Mr Irving has done us all a service

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The Independent Online

When the historian David Irving lost his libel case against Penguin Books last week, it made great headlines. Mr Irving was denounced as a racist, a Hitler apologist and an anti-Semite. I do not think many people would quarrel with that verdict, especially after Mr Irving's courtroom slip when he addressed the judge as Mein Fuhrer. Then again, why should they? Agreeing that the historian's views on race are beyond the pale does not cost anything, unless you happen to be one of the parties to the case, who face vast legal bills.

It is a different story when we are exposed to that bane of contemporary society, the Romanian asylum-seeker with a toddler in tow, demanding small change. Columnists whinge and the Home Office minister, Barbara Roche, tries to sound tougher than the Tories. According to the tabloids, Britain is bursting at the seams with people who are here to rape our women and cheat our benefits system.

Ah, but these are the wrong sort of foreigners, aren't they? I have to admit I am a little confused here. Mr Straw says race is the issue on which he wants to be judged, but did he protest when bigots of every stripe were screaming for the passengers from the hijacked Afghan plane to be kicked out? Of course not. He had already said they had to go. And it is his own department that is forcing asylum-seekers to use a humiliating voucher system, identifying them to any passing xenophobe each time they reach a supermarket checkout.

That is why, on Friday, in our sister paper, the Independent, Bill Morris, the general secretary of the Transport and General Workers' Union, was right to talk about a climate of fear and loathing and blame the Home Office for it. With its constant refrain about bogus asylum-seekers and a raft of legislation aimed at stopping people getting into this country, Labour is behaving as badly as the Tories, and when ministers are competing with a fright like Ann Widdecombe, that's saying something.

It is true that more people migrate to this country each year than leave it: a net increase of 178,000 in 1998, the latest year for which figures are available. That year was exceptional, yet it represents an increase in population of less than 0.3 per cent. Nearly 30 per cent of those arriving here in 1998 (402,000 in all) were not asylum-seekers but British citizens returning to the UK. Harsh new laws, including heavy penalties for lorry drivers who smuggle immigrants, mean the numbers are likely to start falling.

This country is not being overrun with foreigners, although we are being asked to do our bit to help people from war zones such as the Balkans. Yet ministers boast about how hard-hearted they are, while William Hague has shed every vestige of decency and is trying to make immigration an issue in next month's local elections. What politicians do not seem to realise is that combat- ing racism involves more than endorsing the findings of the Macpherson report into the murder of Stephen Lawrence. It also requires more than sympathising with the fate of the Jews in central Europe in the middle of the last century. That is why I couldn't help reflecting, as everyone piled into Mr Irving, that he is a convenient scapegoat. We can all join in the fun of denouncing a discredited author, while turning a blind eye to the fact that our country's treatment of refugees is an affront to civilised values.

I have also been marvelling at how quickly yesterday's freedom fighter becomes today's bogus asylum-seeker. It is not that long since we were celebrating the fall of the Berlin Wall and the efforts of people in eastern Europe to throw off the influence of Moscow. Now we're terrified in case they come over here. But in Budapest last weekend, I met a writer whose extraordinary story is a reminder of the horrors endured by many citizens during the years of Stalinist dictatorship. Fatos Lubonja is Albanian, which means he grew up in one of the most secretive countries in the Eastern bloc. The Albanian dictator Enver Hoxha aligned himself first with Stalin and later with Mao, although the switch made little difference to his luckless subjects. Fatos is a writer and intellectual, who spent a total of 17 years as a political prisoner under the Hoxha regime and its successor. A dark, bearded man with a quick smile, he recounts his experiences without bitterness.

He was sent to prison for seven years at the age of 23, just after he left university, and spent the first five on a forced labour detail in a copper mine. He was coming to the end of his sentence when two friends took the courageous but foolhardy step of writing to the central committee of the Albanian Communist party, denouncing the increasingly paranoid Hoxha. They were executed and Fatos, who knew nothing of the so-called conspiracy, was sentenced to an additional 10 years.

Fatos was 40 when he finally emerged from prison in 1991. His book about his incarceration, The Second Sentence, is going to be published in the United States later this year. Now working as a journalist, he smiled impishly when he told me about his interview with Mme Hoxha, the dictator's widow, who was briefly jailed after her husband's death. After defending Hoxha's record, she launched into a sour complaint about prison conditions - and brought the interview to an abrupt end when Fatos suggested mildly that he knew rather more about the subject than she did.

I arrived home from Hungary in time for what was undoubtedly the must- have invitation of the week, Labour's centenary dinner on Monday evening. Sadly, mine failed to arrive, so I stayed in and groomed the cats instead. But what excitements awaited the lucky guests who paid pounds 500 each to dine with Tony Blair and his lovely wife, Cherie. The guest list is a Who's Who of New Labour, conjuring up a delightful vision of my lords Attenborough, Falconer, Bassam, Diamond, Grantchester, Hamlyn, Alli, Irvine, Hoyle, Bernstein and Sainsbury, exchanging pleasantries with Rebekah Wade, the Sun's charming deputy editor, and that popular 1960s chanteur, Adam Faith.

But what is this logo, adorning the menu (pan-fried lamb cutlets and mini ratatouille on chargrilled courgette, accompanied by mangetout with grilled sesame seeds, since you ask) - "New Labour. New Britain. 100 years"? Yes, New Labour is already celebrating its first century! And you thought they were an alien race, sent to earth a few winters ago to subvert its values, like the pod people in the Invasion of the Body Snatchers? Shame! That nice Mr Straw will be round to put you straight, as soon as he's finished his quartet of dark chocolate cake, raspberry tartlet, creme brulee mousse, tulip basket filled with exotic... no, wait, I haven't reached the end of the menu yet.