Early to express his alarm over the weekend was David Wilshire, MP for Spelthorne. Like one of those bus conductors from a bygone era, Mr Wilshire put out his hand and told us that Britain is "full up". No standing room, even up in the Orkneys. The MP for Chislehurst, Roger Sims, said that any plan to extend citizenship would alarm the electorate, not least with its implications for housing and social welfare benefits. Other Tories agreed.
But what exactly was Mr Patten up to? He was, as colleagues have pointed out, a senior minister in the Cabinet that took the decision in 1990 to limit the right of citizenship of the UK to 50,000 heads of families. Furthermore that decision, taken in the full light of the Tiananmen Square massacre, enjoyed the tacit support of the Labour Party. The then Shadow Home Secretary Roy Hattersley (in pre-born again mode) declared himself unconvinced by the "appropriateness and practicality" of allowing British passports to millions of Hong Kongers. Only Paddy Ashdown ploughed a lone furrow of principle, as only Paddy can afford to do.
Which suggests, as some in the colony have pointed out, that Mr Patten's comments were more for consumption in China and Hong Kong - a step in the strange diplomatic dance going on in the period leading up to full Chinese sovereignty in 1997 - than a serious plea for a change in policy in Britain. It was yet another reminder to the Chinese about how easily Hong Kong could be damaged by heavy-handed Communist rule.
If that was indeed the limit of Mr Patten's ambition, then it is a shame. Few actions in the last 50 years have become this country so poorly as our treatment of the people of Hong Kong. The harsh fact, which few of us wish to face, is that a country that was prepared to wage war for thirteen hundred Falkland Islanders has washed its hands of 3 million colonial subjects. And all for fear of what might happen to British politics if there were to be a new large-scale immigration.
Since Mr Patten's comments have stirred (however briefly) the embers of this debate, it is worth taking the opportunity of stating a couple of truths. The first is that fulfilling our moral obligations to the Hong Kong Chinese would almost certainly not mean an influx of millions of people. Would you go to Mr Wilshire's constituency, when you could be welcomed with open arms in Darwin or Vancouver? No, and nor will they.
The second is that we could actually do with a bit of immigration at the moment. The industrious and entrepreneurial folk of Hong Kong would act - as generations of immigrants have - as a dynamic force in a British society that is all too often smug and insular. Globalisation? They know all about it. And who knows, Mr Wilshire, they might even rescue the housing market.Reuse content