How long shall we avoid the immigration issue?

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The Independent Online
On Tuesday I was again rebuked by the Prime Minister for raising the issue of immigration at this election. John Major said: "What I am not prepared to see is this issue raised as a partisan political issue because we have seen the most immense improvements in race relations in this country."

There is now no misunderstanding. When I raised this at Prime Minister's Questions on 4 March, I thought Mr Major might not have heard my question against the row of the Labour benches trying to shout me down. Now we who wish to serve our constituents - yes all of them, black, white and Asian - must explain ourselves.

An election issue is anything that is of interest to a significant group of people who demand to know what the attitude of the candidates will be. There may be considerable regional variations. In Huntingdon, Mr Major's seat, they have an ethnic population of 2.2 per cent and I dare say immigration is not a very big issue there. On the other hand, the recent fall in wheat prices may be. A farmer might say to himself that farming is an industry subsidised and distorted by interference from Westminster and the EU. The farmer wants to hear the Conservative candidate's view. Would Mr Major say: "Oh I cannot discuss the details of wheat prices and I do not wish it to be a partisan political issue."

What is a political issue, whether partisan or not, is decided at a General Election by the electorate. It is true that while the House of Commons is sitting there is often agreement between the whips' offices (where Mr Major received much of his training) to exclude discussion of embarrassing topics. For instance, from 1990 to 1992 there was no great discussion about the alternatives to the exchange rate mechanism. Indeed the great and good told us that there was no alternative, and to advocate a floating pound, which in those days would have meant a lower pound, was to sell Britain short. Between 1965 and 1970 the great parties prevented the discussion of immigration in Parliament. Parliament's cowardice and embarrassment encouraged extra-parliamentary action in the shape of both National Front activity and riots.

Once an election is called, the people decide the issues. In a free society with a free press they decide by exerting the power of the market place. They buy and read those newspapers which report what interests them. Politically correct editors may be appalled but editors discuss immigration because they want to feed their wives and children and they do so by selling more newspapers.

Why is immigration an election issue? Because the lives of many people in the industrial areas and elsewhere over the last 25 years have been transformed by immigration. In the West Midlands, the ethnic population is 11.5 percent. But that figure is not spread evenly over the county. In Birmingham's Ladywood constituency, the ethnic minority is 42 per cent. Three constituencies here have ethnic minorities over 30 per cent, and many West Midlanders feel themselves to be strangers in their own pubs, schools and streets.

It does not take a great effort of imagination to understand the problems of this transformation. Between 1974 and 1979, I spent a lot of time trying to persuade Willie Whitelaw, then shadow Home Secretary, that something had to be done to reduce immigration. Brave and loyal though he was and is, he hated being falsely accused of racism.

I used to ask Willie how he would feel if, over 25 years, Winchester became a 90 per cent Asian school? Or how he would feel if in 10 years Trinity College Cambridge became an 80 per cent West Indian college? Or again what if over 20 years he found that the members of Whites Club spoke mainly Punjabi? Wouldn't you feel a little uneasy and a stranger in your own haunts?

This discussion may be embarrassing. But to prevent it is a denial of a constitutional decisions. We trust the jury to decide the most delicate and even inflammatory issues in a criminal trial. In the same way at an election we trust the people to consider the most difficult and sensitive issues. We believe in the balance and good sense of the British. We know that the people will condemn those who take advantage of any minority. Most of all we believe in the importance of discussion.

Finally, I defend myself from accusations of racism and desperate opportunism. I do not know what is meant by racist. To point out that there are racial differences is not to advocate hatred, or violence against a minority. As to opportunism, I can only say I have argued about immigration at every election since 1974. It has been my duty to discuss an issue which concerns basically the 80 per cent white population and the 20 per cent Asian and black population of my constituency. It is ironic that this year many Asians have been emerging as the champions of strict control of immigration. Perhaps that is opportunism!

We Tories have nothing to be ashamed of in discussing immigration. By refusing to discuss it the leaders of the great parties fuel resentment and fear. We remember that even under the Tories immigration is running at about 60,000 a year. Would Labour's shadow Home Secretary Jack Straw be good enough to say how much more immigration would result from his proposed relaxation of the rules? Private promises and the denial of debate can only encourage tension.