Politics: Terrorism, Race and Asylum Have Combined to Become the Most Potent Mix in Modern Politics. but Blair Cannot, Even If He Wanted to, Pull Up the Drawbridge

By Kampfner, John | New Statesman (1996), April 12, 2004 | Go to article overview

Politics: Terrorism, Race and Asylum Have Combined to Become the Most Potent Mix in Modern Politics. but Blair Cannot, Even If He Wanted to, Pull Up the Drawbridge


Kampfner, John, New Statesman (1996)


There is a nightmare in Downing Street and it goes like this. Hundreds of people are killed by bombs on the Underground. A previously unknown Islamist terrorist group linked to al-Qaeda writes to a London-based Arabic newspaper claiming responsibility and demanding that British troops withdraw from Iraq. Within days special forces storm a house in southern England, killing several of the perpetrators and seizing others. It transpires from their interrogation that the men, mainly from North Africa, are illegal immigrants to the UK. A few days later a Sunday newspaper reports that ministers had been warned of the threat posed by this bunch of new arrivals.

Terrorism, race and asylum have combined to become the most potent mix in modern politics. The story above, as you will have surmised, merges the massacre in Madrid with the seizure of terrorist suspects in the Home Counties and the immigration "scandal" that saw off Beverley Hughes. It was offered to me by a senior government official, not as a hypothesis but as a portent. The political and societal damage of such a scenario would, the official added, be devastating.

[ILLUSTRATION OMITTED]

It was out of this very fear that the Prime Minister felt he needed to be seen to be "taking control" of the immigration and asylum issue. That this concept is an oxymoron does not necessarily attest to Tony Blair's competence but to the world as it is. Ministers--and opposition shadows--know the realities. These include: complete control of our borders is impossible; economic growth depends, in no small part, on cheap foreign labour; Britain's public services would grind to a halt without qualified staff from overseas; the demographics of low birth rates and ageing populations across Europe will increase these needs.

The Conservatives have no interest in admitting to these realities (even though the more rational among them do so privately) for fear of squandering short-term political capital. Labour is frightened of admitting to them for fear of being seen as soft. Blair personally would not dream of admitting to them because that is not what his premiership has been about.

Blair did not talk about the limits of his powers as he summoned David Blunkett, Jack Straw (interrupting his Paris sojourn with the Queen), the new immigration fall-person, Des Browne, other ministers and the security services to Downing Street for his 6 April "summit". To have done so would have removed the need for the meeting in the first place. Blair's aides admit that his attention span is limited. He takes up issues for a week or so, usually when the media decree them a crisis, and lets go again when attention has moved elsewhere. The result, according to ministers, can be paralysis and second-guessing the boss (or the newspaper agenda--often but not always the same thing). But at least "something is being done".

What has particularly upset people at the Home Office in recent weeks is that they had started to believe that their attempts over the past three years to change the nature of the "managed migration" debate were succeeding. They also dared to hope that the public was starting to separate the issues of asylum and immigration, appreciating the need to allow some people in on the basis of their humanitarian need and many more on the basis of our economic need. (Treasury figures, for example, put 0.25 per cent of growth down to foreign labour.) Now ministers fear that even if the case was being listened to, raw emotions have intervened. …

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