Michael Howard's lesson in moral responsibility

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The Independent Online

Two big themes have dominated the news agenda this week - the 60th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz and the Conservative proposals on immigration. Michael Howard remarked upon this coincidence in a speech yesterday: "The liberation of Auschwitz - where my grandmother was murdered along with a million others - has reminded all of us that we have a moral responsibility to those fleeing persecution."

Two big themes have dominated the news agenda this week - the 60th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz and the Conservative proposals on immigration. Michael Howard remarked upon this coincidence in a speech yesterday: "The liberation of Auschwitz - where my grandmother was murdered along with a million others - has reminded all of us that we have a moral responsibility to those fleeing persecution."

We could not agree more. But the idea that a Tory government would make it easier for Britain to offer a home to the world's refugees is insultingly disingenuous. The party's policy on immigration has two clear elements. The first is to establish an Australian-style work permit scheme for economic migrants. The second is to cap the number of asylum-seekers admitted to Britain. The effect of the first would be to make it difficult for employers to hire the staff they require, a strange stance for the Tory party to adopt. The second would make it impossible for us to live up to our long-standing tradition of helping those fleeing brutal regimes. For all Mr Howard's talk of "moral responsibility", his party's policy would mean that in the event of another mass persecution, Britain would turn thousands away. So much for the lessons of history.

It is also worth reflecting on the xenophobia that the Tories are stirring up. Yesterday Mr Howard was bandying about figures intended to show that asylum-seekers are a colossal drain on our economy. But he notably omitted to present figures that show the enormous economic contribution immigrants have made over the years. The Tory message is clear - our "hospitality" is being abused by foreigners. The reality is so very different.

Mr Howard is a serious politician. But he has done himself no favours with such mendacious assaults on immigration and asylum. As the Prime Minister pointed out this week, the road to the Holocaust began not with gas chambers, but with bricks thrown through windows. Politicians - and this applies not just to the Tories - should be wary of stirring up the dark forces of racism, xenophobia and hostility towards people seeking a better life for themselves and their families.

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