Not long after taking office, the Defence Secretary, Liam Fox, found himself in trouble for saying that Britain was "not in Afghanistan for the sake of the education policy in a broken, 13th-century country". Afghans saw his comment as evidence that colonial and racist views about their country persisted. So did many British liberals. It is not a view Dr Fox has repeated.
But he was not wrong, at least not nearly as wrong as his critics made him out to be; at worst he was a few centuries off. His mistake was to imply the existence of stages of development, which is tricky territory to negotiate in polite Western society these days – even though, paradoxically,"less developed" is now preferred as a definition to "third world". You must never imply that a country is "backward", or, if you do, even hint that backward might be inferior to advanced.
At least in Afghanistan, it is we who are the incomers (outsiders, invaders, occupiers, choose your term) and we can leave the country to its own devices. The times for French-style "civilising missions" are gone. But the uncomfortable cohabitation of divergent cultures and living standards may only just be beginning – much closer to home. Take France, where President Nicolas Sarkozy has got into as much trouble as Liam Fox, did – much more, in fact, as his "mistake" passed from word to deed.
Towards the end of the French summer holiday, President Sarkozy gave instructions that the Roma camps and shanty towns that had mushroomed on the edge of French cities and suburbs should be broken up and their inhabitants rounded up and deported. The condemnation has resounded around Europe. His motives have been called into question: was he not, perhaps, indulging in base demagogy to divert attention from his own unpopularity? Had he not ridden roughshod over the law – after all, the Roma are citizens of the European Union, with the right to move around freely? The Vatican has weighed in, and the UN, in the shape of its Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination, which called on France do more to integrate Roma families, educate their children and settle them in decent housing.
Which, of course, is admirably idealistic, and absolutely right, but not much use if you are a French citizen, who has lived in France all your life, paid your taxes and woken up to find a third-world – let's use the word – encampment at the bottom of your garden, which expands every day. What are the authorities supposed to do? These are not travellers who buy a farmland plot and move on to it on a bank holiday weekend in breach of planning regulations; this is an incursion of an entirely different order.
When Italy faced a similar problem a couple of years ago, the government stood by and turned a blind eye to some pretty nasty vigilantism. In France, it has not come to that, perhaps because Mr Sarkozy acted. In condemning him, however, you need to have an alternative to offer, and it is pretty hard to find one. There are whole families living without sanitation, without utilities, working in the black economy if at all, whose life in France is nonetheless more pleasant and profitable than it probably was, or ever would be, where they came from. There is no reason for them to return. As it is, though, they are parasites on a state of civilisation, material and cultural, they have done nothing to build and could not reproduce for themselves.
That is the bald, and politically incorrect, truth. Deportation could well produce an eternally revolving population as deportees try to make their way back. But should French tax-payers have to pay for schools and services and training to yank Roma families up to minimally acceptable French living standards? Should France be expected to facilitate the sort of integration that Romania, Bulgaria, Slovakia and other countries have shirked? And if not, can, or should, the Roma be exempt from the freedom of movement that applies across the European Union, even though it is already practically impossible to enforce? It is disingenuous to insist that such contrasting living standards and expectations existing side by side are easily manageable and that the newcomers can be smoothly accommodated, if at all, without huge outlays of money and goodwill. Nor is the challenge represented by the Roma unique.
A year or so ago, a German report concluded that, contrary to forecasts, second- and third-generation Turkish Germans were marrying in Turkey, prompting a whole new, and unanticipated, wave of what we used to call primary immigration, which was serving as a brake on integration. Something similar applies with sections of the Pakistani and Bengali communities in Britain, which have reproduced their own village systems in parts of British towns, and seek their spouses from "home".
The notion that integration is a simple matter of generation has not been proved. Britain and France and Germany all sought labour, preferably cheap labour, abroad, and they got that. But by recruiting from rural areas in less developed countries, we effectively transplanted whole villages and imported microcosms of the backwardness we had overcome. With new brides, bridegrooms and the dependents they may legally bring from their home country, the UK now has a home-grown problem of corrupt voting, forced marriage, kidnapping, "honour" killing, and disability – as a recent Channel 4 Dispatches programme showed – caused by first-cousin marriages. TB, the disease of Victorian slums which was once almost eradicated, is back, and treatment is taking money and manpower that rich countries might expect to spend on other things.
In one way this is the classic post-colonial conundrum, and maybe our post-colonial generations should not grudge the money; after all, we took from those countries in our day. But the juxtapositions that are coming about as a result of whole groups of people crossing borders, threatens to produce a clash of civilisations, not of religion, but of living standards, right on our very own doorstep.