We should fight to defeat the racists in our midst, not try to appease them

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A politician with the stature and experience of David Blunkett should know better than to use a word like "swamping" when discussing race and immigration. It may have been that the Home Secretary's remarks on the Today programme were made in complete ignorance of Margaret Thatcher's infamous use of that same term in the run-up to the 1979 election, but it seems unlikely, given its celebrated place in the folklore of British politics.

Perhaps, then, Mr Blunkett self-consciously wanted to emulate Mrs Thatcher's intervention all those years ago. True, she did undercut the National Front, then the main far-right party, and peel away some of its softer support. At the 1979 election the National Front did badly, failing to capitalise on the surge in support it had experienced in its local strong points – then, as now, in Lancashire, the Midlands and London. The eclipse of the National Front, it must be said, also had a good deal to do with the splits and scandals that habitually seem to affect the political fringe, but Mrs Thatcher did her bit.

Why, then, condemn Mr Blunkett? Isn't he, in his words, merely saying that "people need to know we are on their side, we are speaking their language, we understand their fears". The answer to that is "Jean-Marie Le Pen". For Mr Blunkett's use of the sort of language you might find in a BNP leaflet simply legitimises the sorts of arguments the far right uses. It is possible that Mr Blunkett's words may persuade a few would-be BNP voters in Oldham or Burnley to resist the temptation. It might even prevent the BNP winning a seat on the council on 2 May. But it remains a deeply flawed, indeed dangerous strategy.

For whatever short-term electoral sense such a tactic might bring, it is simply not worth it because of the long-term damage it does. Mrs Thatcher's stance did nothing to make the case for a multicultural society or prevent the simmering racial tensions that spilled over into riots in the 1980s. William Hague and Ann Widdecombe talked so much about "bogus" asylum-seekers that it was no surprise when the BNP began to pick up support at the last general election. There was also a worrying rise in racially motivated attacks during this depressing episode in the Tory Party's history. No wonder Iain Duncan Smith finds it so difficult to attract members from the ethnic minorities. And, most recently and most dramatically, we see how Jacques Chirac's decision to fight his campaign on Mr Le Pen's territory helped the old fascist skip into second place in the presidential election.

For years British governments of both parties bent their efforts to secure an implicit deal with the electorate – an effective end to immigration in return for legislation outlawing racial discrimination. The terms of that deal have distorted our view of immigration for too long. If we have a large number of people who have been claiming asylum but who are not entitled to it then that is very much to do with the fact that we still have no coherent policy on economic migration.

If, in other words, some people want to come to Britain to make a better life for themselves and their children what is so very wrong with that? Might it not help this country to become more prosperous and help us cope with an ageing populom

To be fair, there is evidence that the Government has begun to think about immigration in rational economic and social terms. But Mr Blunkett's careless use of language does make it look as though ministers have decided that it is better to appease the racist element in society rather than defeat it.