The debate on immigration has recently taken a new, in some ways
more adult, turn. Relieved by official confirmation of the dramatic
drop in numbers seeking asylum in the UK, the government is now
claiming to have taken the sting out of the so-called asylum
In a rare generous gesture given the current climate on refugees
and asylum, thousands of migrant workers, most of them from eastern
Europe, who have been working illegally in this country, will in
effect be granted amnesty from 1 May.
At the same time, the editor of the current affairs journal
Prospect, David Goodhart, has published a piece on the
issues underlying anxiety about migration. According to Goodhart,
we are living with a persistent tension between ideas of solidarity
and diversity; if this is not to develop into crisis, we must both
restrict migration and, in some cases, curb rights to migrants.
Suggestions such as this elicited the claim that Goodhart and his
ilk propagate a form of genteel conservatism; this is “liberal
Powellism”, according to Commission for Racial Equality chairperson
In many ways, Goodhart’s argument is yet more proof that the centre
of national debate – on so many questions, not just migration – is
shifting all the time from parliament and electoral politics to the
various platforms offered by print and broadcast media.
Want to know what the key questions are on education, child poverty
or tax? Switch on Newsnight. Open up a broadsheet. Turn on
Radio 4’s Today programme.
On inflammatory issues, like asylum, the tabloids have tended to
shape and twist national attitudes – and so influence government
policy. For this reason alone an influential broadsheet broadside
is to be welcomed. At the same time, we need to hear more from the
hundreds of men and women who, as constituency MPs, are returning
regularly to the towns and cities of the UK that they represent
where they have genuine contact with the problems and possibilities
of multicultural Britain. Modern politics sidelines the ordinary
representative in favour of the supermodel politicians, the party
leaders, their special friends and advisers.
Yet underneath the firm and fair language spoken by pundits and
politicians alike lurk some draconian proposals and policies.
Blunkett’s decision to restrict benefits to migrants from the newly
enlarged Europe marks the beginning of a two-tier welfare state
along the Danish model – something that Goodhart directly
advocates. And next week, the Asylum and Immigration Bill will
further reduce the right of appeal to asylum seekers. Yet, as
Amnesty International points out, the appeals process has played an
important part in reversing wrong decisions by government.
The firm-but-fair lobby will claim that this toughness – these hard
choices – help to allay anxiety, to promote national solidarity.
But they also give quarter to disturbing tendencies in national
life. A two-tier welfare state is a denial of natural justice that
has no merit apart from economic stringency and will only have
unpleasant rebound qualities on our so-called common culture. So,
too, is the denial of natural justice to those who have just reason
to flee persecution.
There is also a kind of genteel conservatism at work here. As
Phillips indicates, it is becoming increasingly acceptable to
acknowledge an unease at ethnic and religious difference in the
name of preservation of a national or common culture. But when and
where does sophisticated emotional literacy turn into racism?
And what of the inconsistencies? It seems odd to bemoan apparently
threatening ethnic or religious solidarities and then support,
without criticism, the unfettered growth of faith schools. The
French decision to prevent students from wearing religious symbols
is wrong on practical grounds – surely it will only increase
religious fervour. But the desire to preserve a secular space in
national life, away from all religions, and their odd ideas on
everything from science to gender, is entirely right.
For those of us who live bang in the middle of the multicultural
society, whose children go to secular schools that truly represent
the new global neighbourhoods with all their potential tensions and
possibilities for mutual enrichment, something is missing in this
debate: a kind of humanity, a deployment of political memory.
Refugees need support, not denial, hope not hostility. However
nicely it is wrapped up, if we, the host country, use our power to
discriminate against the weaker incomer, we will pay for it
somewhere down the line.
Firm but fair can also mean simple short-sightedness.
Melissa Benn is a journalist and novelist.