Nick Clegg arrives for his second debate with Nigel Farage. Source: Getty
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Anti-Establishment venom proves lethal to pro-European arguments

Nick Clegg stress-tested the case for Britain's EU membership in his debates with Nigel Farage and it failed.

This time Farage won it easily. The rapid reaction opinion poll shows the Ukip leader enjoyed an even wider margin of victory over the deputy Prime Minister than he did in last week’s TV debate. Comfortably more than two thirds of the surveyed audience sided against the EU, or rather, with the man who is against the EU.

There are many possible reasons for this. As last week, there is surely a predisposition in audiences to be suspicious of a pro-European argument and, in many quarters, an inclination to be suspicious of Nick Clegg. But the Lib Dem leader also seemed less stable in his rhetoric than last week, while Farage kept his cantankerous side in check. (Although he did display a sour, mirthless laugh that surely cannot have been endearing even to his most dedicated followers.)

Clegg seems to have decided that his performance last week lacked passion – perhaps because many of the reviews, including mine, said as much. Unfortunately, he responded with a  kind of urgent outrage that seemed directed as much at people who agree with Farage as at Farage himself. In other words, his attacks on the “dangerous fantasy” of wanting to “turn the clock back” must have come across as patronising and dismissive to people who are alarmed at and alienated by features of modern Britain – and there are probably more of them than there are die-hard Ukip voters.

The deputy Prime Minister put up a lively and robust defence of a diverse, open, tolerant society but he didn’t demonstrate that those things are contingent on continued membership of the EU. He denigrated the Ukip world view, which wasn’t the subject of the debate. Farage was more ruthlessly focused on the wickedness of Brussels. His hatred of the European project is not in doubt, as evidenced by his conviction that the EU has undeclared military imperial ambitions. Clegg is right when he says that line reeks of conspiracy theory and yet, I suspect, his efforts at ridicule – comparing Europhobia to doubts about the moon landing – missed their target. Farage neither looked nor sounded enough like a crank to make that attack work.

Clegg failed to rebut the view that Britain is controlled by a cabal of foreign bureaucrats – the most insidious and potent Eurosceptic theme. And yet again he found it hard to wriggle away from the argument that pro-Europeans don’t want to call a referendum because they are afraid the nation will deliver the “wrong” answer.

Farage’s foreign policy pronouncements – a kind of amoral isolationism that offers Vladimir Putin as an impressive practitioner of Great Game nationalism –  were as devoid of moral sense as they were last week. Except this time he had more space to expound on the theme and managed to turn it into a semi-coherent rejection of reckless interventions, deploying language often heard on the anti-war left.

Clegg’s final declaration of love for liberal, modern Britain will have earned cheers among his party faithful and that is half of his mission accomplished. But to win outright Clegg needed to show that Farage’s entire project runs on pessimism and fear. He needed to expose Ukip’s lack of any positive prescription and to remind people that Farage – public school educated, a former City trader, bankrolled by a handful of millionaires, free-riding on an MEP’s salary and allowances – has no credible claim to be the voice of the dispossessed. But Farage accused Clegg of being part of an “elite club of career politicians" in hock to "big business”. He offered his audience an invitation to  “join the people’s army and topple the Establishment.” And he got away with it. Clegg let him off the hook. This should cause alarm among those who believe in pragmatic engagement in Europe and those who take a liberal, open-minded, cosmopolitan view of the kind of place Britain should aspire to be. Perhaps Clegg was the wrong messenger. Perhaps under the circumstances he did well to get that case across at all. But it is hard to avoid the feeling that important arguments about Britain's cultural and economic future were stress-tested tonight and yielded too easily.

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

Paul McMillan
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"We're an easy target": how a Tory manifesto pledge will tear families apart

Under current rules, bringing your foreign spouse to the UK is a luxury reserved for those earning £18,600 a year or more. The Tories want to make it even more exclusive. 

Carolyn Matthew met her partner, George, in South Africa sixteen years ago. She settled down with him, had kids, and lived like a normal family until last year, when they made the fateful decision to move to her hometown in Scotland. Matthew, 55, had elderly parents, and after 30 years away from home she wanted to be close to them. 

But Carolyn nor George - despite consulting a South African immigration lawyer – did not anticipate one huge stumbling block. That is the rule, introduced in 2012, that a British citizen must earn £18,600 a year before a foreign spouse may join them in the UK. 

“It is very dispiriting,” Carolyn said to me on the telephone from Bo’ness, a small town on the Firth of Forth, near Falkirk. “In two weeks, George has got to go back to South Africa.” Carolyn, who worked in corporate complaints, has struggled to find the same kind of work in her hometown. Jobs at the biggest local employer tend to be minimum wage. George, on the other hand, is an engineer – yet cannot work because of his holiday visa. 

To its critics, the minimum income threshold seems nonsensical. It splits up families – including children from parents – and discriminates against those likely to earn lower wages, such as women, ethnic minorities and anyone living outside London and the South East. The Migration Observatory has calculated that roughly half Britain’s working population would not meet the requirement. 

Yet the Conservative party not only wishes to maintain the policy, but hike the threshold. The manifesto stated:  “We will increase the earnings thresholds for people wishing to sponsor migrants for family visas.” 

Initially, the threshold was justified as a means of preventing foreign spouses from relying on the state. But tellingly, the Tory manifesto pledge comes under the heading of “Controlling Immigration”. 

Carolyn points out that because George cannot work while he is visiting her, she must support the two of them for months at a time without turning to state aid. “I don’t claim benefits,” she told me. “That is the last thing I want to do.” If both of them could work “life would be easy”. She believes that if the minimum income threshold is raised any further "it is going to make it a nightmare for everyone".

Stuart McDonald, the SNP MP for Cumbernauld, Kilsyth and Kirkintilloch East, co-sponsored a Westminster Hall debate on the subject earlier this year. While the Tory manifesto pledge is vague, McDonald warns that one option is the highest income threshold suggested in 2012 - £25,700, or more than the median yearly wage in the East Midlands. 

He described the current scheme as “just about the most draconian family visa rules in the world”, and believes a hike could affect more than half of British citizens. 

"Theresa May is forcing people to choose between their families and their homes in the UK - a choice which most people will think utterly unfair and unacceptable,” he said.  

For those a pay rise away from the current threshold, a hike will be demoralising. For Paul McMillan, 25, it is a sign that it’s time to emigrate.

McMillan, a graduate, met his American girlfriend Megan while travelling in 2012 (the couple are pictured above). He could find a job that will allow him to meet the minimum income threshold – if he were not now studying for a medical degree.  Like Matthew, McMillan’s partner has no intention of claiming benefits – in fact, he expects her visa would specifically ban her from doing so. 

Fed up with the hostile attitude to immigrants, and confident of his options elsewhere, McMillan is already planning a career abroad. “I am going to take off in four years,” he told me. 

As for why the Tories want to raise the minimum income threshold, he thinks it’s obvious – to force down immigration numbers. “None of this is about the amount of money we need to earn,” he said. “We’re an easy target for the government.”

Julia Rampen is the digital news editor of the New Statesman (previously editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog). She has also been deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines. 

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