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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Labour finds it easier to ignore the working class than to persuade them

The metropolitan left needs to start acting as if it is even partly as much concerned about Rochdale as it is about Aleppo.

There’s surely a deliciously bitter irony in the fact that Michael Gove’s favourite work of history is George Dangerfield’s 1935 classic The Strange Death of Liberal England. Beloved of the common reader, mistrusted by those haughty “experts” we’ve had enough of, Dangerfield tells of a British liberal consensus eroded over decades but eventually wiped out by the carnage of the First World War. For the Great War, read the cataclysm of last June’s Brexit vote, relished by Gove and the like, and you have lessons regarding the strange, ongoing death of Neoliberal England.

The year after Dangerfield’s volume appeared, 200 men marched from Jarrow to London to implore the Conservative prime minister Stanley Baldwin to bring jobs to their beleaguered town. The smooth and emollient Baldwin wouldn’t see them, which suggests that the notion of an aloof metropolitan elite turning its back on a rusting, post-industrial north is no modern invention.

Dangerfield never offers a cogent analysis of why the normally placid British began to throw themselves under police horses, go on hunger marches, join militant unions and generally abandon their consensual deference in favour of harsher doctrines. He found it as bewildering and mysterious as the tides. The death of what we might call Neoliberal England is much more explicable, if unpalatable to some. Liberal commentators have been rudely awakened to the fact that benign progressivists from Professor Pangloss to Francis Fukuyama onwards were wrong. Assuming that, left alone, “the masses” will come around to your way of thinking is rather like those churchmen who thought babies raised in silence would automatically speak English. It is presumptuous and leads to disaster.

I found myself thinking often of lines from Yeats’s “The Second Coming”. Rough beasts slouched through the streets of Batley. Corbyn, Cameron and the other indentured members of the Westminster political class lacked all conviction. Cameron utterly miscalculated the country’s mood and hugely overestimated its opinion of his own appeal and competence. Corbyn lurked silent and wraithlike on the edges of the national debate, a study in uselessness. By contrast, as Yeats put it, the worst (Farage, Johnson, the foaming and splenetic demagogues of the Mail and the Spectator) were full of a passionate intensity. They were full of something else, too, lying through their grins about extra money for the NHS. But by then the damage had been done.

Because immigration had a crude and ugly sound, it was left to only the crude and ugly of politics to mention it. This was a mistake. As Adam Shatz put it in the London Review of Books, few mainstream politicians wanted to engage with “the fabled white working class . . . which most of us have found it easier to hate than persuade”. Yet persuasion is important, however little the present leadership of the Labour Party seems to care for this element of politics. One gets the distinct impression that Jeremy Corbyn and his acolytes would prefer the purity and posturing of permanent opposition rather than the messy, compromised business of government. They offer ineffectuality and disdainful superiority dressed up as a kind of saintly decency. Maybe Jeremy feels that by not doing anything, he cannot do anything wrong. He should be disabused of this notion, and quickly.

Second, and this would seem so obvious as to not need saying, Labour needs to reconnect with its former industrial heartland. This doesn’t necessarily mean “turning to the right” or “abandoning left-wing principles”, or even embracing the dreaded “Blairism’’. But it does mean addressing (even with nose pinched between fingers) the legitimate concerns in the north and the Midlands about immigration, jobs and welfare. The metropolitan left needs to start acting as if it is even partly as much concerned about Rochdale as it is about Aleppo.

People disagreeing with you might be irritating – even galling – but it is not undemocratic. Democracy and liberalism are not synonymous. You can have one without the other. We struggled through most of the 1980s nominally democratic but unarguably illiberal. What Labour needs now is, perhaps, fewer ideologues and a few more psephologists, someone who might conceivably tell the party how voting works and how elections are won. If so, some of my former A-level sociology and politics students in Skelmersdale are probably still available for work.

Stuart Maconie is a writer and broadcaster

Stuart Maconie is a radio DJ, television presenter, writer and critic working in the field of pop music and culture. His best-selling books include Cider with Roadies and Adventures on the High Teas; he currently hosts the afternoon show on BBC 6Music with Mark Radcliffe.

This article first appeared in the 30 March 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Wanted: an opposition