The Government's policy of divide and dismiss

Ethnicity and faith loyalties now dominate and distract us from our shared battles
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The Independent Online

So, shock! horror! Tories use the immigration card to save themselves from obliteration. Last week I predicted this would happen and yesterday a full-page advert by Michael Howard announced quotas for asylum-seekers and migrants. Why not use this excellent model on our stretched public services too? Put a limit on how many injured people will be admitted into hospitals. But we must be grateful that we know what this lot stands for. The callous politics of the Tories have never been as manifestly clear.

So, shock! horror! Tories use the immigration card to save themselves from obliteration. Last week I predicted this would happen and yesterday a full-page advert by Michael Howard announced quotas for asylum-seekers and migrants. Why not use this excellent model on our stretched public services too? Put a limit on how many injured people will be admitted into hospitals. But we must be grateful that we know what this lot stands for. The callous politics of the Tories have never been as manifestly clear.

Howard will succeed in garnering votes because millions have become dangerously paranoid about immigration. And Blair and his Cabinet will rush now to appease these forces. New Labour may be unbeatable when it comes to the pose, the appeals to virtue and morality - just don't expect them to do the right thing.

The outrageous laws which have reduced the most basic entitlements of refugees and immigrants have come from this government. I resigned from the party when they started this vendetta and it has only got worse. New Labour has presided over this rise of xenophobia, more ugly and widespread than we ever saw under Thatcher.

This government has also pandered to "community" politics and promoted a culture of separatist, self-obsession among British Muslims. A cynic might say these strategies have disabled effective movements to protect the rights of all immigrants and asylum-seekers. They have also contributed to the growing tensions in society.

Last week I went to a major Runnymede Trust conference on race and social cohesion. The Home Secretary Charles Clarke made an upbeat speech on the big bad Tories, targets, equality, discrimination faced by Muslims, and citizenship. His junior minister, Fiona Mactaggart, went through the same list. Neither mentioned immigration. It fell to Trevor Phillips to say that previous governments had fouled up the immigration debate and that it was time for responsible political leadership to ensure a decent deal for our new immigrants and refugees.

There is an honourable and intelligent way to manage migration and to provide refuge for the displaced. New Labour has neither the wit nor the will to sell a decent set of immigration policies to the British people. They could have done this in the first term when they had a resounding election victory. They didn't, because Blair decided it was more important to be loved by the right-wing press. The second term has been even more muddled and shabby, especially after the 11 September 2001 attacks in America and the war on Iraq.

This failure, in turn, has enabled some powerful individuals to validate and regularise anti-immigration discourse. Migration Watch is a partisan organisation with a mission to halt the entry of "alien" foreigners. Yet today this "think tank" is revered as an independent truth teller. David Goodhart, the editor of Prospect magazine is similarly respected because he believes that post-war immigration has dragged in too much diversity which threatens the welfare state and the nation itself: "British values grow, in part, out of a specific history and even geography. Too rapid a change in the make up of a community not only changes the present, it also potentially changes our link with the past".

Two academics, Adrian Barton and Nick Jones of the University of Plymouth, have just published a powerful riposte to the Goodhart thesis: "[obscured] behind this language of neutrality is a diluted form of the New Racism espoused by Keith Joseph and Enoch Powell who found it easier to blame certain groups and communities than to address the mechanics of an inherently unstable economic system".

The divisive politics of identity have only encouraged these retrogressive tendencies and weakened the urgent fight-back. Ethnicity and faith loyalties now dominate and conveniently distract us from our shared battles, including those which concern white Britons. We have become hopeless competitors instead of a collective voice which can effectively confront state injustice.

Muslims have been at the forefront of this drive. And the British establishment, the political parties and the media are keenly encouraging this destructive fragmentation.

In Pakistan, Egypt or Palestine, people define themselves as nationals. In Rwanda, the genocide happened because one group sacrificed national for tribal identity. With Muslims we are told to "celebrate" this identification which is isolating them. Last week there was yet another big think to find out what Muslims want. They don't want to call themselves black or Asian, they want to be seen as the most disadvantaged, they want special rights because of Islamophobia.

All of us have a right to religious practice and a cultural heritage but not to live as states within the state. Racists do not believe in a common humanity, neither do cultural and religious separatists. And where Muslims go, others follow. More faith-based schools, more separate community projects, more bitterness.

In truth, it is black men and asylum-seekers who face the most overt discrimination in the country today. But segregationist ethnic and faith activists are not interested in the plight of strangers. They just want to appropriate all our pity, any resources going, to be the top unwanted dog.

Between them the Tories, New Labour, community leaders and anti-immigration groups have made this country disastrously inimical to immigrants. The price for this will be paid by all our children.

y.alibhai-brown@independent.co.uk

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