Let's leave race out of immigration policy

Britain cannot be a global economic player by trading on racism. It's time for some honesty in this debate
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The Independent Online
Who are we? We are a youthful, open country, optimistically agape to the global economy, mustard-keen to grab the challenge of the Asian century. So the Prime Minister assures us. But at the same time we are an old, closed country, hostile to foreigners; so the Home Secretary reassures us.

We cannot be both. We cannot rat on our moral obligations to Indian and Chinese Hong-Kongers and be an influential, respected player in the developing Asian game. We cannot be a bubbling international entrepot where cultures meet and the world does business, but which is also neurotically keen to keep out "darkies" and people with funny voices. It does not work.

But John Major, Michael Howard and their colleagues have breezily decided to ignore this disabling contradiction. A fortnight after Major's vision of Britain as the ''enterprise centre for Europe'', he is preparing for an asylum and immigration measure as the centrepiece of his new legislative package. What style. What breadth of vision. What an uplifting sense of priorities.

It is necessary, though. We need to protect ourselves against a tidal wave of liars and scroungers, don't we? Well, there is indeed a staggering fact, made much of by the Home Office and certain Tory MPs: only 4 per cent of supplicants are granted asylum. That is right; four bleeding per cent, mate. So 96 per cent are scroungy, sneaky, pinko-darkie pyjama- trousered troublemakers. It'sbleeding disgrace, innit?

Well no, actually. Only a couple of years ago, about half of the people seeking asylum qualified or were given ''exceptional leave to remain'' here. Now, of the 60,000 to 70,000 people waiting (officials are endearingly vague about the exact number of "underpeople"), it is indeed true that 4 per cent will eventually be deemed to have qualified and 16 per cent granted exceptional leave to stay.

It is not that the character of asylum-seekers has suddenly and dramatically changed; it is that the rules were changed in the 1993 Immigration and Asylum Act. Ministers raised the hurdles. Now that fewer people clear them, this is presented as evidence of the bogus nature of asylum-seekers generally. Shabby stuff.

There are, of course, bogus asylum-seekers, economic migrants trying to better their lot. Home Office people insist that the new list of countries whose nationals will be treated suspiciously if they ask for asylum is partly aimed at Eastern Europe, particularly Poland. It will not include, as reported yesterday, such war-stricken or repressive countries as Algeria, Sri Lanka and Nigeria.

Now, it would be reasonable for British officials to tear up applications from people seeking asylum because of persecution by, say, the Danish authorities, or the government of Canada. And Poland is no longer a police state. But the idea of a Whitehall "audit of repression" being used to exclude whole classes of applicants is a dangerous one. There are countries whose governments the Foreign Office does not want to offend, but where fear of persecution is real. Once you start to include geopolitics in the rule book, individuals will be denied justice.

Furthermore, those utterly bizarre examples of "safe" countries came from somewhere. Perhaps there is a surrealist saboteur on the loose in Whitehall. Maybe Mr Howard is simply the victim of a cruel practical joke - as Michael Portillo clearly was, when his statesmanlike party conference speech was tampered with by some malign satirist at the last moment (and tragically, of course, the joke version was the one he delivered).

What is not a joke, or at all obscure, is the broad thrust of the coming legislation. The Home Office is fighting for private employers to be obliged to investigate the immigration status of job applicants, even though other ministers have warned of the possible racist consequences. Asylum-seekers awaiting judgement are to lose their social security benefits, cutting off their means of support - a fine act of British generosity, that. Perhaps a DSS pamphlet on Begging techniques and street regulations in the United Kingdom will be offered gratis to all such incomers?

What is interesting about the explaations of these proposals, as they dribble out, is that the Government still feels it necessary to produce any mimickry of rationality or legalism for measures whose purpose seems all too clear - to keep dark-skinned foreigners out.

Why bother to hide it? The British have long been hypocritical about race, thinking of ourselves as tolerant, put-upon people who keep ourselves to ourselves but who, for some inexplicable reason, now find foreigners wandering about our streets. Never mind that, earlier this century, we were populating Australia, chunks of Africa, America, the Caribbean, India. Never mind that our own racial migrations have changed the world dramatically, far more so than anything that will happen to Britain in the next century. We cling to our cosy self-image.

This hypocrisy is particularly dangerous today because of the re-emergence of race as a hot topic in the Anglo-American world. After 50 years of decent silence, the wet-lipped academics with measuring tapes and selective statistics are back. More popularly, the condition of black Americans and the reappraisal of their civil rights optimism is echoing here. The OJ Simpson debate spilled across British pubs and kitchen tables, too.

Ministers may affect to be uninfluenced, either way, by any of this wider climate. Mr Howard is, it seems, offended by the suggestion that he is dabbling in dirty waters. Has he not spoken out against racists in his recent party speeches? Is he not a civilised man, Jewish to boot? Does he not attend, with meticulous attention, many meetings with British Muslims, Hindus and other minorities?

Yes he does. But he is also a sophisticated politician who knows how messages come over. He parrots the oh-so-convenient thought that racial harmony equals tough immigration control. And controls are certainly part of the story. But when it is implied that they are almost the whole story, black and liberal Britons should pause and stare. The politically correct words from the front of the mouth are all too easily drowned out by the hissed message from the side of the mouth.

What we need instead is an honest speech or two about immigration and race, followed by an honest policy, with nothing left covert. If Howard is playing fair, he owes it to us to say how many immigrants he thinks this country can absorb every few years, and why, and who they should be. Other countries make a virtue of wanting particular classes of skill and of paying particular attention to certain overseas groups. We should, too.

This is indeed about our national destiny: if we really want to be a country that exploits the openness and dynamism of the global economy, it is downright odd to start by retreating behind a new wall of Home Office regulations against displaced foreigners. It is a question of attitude. We cannot get away, as we once did, with seeing Abroad as a place to be exploited, then shunned.

Yet this contradiction has thus far been ignored by the Conservative Party. It blithely says, with Walt Whitman, ''Do I contradict myself? Very well then I contradict myself. (I am large, I contain multitudes).'' Only in this case, it isn't, and it doesn't.