May 20, 2002

Let Them In

It is sometimes all too easy to see why the British left are so adamantine in their assumption of moral superiority. Take for example the absence of right wing opposition to 'Gypsy' Jack Straw's Immigration and Asylum Bill in the last parliament. This truly terrible bill had as one of its many odious ingredients the degradation of refugees' children. Thanks to it, the Children Act 1989 – which obliged councils to protect children from destitution – no longer applies if such wretches have the additional misfortune of being the children of asylum-seekers. And from this level of creativity Jack Straw has moved on to being Foreign Secretary from his old job as Home Secretary.

Though, while he was still Home Secretary, Jack Straw came to the view that we needed a common European immigration policy because the British judiciary are 'too protective of the rights of asylum seekers'. Their worst crime was to rule that women in fear of domestic violence in Pakistan should be given asylum – the Home Office believes only political claimants should be considered. Right wing opposition to this vile stance was instanced only by the fact that Labour proposed tackling the problem [sic] through the establishment of a European asylum tribunals court.

The other horrors of Mr Straw’s awful Asylum Act are consistent with its purpose, to deter through unpleasantness immigration. Those claiming asylum now get food vouchers, £1 a day in actual cash (50p extra for each child), they have no choice where they stay, and, if unsuccessful in their asylum application, they receive no benefits at all whilst their appeal is being heard. In short, the record of the Labour party in office after 1997 has been a choice piece of governing liberal immigration hypocrisy.

This reached its zenith in establishment mummery over the Empire Windrush, the fiftieth anniversary of whose docking occurred shortly after Labour returned from eighteen years in opposition. The Empire Windrush was a small steamer that disgorged several hundred West Indian immigrants to post-war Britain, and is generally used as convenient shorthand to refer to the beginning of mass, non-white immigration to the UK. It, the anniversary, was used by government, BBC and liberal broadsheets to glorify both the event itself , and the world it is held to have created – modern, multi-racial Britain. A central irony being that, regardless of how fabulous or otherwise contemporary Britain is, it would never have come into being in the first place if Jack Straw, David Blunkett and Tony Blair (or for that matter, Iain Duncan Smith and Oliver Letwin) had been waiting at Tilbury. The immigration regime these politicians have all presided over would, if it had been in place in the 40s and 50s, have kept Britain an all-white country.

One has to wonder, was there an optimum number of black people whom we positively needed to let in, and, as it happens, we've met that target? Because of course too many black people would . . . Well, what would they? There must be some consequence that would entail from their admission, given the cross party consensus determined now to keep them out. A 747 filled with ‘economic migrants’ from the West Indies, with the legend Empire Windrush painted beneath the cockpit, that landed at Heathrow today would be given the bum’s rush equally quickly by all of Britain’s leading politicians.

As Labour and Tory in office practice the same zero-immigration policies, the only difference between them is ideological. Labour's is the hypocrisy of lauding our multi-racial society while all the while ensuring that it doesn't get any more multi-racial. Whereas, Tory thought and practice are regrettably more coherent. They really don't want any more black people in Britain, and a large number of Tories believe that there are already too many black Britons as it is. To this end the Immigration and Asylum Bill is just desiderata – simply another face pulled at immigrants by Whitehall in order to ward them off.

Our current immigration laws have the object of keeping black people out of Britain. This is disastrous: mass immigration has been decreasing, is decreasing, and ought to increase. Everything that flowed from previous waves of immigration has been unambiguously good for Britain – it has made us a far more interesting country to live in, we have provided safe haven for the oppressed to prosper in, and it has produced no downside whatsoever. It certainly hasn't led to an increase in crime: crime in this country does have a correlation with status, but that status is class, not race. The sole short-coming so far of British immigration policy has been the number of immigrants still trapped on the lowest rung of the working class.

The canards which underpin the anti-immigration consensus come under three main headings: 'the hidden millions' thesis; the 'asylum seeker' vs. 'economic migrant' debate; and the Enoch fallacy.

For those who want no further mass immigration (and are pretty quiet about how much they wish there had been in the past) it is an article of faith that, despite 'official' government policy, Britain is teeming with millions of illegal immigrants. Indeed it is part of 'the conspiracy' that there are no official government figures as to the exact quantity of illegal immigrants secretly resident in Britain at any given moment. Hence they turn to molochs like the Immigration Services Union (ISU) for absurd guestimates. A rash move since, in the annals of British trades unionism, those concerned with immigration are rivalled in their inadequacy, sloth and misconduct only by the teaching and prison unions.

Despite the evidence of anyone’s eyes that we're palpably not 'swamped' anti-immigration rhetoric becomes quite barking about the third world. It is a given that in remote villages in Guinea Bissau there is complete familiarity with both the official rubric of British immigration law, and, with the 'inefficient reality'. Frequently in this scenario are posited shady Mr. Bigs, who ruthlessly exploit these supposed loopholes, and make fortunes transporting the inhabitants of Guinea Bissau to, of all places, Dover or Heathrow.

If the idea of 'hidden millions' is too easily perceived as lunacy, justification for highly restrictive immigration laws revolves round the 'genuine asylum-seekers' vs. 'economic migrants' debate.

We're in favour of the former, but we hate and fear that latter: the important thing, we say, is to distinguish between the worthy and the unworthy. This is a dubious distinction. If our immigration laws are intended to exclude the menacing poor, why do they exclude all foreigners? Why not simply have a wealth threshold for entry to, and continued residence in, the UK? The fact that we don't is proof our system is racist – we're disingenuous because we know the truth is shameful. To justify to ourselves barring poor (and coincidentally black) immigrants, we have a regime which makes it difficult in theory for anyone to enter. In other words, immigration controls are supposedly based on the need to combat economic migration, yet apply to everyone regardless of wealth. It is to hide our guilt that it's not just all about money that we, on paper, exclude the foreign rich too.

'Economic migrant' isn't even particularly meaningful – certainly not if one is trying to describe a threat of some sort. The United States attracts far more of these migrants than anywhere else, and for 100 years now they have been a crucial part of the US economy's success. In other words, foreigners who want to leave their country because it is poor are precisely the sort of people successful economies are based upon.

Which brings us to the question, what does an immigrant cost? What, for example, could be considered 'wrong' or objectionable about our 'economic migrants' if it could reasonably be shown that they weren't costing the aboriginal population, through the mechanism of state taxation, anything? e.g. by them having jobs, paying taxes, creating wealth, etc.? As immigrants have been known to do, in every society that has accepted them.

Even if one did concede that (some) immigrants are 'expensive', so too, in exactly the same sense, are the aboriginal underclass, and it hasn't been received opinion to do away with them for several decades.

Undermining the pious claims that 'tough but fair' merchants make for still harsher regulations, is their basic contention that 'ordinary migrants' are unacceptable. Why are 'genuine refugees' held to be so congenial (in as much as they are, as our highly selective, grudging and limited acceptance of them more truly shows) when, by our normal criteria, cost, likely disruption to 'currently good race relations' etc, they (refugees) are more or less exactly the foreigners who will cause disruption? What with them being so poor and degraded and inured to violence. People who have come here just to get a job generally don't join armed gangs. People who have fled an armed culture often tend to continue to feel a cultural affinity with violence.

A final aspect of the numbers game for the zero-immigration lobby is that, 'to let in any more would undermine our currently good race relations'. Which means, 'we can't let in any more black people because the white working classes won't like it, and will behave horribly'. Nowhere else (other than Ulster) does the fear that a section of the public could behave in an immoral fashion serve as sufficient justification for policy. It is moreover a bogus fear: there is very little racism in mass society compared to thirty years ago, and when it does happen we have very strong anti-racism laws to deal with it.

Copper-fastening the consensus on immigration, and the last element in this unfortunate trinity, is Enoch Powell. Or more accurately, high political understanding of the tiger he rode when popular anti-immigration sentiment was given its tribune. Most British politicians share the unspoken assumption that, 'Enoch was right' i.e. that the only reason his prophecies (or rather, those of his constituents) did not come to pass was because tight restrictions were introduced. However the point of the last thirty years experience surely is, his visions of race war and 'the black man having the whip hand' weren't just forestalled – they were always impossibly wrong. His nightmare was worse than immoral, it was patently unrealistic.

Arguing that we should stand policy on its head, and not merely welcome another good dose of mass immigration, but also acknowledge that the reason we forswore it was our dislike of non-white immigration, comes close I admit to childish dissent. Yet what else should one do in the face of the unthinking assumption on the right in Britain (though not in the US) that 'mass (for which read all non-white, regardless of volume) immigration is unquestionably a bad thing'? As to mass-immigrations-of-a-different-colour always being bad for the host society, I'd love to meet the right-winger who sincerely thinks thus about the impact of 'the white man' on say Australia or America. This stance is further refined by – and does anyone disbelieve this? – middle class, Conservative fear and loathing for young, working class black males. We don't after all know many, do we?

Arguing that there's nothing wrong with more black people from abroad coming to Britain is in truth an extension of the argument, not yet won on the right, that there's nothing wrong with the black people already here. In placing this debate in the context of immigration I am open to the charge that I have practised an elision between mass-black immigration and 'asylum-seekers'. My point simply is that our frenzied attitude to the latter is entirely in consequence of our continued determination to prevent anymore of the former.

N.B. Thank you to everyone who has looked at ERO and made various helpful, and even unhelpful comments prior to our 5 June launch. And as a sort of dubious bonus for making it all the way to the end of the column, here’s some stuff over there on the dreadful Chris Patten.

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Christopher Montgomery is an historian who is currently writing a book on the historiography of the Suez crisis, and is publisher of ERO. He recently took some time out to run the Iain Duncan Smith campaign office, and for a while was working in the private office of the Leader of the Opposition. A young representative of the diehard tradition, he believes that Enoch Powell was right on everything apart from immigration.

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