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Howard: Keep Britain white

Andrew Johnson

26th January 2005

The party of Enoch Powell has reclaimed its roots. Tory leader Michael Howard is seeking to emulate the recent electoral success of the Australian Liberals by placing immigration at the core of his election campaign. In a pronouncement backed up by little evidence, except that supplied by rightwing lobby group Migration Watch, Howard proclaims that “There are literally millions of people in other countries who want to come and live here. Britain cannot take them all.” (Sunday Telegraph, 23 January 2005) Howard of course swears this has nothing to do with racism, but a wily and experienced politician like him knows exactly what gallery he is playing to. In the first instance, he wants to win back Tory voters who have defected in droves to the far-right UK Independence Party – who also claim their anti-immigration stance has nothing to do with racism.

The point is that in British political discourse “immigrant” is used as a code for “non-white”. The right wing implicitly recognise this when they bemoan the failure of immigrant communities to integrate, and the supposed undermining of “British culture” by immigration. And, no matter what the right may say, non-white immigration is highly restricted in Britain and has been since 1972. A simple statistical breakdown confirms this.

In 2003 there were 513,000 immigrants and 362,000 emigrants, giving a net inflow of 151,000 in a population of around 60 million, or 0.25% of the population. This proportion is important to remember when the right argue that immigration is putting a huge strain on public services. The sensationalist claims of Migration Watch and their ilk rely on taking current immigration levels and extrapolating 30 years into the future – although immigration is cyclical, and for most of the post-war period was outstripped by emigration.

And who are these “immigrants”? In the first place, over half are returning British expats. It is hard to believe these people would be turned away. Another large tranche is made up of EU nationals who have the right to live and work in Britain under the Single European Act. Howard is not proposing to abrogate EU treaty commitments, not least because this would have a bigger effect on Brits living in France and Spain than EU nationals in Britain. Nor would that affect the single largest group of EU nationals, Irish citizens who have free entry to Britain under agreements dating back to the 1921 Treaty.

What of illegal workers in the black economy? Again we come up against a clash between hard facts and tabloid mythology. Surprisingly enough, the largest group of illegal workers in Britain are not Kosovars or Kurds but Australians who outstay their tourist visas. As with the Irish state, Britain has special arrangements with Australia, New Zealand and the USA, arrangements which Howard studiously fails to mention. One wag wrote in the Guardian letters page that there might be a case for restricting American immigration, given their failure to integrate and their country’s tendency to fundamentalist religion. Immigration from the White Commonwealth is apparently not a problem for the right, which at least demonstrates that it is a race issue.

Refugees scapegoated

The other dead giveaway is the Tories dragging asylum into the immigration issue, despite them being quite separate questions. Asylum claims have been dropping dramatically over the last few years, but this has had relatively little to do with New Labour’s refugee-baiting. Asylum is also cyclical, and with some of the major recent sources of refugees – Bosnia, Kosovo, Somalia – relatively calm at the moment, it was predictable that claims would drop. Another war in the Balkans would change the situation radically, something even Howard’s sidekick David Davis has acknowledged.

But now Howard is proposing that no refugees should be able to claim asylum in Britain, and that he would withdraw from the 1951 UN Convention on Refugees. This brings to mind a nasty little trick employed by the Major government of which Howard was such a prominent member. It was decided that Bosnian refugees would only be able to claim asylum at the British embassy in Sarajevo. The trouble was, of course, that there was no embassy in Sarajevo and if Bosnians got to the nearest one (in Belgrade) they were deemed to be in a safe country and ineligible for asylum!

What Howard proposes instead is that the British government would set a small annual quota and then cherrypick refugees from around the world. It doesn’t take too much imagination to guess what kind of refugees would be deemed suitable. The Tory right, and for that matter UKIP and the fascist BNP, may rail against asylum seekers but they are demanding automatic asylum for unlimited numbers of white farmers from Zimbabwe. The quota system would in effect be a colour bar, something akin to the old White Australia Policy which the Canberra government is trying to reintroduce without openly saying so. Those seen as “alien” – Blacks, Muslims, Roma Gypsies – would get the sharp end.

Apart from this being historically illiterate – there have been Blacks in Britain since the days of the Roman Empire, some centuries before the English arrived – the most interesting thing about this debate is that it may not do the Tories much good. After all, Howard’s predecessor William Jefferson Hague ran a race election in 2001 and look what happened to him. Polling shows that areas like inner London with high concentrations of ethnic minorities tend to rate immigration lower in importance than the national average, while immigration paranoia tends to be at its highest in almost all-white areas of rural England that largely vote Tory anyway.

One of the most distasteful aspects of this affair has been the frequently made assertion that Howard, the son of a Jewish refugee from the Nazis, can’t possibly be a racist. And maybe he isn’t personally racist. But he seems to have no problem sending coded messages to those who are. Howard’s personal background is of interest mainly in that it illustrates the rightward evolution of a large section of the Jewish community. In the 1930s, when Howard’s father was fleeing fascism, Jews were popularly demonised in terms remarkably similar to those used about Muslims today – they didn’t integrate, they had a strange religion, they had a culture of political extremism. As a result entire generations of Jews became heavily involved in radical politics and determined opponents of racism. But a mixture of factors – gentrification, Zionism and a long-term decline in anti-Semitism (despite the paranoid ramblings of the Jewish press, which would have us believe the next pogrom is around the corner) – mean that nowadays many Jews are quite comfortable with scapegoating later arrivals, and Muslims in particular.

Killjoy goes it alone

In related news, Robert Kilroy-Silk continues to provide us with comic relief. His split from UKIP leads one to wonder whether he learned his people skills from Ulster’s own Bob McCartney. Here we have a man who joins a party, gets elected on its ticket, instantly launches a takeover bid and then, on failing to be handed the leadership on a plate, resigns in a sulk from the party, but not from his seat in the EU parliament, an institution he claims not to believe in. Now Killjoy plans to launch a party of his own, based around a cult of personality and a cab drivers’ manifesto.

It comes to something when the misfits and cranks who dominate the UKIP membership give their most high-profile member the bum’s rush, but even this motley crew baulked at the idea of having the perma-tanned poseur as their leader. One of the ripest moments of comedy has come from Killjoy, a fanatical supporter of Israel, denouncing UKIP’s alliance in the Strasbourg parliament with a group of anti-Semitic Polish nationalists. Killjoy piously declared that he wouldn’t have dealings with these racists. This will come as news to readers of the great man’s Sunday Express column, where on a weekly basis one can read him insulting Arabs, Gypsies, the Germans, the French, the Irish and indeed just about every ethnic group in the world except the Americans and Israelis.

With any luck, UKIP and the new Killjoy party will go the way of Bob McCartney’s UK Unionist Party and splinter into oblivion. But Sod’s Law says they probably won’t. In any case, there is a constituency for their politics and attempts by the Tories and New Labour to appeal to that constituency only have the effect of dragging political discourse even further to the right than it already is.


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