Trevor Phillips: This debate over immigration is so foolish

It is hard to talk about immigration in Britain without ending up in a shower of racial shrapnel

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It hasn't even begun properly and it's already pretty sickening. In the pre-election campaign, the language is "controlled", "managed" "immigration" and "asylum"; but much of the electorate is hearing "stop" "black", "foreign" and "Muslim". These words are incendiary; they have to be handled carefully.

It hasn't even begun properly and it's already pretty sickening. In the pre-election campaign, the language is "controlled", "managed" "immigration" and "asylum"; but much of the electorate is hearing "stop" "black", "foreign" and "Muslim". These words are incendiary; they have to be handled carefully.

I more than anyone would like to put an end to the far right's hypocritical whining about discussion being suppressed. But it's hard to talk about immigration in Britain without ending up in a shower of racial shrapnel. That's because our immigration laws, inherited from a post-Powellite panic, have always tended to ration entry by country of origin - a policy that is itself manifestly racial.

But immigration does not have to be racialised. In the United States, in the heat of an election campaign, George Bush proposed that several million "illegals" should have their position "regularised": an amnesty that had bigots gasping for breath, since most of those "regularised" would be black, brown and Hispanic. But for George Bush, the only colour that matters is green.

Immigration in North America is really about economics. I spent much of last week there, starting on the banks of the Mississippi. In the small, African-American district of East St Louis, the only businesses that thrive are fast-food outlets and beauty parlours; the tax base is so low that 80 per cent of the city's education spending comes from federal handouts.

By contrast the city in which I ended my trip,Vancouver, lies at the heart of a dazzling growth surge in western Canada. The other day its provincial government announced a budget surplus, higher public spending and tax cuts. One thing above all accounts for the transformation of this Pacific coast backwater into an economic success story: immigration.

The Vancouver area's population is now over two million. Nearly half of those who live in the city centre are immigrants, among them over 300,000 Chinese and 200,000 Indians. East St Louis mustered just under 400 Chinese and 1,600 Bosnian immigrants in the last year. Over the past three decades, Vancouver has flourished on the back of Chinese and Indian investment, intelligence and industry. The fact that it is Vancouver that benefited from this multi-billion dollar growth surge and not London is entirely down to our own short-sightedness and cowardice. Back in the early 1990s we refused to allow British subjects from Hong Kong to settle in the UK. This was probably the biggest error since the man from Decca declined to sign the Beatles because he said the day of the guitar group was over

That is what makes the so-called debate over immigration in the UK so dumb. Not racist, by the way, just plain dumb. Everyone who wants to propose anti-immigrant measures now starts their pitch by shouting very loudly, "It is not racist to talk about immigration!" It is completely unnecessary to do so.

The Commission for Racial Equality has spent the past year trying to persuade politicians to discuss the issue openly. That is why we suggested to leaders of both parties that they should consider the Australian and Canadian points systems. These more rational systems focus on what the country needs, and on what the individual brings, rather than where they or their grandparents were born.

However, a rational system can't prevent people from putting forward policies that are impractical, heartless, or racially biased. Inexplicably, those who are relatively recent arrivals can be the most anxious about who follows them.

Michael Howard, the son of Romanian refugees, says "Our country cannot absorb newcomers at the present pace." Anonymous Labour ministers say "Our hospitality has been tested to the limit." And the editor of the liberal Prospect magazine, David Goodhart, himself part-American, asserts that "high immigration ... can erode feelings of mutual obligation reducing willingness to pay tax." Each of these individuals, would be horrified, rightly, to be associated with the far right. But their words are already being used by those who believe that different racial and ethnic groups are intrinsically incompatible.

Yet even if we discount the interpretations of nakedly racist opportunists, these judgements do not correspond to the reality of modern Britain. Few people come to the UK to enjoy the weather or the below-the-breadline benefits. With half a million vacancies still unfilled and not a single catering outlet in London seemingly staffed by anyone born in the UK, no Brit is being robbed of work.

Our need for new skills and younger labour is uncontestable. Britain, the trading nation, the nation of a thousand years of inward migration, needs to remind itself that immigration made us prosperous. If we turn our backs on our own history, the next generation won't inherit Vancouver's vitality. Instead they can visit their future in East St Louis.

The writer is Chair of the Commission for Racial Equality

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