Andrew Green: A divisive peer for a divided time

The ennoblement of the founder of the controversial MigrationWatch group has been widely condemned

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The Independent Online

Peers do not barrack and jeer, so when Sir Andrew Green, founder and chairman of MigrationWatch, joins the red benches, he can expect to be received in respectful silence.

That’s not to say that there aren’t peers who object to this week’s elevation of Green, particularly on the Labour side.

The rise of Ukip has pushed immigration to the centre of political debate. Even the Labour leader, Ed Miliband, has thought it necessary to talk about how a Labour government would be tough on immigration. What he will not do is talk numbers, because in front of him he has the example of the Tories promising to reduce the flow of immigrants to “tens of thousands” only to see net migration rising almost to a quarter of a million in the year to March 2014. In reality, there is not much the Government can do that would substantially reduce the numbers – at least for as long as Britain is an EU member, and free movement of labour remains a fundamental principle of the EU.

This means that although Sir Andrew Green will sit as a crossbench peer, and although MigrationWatch’s website proclaims that “we have no political axes to grind – we simply believe that the public are entitled to know the facts, presented in a comprehensible form”, he is in reality a very controversial participant in the most sensitive political issue of the moment, one which could take the UK in a direction leading to the end of this country’s 40-year membership of the EU.

It is no surprise that the Labour Party saw Green’s appointment as a bone that David Cameron has tossed to the Tory right and to wavering Ukip supporters. The Labour leader in the Lords, Baroness Royall, accused Cameron of using his power of patronage for “short-term political gain” and because the Tories were “desperate” about the rise of Ukip.

Green, 73, could have chosen a more tranquil retirement. Having served as a Royal Greenjacket for three years after graduating from Cambridge University, he joined the diplomatic corps in 1965 and became one of its most eminent specialists in the Middle East, with a sympathetic understanding of the Arab viewpoint. His final posting, which lasted four and a half years, was as UK ambassador to Saudi Arabia.

After his retirement, he chaired the charity Medical Aid for Palestine for three years, and publicly berated Tony Blair’s advisers for allowing the prime minister to turn up in Damascus on his way around the Middle East rounding up allies in the “war on terror”, without, as Green saw it, a proper understanding that Syria was a country part of whose territory was under Israeli occupation and whose public identified with the Palestinian cause.

Chris Doyle, the head of the Council for Arab‑British Understanding, remembers Green as a “very competent” diplomat. “You don’t get to be ambassador in Saudi Arabia without some very high-calibre qualities. On the issue of Palestine and on many diplomatic matters in the region, we shared a lot of interests.”

But as well as having reservations about Green’s views on immigration, Doyle, whose wife is Syrian, has been disturbed by how little the former diplomat has had to say about the Syrian conflict. He is a former ambassador to Syria, who commands respect in Damascus, and a member of the British-Syrian Society. Doyle found Green’s failure to condemn when the Syrian government turned its weapons against its own people “untenable”. It is perhaps a pure coincidence that Nigel Farage, who is one of Green’s biggest fans, is the only prominent British politician who believes that the chemical attacks in Syria were carried out by rebels, not by the Assad government.

During Green’s time as ambassador in Riyadh, he heard constant complaints that the UK was playing host to a Saudi physicist named Mohammed al-Massari, a political dissident with controversial views. Green knew about the case, because he had been based for 18 months at the Foreign Office, at a time when Michael Howard, who was home secretary in John Major’s government, was trying to deport al-Massari.

It annoyed Green that the courts should grant political asylum to someone with opinions deeply opposed to the values of a liberal democracy and whose presence was souring relations with a major ally. So when he retired in 2000, he decided to devote himself to the problem. When he founded MigrationWatch in 2001, the issue in his sights was not job-seeking migrants but political refugees like al-Massari, seeking sanctuary from oppressive regimes.

In August 2002, Green’s organisation hit the headlines with a report that sensationally claimed that 200,000 migrants were entering the UK, most from outside the EU, and that the figure would reach two million within a decade. He proposed the UK should renounce the 1951 UN convention on refugees and create its own domestic law on political asylum.

In fact, the number of asylum seekers peaked at 84,130 in 2002, and was down to 23,507 by 2013. It was one of the first examples, of which there would be many more, of MigrationWatch publishing what it claims are neutral facts that are open to challenge, to put it politely. As recently as July, the Press Complaints Commission ruled against The Daily Telegraph after it had quoted MigrationWatch as saying that 150,000 East Europeans working in the UK paid only £1 a week in tax. The actual figure is not known, but is below 150,000.

Meanwhile, events interceded to make Green sound more credible, when the Labour government grossly underestimated the numbers who would come looking for work after Poland and nine other countries joined the EU in 2004. For reasons that Green could not have foreseen at the time, his figure of 200,000 immigrants a year turned out to be not wildly out after all. He was treated sufficiently seriously to be a presence on the BBC’s Today programme.

Unlike other high-profile single-issue campaigners, he is not an attention seeker. He is curiously publicity shy, turning down requests for interviews on the grounds that it is the issue that matters, not him personally or MigrationWatch. He lives in Deddington, on the edge of the Cotswolds, in a £1m home he bought in 1998. He is said to be deeply religious. He held regular evangelical meetings in the Riyadh embassy while ambassador, and sits on the board of the human rights organisation Christian Solidarity Worldwide.

Although he says that MigrationWatch is not a political organisation, it is admired by Ukip and the right wing of the Tory party, and one of its reports received a glowing welcome from the BNP, which gives a good idea of which side of the political divide may benefit from Green’s elevation to the Lords. His use of statistics has been challenged many times by those who think his conclusions are tendentious, but the next time he speaks on the issue that obsesses him, he will not be just Sir Andrew Green the ex-diplomat, he will be Lord Green, a life peer.

That is why when he dresses in his ermine finery to take his seat in the Lords, there will be no warm welcome on at least one side of that house.

A life in brief

Born: 6  August 1941

Family: married Catherine Jane in 1968. They have two children, Diana and Stephen.

Education: Imperial Service College. Reading natural sciences and economics at Magdalene College, Cambridge.

Career: served in the Royal Green Jackets. Joined the Diplomatic Service in 1965, becoming Ambassador to Saudi Arabia in 1996. Knighted in 1998. Founded MigrationWatch in 2001

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