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Pro-European high-flier to lead Liberal Democrats

By Dipankar De Sarkar, IANS

London : A pro-European former journalist who has proposed an amnesty for some of Britain’s hundreds of thousands of illegal immigrants has been picked to lead the Liberal Democrats, Britain’s third largest political party.

Nick Clegg, a 40-year-old high-flier and former member of the European Parliament, polled 20,988 to rival Chris Huhn’s 20,477 votes to become the head of a party whose role could become crucial at the next general elections in Britain.

Prime Minister Gordon Brown has until June 2010 to call elections and if neither the ruling Labour nor opposition Tory party gets a clear mandate at the next hustings, the role of the Liberal Democrats – independent, but ideologically closer to Labour – could become crucial in deciding the party in power.

The Liberal Democrats have 63 seats in the 646-seat British parliament, well behind Labour’s 352 and the Tories’ 194. But Labour has trailed the Tories in a string of recent opinion polls.

Clegg, who worked as a journalist at the Financial Times newspaper and was chief of staff to European Commissioner Sir Leon Brittan before becoming an European legislator from 1999 to 2004, Tuesday promised to rebuild the party that has recently found itself at its lowest popularity ratings in many years.

“This election marks a new beginning,” Clegg said in his acceptance speech.

“Today is about two things: ambition and change. Renewed ambition for the Liberal Democrats, renewed ambition to reach out to millions of people who I know share our instincts and values but don’t yet vote for us.”

“I believe liberalism is the thread that holds together everything that this country stands for,” he added.

Clegg earned praise as the Liberal Democrats’ home affairs spokesman earlier this year for suggesting an amnesty for illegal immigrants.

Clegg’s proposal is to allow some illegal immigrants – whose numbers are thought to lie anywhere between 300,000 and 900,000 – to be given British citizenship if they can prove they have been staying in Britain for ‘many years’ without a criminal record, show their proficiency in the English language and be able to pay a fee.

“With these conditions, the plan looks more credible than the government’s commitment to deport all illegal immigrants, something which at the current rate would take at least 25 years.

“It may also be more humane: giving such migrants legal status should make it easier to protect them from people-trafficking, low pay and other forms of exploitation,” the Economist magazine said.