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Jemima Khan meets Nick Clegg: “I’m not a punchbag – I have feelings”

The NS guest editor Jemima Khan talks to the Liberal Democrat leader about life on the far side of power and what it’s like to be a cut-out.

Nick Clegg and I smile genially at each other across the table of a standard-class train carriage. He is on his way to his constituency in Sheffield to talk about manufacturing. Pale-faced, pale-eyed and so tired he appears taxidermied, he looks like he could do with a holiday, except he's just had one – skiing in Davos with his children as the Libyan crisis escalated (for which he was lambasted).

Nick Clegg is the Tim Henman of politics: a decent man for whom Cleggmania represented the peak of his career, his Henman Hill moment. Then he became the Deputy Prime Minister and, shortly after, an effigy.

The carefree, cloud-cuckoo days of opposition, when he had a platform and little criticism, are long gone. At last year's Liberal Democrat spring conference, a fresh-looking and ebullient Clegg had gesticulated and boomed: "We see the same old broken promises. No wonder people feel let down." A year on, he was less combative, more ambivalent. His many critics pointed to his own broken promises and let-down voters.

Clegg concedes that it has been a "very sharp transition". "Of course it has had a dramatic effect on how I'm perceived, the kind of dilemmas I have to face," he says. "I don't even pretend we can occupy the Lib Dem holier-than-thou, hands-entirely-clean-and-entirely-empty-type stance. No, we are getting our hands dirty, and inevitably and totally understandably we are being accused of being just like any other politicians."

His point – and it seems a fair one – is that the British public voted, no one party won and that coalition government, by definition, is a compromise. "A whole lot of things are happening that would just never in a month of Sundays have happened without the Lib Dems there," he says. The morning of our meeting, he claims to have "squeezed out of [George] Osborne" a promise of a green investment bank, not simply a fund. "We've done more on liberty and privacy," he adds, "in the past ten months than Labour did in the past 13 years."

All this has done little to dilute the vitriol of his opponents. John Prescott has likened him to Jedward, the risible and tuneless twins from The X Factor. Ed Miliband has called him "a tragic figure", one too toxic to share a platform with ahead of the referendum on the Alternative Vote. Clegg insists that none of this bothers him. "I see it exactly for what it is. [Ed] is a perfectly nice guy but he has a problem, which is that he's not in control of his own party, so he constantly has to keep his troops happy and he thinks that ranting and raving at me is the way to do it."

Since joining the government, and in particular since his U-turn on university tuition fees, Clegg has had dog mess posted through his door and been spat at in the street. It must upset him. "No, well look, I'm a human being, I'm not a punchbag – I've of course got feelings."

He pauses. "Actually, the curious thing is that the more you become a subject of admiration or loathing, the more you're examined under a microscope, the distance seems to open up between who you really are and the portrayals that people impose on you . . . I increasingly see these images of me, cardboard cut-outs that get ever more outlandish . . . One thing I've very quickly learned is that if you wake up every morning worrying about what's in the press, you would go completely and utterly potty."

After ten months in government, he has a guardedness that did not exist in the days when he told Piers Morgan he'd had roughly 30 lovers. These days he is tightly managed. I have already had a pre-interview briefing with one adviser, and now Clegg's version of Andy Coulson, who is sitting to his right, is busy taking written notes of our interview, as well as recording it. When Clegg gets sidetracked, he prompts him, head down, pen poised over notebook, deadpan: "You were talking about what you've achieved . . ."

Everyone seems painfully aware that my task as interviewer is to catch him out, to get him to say the wrong thing. Clegg's task, like all politicians, is to rattle off rhetoric, to be evasive and as uncontroversial as possible, and to fill up the tape with unquotable patter.

All of which makes interviewing him excruciating. He continues: "What we've achieved so far . . . I think just having a government with two parties in it is already such a big new thing. I know it has been born in a blaze of controversy because of the difficult economic decisions we've had to take . . . but if we're lucky, people will look back on it in 20 or 30 years' time as quite a normal thing in British politics that politicians can actually agree with each other from time to time.

“That in itself is quite big and radical. In the week or two leading up to the general election, every single newspaper was screaming from the headlines: 'A hung parliament will be a disaster, coalition politics will be a disaster. Nothing will get done.' And the extraordinary thing is that now we're being accused of almost exactly the reverse – of doing too much."

Of doing too much? Or of being too Tory? Clegg's dilemma is that, on the one hand, he is in danger of being seen as too close to David Cameron and the Conservatives, and losing credibility with his party and voters. On the other hand, he can't be too distant, because that would be damaging for the coalition and a gift for the opposition and the press, which is constantly looking for rifts.

Before the election, Clegg let it be known that he had turned down an invitation to dine with the Camerons at their home in Notting Hill. He wanted to maintain a distance. Perhaps wary of looking like he fits too easily into the port-swilling, waistcoat-wearing Bullingdon Club set, he is still keen to present Cameron as more working partner than friend.

“We don't regard each other as mates and actually I don't think it would be a particularly healthy thing if we tried to become personal mates," he says. "I don't think a coalition works unless you have a very careful balance between mutual respect and civility and also a certain hardness, as at the end of the day you are representing different views."

I've heard that they play tennis together. "No, no – well, er, I think we've played one game of tennis. Of course we meet from time to time but it's always basically to talk about what we're doing in government."

Who won?

“Ah no, that's a state secret," he jokes. (Cameron won.)

Earlier, at my pre-interview briefing, Clegg's adviser Richard Reeves, the former head of Demos, characterised being in the coalition as like being in a marriage – you both get to know instinctively which are the no-go areas.

Clegg concedes that there are "some areas where we flatly disagree" with the Tories, such as on Europe ("I think you can't make sense of this world unless you work together with other folk in the European neighbourhood") and taxation ("Our reflexes as Lib Dems are to try to give tax breaks to people on middle or lower incomes, whereas traditionally they are more interested in trickle-down economics"), but denies that there are "no-go areas". "Look, we're on completely opposite sides of the fence on the AV referendum."

He refuses to concede that signing the pledge to vote against an increase in university tuition fees before the election was a mistake. "That would be a cop-out. I did it. And I have a rather old-fashioned belief that you've got to stand by what you've done and take the consequences, good or bad." He insists that it was not one of his main manifesto priorities anyway. "I didn't even spend that much time campaigning on tuition fees."

Instead, he says, he spent "every single day and every single interview talking about the four things that were on the front page of the manifesto – namely the pupil premium, two and a half million quid for disadvantaged kids; changing the tax system, so you don't pay tax on your first £10,000; political reform; and sorting out the banks and rebalancing the economy."

That's all very well, but given that the Lib Dems are only ever likely to be in government as part of a coalition, how will he deal with pledges made in future election campaigns? Will there be pledges with caveats, depending on which party he clambers into bed with next? "I think that we need to be clearer about what are the really big, big priorities."

After his capitulation on tuition fees, there are many who now fear that nothing is sacred for the Lib Dems. He denies this. "If the Conservatives wanted to become as authoritarian as Blair and New Labour, I wouldn't have it – but it wouldn't happen, as it couldn't happen with us in [the coalition]."

Clegg is emphatic that he will not allow the Tories to disempower the Lib Dems' much-loved European Court of Human Rights. The problem with being in a coalition government is that it acts as a gag. There are times in the interview when Clegg looks so pained as to remind me of Colin Firth in the opening scenes of The King's Speech, particularly when issues of Rupert Murdoch and phone-hacking come up. I know what he'd have said if he were in opposition. The Lib Dems were always very critical of the Cameron-Murdoch cabal. Some Lib Dem MPs were victims of phone-hacking by the News of the World.

“My thoughts are," he begins haltingly, "that it has all come out much more into the open since the police investigation . . . and I think, you know, since those days it is becoming much more out there, and quite rightly. I've always said that the police have got to investigate and the CPS [Crown Prosecution Service] have got to take action. Look, I don't follow every twist and turn . . ." His press secretary looks up for the first time.

What of those, such as the Labour MPs Chris Bryant and Tom Watson, who believe that the Murdochs have too much power and influence over politicians? There's a long pause. "I think that the days when newspaper barons could basically click their fingers and governments would snap to attention have gone," he says.

Clegg is exceptionally loyal to David Cameron – I expect he is a loyal man by nature, not design – but there's a fine line between being loyal and sounding plain disingenuous. So, what does he think of the dinner party hosted over Christmas by News International's chief executive, Rebekah Brooks, at her Cotswolds home, attended by the Camerons and James Murdoch?

“I don't know anything about Oxfordshire dinner parties," he says. Of course he does. Everyone in politics knows about the get-together of Brooks, Cameron and Rupert Murdoch's son, and most agree that the timing of it was inappropriate, given that there was a criminal investigation under way over phone-hacking in the Murdoch empire, as well as ongoing negotiations with the regulatory authorities over the ownership of BSkyB.

“Well, I'm assuming that they weren't sitting there talking about News International issues," says Clegg. "Look, you're putting me in a very awkward spot. If you've got an issue with it, speak to Dave. I don't hang out in Oxfordshire at dinner parties. It's not my world. It's never going to be my world."

He looks pained. I feel sorry for him and I can't help telling him so. I was married to a politician and I remember the constant self-censorship and, in my case, the gaffes. I get the impression that Nick Clegg is an honest, straightforward man in a dishonest, unstraightforward world, in which nobody can say what they really think.

An interruption offers some blessed relief. A beaming middle-aged woman who has spotted Clegg on the train passes a note to his aide. It reads: "I couldn't resist such a unique opportunity to say, 'Stick With It!' The vast majority of us think the coalition are doing the right thing. We know it's tough but it's very necessary. All the best."

The press secretary looks triumphant. Clegg looks momentarily less beleaguered. He thanks the woman graciously and just as I am wondering if it was a set-up, Clegg jokes that it was. He often gets support from the public, he says, but the difference is that these days people whisper their congratulations, "as if it's a guilty secret saying anything nice about Nick Clegg". He should watch those slips into the third person – an early sign that a person is losing touch with reality.

Clegg was a strong opponent of the war in Iraq and for that he earned many supporters. His backing of the "surge" and British forces' continued presence in Afghan­istan is therefore surprising. There are rumours, which he denies, that he wanted to call for an immediate withdrawal of troops but that the former Lib Dem leader Paddy Ashdown, an ex-marine, persuaded him not to.

“In a sense," Clegg says, "we have brought our ambition to a much more realistic level. We've now got an exit date, which we didn't have before, and a much better set of weapons on the ground. And crucially you've got the British government saying to [President Hamid] Karzai – who I had dinner with recently – this cannot be won militarily. Once you're in that far and you've had that many people die and be maimed, I think it would be morally questionable to cut and run overnight."

It is hard to avoid the conclusion that the real reason we continue to pour money into a war with no clear goals – and continue to line the roads of Wootton Bassett – is so that those in power will be able to keep on claiming that "they did not die in vain".

“Look, it's never perfect. It's not a neat world," says Clegg. He is above all a pragmatist for whom coalition, foreign policy and life are a balancing act. He accepts that there are moral problems with supporting Karzai's government, which has no authority outside the Afghan capital, Kabul, and which, according to the Transparency International corruption index, was last year the second most corrupt in the world. "Exactly – that's where it gets messy and imperfect."

Clegg is pleased to have "got more balance into the debate on Israel in the party". While he is "undimmed" in his criticism of Israel's illegal settlement activity and his "absolute horror of what is a humanitarian catastrophe in Gaza", he stresses that "Israel has legitimate security issues in a region where there is a threat to its existence".

He denies that there is a fundamental incompatibility between the west's rhetoric about democracy and our need for oil. "Do we have vital economic self-interest to keep lights on? Yes. Do I think that should be won at the cost of always being on the side of people who want to express themselves and want democracy? No."

He refuses to be drawn on whether he thinks it was bad timing for Cameron to tour the Middle East on a "UK trade mission"- a euphemism for peddling arms to despots – at a time when there are widespread protests in favour of democracy in the region. He will say, though, that the business of selling arms represents "a horrendous dilemma".

That we have sold arms to repressive regimes – tear gas grenades to Bahrain, armoured personnel carriers to Saudi Arabia, crowd-control ammunition to Libya – is "of course wrong", he agrees. "That's why we've suspended scores and scores of export licences. What guarantee do you have when you export product X to country Y, who seem totally hunky-dory, totally peaceful, and what happens when the country goes belly up? What we're doing is pragmatic rather than pure."

Even the language Clegg uses is moderate and qualified, interspersed with phrases such as "kind of" and "on the other hand" as well as rhetorical questions and unfinished sentences. He's unhyperbolic and ambiguous in a way that must be alien to most Tories. Whereas Cameron strikes me as a man with almost no self-doubt, Clegg seems more self-questioning and less bombastic. I suspect that he is as accom­modating and good at compromise in his marriage as he has been politically.

He smiles for the first time when he tells me that his Spanish wife, Miriam, has "got wonderfully strong opinions". It's clear for a start who chose the names for their three children, Antonio, Alberto and Miguel Clegg. They are being brought up as Roman Catholics, even though Clegg has said he is an atheist. The children are bilingual, speaking both Spanish and English fluently.

At one point, it was assumed that Miriam would be the one with the big career and he would be the thinker and take care of their children. After his eldest son was born, Clegg says: "Miriam was in a particularly intense period of her career and I was in a particularly relaxed period of mine . . . coming to the end of my time as an MEP, so I was very, very involved. I wasn't the primary parent – Miriam would get very annoyed if she were to read that – but I was very involved and you carry that on with you."

He has successfully managed to keep his family out of the spotlight, "to create a firewall" between his world and theirs, although he worries constantly that "what I am doing in my work impacts on them emotionally, because my nine-year-old is starting to sense things and I'm having to explain things. Like he asks, 'Why are the students angry with you, Papa?'"

Clegg refuses "to play politics" with his children, or to say whether or not they will go to a private school. While he's not "ideologically opposed to fee-paying schools existing", he is offended by the notion that it would be his decision alone, rather than one he would reach with Miriam. "I go: hang on a minute – what century are we living in?"

The same applies to what he might do in the future. He certainly does not want to be in politics all his life. "I think that's deeply unhealthy. I look at those people that got into politics when they were 16 and are still at it in their late sixties and think, 'My heavens above!'" Judging by the most recent opinion polls, he may not have the luxury of choice. Either way, he says, Miriam has made "masses of sacrifices putting up with me and politics" and this will be something they decide on together. He'd like to think, though, that he would go into education.

He is besotted by his "three lovely boys" and is most proud "by a long shot" of the family life he has created with Miriam. They manage to lead a relatively normal life, "not in a bunker in Westminster", and he tries to pick his children up from school and put them to bed at night at least two or three times a week.

He regrets that sometimes he doesn't always get the balance right, which makes him "quite miserable" and unable to do his job properly.Sometimes he has to tell them white lies if he is stuck in a meeting. At home, in the evenings, he likes to read novels and says he "cries regularly to music."

I receive a snapshot of his family life when, after the interview is over, I am invited to dine with other journalists at Chevening, the grace- and-favour house in Kent that Clegg shares with William Hague. Clegg arrives two hours late – he's been in protracted discussions over Libya – and looks corpse-like with exhaustion. The contrast with his vibrant, pretty wife, with her big bawdy laugh, could not be more stark. His children seem delightful – and delightfully normal.

Clegg has been accused of selling out, of providing a yellow fig leaf for the Tories' less attractive bits. But I expect that he would see opting out of the coalition or leaving politics altogether as the biggest cop-out of all. He is not consumed by politics – he has a fulfilling life away from Westminster – but he seems to have an old-fashioned sense of duty and believes that, without him there in the cabinet, the Tories would be up to far more of their old tricks. He might well be right – but will he be so easily forgiven by the voters?

“I have a faintly romantic belief that if over five years I just keep steadily trying to do the best I can, with all the difficult dilemmas we face, with not very much money, all those kinds of things . . . we will kind of come through. I think if people see that someone is trying to do the right thing and maybe they're not entirely succeeding, they kind of will go with you. And that's all you can do."

He suddenly looks very, very sad. A week later I glimpse him on television, on the front bench on Budget Day. Cameron sits to his left, looking ruddy and shiny, straight off the playing fields, ready for an interminable life of "Yeah, yeah, yeah" in the Commons. Clegg, by contrast, looks like he's in black and white – lost and out of place.

Later that evening, I get a text from his press secretary, offering me "a full copy of the note that lady passed on the train". He thought I might like it for my piece, "in case it needs some colour".

Jemima Khan is associate editor of the New Statesman

This article first appeared in the 11 April 2011 issue of the New Statesman, Jemima Khan guest edit

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The great escape

Almost a thousand people drowned in the waters between Libya and Italy in May. Yet still more migrants come. Can anything be done, or are we experiencing a crisis without end?

On 14 June 1985, representatives of five out of the ten members of the then European Economic Community (EEC) – Belgium, France, West Germany, the Netherlands and Luxembourg – gathered on the Princess Marie-Astrid, a boat moored on the banks of the Moselle River in Luxembourg. Their pens were poised over a pact that aimed to dissolve the internal borders of Europe. The agreement was named after the nearby ­riverside town: Schengen.

There were only five signatories because the other EEC members – including Britain – were dragging their feet. But the bureaucrats had only to glance at the vineyards outside to remember why they were here. To the east of the river lay Germany; a short distance upstream was France. Belgium was only a bike ride away and the Netherlands a cursory drive. The people who lived in this corner of Europe criss-crossed national borders all the time. Wouldn’t it be marvellous if they didn’t have to be scrutinised as if they were spies when they were only nipping over the river to buy a sausage or deliver a letter?

It was also an evocative place in another way. This terrain of hills and forests was haunted by centuries of bloodshed. It was where France, Germany and Britain had fought many of their wars: Waterloo was an hour or so to the west by car; Verdun was even closer; the Battle of the Bulge had raged just north of here in 1944 and early 1945. The Schengen Agreement was an attempt to lay such awful ghosts to rest. From now on, people would not have to show passports but could simply “drive slowly” across the frontiers.

David Cameron has received much flak for reminding voters of this detail but it would be shallow to ignore it. The agreement had a significant effect not just on daily life but on tourism, trade and commerce. In the 1990s, many of the old and new members of the European Union signed up and the expansion continued in the 2000s with the joining of non-members such as Norway, Iceland and Switzerland. Today, the Schengen Area is made up of 26 European countries. All the while, Britain and Ireland, anxious behind their sea walls, shook their heads.

Schengen was an optimistic idea and anyone who has worked or holidayed in ­Europe since 1985 has felt the ease that it has brought to the crossing of borders. But as it celebrates its coming of age, 21 years since its inception, Schengen is in the dock. Those who designed it to liberate movement in Europe did not imagine international migration on today’s scale. Partly as a result of the speed of modern travel and communications, more than 240 million people now live outside the country of their birth. This is one of the most important facts of modern life and, because Europe is among the nicest places in the world to live, it is forcing politicians and electorates to ask awkward questions about the way they conduct themselves.

Migration makes people twitchy, for understandable reasons. It would be a mistake to think of the present commotion as a topical issue that can easily be fixed. Last year, a million people fled Africa and the Middle East for Europe. This month, as footballers gather in France and the Mediterranean warms up, it is happening all over again.

Almost every week there is news of a fresh disaster. The EU deal with Turkey – in which the country will be paid €3bn in aid and granted other concessions in return for policing and processing its three million refugees more rigorously – has calmed traffic in the Aegean. Yet the people smugglers have shifted their attention back to the perilous sea crossing between Libya and Italy. Almost a thousand people drowned there in the last week of May, bringing the total to 2,500 so far this year, and there are aquatic graveyards for 4,000 Syrians who have died in Greek waters in recent years.

We cannot be sanguine about the prospect of the English Channel becoming the stage for similar scenes as the summer advances. It could hardly be on the same scale as what is happening in the Mediterranean, but there are already sporadic attempts to make the crossing and there will almost certainly be more. This is no passing cloud. It may even be a permanent shift in the wind.

***

uman beings have always migrated, moving from place to place in search of kinder skies, better food or nicer neighbours. Mobile phones and the internet have made it much easier for migrants to communicate and gather information. Nonetheless, today’s Mediterranean exodus involves people walking from Syria to Sweden – far from a hi-tech manoeuvre. Some politicians want to depict the migrants as trespassing, heavily armed intruders but most people can see that they are both ordinary and desperate: brothers-in-alms.

This may be one of those historic population shifts that mark the story of Europe. One thinks of the swirl of German and Scandinavian peoples in the first millennium – the Franks, Angles, Saxons, Goths and Norsemen who created early Christendom; the flight from Europe between 1850 and 1910, when people emigrated to the New World at a rate of almost a million a year; or those who were displaced after the Second World War. Is it possible that today’s turbulence is the first sign of something along those lines? The EU border force, Frontex, estimates that there were 1.8 million illegal border crossings in 2015, six times as many as in 2014, and the true figure is probably higher. It is no wonder that no one knows what to do.

Until now, this migration has been viewed as a response to urgent pressures such as war, poverty, religious violence and famine. Yet what it most resembles is an ­alteration in the prevailing weather: people are swirling between areas of wealth and poverty, just as air is squeezed between high- and low-pressure zones. The disparities between Europe, Africa and the Middle East are profound. This is not about foreign chancers wanting to try their luck in Swindon. It is demographic climate change.

It may be beyond the ability of governments to resist this. They don’t like to admit it but they find controlling the movement of peoples as hard as nailing down their currencies. David Cameron vowed to reduce the number of immigrants to the “tens of thousands” in 2010 but he hasn’t come close. While his enemies enjoy depicting this as a broken promise, it is a sign that politicians have only so much power.

There are other reasons to be fearful. Quarrels over water will shape the next century just as oil shaped the last one. In 1950 there were 500 large dams in the world; now, there are more than 45,000. On any map of future water shortages, the warning signs flash over North Africa and the Middle East – and when the wells dry up, people will move.

The nations involved in today’s ­exodus are relatively small. The populations of Afghanistan, Eritrea and Syria together amount to 60 million. If war or disaster were ever to engulf larger countries such as Egypt or Pakistan, Europe would have an even bigger headache. These two nations have a combined population of 264 million.

Fortunately, there is some good news. Hard though it is to believe in the current atmosphere, migration is a force for good. The noisy claim that it presents a threat to our crumbling infrastructure and cultural blood pressure may sound like common sense but it is a myth. Migrants do not drive down wages, steal jobs, overwhelm social services and displace “true-born” Brits. The opposite is true: in the long run, at least, they expand the economy and promote innovation.

Study after study confirms this simple point. Periods of high migration correlate with economic growth – which is no surprise, given that migration allocates people to places where they can be most productive. This is why the UN estimates that 1 per cent of migration translates into a boost in GDP of 1.5 per cent. And this is why J K Galbraith wrote:

Migration is the oldest action against poverty. It selects those who most want help. It is good for the country to which they go; it helps break the equilibrium of poverty in the country from which they come. What is the perversity in the human soul that causes people to resist so obvious a good?

This is not to say that there are not bottlenecks. There are. But although it seems to be an ingrained human assumption to believe that more for you means less for me, the fear that migrants overwhelm services and create social deprivation has a flimsy basis. The Merseyside borough of Knowsley is the second most deprived area in Britain, yet one of the least affected by immigration. Governments should do more to relieve deprivation but this could involve building hospitals or schools, rather than electrifying borders or watching people drown.

The second item of good news is that even the most alarming statistics in this area are soft-centred. Anti-immigrant campaigners enjoy gasping at the idea that some 300,000 people, roughly the population of Plymouth or Newcastle, are arriving in the UK each year; they imply that these people are swelling the queues for health care, housing and schools. But more than half this number (167,000 in 2015) is composed of students, who pay high fees to attend British institutions; tertiary education is an important export. And migration today is no longer a once-in-a-lifetime decision but a fluid and intricate process. Migrants drift this way in search of jobs; some stay, while others drift out again. Many even go home for the weekend, or the summer.

It is almost impossible in the present maelstrom to think of migration as a boon. Loud voices insist that migrants are a nuisance, a burden and a threat. It almost defies logic to see them as an energetic itinerant workforce of ordinary people. But the larger truth is that it hardly matters what we think. The question now is not whether or not we wish migration was happening, but how to make the best of the reality that it is.

***

he migrant crisis has commercial implications. This summer’s holidaymakers are likely to shun Greece and Turkey in favour of Spain, which is looking forward to a record-breaking year.

The most striking consequence, however, is the surge of nationalist politics across Europe, from Golden Dawn in Greece and the Freedom Party of Austria to the UK Independence Party. The nationalist wrecking ball is swinging.

In Britain’s case, this has taken the form of an assault on the European project, which, though not racist, encourages the expression of some ancient prejudices. As the day of the referendum approaches, the leaders of the Brexit campaign are playing what we might call the Donald Trump card by attacking immigration. The weightier cultural issues are drowned out in the urge to warn Daddy that there are strangers coming up the drive.

This urge is strong and, in the EU debate, creates odd bedfellows – George Galloway and David Owen on one side; Jeremy Corbyn and George Osborne on the other. It also persuades men such as Michael Gove, Boris Johnson and Iain Duncan Smith to abandon their lifelong sympathy for the pro-business argument and pose as soulmates of the working man. But the biggest irony is of a different order. It would be perverse if the reflex hostility to migration leads us to take to our little coracle just when the real storm is beginning.

This brings us back to the fragility of Europe’s supposedly porous borders. In truth, they have never been set in stone. Various time-lapse videos on the internet (such as the one on viralforest.com) race through a millennium in mere minutes. The Holy Roman Empire spreads from Sicily to Germany and Muslims press into Spain. The ­Mongols advance and recede; central Europe explodes into a galaxy of tiny princedoms and France’s eastern border wriggles like an angry snake. The Ottoman, ­Austro-Hungarian, German and Soviet empires bulge and fall back. Nations come and go in a flash.

It is a salutary reminder that the nation states of Europe have long been elastic and that if the nation state is not yet dead – declarations of its demise are premature – it can at least be said that nations and states are not the same thing. When people yell that we have “lost control” of our borders, they are imagining a past that never was: in the great rough and tumble of Victorian England not a soul was turned away. Britain has been secure on its island but Europe has never been a fortress. If we instal the apparatus of a police state at our ports and harbours – watchtowers, searchlights, paramilitary officials – we may be able to deter some paperless hotel workers and scare off a few students. But this would come at a heavy price.

If stable borders are a modern idea, so, too, are passports. The first identity papers for “safe conduct” were issued in the England of Henry V but the modern passport is a child of the French Revolution. An uprising that dreamed of liberating the citoyens wasted no time in introducing state surveillance: it feared the enemies of the revolution. Britain followed suit in 1794. It wasn’t until the First World War that photographic identification became mandatory. Before then, as A J P Taylor once wrote, “a sensible, law-abiding Englishman could pass through life and hardly notice the existence of the state”.

It is hard to imagine such a time now. There are few more emotive reminders of it than the refugee encampment at Calais known as “the Jungle”. A new exhibition on the quiet resilience of the people stuck in that Anglo-French limbo – “Call Me By My Name”, which recently opened at the Londonewcastle Project Space in Shoreditch, east London – highlights again the way in which inflammatory abstractions (“Immigration chaos!”; “Take back control!”) can trounce ordinary human responses. After all, when the von Trapp family, the illegal migrants in The Sound of Music, finally make it over the border, there isn’t a dry eye in the house.

In medieval times Calais was a major English town, a bustling centre of its wool trade. Dick Whittington was its mayor; there was a royal mint. The inhabitants of the Jungle may not know it, but their footsteps have led them to a resonant spot. l

Robert Winder is the author of Bloody Foreigners: the Story of Immigration to Britain (Abacus)

This article first appeared in the 16 June 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Britain on the brink