The Tory leader may not be a racist - but he is pandering to racism

William Hague is not, by nature, a bad man. There is no clear evidence that he is himself a racist. He is, however, foolish and irresponsible in equal measures in making xenophobia seem respectable. Coming from a leading politician, such irresponsibility is itself a real crime.

That Jack Straw, the Home Secretary, has shown such intolerance in recent months - because of eagerness to garner "Mr Tough" tabloid headlines - is bad enough. There is, however, no intrinsic reason why a Conservative politician must always show less tolerance than a Labour one. On the contrary, the field is wide open for somebody to show the way in attacking what the Conservative MP Andrew Rowe yesterday called the "nonsense" of suggesting that the whole fabric of our society is at risk.

The Conservative Party leader seems determined to play to a lowest-common-denominator view of politics. He appears to believe - to misquote HL Mencken's phrase about money, taste and the American people - that nobody ever lost votes by underestimating the tolerance of the British voter. Demagogues all around the world have demonstrated that it is easy to stoke xenophobia. No surprises there. Equally important, however, is the fact that responsible political leaders can play an important role in ensuring that tolerance survives. Mr Hague should note the dangerous line between his much-vaunted common sense and simple bigotry.

The repeated use of the phrase "flood of asylum-seekers" suggests a situation that is out of control. As the Liberal Democrats - the only voice of sanity in this debate - have repeatedly pointed out, the opposite is true. Mr Straw's increasingly tough policies mean that the number of people reaching these shores is in any case decreasing. A series of catch-22 regulations makes it almost impossible to reach Britain except by entering the country illegally; that, in turn, deprives you of the right to stay. Hardly the conditions, you might think, for the alleged "flood".

The Conservative Party leader would do everybody - including his own party - a favour by attacking Mr Straw's intolerance. The Daily Telegraph's recent advocacy of laxer laws on cannabis-smoking has magnificently embarrassed Mr Straw in one area of home policy. Mr Straw could be equally embarrassed on the asylum-seekers' issue, too. Mr Hague should not be so frightened of his own shadow. He claims that the National Front will gain strength unless a tougher stance on asylum-seekers is taken.

Even when challenged on television by a black Yorkshirewoman who felt intimidated by the words "flooding" and "swamping", Mr Hague refused to back down. He prattled on instead about the dictionary definition of the word "flood". And yet, no politician - especially no Conservative politician - can afford to forget the echoes of Enoch Powell and his evilly foolish rivers-of-blood predictions triggered by an alleged "flood" of immigrants. That is not a road that any sane politician should want to go down.

The best way to fight the National Front is by presenting the facts as they really are, and not by pandering to a watered-down version of the National Front's own lunacy. Mr Hague's apparent failure to understand that basic fact represents a dangerous failure of common sense and an affront to human dignity.

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