Lunatics take over asylum

It's hard to know which side is worse in Britain's pre-election immigration debate.

Brendan O'Neill

Brendan O'Neill
chief political writer

Topics Politics

It’s hard to know which side is worse in the debate about immigration in the run-up to the UK General Election: the political parties making what is in real terms a non-issue into the issue, talking about Britain’s ‘asylum-seeker problem’ as if it had such a thing (it doesn’t) – or the pro-asylum lobby, which responds by saying ‘You can’t say that!’, chastising politicians and the papers for talking about immigration in ‘nasty’ and ‘inflammatory’ terms on the grounds that they might stir the masses to attack foreigners or vote for the far-right British National Party.

One side invents a debate about asylum seekers as a cover for its own lack of policy and vision; the other wants to clamp down on that debate in order to protect we apparent ignoramuses from our own worst tendencies.

Launching the Conservative Party manifesto on 10 April, leader Michael Howard devoted a large part of his speech to immigration. He accused Labour prime minister Tony Blair of ‘pussyfooting’ around the issue, claiming that ‘the majority of British people, whatever their background, are united…they want immigration to be limited and controlled’. One of the Tories’ electioneering slogans is ‘It’s not racist to impose limits on immigration’, apparently written in Howard’s own handwriting (to show he’s genuine, presumably) and blown up on billboards across the nation (1). Labour’s Welsh secretary and cabinet minister Peter Hain accused the Tories of ‘scurrilous, right-wing, ugly tactics’, while assuring voters that it is Labour, not the Tories, that will effectively ‘tackle’ the issue of immigration (2).

Amid all this bluster and argument over which party will better limit immigration – the Tories by withdrawing from the 1951 Geneva Convention and setting up a round-the-clock force to patrol Britain’s borders, Labour by continuing its policy of curbing the immigration of unskilled workers from outside the EU – it is worth remembering that the least problem with immigration in Britain is that there are too many of ‘em. It is common for people to overestimate how many migrants come here: last year, the Daily Star claimed that ‘one in five’ asylum-seekers ‘flock to Britain’; in 2003, respondents to a MORI poll estimated that 23 per cent of the world’s refugees come to the UK (3). That is nearly 10 times the real number: Britain takes around 2.8 per cent of the world’s asylum seekers (4).

When it comes to asylum applications per capita, Britain ranked ninth in the EU in 2003 – behind Belgium, Holland, Ireland, Austria, Denmark and others. In 2003, there were 49,370 asylum applications, representing around 70,000 individuals, and not all of these were successful (5). The number of applicants who stay in the country – whether their application is successful or not – is unclear, not least because the authorities do not record departures and there is no official record of how many individuals whose permission to stay in the UK has expired (6). But, on average, you could fit a year’s worth of asylum-seekers into Britain in a large football stadium. That is not a problem in a country with a population of 60million and rising.

Commentators talk up the Tory/Labour spat over immigration as some great contest, evidence, according to one, that there is a battle of ‘ideology’ in this General Election campaign (7). In fact, the rise of the immigration issue highlights the emptiness of the election. The Tories have latched on to it in the desperate hope that it will stir up some interest among a public otherwise indifferent to their campaign. They see immigration, as one report points out, as ‘the issue the public is most concerned about’, and seem to be following Tory MP and election strategist Andrew Lansley’s line of thinking: in the 2001 election, Lansley suggested focusing on immigration because it ‘played well’ in 1992 and the Euro elections in 1994 and still had the ‘potential to hurt’ Labour (8). The Tories are flagging up immigration more through opportunism than ideology.

Meanwhile, Labour ministers have used the debate to warn that the Tories have returned to being the ‘nasty party’, with an old-fashioned ‘right-wing’ campaign (9). The immigration issue has allowed Labour to pose as the heroic opponent to those horrible old forces of conservatism. Both sides are using it to create the illusion of having a principled position.

Yet the response of the pro-asylum lobby to this unseemly spat has little to commend it. Their main concern is less to challenge the nonsense notion that immigration into Britain must be limited, and more to call for a calmer debate, or no debate at all, so that we the public don’t go into an anti-immigrant frenzy. The Refugee Council has information to refute the parties’ claims, yet it argues that ‘politicians should campaign in a calm and sensitive way’ (10). The Guardian tells politicians that they have ‘a responsibility to avoid inflaming ill-informed prejudices’ (11). Independent columnist Yasmin Alibhai-Brown says the parties, ‘instead of making the pragmatic case for managed migration and the moral case for asylum’, have ‘surrendered to the rabid anti-immigration tabloids…’ (and presumably the rabid anti-immigrants who read the tabloids) (12).

This is a sentiment of ‘not in front of the children’, a demand that politicians mind their language lest they awake in the British public a desire to bash a few immigrants. It is informed by the idea that we are fickle and gullible and cannot handle silly or offensive ideas – and therefore ought to be protected from them. This was clear from an email sent around by the National Alliance Against Racism last month, complaining about an anti-immigration programme shown on Channel 4. The authors of the email clearly disagreed with the content of the programme (as did I), but instead of challenging it in an open debate they encouraged people to complain to Channel 4 that it was ‘a dreadful piece of populist racism, for which Channel 4 should seriously consider issuing an apology’.

This is an increasingly common response from anti-racist campaigns – to insist that if things must be discussed in public then they should be discussed sensitively, but arguing that it’s better if they can be sorted out behind closed doors, in agreements about what kind of language politicians should use or in written complaints to TV executives. Perhaps the only thing worse than the Tories’ and Labour’s invention of a pseudo-debate over immigration is the demand for a hush-hush debate instead. Whatever their disagreements, both sides seem to agree that the public is a bit thick.

Read on:

spiked-issue: Election 2005

(1) Political leaders back on hustings, Scotsman, 10 April 2005

(2) Immigration: Howard lights the touchpaper, Independent, 11 April 2005

(3) Tell it like it is: the truth about asylum, Refugee Council, February 2005

(4) Tell it like it is: the truth about asylum, Refugee Council, February 2005

(5) Tell it like it is: the truth about asylum, Refugee Council, February 2005

(6) Tell it like it is: the truth about asylum, Refugee Council, February 2005

(7) An opinion-poll manifesto, Glasgow Herald, 12 April 2005

(8) Race for power, Guardian, 13 April 2005

(9) Weak immigration law lets in terrorists – Howard, Scotsman, 11 April 2005

(10) Tell it like it is: the truth about asylum, Refugee Council, February 2005

(11) Return of the nasty party, Guardian, 11 April 2005

(12) The bad old days of racist scapegoating appear to be back, Independent, 10 April 2005

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Topics Politics


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