By Kampfner, John
New Statesman (1996) , Vol. 133, No. 4682
Over the past few days the British have been told that they are about to be bombed, about to be swamped and about to lose the country they love. Rarely has a political landscape appeared so grim, so untrue (perhaps with the exception of threat Number One) and rarely has it been so debilitating to good government. All the concerns have something to do with foreigners.
The arrest of eight men on 30 March and the seizure of more than half a tonne of ammonium nitrate fertiliser have revived fears that London is next in line for a terrorist spectacular. That the suspects are believed to be of Pakistani descent has reinforced a suspicion among many towards Muslims and a feeling among Muslims themselves that they are being victimised. Even though David Blunkett ticked off his Metropolitan Police commissioner for suggesting that an attack is "inevitable", at the heart of government there is a widespread view that it is only a matter of time.
On the same day as the arrests, Blunkett was having to defend his department and one of his ministers from the Conservatives and tabloids operating voraciously in tandem. The "scam" the Tories have uncovered, with a little help from disaffected civil servants and diplomats, is just the kind of problem that frightens Tony Blair. The government stands accused of incompetence in the area in which it has long felt most vulnerable--immigration and asylum. If the Home Office has allowed, wittingly or otherwise, bogus work-permit applications from Bulgaria and Romania and elsewhere to be approved, that would be a serious blunder.
But what does the row say about the political context? Beverley Hughes, the Home Office minister whose job is on the line, put it best when she accused the opposition "and their newspapers" of "demonising all immigrants as scroungers, criminals or worse".
On the same day as the furore, ministers were having to deal with the charge of treachery. Two events have transformed the politics of Europe--the Madrid bombing of 11 March and the Brussels summit of 25 and 26 March. As soon as Spain's Socialist prime minister-elect, Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero, announced he would return his country to the Franco-German embrace, Blair's position was undermined. He and Jack Straw in particular were quietly pleased that December's attempts to finalise a new EU constitution had broken up in acrimony. Now, thanks to the Spanish change of heart and some smart footwork by the Irish presidency, it looks as if the document will be approved by June. …