The politics of poison
The overhyped ricin case has played straight into the hands of Howard and his asylum scaremongering
Polly Toynbee Friday April 15, 2005 The Guardian
The most explosive issue in this campaign burst out again yesterday with the collapse of the ricin trial. "Asylum and immigration" are the public words that tell of unspoken passions on race, Britishness, Islam and other things winked and nudged at in "Are you think what we're thinking?"
The trial of police murderer and ricin plotter Kamel Bourgass ended in chaos as eight other Algerians were set free with no terrorist conspiracy found. After wild claims of a massive terror plot, finding out that Bourgass was a murderous but inept loner, whose ricin recipes were never tried, embarrassingly echoed the failure to find WMD in Iraq. But the Conservatives were more interested in the asylum implications. With triumphant glee the Mail splashed: "Murdered because we've lost control of our borders". Eight of the nine men were illegal immigrants and Michael Howard was quick in his press conference yesterday to claim that 250,000 people refused asylum have never been deported.
The politics of this are poisonous: no government can survive long if voters feel their borders really are "out of control". Any uncertainty over who belongs, who pays taxes and on whom those taxes are spent threatens social democratic ideals. Paying collectively for public services, contributing to universal social security and redistributing from rich to poor depends on general agreement on who belongs within that shared community of interest. The alternative "open-door" model is an American society where the only "liberal" cause George Bush has espoused was letting in large numbers of Hispanics because it keeps wages low and fits a Wild West every-man-for-himself and devil-take-the-hindmost free society of rugged individualism where no one expects anything from a minimal state.
On the doorsteps, the Conservatives are making headway on immigration. Whatever the polls say - and people lie on this to polite pollsters - Labour campaigners find it everywhere. Howard's posters, speeches and tactics may be despicable but they work, however preposterously impossible his party's policies.
Here's a reminder: they will create a new British Border Control Police to keep 24-hour surveillance on 35 ports and airports. (There are 650 ports.) Yet they will halve the immigration service budget. Anyone seeking asylum would be processed in some other country - but no such fantasy island has been found yet. The UNHCR sternly rebuked them a few days ago but the Tories say they will pull out of the Geneva convention anyway. They will fix a quota for refugees; once the quota is full, every asylum seeker is turned away. No Conservative campaign since the war has used asylum and immigration like this. But it works. At one cabinet minister's adoption meeting last weekend, even some Labour party stalwarts stood up to say the Tories had the best policy on asylum. "Keep them out" has always been a good rallying cry. So how should Labour best respond? Howard hoped Labour would denounce him as a racist and make him a martyr of political correctness so he could claim to be the only one "telling the truth", turning asylum into the key battleground. But Labour hasn't fallen into that trap.
However, Labour's record has been abysmal in recent years - incompetent in administering the system, and when it flared up, inflaming the alarm. When cool words were needed to calm unreasonable fears, David Blunkett used the petrol of inflammatory language. His gesture policies pushed through more brutal rules and fell foul of human rights laws, just like Howard before him. Labour colluded with anti-asylum sentiment to such a degree that even when they did get control of the system and numbers fell fast, they kept tightening the screw, which implied "swamping" was in progress. They never turned to challenging public fears and misinformation; appeasing the Mail would always be a losing strategy.
It is unfair to blame an embattled government alone. Where was civil society when decency was under attack? Where are the churches, the legal and medical professions, the charities and anyone else with trusted authority when a loud voice is needed to say the country is not being "swamped"? When political flak is in the air, all these duck under the parapet, too afraid of losing that trust instead of mounting a defence of asylum. However, Labour's manifesto at last strikes a better note. Setting out the economic and humanitarian case, it boasts of the 180,000 migrants who help fill 600,000 job vacancies, contributing 10-15% to economic growth. "Immigration has been good for Britain. We want to keep it that way. We need skilled workers. We can and should honour our obligations to victims of persecution."
Calmly, it lays out reassuring facts: asylum applications have dropped by two-thirds since 2002. The backlog of claims, bequeathed by Howard at 50,000, is now 10,000 and new cases are fast-tracked. Airline liaison officers on the Asian subcontinent and in Africa turned back 30,000 last year. The system that lost track of Bourgass is much changed: all asylum seekers are fingerprinted and will soon be electronically tagged. By the end of this year, more failed asylum seekers will be removed than new ones applying. Charles Clarke's less punitive approach is securing agreements with previously recalcitrant countries to take back their failed asylum seekers.
But it will take much louder voices to turn back the tide of fear that Howard and his press are stirring. The statistics pale beside huge pictures in yesterday's Star and Mail of migrants queueing for charity food in Calais. They purported to show that, despite the closure of Sangatte, hundreds of "would-be illegal immigrants continue to find ways of crossing the Channel". Does it matter that they gave no evidence of a single recent case succeeding? UK immigration officers in Calais, Dunkirk and Boulogne now check every passenger heading for Dover by boat, while electronic monitors check every lorry. Yet one picture can tell a mendacious story better than a hundred dry, true facts.
Undeterred, the government is pressing on with making better settlement arrangements for newly accepted refugees. It should ease resentment in some of the poorest communities too often forced to cope alone with new arrivals. But more needs to be done. There is no evidence that treating asylum seekers cruelly stops others coming: numbers went up when cash benefits were replaced with meagre vouchers. Innocent would-be migrants or asylum seekers are not criminals, even if they are refused. Letting them work would stop them starving in limbo while they wait. Many applicants never even get basic legal advice.
The unpalatable truth is that desperate people who have walked for months across continents, fleeing wars, will still often be turned away under any system. Even if the rules are fair, keeping people out is a cruel business. Keeping hold of justice and humanity gets harder in the face of this panic-mongering from the right. At least Enoch Powell was ejected from his party, as opposed to leading it.
Milburn tries to defuse row with apology for officer's death (The Guardian, 15.04.05)
The ricin ring that never was (Dossier The Guardian, 14.04.05)