Who are we? We are a youthful, open country, optimistically agape to the global economy, mustard-keen to grab the challenge of the Asian century. So the Prime Minister assures us. But at the same time we are an old, closed country, hostile to foreigners; so the Home Secretary reassures us.
We cannot be both. We cannot rat on our moral obligations to Indian and Chinese Hong-Kongers and be an influential, respected player in the developing Asian game. We cannot be a bubbling international entrepot where cultures meet and the world does business, but which is also neurotically keen to keep out "darkies" and people with funny voices. It does not work.
But John Major, Michael Howard and their colleagues have breezily decided to ignore this disabling contradiction. A fortnight after Major's vision of Britain as the "enterprise centre for Europe", he is preparing for an asylum and immigration measure as the centrepiece of his new legislative package. What style. What breadth of vision. What an uplifting sense of priorities.
It is necessary, though. We need to protect ourselves against a tidal wave of liars and scroungers, don't we? Well, there is indeed a staggering fact, made much of by the Home Office and certain Tory MPs: only 4 per cent of supplicants are granted asylum. That is right; four bleeding per cent, mate. So 96 per cent are scroungy, sneaky, pinko-darkie pyjama- trousered troublemakers. It'sbleeding disgrace, innit?
Well no, actually. Only a couple of years ago, about half of the people seeking asylum qualified or were given "exceptional leave to remain" here. Now, of the 60,000 to 70,000 people waiting (officials are endearingly vague about the exact number of "underpeople"), it is indeed true that 4 per cent will eventually be deemed to have qualified and 16 per cent granted exceptional leave to stay.
It is not that the character of asylum-seekers has suddenly and dramatically changed; it is that the rules were changed in the 1993 Immigration and Asylum Act. Ministers raised the hurdles. Now that fewer people clear them, this is presented as evidence of the bogus nature of asylum-seekers generally. Shabby stuff.
There are, of course, bogus asylum-seekers, economic migrants trying to better their lot. Home Office people insist that the new list of countries whose nationals will be treated suspiciously if they ask for asylum is partly aimed at Eastern Europe, particularly Poland. It will not include, as reported yesterday, such war-stricken or repressive countries as Algeria, Sri Lanka and Nigeria.
Now, it would be reasonable for British officials to tear up applications from people seeking asylum because of persecution by, say, the Danish authorities, or the government of Canada. And Poland is no longer a police state. But the idea of a Whitehall "audit of repression" being used to exclude whole classes of applicants is a dangerous one. There are countries whose governments the Foreign Office does not want to offend, but where fear of persecution is real. Once you start to include geopolitics in the rule book, individuals will be denied justice.
Furthermore, those utterly bizarre examples of "safe" countries came from somewhere. Perhaps there is a surrealist saboteur on the loose in Whitehall. Maybe Mr Howard is simply the victim of a cruel practical joke - as Michael Portillo clearly was, when his statesmanlike party conference speech was tampered with by some malign satirist at the last moment (and tragically, of course, the joke version was the one he delivered).
What is not a joke, or at all obscure, is the broad thrust of the coming legislation. The Home Office is fighting for …