Our political system is not good at morality or philosophy. This is especially true under the present set of ministers, who lurch from thoughtless initiatives to ill-considered legislation and who are as averse to intellectual rigour as a slug is to salt. But recent events raise basic questions. To answer them, we must consider what sort of nation we ought to be.
Beneath the current debates on immigration and human rights, two radically opposed positions can be discerned. According to the first, Britain exists to enhance the welfare of the British. Foreigners should be welcomed here (they usually have been). In their daily lives, they should enjoy the same rights as the natives, and this should also apply in the law courts. Until Portia found a way out, the Duke of Venice was ready to impose Shylock's bond upon Antonio. For commerce to flourish, foreigners must be able to trust the laws which regulate it. The same ought to be - and is - true of modern Britain.
So foreigners should be able to enjoy the British way of life. But the distinction remains. They are here not by right, but by sufferance. If they become a nuisance, let alone a threat to national security, they should be summarily deported
Britain must also regulate immigration in accordance with the needs of our labour market. Here, the EU is a grey area. Up to now EU immigration has worked to our advantage, by controlling wage inflation: "In counteracting inflation, the Polish plumber has been more important than the Bank of England's Monetary Policy Committee: discuss". Nor is it solely a matter of plumbing. Without the Polish waitress, London's catering trade would collapse and the members of the MPC would find nowhere to eat.
At some stage, however, the interests of those trying to renovate property or dine out in London could diverge from those of the bloke trying to sell his labour in order to cling to a first-world standard of living. We have not heard the last of that conundrum.
Whatever the longer-term consequences of the Polish plumber, there is no case for admitting Kosovan gangsters or Somali criminals. So if we find ourselves apparently bound by international conventions on refugees and asylum which pre-date mass air travel and are reminiscent of the era when all the political refugees in London could be accommodated in the British Museum Reading Room, we should repudiate them.
If we find ourselves restricted by international laws which oblige us to treat foreigners as if they were British, we should repudiate those as well. After the war, the shattered nations of continental Europe, whose legal systems had been polluted by dictatorship and occupation, felt it necessary to rebuild them according to abstract international principles. Forty years later, the nations who had escaped from the Soviet empire also decided to draw on others' experience in order to introduce the rule of law. Hence the popularity of the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR).
In Britain, we had no problem with either human rights or the rule of law. We had enjoyed both for more than two centuries. We signed the ECHR to encourage the foreigners, not because we thought that it could ever be needed here. In the 1960s we abolished the death penalty, legalised homosexuality, liberalised divorce and permitted the mass murder of foetuses - which now seems to be regarded as a human right - without foreign help.
Today, human rights legislation incites prisoners to spend their idle hours dreaming up compensation claims, while schoolmasters wonder whether they are entitled to confiscate their pupils' mobile phones. Those who believe in Britain for the British also believe that our people should elect our Parliament to make our laws, and that legal disputes should be adjudicated by our judges.
Those who think like that take a benign view of British history. They feel grateful that they were born to a double privilege: the Queen's subjects, they are also British citizens. They believe that over the centuries their country has been a powerful force for good. At least until the port has been circulating, they will be too modest to attribute this to moral superiority. They will merely point to the geopolitical advantages of the English Channel.
As an island, we were insulated from the ravages of foreign wars. We should now exploit our insularity, both legal and geographical, to protect us from the ravages of foreign judges and uncontrolled immigration. Whether in Nato or the EU, it might be necessary to give up some rights to take our own decisions, making lesser concessions to achieve greater goals. But we remain sovereign.
That is a prospect which appals those who take a different view of British history: the Ken Livingstone camp. To them, our history is a criminal record of oppression and exploitation. It is not a matter for pride but for apology (there have been moments when Tony Blair seemed to endorse that view). Whenever Britain was in dispute with another nation, Britain must be in the wrong (until the blessed day when we quarrel with George Bush's America). It would be absurd to suppose that we could dispense with the ECHR. If anything, we need it more than the other Europeans do.
The Livingstonians so dislike their own country that they wish to transform it out of recognition. To them immigration as an agent of irreversible cultural change: the more disruptive and less assimilable the immigrant, the better.
There is an argument for uncontrolled immigration. A devout Christian might well believe that our duty to our suffering fellow men should override the selfish impulse to protect our own living standards; that as long as there are poor people in the world, it is Britain's duty to succour them. Such a stance has moral integrity. It has rarely been argued in the political market place, for obvious reasons. The Sermon on the Mount has never been a vote-winner. But the ultra-Christian position is more reputable than the ultra-leftist's one: those who do not want immigration to help the immigrants, but to harm the rest of us.
There is no possibility of reconciling the two camps. One must either believe that Britain is an independent nation and that however much our government may do to help the Third World through development aid, its primary duty is Britain for the British - or that Britain should be a mere agent of international welfare, subject to international law and foreign courts.
Those who take the former position will argue that that no government which fails to control our own boundaries is worthy of the name and that any government which acquiesces in the loss of law-making power to foreign courts is in breach of the Trades Descriptions Act.
Up to now, David Cameron's Tories have failed to make those obvious points. They have been too busy placating liberal opinion. They may now face an interesting rhetorical contest with John Reid. Whatever his priorities as Home Secretary, we can be certain on one point. With him, placating liberal opinion does not rank high.Reuse content