Clegg rejects ‘politics of blame’ and says voters want to be able to embrace hope

Economic downturn has fuelled intolerance, says Liberal Democrats leader

Liberal Democrats leader Nick Clegg delivers his keynote speech at the party’s spring conference in York. Photograph: EPA/Andy Rain

British voters are being offered "bile" and "the politics of blame" by the UK Independence Party, Liberal Democrats leader Nick Clegg has warned. "An ungenerous, backwards-looking politics has emerged in Britain. The politics of blame has found an acceptable face," he told his party's spring conference in York.

Ukip leader Nigel Farage may wear "a big smile and looks like someone you could have a pint with down the pub", but he is but a milder version of the intolerance seen elsewhere, said the deputy prime minister.

The economic crisis has created “an entirely understandable but dangerous urge to turn inwards, an urge to reject the new or unfamiliar and to shun the outside world”.

Extremist parties are on the rise in the EU, Mr Clegg said. In Greece, Golden Dawn won 18 seats by running an anti-immigration campaign titled, "So we can rid the land of this filth". In Hungary, a Jobbik party MP wants a register of Jews who, he claims, "pose a national security risk", while in Bulgaria an Ataka MP has described Syrian refugees as "terrible, despicable primates".


Scourge of xenophobia
"These are not far-flung places. This is our back yard. The forces of chauvinism, protectionism and xenophobia have been emboldened," said Mr Clegg. Seeking to position the Liberal Democrats as the party of "hope, not fear", he said it was the only party prepared to campaign openly for the UK to stay in the EU.

That battle begins in the European Parliament elections in May, not in a later referendum, he warned, asking voters: "Do you want Britain in Europe, or out?" Ukip, he said, "wants out", while the Conservatives are"flirting with exit" and Labour "don't have the courage of their convictions on this – they're saying nothing at all".

The Liberal Democrats’ belief in EU membership is not “some starry-eyed affection”, he said. “Of course it needs reform. But you can’t change it with one foot out the door.”

Rejecting as a lazy assumption the argument that UK Eurosceptics will inevitably win the debate, Mr Clegg told delegates: “There are plenty of people out there who don’t want anger. They don’t want bile. They want jobs. They want our country to have influence. They want opportunities. Ultimately they want hope,” he said.

The “oldest dividing line in politics – hope versus fear – and it’s back”, said Mr Clegg, who is positioning his party for coalition government with either the Conservatives or Labour.

Urging voters to “put the Liberal Democrats back in government again” in 2015, he said “the real test” will come after then to show whether or not “the mistakes of the past” have been learnt.

Mark Hennessy

Mark Hennessy

Mark Hennessy is Ireland and Britain Editor with The Irish Times