Swamped by vile stereotypes

'If refugees are routinely discussed in negative terms, aggression about a failing system is directed at vulnerable people'
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The Independent Online

We British are a lovely people. Our core values are fair play, tolerance and an outward-looking approach to the world. It must be true because the Prime Minister has said so.

We British are a lovely people. Our core values are fair play, tolerance and an outward-looking approach to the world. It must be true because the Prime Minister has said so.

But it is far from obvious that we are so bloody marvellous. The response to the foundering asylum and immigration service has been disturbing. If anything, the ready take-up of racist stereotypes and manufactured indignation tell us that lack of fair play, small-mindedness, intolerance and an inward-looking approach to the world more accurately reflects our current state of mind.

Now I know that we are all worldly wise, tinged by ironic post-modernism and no longer supposed to get upset by The Sun. But consider the following extract from the Scottish edition: "I'm sure that there cannot be many people in this country who are happy to see the unfairness heaped upon deserving Scots while the great unwashed of Europe gatecrash our party, increase their standard of living and laugh in our face, " writes Norman McGlashan from Aberdeen.

As it turned out, the 16 families moved from Wandsworth to Glasgow as part of the Government's dispersal programme did not get to gatecrash Mr McGlashan's party for washed and deserving Scots before Glasgow Council (a good Labour stronghold, don't you know) summarily decreed that the Romanian refugees who had annoyed estate residents by begging door to door should be sent back south on the grounds that they were required to report to London police stations. A single phone call would have sufficed to change the reporting centre to Glasgow, but the council was insufficiently tolerant, creative and outward- looking to think that this might be a better solution than bussing refugees from one end of the Kingdom to the other to solve a minor problem.

Shifts in the kind of language in which it is acceptable to address other human beings are important. So are the categories in which they are lumped. Perhaps it is all better in than out, off our chests, and thus a jolly good thing when The Sun whips up its latest raucous plebiscite against asylum-seekers. But how far up the opinion-forming food chain should our lassitude extend?

Is it all right when the Daily Mail, which has a well-calibrated sense of how far it can push popularist language without losing its better heeled readers, produces a cod quiz "Are You a Blair Briton?" which includes the teasing line that those who don't pass the test will have their homes taken from them and "given to a Romanian gypsy"? Is it all right for The Times, which used to play a straight bat on such matters, to use the word "swamped" in a headline on the increase in asylum-seekers?

As a defender of free speech and usually to be found on the unstuffier side of the arguments about political correctness, I find my own dismay about all of this somewhat surprising. But this stuff does have an effect. If refugees are routinely discussed in negative stereotypes, aggression about a failing asylum system becomes redirected towards vulnerable people, rather than governments who made a mess of the arrangements governing their rights or otherwise to resettle in Britain.

Worst of all, it distorts any sense of proportion. The first sign of deepening intolerance towards ethnic or racial groupings is always the spreading suggestion that they are over-running indigenous communities and committing crimes. Yes, asylum-seekers begging door to door is irksome. Begging refugees in the street thrusting children at us is an even more depressing prospect, since we feel both inconvenienced and guilty at the same time for passing by on the other side in the face of that ancient symbol of neediness, a woman holding a child.

But then those brisk middle-class ladies who patrol outside Sainsbury's rattling their charity tins ruin my spiritual calm on a Saturday morning. So do people who ring the doorbell and try to sell me dishcloths I don't want.

But these particular humans are expected to come with no flaws or opportunism, no greed and no pushiness. They should be seen and not heard and above all "genuine" - although no one, not even the Government seems to have a clear idea what this really means. If it did, it could not boast as Jack Straw does this week, of the new "fast track" process for asylum-seekers caught begging or committing other crimes. This is a cynical subterfuge. Whether a refugee is entitled to stay in Britain or not, cannot be determined by whether they beg or do not beg. Using fast-tracking as a threat in selected cases makes brutally clear that the system is random and inefficient to start with.

Mr Blair has better reason than most to know that his Britishness speech was based on a very lenient reading of national character. New Labour's focus groups tell it that asylum and immigration have replaced Europe as the themes through which people tell those in power that they think they are a distant elite, insufficiently in touch with public opinion. For the Conservatives, this is a potent gift. William Hague tiptoed round the subject for some time, since hitting on refugees was considered distinctly Right-but-Revolting Conservatism and out of sync with the inclusive, socially liberal Hagueite variety.

Faced with the prospects of a windfall of votes from middle England voters, however, the Tories are changing tack. On the Today programme last week, Mr Hague listed clamping down on bogus (yes, it's that word again) applicants as a way to help save enough money to fulfill his ludicrous pledge to keep cutting taxes while increasing spending on the public services.

Of course, Mr Hague knows that this is pernicious nonsense. The subject is a truly testing issue for any government and likely to become more so as the EU enlarges and its borders become even more permeable. The present 102,000 backlog of UK applicants is partly the legacy of a botched computerisation at the Home Office under Ann Widdecombe. New Labour did send mixed signals early in its reign by declaring an amnesty for some 30,000 people - but then the Tories conducted a secret amnesty of 26,000 in 1992-1993 for similar reasons.

But the buck now stops with this Government and it needs to pull off a complicated political double act. So far, Mr Blair has been too wary of taking a lead on the issue at European level. Another EU summit has come and gone and it is still deemed by Downing Street rather impolite to mention the fact that France and Belgium have sought to mitigate their own problems by passing applicants along the line to the UK. At home, the Asylum and Immigration Act, which came into force this week, is a broadly welcome advance towards a more efficient and fairer decision-making.

On an emotive issue, New Labour badly needs to find its own voice and articulate why we offer asylum at all. So far, the debate is being dominated by those who would turn Britain into a fortress whose doors are firmly closed against the victims of the world's woes.

I miss a big Blair or Straw pronouncement on why asylum matters. A spate of reassuring, rosy platitudes on the joys of Britishness is no substitute. If Mr Blair truly aspires to the mantle of practical liberalism, this is one challenge that he can not afford to duck.