Who are these asylum-seeking scum? They're people like my grandparents

Almost everyone agrees that immigration is a serious problem and something must be done. Well, I don't
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MR NICHOLAS van Hoogstraten is - all who know about him agree - a bad man. The milk of human kindness has long since turned rancid somewhere inside the property tycoon's tight waistcoat.

As chronicled in these pages yesterday, Mr van Hoogstraten has graduated from being the nastiest slum landlord of the post-Rachman era, and is now the nastiest landowner of the democratic age. He's the man, the very thin man, what fences the ramblers' way. It's Christmas, and most of us reared on pantomime hope that our hissing will help ensure that he gets his comeuppance.

Like any really good villain, Van Hoogstraten himself is disconcertingly clear about the reasons for his wickedness. He has erected a 7-ft fence and a barn across an ancient right of way (which would bring walkers within eyeshot of his vulgar folly, Hamilton House) because, as he puts it: "The only purpose of great wealth is to separate oneself from the riff-raff."

There have been hints from the millionaire that he may be prepared to use force to defend his land from incursion by middle-aged women wearing sensible shoes. Here we have it: brute force, selfishness and insult. Mr van Hoogstraten seems to be a one-man proven case for new "right-to- roam" legislation.

Coincidentally, I was reading about l'affaire d'Hoogstraten while eating my All-Bran and listening to the Today programme, where they were discussing the laws and procedures governing the treatment of asylum-seekers. The Tory spokesthing on Home Affairs, James Clappison (a full-faced young man, with the colour and demeanour of a country landowner himself), was being pressed on the issue of the many more people coming to this country than are strictly entitled to. Surely, he was asked, this is a major crisis, and something should be done? A Home Office minister followed and assured everyone that, yes, it was serious, and something was being done.

Asylum-seekers, you will recall, occupied one of the few vacant slots in the Queen's Speech, once the intention to reform the Lords had been allowed for. That's because bogus ones are flooding in from Albania and weird republics that didn't exist a decade ago. They're secreting themselves in HGVs and then falling off the backs of lorries in Dover and Hillingdon; they stow away in ships, aircraft, and haywains and the smaller ones, I daresay, hide in duty-free carrier bags. They then have to be put into costly prisons and disused mental hospitals, where they manage simultaneously to live expensively, and in squalor. Almost everyone agrees, as we saw earlier, that it is a serious problem and something must be done.

Well, I don't. Providing that the councils in Dover and Hillingdon are given a bit of extra dosh to help them cope, I think almost nothing should be done. Per capita we receive fewer asylum-seekers than several other European countries, and there are no signs whatsoever that that wonderfully elastic bit of material, the social fabric, is under any terrible strain.

My name, you may have noticed, is not an old English moniker. My illiterate paternal grandparents, Moishe and Gitel, were two of the 120,000 Jews who came to live in Britain between the early 1880s and the beginning of the First World War. So, every year for three decades, an average of 4,000 East European Jews arrived and settled. Millions more passed through.

At about the time that the Aaronovitches landed, the British consul in Riga, in Russian Latvia, gave voice to a familiar concern. Each ship leaving harbour, he said, contained only "160 passengers with passports, but 200 will land in London. The emigrants are supposed to be bound for the USA or South Africa, and might produce vouchers to this effect, but for the most part, these vouchers are a blind and given gratis by emigration agents here."

Naturally, they lived in squalor, prompting The Times - in the early years of this century - to run an article entitled, "The Alien Immigrant", in which it claimed that: "The average immigrant is unsanitary in his habits; he is personally unclean."

A Stepney councillor in 1911 commented that "the borough has been inundated by a swarm of people, fitly described as the scum of Central Europe". At this time, Moishe and Gitel were in Stepney, in Cable Street, where my father was later to be born.

"Scum" is a very Hoogstraten word, and "inundated" means "swamped". I am third-generation scum; and, I suppose, part of the flood. Not only that, but I am far from sure that my grandparents were directly persecuted themselves by Cossacks or Black Hundreds. I suspect that they were really "economic migrants", part of that dubious tide of people whose object is self-betterment beyond the borders within which they were born. Certainly they could have stayed in Lithuania - hundreds of thousands of Jews did, and were still there in 1941.

The stay-at-home Aaronovitches would, almost certainly, have perished at the hands of the Einsatzgruppen or their local allies, in the first months of the Nazi occupation. I once wondered the same thing aloud in the presence of the then home secretary, Michael Howard, whose own Jewish forebears had come to Britain from Romania. Did this fact not, I asked him, in any way temper his harsh attitude towards asylum seekers in the late 20th century?

His response was one of incomprehension. Was I saying that there should not be immigration laws?

Yes, I think that there should, but I am reluctant about it, not strident. I tell my children, when they ask me, that we are very lucky to live in this country at this time. And they have no trouble in making the small leap of imagination that Mr Howard was not sufficiently agile or willing to make. Which is that there are many out there who wish to do what my grandparents did, and that our morality in seeking too assiduously to prevent them, is suspect. But how long is it before the descendants of immigrants turn, and begin to see things from the Hoogstraten perspective, not as an opportunity for people like them, but as a threat from folk alien to them?

Consider this debate - see Mr Clappison if you will - from the viewpoint of a dynamic, thwarted young Albanian, an intelligent Slovakian Gypsy, or a bright Mogadishu slum-dweller. They look at the world into which they were born, and see large parts closed off against them, as surely as though some selfish, amoral tycoon had built a barn and a fence across their paths. "We were here first," we tell them. "Go away."

What was it that Hoogstraten said? Ah, yes: "The only purpose of great wealth is to separate oneself from the riff-raff."

Well, that's certainly what this country sometimes appears to believe. We want the right to walk past Mr Hoogstraten's mausoleum, but we don't want some ragged bugger from Tirana strolling past ours.