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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Arsène Wenger: how can an intelligent manager preside over such a hollowed-out team?

The Arsenal manager faces a frustrating legacy.

Sport is obviously not all about winning, but it is about justified hope. That ­distinction has provided, until recently, a serious defence of Arsène Wenger’s Act II – the losing part. Arsenal haven’t won anything big for 13 years. But they have been close enough (and this is a personal view) to sustain the experience of investing emotionally in the story. Hope turning to disappointment is fine. It’s when the hope goes, that’s the problem.

Defeat takes many forms. In both 2010 and 2011, Arsenal lost over two legs to Barcelona in the Champions League. Yet these were rich and rewarding sporting experiences. In the two London fixtures of those ties, Arsenal drew 2-2 and won 2-1 against the most dazzling team in the world. Those nights reinvigorated my pride in sport. The Emirates Stadium had the best show in town. Defeat, when it arrived in Barcelona, was softened by gratitude. We’d been entertained, more than entertained.

Arsenal’s 5-1 surrender to Bayern Munich on 15 February was very different. In this capitulation by instalments, the fascination was macabre rather than dramatic. Having long given up on discerning signs of life, we began the post-mortem mid-match. As we pored over the entrails, the curiosity lay in the extent of the malady that had brought down the body. The same question, over and over: how could such an intelligent, deep-thinking manager preside over a hollowed-out team? How could failings so obvious to outsiders, the absence of steel and resilience, evade the judgement of the boss?

There is a saying in rugby union that forwards (the hard men) determine who wins, and the backs (the glamour boys) decide by how much. Here is a footballing equivalent: midfielders define matches, attacking players adorn them and defenders get the blame. Yet Arsenal’s players as good as vacated the midfield. It is hard to judge how well Bayern’s playmakers performed because they were operating in a vacuum; it looked like a morale-boosting training-ground drill, free from the annoying presence of opponents.

I have always been suspicious of the ­default English critique which posits that mentally fragile teams can be turned around by licensed on-field violence – a good kicking, basically. Sporting “character” takes many forms; physical assertiveness is only one dimension.

Still, it remains baffling, Wenger’s blind spot. He indulges artistry, especially the mercurial Mesut Özil, beyond the point where it serves the player. Yet he won’t protect the magicians by surrounding them with effective but down-to-earth talents. It has become a diet of collapsing soufflés.

What held back Wenger from buying the linchpin midfielder he has lacked for many years? Money is only part of the explanation. All added up, Arsenal do spend: their collective wage bill is the fourth-highest in the League. But Wenger has always been reluctant to lavish cash on a single star player, let alone a steely one. Rather two nice players than one great one.

The power of habit has become debilitating. Like a wealthy but conservative shopper who keeps going back to the same clothes shop, Wenger habituates the same strata of the transfer market. When he can’t get what he needs, he’s happy to come back home with something he’s already got, ­usually an elegant midfielder, tidy passer, gets bounced in big games, prone to going missing. Another button-down blue shirt for a drawer that is well stuffed.

It is almost universally accepted that, as a business, Arsenal are England’s leading club. Where their rivals rely on bailouts from oligarchs or highly leveraged debt, Arsenal took tough choices early and now appear financially secure – helped by their manager’s ability to engineer qualification for the Champions League every season while avoiding excessive transfer costs. Does that count for anything?

After the financial crisis, I had a revealing conversation with the owner of a private bank that had sailed through the turmoil. Being cautious and Swiss, he explained, he had always kept more capital reserves than the norm. As a result, the bank had made less money in boom years. “If I’d been a normal chief executive, I’d have been fired by the board,” he said. Instead, when the economic winds turned, he was much better placed than more bullish rivals. As a competitive strategy, his winning hand was only laid bare by the arrival of harder times.

In football, however, the crash never came. We all wrote that football’s insane spending couldn’t go on but the pace has only quickened. Even the Premier League’s bosses confessed to being surprised by the last extravagant round of television deals – the cash that eventually flows into the hands of managers and then the pockets of players and their agents.

By refusing to splash out on the players he needed, whatever the cost, Wenger was hedged for a downturn that never arrived.

What an irony it would be if football’s bust comes after he has departed. Imagine the scenario. The oligarchs move on, finding fresh ways of achieving fame, respectability and the protection achieved by entering the English establishment. The clubs loaded with debt are forced to cut their spending. Arsenal, benefiting from their solid business model, sail into an outright lead, mopping up star talent and trophies all round.

It’s often said that Wenger – early to invest in data analytics and worldwide scouts; a pioneer of player fitness and lifestyle – was overtaken by imitators. There is a second dimension to the question of time and circumstance. He helped to create and build Arsenal’s off-field robustness, even though football’s crazy economics haven’t yet proved its underlying value.

If the wind turns, Arsène Wenger may face a frustrating legacy: yesterday’s man and yet twice ahead of his time. 

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 24 February 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The world after Brexit