon”. Speaking in panel discussion after the film, his deputy mayor for environment and energy, Shirley Rodrigues, described the move to a cleaner future as "an inevitable transition".

Confronting the troubled legacies of our fossil fuel past will not be easy. "We have our own experiences here of our coal mining communities being devastated by the closure of their mines," said Khan. But clean air begins with clean politics; maintaining old ways at the price of health is not one any government must pay. 

'From The Ashes' will premiere on National Geograhpic in the United Kingdom at 9pm on Tuesday, June 27th.

India Bourke is an environment writer and editorial assistant at the New Statesman.

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