Is Phil Woolas out of his mind?

Home Office plans to penalise "unpatriotic" immigrants are absurd and wrong

So you want to be British, do you? Stop protesting then. That's effectively the message from the Government this morning to would-be British citizens.

Having read Vikram Dodd's piece in today's Guardian, in which he pointed out that immigrants could "lose points for anti-social behaviour, such as protesting against British troops" - since when has protesting, of any shape or form, been considered "anti-social behaviour"? Where are we? Cuba? - I then tuned in to the Today programme to hear Immigration Minister Phil Woolas, once a member of the Anti-Nazi League but now seemingly the Labour minister in charge of appeasing neo-Nazis, warn that immigrants who take part in anti-war demonstrations could jeopardise their chances of being granted British citizenship. Here is the relevant exchange:

"Sarah Montague, the presenter, asked: "Are you effectively saying to people who want to have a British passport, 'You can have one, and when you've got one you can demonstrate as much as you like, but until then don't'?"

"Woolas replied: "In essence, yes. In essence we are saying that the test that applies to the citizen should be broader than the test that applies to the person who wants to be a citizen. I think that's a fair point of view, to say that if you want to come to our country and settle, you should show that adherence."

Is Woolas out of his mind? This is the authoritarian mindset of a Politburo member circa 1972, not the views of a Labour minister (a Labour minister!) in a democratic British government in 2009. "Adherence"? Since when did loyalty and support for Britain translate into loyalty and support for the British state, British government and various misguided "official" policies and proposals, of which today's consultation paper on citizenship is only one?

Woolas went on to add:

"Part of the mistake in this debate, in the public comment, is the assumption that the migrant does not accept that point of view. The vast majority, in my experience, do want to show that they are aspiring to integrate and to support our way of life."

Is "our way of life" exclusively limited to invading and occupying foreign countries? Or does it also include the rights to free thought, free speech and free assembly? Is it now un-British to protest? I expect some answers from Mr Woolas and his allies. And who, by the way, appointed him as the "Britishness Czar", the man who gets to decide what our "way of life" is? The mind boggles.

It is sad to see a former Conservative MP (and now chief executive of the Immigration Advisory Service), Keith Best, having to come to the rescue of our ancient British liberties and freedoms, rebutting Woolas's "bizarre" stance on the same radio broadcast and pointing out the rather simple fact that the right to protest is a key attribute of being British:

"I would be very surprised if the government would say to probationary citizens, 'You need to curtail your freedom of speech as a probationary citizen in order to be able to enjoy it fully once you become a British citizen'."

There are few issues that the left and the right agree on these days - but New Labour's failure to protect our basic rights and liberties is surely one of them.

 

Mehdi Hasan is a contributing writer for the New Statesman and the co-author of Ed: The Milibands and the Making of a Labour Leader. He was the New Statesman's senior editor (politics) from 2009-12.

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After a year of chaos, MPs from all parties are trying to stop an extreme Brexit

The Greens are calling for a cross-party commission on Brexit.

One year ago today, I stood on Westminster Bridge as the sun rose over a changed country. By a narrow margin, on an unexpectedly high turnout, a majority of people in Britain had chosen to leave the EU. It wasn’t easy for those of us on the losing side – especially after such scaremongering from the leaders of the Leave campaign – but 23 June 2016 showed the power of a voting opportunity where every vote counted.

A year on from the vote, and the process is in chaos. Perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised. The Leave campaign deliberately never spelled out any detailed plan for Brexit, and senior figures fought internal battles over which model they preferred. One minute Britain would be like Norway, then we’d be like Canada – and then we’d be unique. After the vote Theresa May promised us a "Red, White and Blue Brexit" – and then her ministers kept threatening the EU with walking away with no deal at all which, in fairness, would be unique(ly) reckless. 

We now have our future being negotiated by a government who have just had their majority wiped out. More than half of voters opted for progressive parties at the last election – yet the people representing us in Brussels are the right-wing hardliners David Davis, Liam Fox and Boris Johnson.

Despite widespread opposition, the government has steadfastly refused to unilaterally guarantee EU citizens their rights. This week it has shown its disregard for the environment as it published a Queen’s Speech with no specific plans for environmental protection in the Brexit process either. 

Amid such chaos there is, however, a glimmer of hope. MPs from all parties are working together to stop an extreme Brexit. Labour’s position seems to be softening, and it looks likely that the Scottish Parliament will have a say on the final deal too. The Democratic Unionist Party is regressive in many ways, but there’s a good chance that the government relying on it will soften Brexit for Northern Ireland, at least because of the DUP's insistence on keeping the border with Ireland open. My amendments to the Queen’s speech to give full rights to EU nationals and create an Environmental Protection Act have cross-party support.

With such political instability here at home – and a growing sense among the public that people deserve a final say on any deal - it seems that everything is up for grabs. The government has no mandate for pushing ahead with an extreme Brexit. As the democratic reformers Unlock Democracy said in a recent report “The failure of any party to gain a majority in the recent election has made the need for an inclusive, consensus based working even more imperative.” The referendum should have been the start of a democratic process, not the end of one.

That’s why Greens are calling for a cross-party commission on Brexit, in order to ensure that voices from across the political spectrum are heard in the process. And it’s why we continue to push for a ratification referendum on the final deal negotiated by the government - we want the whole country to have the last word on this, not just the 650 MPs elected to the Parliament via an extremely unrepresentative electoral system.

No one predicted what would happen over the last year. From the referendum, to Theresa May’s disastrous leadership and a progressive majority at a general election. And no one knows exactly what will happen next. But what’s clear is that people across this country should be at the centre of the coming debate over our future – it can’t be stitched up behind closed doors by ministers without a mandate.

Caroline Lucas is the MP for Brighton Pavilion.

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