Leading Article: The race card is still in the pack

There is a hill in Charles Wardle's constituency. On it an English leader once tried to stem the foreign tide - and lost. That was in 1066. Last weekend the enemy was not the Normans but the Europeans, threatening Britain's right to control movement from the other EU countries. The leader was the MP for Bexhill and Battle, and his weapon was resignation. Supported to the hilt by the loyal housecarls of his Conservative Association, Mr Wardle warned that Britain faced an influx of migrants "freely walking into this country without so much as a `by your leave' ".

Time will tell if Wardleian gloom is justified. The Government is sure that it will able to veto any proposal to abolish passport control between Britain and other EU countries. Mr Wardle thinks that it will lose.

So what if it does? Surely the worst that could happen is that we will find ourselves policing a common border, but allowing free movement within that area? EU nationals would not have to show their passports coming into Britain and we would not need them to go to the Continent. Bliss, surely.

Not so, says Mr Wardle. These other countries would be conduits for the huddled masses of Africa and eastern Europe. Pouring through the lax controls of the Continent, where else would they head for but Britain? What lies ahead, he suggests, is uncontrolled mass immigration into the UK.

It is almost certainly the case that Mr Wardle's fear about the number of migrants wanting to come here through Europe - and able to do so - is grossly exaggerated. Ominously, the response to his resignation reminds us of an important truth. It is that the big issue is not immigration, but race. Thus Paul Johnson, writing in support of Mr Wardle in yesterday's Daily Mail, decided to remind us of how multiracialism was foisted upon Britain, causing "unbearable strain on sections of this island's social fabric" and "smouldering anger". According to Mr Johnson, old Enoch was right all along - even though "many immigrants have become model British citizens".

This is a surprising position for such an avid convert to the virtues of the market as Mr Johnson. Historically, nations have been invigorated by a free movement of talent, providing useful competition in the labour market. But race has been a powerful and constant (if latent) part of British politics for nearly 30 years. The unspoken consensus is that only the severe restrictions placed on non-white immigration since 1968 have averted the race question becoming as damaging here as smaller levels of immigration have been in France and Germany. The British, it seems, are a very tolerant bunch as long as they have little to be intolerant about.

That is why the Shadow Home Secretary, Jack Straw (who as MP for Blackburn probably deals with more immigrants in an afternoon than Bexhill residents meet in a lifetime) is so concerned that Britain should keep its controls. A clever politician, Mr Straw has no desire to see the race issue reactivated in this country. Border controls with our EU partners may be an evil but, according to this logic, they are a lesser evil.

He may well be right, though it is an uncomfortable admission. For is it not a shame that at a time when our neighbours are pulling down the barriers between them, the debate here, still dominated by the likes of Paul Johnson, is about how best to keep foreigners out?