Leading article: Saved by a timely resignation

Share

Few speeches have inflicted such lasting damage on the public good as the late Enoch Powell's utterance from 1968 when he predicted that post-war immigration into Britain would end in "rivers foaming with much blood".

It was why the words of Nigel Hastilow, the Conservative parliamentary candidate for a Midlands seat not far from Powell's old Wolverhampton constituency, in which he insisted Powell had been right, touched off such alarm.

By resigning, Mr Hastilow has saved his party leader from an exquisite dilemma, which is what to do with a candidate who blunders into a topic that his leader has raised himself only recently.

But as the furore has shown, the Conservatives are not yet into calm waters on immigration, a subject that has powers to inflame public passions but which at the same time has proven unpredictable as a source of votes. As various recent surveys of public opinion have shown, people remain concerned about immigration but, at the same time, wary of those who seek to exploit it as an issue.

Mr Cameron's predecessor, Michael Howard, failed to understand this distinction when he put immigration at the heart of the Conservative election campaign in 2005.

Mr Cameron has learnt important lessons from that debacle, and on the whole has been distrustful of immigration as a Conservative cause, viewing it, probably rightly, as a debased currency electorally.

The problem is that if he avoids the subject altogether, he risks being accused of political cowardice, whereas if he opens it up, he risks resurrecting the ghost of Powell, just as Mr Hastilow appeared to seek to do.

As Mr Hastilow has fallen on his sword, the Tory leader has been spared a confrontation with Mr Hastilow, and by extension, his own right wing, keen to tar Mr Cameron as a metropolitan liberal with an overdeveloped sense of political correctness. Mr Hastilow's withdrawal has also deprived Labour of an opportunity to attack the Tories as soft on racists.

But lessons need to be drawn – and spelled out in public. Lest others seek to tread in Mr Hastilow's footsteps, the Tory leader needs again to make it clear that while he is not squeamish on the subject of immigration, he sees a clear distinction between a responsible debate on a subject of national interest and a return to the kind of poisonous and inflammable language that Powell injected into the issue.

Should he fail to do so, the Conservatives will be back where they were in the public's estimation – condemned as a party that cannot be trusted not to exploit people's basest and most foolish fears over immigration, and in the most opportunistic manner.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Selby Jennings: VP/SVP Credit Quant- NY- Investment Bank

Not specified: Selby Jennings: VP/SVP Credit Quant Top tier investment bank i...

Ashdown Group: Senior Marketing Executive- City of London, Old Street

£40000 - £43000 per annum + benefits: Ashdown Group: Senior Marketing Executiv...

Ashdown Group: Marketing Manager

£40000 - £43000 per annum + benefits: Ashdown Group: An international organisa...

Ashdown Group: Internal Recruiter -Rugby, Warwickshire

£25000 - £30000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Internal Recruiter -Rugby, Warwicksh...

Day In a Page

Read Next
 

Errors & Omissions: pours or pores, pulverised, ‘in preference for’ and lists

Guy Keleny
Ed Miliband created a crisis of confidence about himself within Labour when he forgot to mention the deficit in his party conference speech  

The political parties aren't all the same – which means 2015 will be a 'big-choice' election

Andrew Grice
Aren’t you glad you didn’t say that? The worst wince-and-look-away quotes of the year

Aren’t you glad you didn’t say that?

The worst wince-and-look-away quotes of the year
Hollande's vanity project is on a high-speed track to the middle of nowhere

Vanity project on a high-speed track to nowhere

France’s TGV network has become mired in controversy
Sports Quiz of the Year

Sports Quiz of the Year

So, how closely were you paying attention during 2014?
Alexander Armstrong on insulting Mary Berry, his love of 'Bargain Hunt', and life as a llama farmer

Alexander Armstrong on insulting Mary Berry and his love of 'Bargain Hunt'

From Armstrong and Miller to Pointless
Sanchez helps Gunners hold on after Giroud's moment of madness

Sanchez helps Gunners hold on

Olivier Giroud's moment of madness nearly costs them
A Christmas without hope: Fears grow in Gaza that the conflict with Israel will soon reignite

Christmas without hope

Gaza fears grow that conflict with Israel will soon reignite
After 150 years, you can finally visit the grisliest museum in the country

The 'Black Museum'

After 150 years, you can finally visit Britain's grisliest museum
No ho-ho-hos with Nick Frost's badass Santa

No ho-ho-hos with Nick Frost's badass Santa

Doctor Who Christmas Special TV review
Chilly Christmas: Swimmers take festive dip for charity

Chilly Christmas

Swimmers dive into freezing British waters for charity
Veterans' hostel 'overwhelmed by kindness' for festive dinner

Homeless Veterans appeal

In 2010, Sgt Gary Jamieson stepped on an IED in Afghanistan and lost his legs and an arm. He reveals what, and who, helped him to make a remarkable recovery
Isis in Iraq: Yazidi girls killing themselves to escape rape and imprisonment by militants

'Jilan killed herself in the bathroom. She cut her wrists and hanged herself'

Yazidi girls killing themselves to escape rape and imprisonment
Ed Balls interview: 'If I think about the deficit when I'm playing the piano, it all goes wrong'

Ed Balls interview

'If I think about the deficit when I'm playing the piano, it all goes wrong'
He's behind you, dude!

US stars in UK panto

From David Hasselhoff to Jerry Hall
Grace Dent's Christmas Quiz: What are you – a festive curmudgeon or top of the tree?

Grace Dent's Christmas Quiz

What are you – a festive curmudgeon or top of the tree?
Nasa planning to build cloud cities in airships above Venus

Nasa planning to build cloud cities in airships above Venus

Planet’s surface is inhospitable to humans but 30 miles above it is almost perfect