Immigration: Cameron, Brown and Clegg all talk the language of limits

If St George were alive today, this non-EU citizen wouldn't score very highly on any points system.

This Friday, England will celebrate the life of a third-century Palestinian who was executed by the Emperor Diocletian for refusing to renounce his Christian faith.

The festivities may be a little muted for, as patron saint of England, St George, and his cross, have been much misused by nationalists with a narrow idea of what "Englishness" should mean; which is at least partly why so many English people of more refined sensibilities feel reluctant to mark the day with enthusiasm comparable to that displayed by the Irish diaspora on St Patrick's Day every 17 March.

The trio of party leaders who took part in ITV's debate last week are, however, likely at least to acknowledge St George's Day on Friday. And this made me wonder how comfortably our patron saint's Levantine roots sit with the rhetoric of all three when the subject of immigration arose during the debate.

Cameron, Brown and Clegg all talked the language of limits.

The Liberal Democrat leader warned against "unreasonable strain on housing and public services". The Leader of the Opposition said it had "got out of control and does need to be brought back under control", while the Prime Minister responded in a manner that tried to make it sound as though Labour was already being tough: "I do not like these words," he said, "because we are bringing it under control."

I am not a regular reader of Socialist Worker, but I do find myself in agreement with this comment in the paper:

The consensus was perhaps most annoying on immigration. Cameron has been to places where poor people live and has even met "a black man" who was against immigration. "I want us to bring immigration down so it's in the tens of thousands, not the hundreds of thousands," said Cameron looking to the ceiling so to further look down his nose at the rest of us. Brown boasted that immigration had been falling since he moved into 10 Downing Street. Clegg said immigrants had to be lined up with jobs in a region before being allowed in. Clegg did manage to remember to say that there were some nice immigrants.

In the past there was much grumbling about the fact that immigration was a toxic subject - you could not bring it up without being accused of racism - and that Labour's failure, in particular, to address white working class concerns was fuelling the rise of the BNP. (Not that the Immigration Minister Phil Woolas has ever given the impression of being even vaguely liberal in the policies he's advocated. Indeed, he has been attacked by the Archbishop of York over his "unmerciful" stance.)

In principle I don't think there's anything you shouldn't be able to discuss in a democracy, so of course I believe it is perfectly legitimate to bring it up. It is somewhat disappointing, however, to find that now we have decided that we can talk about immigration, the leaders of the three main political parties all agree. It is, from the start, something to be worried about. They all, to a greater or lesser degree, paint it as an issue to watch, not benignly, but as something with the potential to cause havoc.

And you don't have to go very far down that path to be back with words like "swamping" or, these days, "Eurabia".

Those who claim to be worried about immigration always say that it is nothing to do with race. They always have. Here is what Enoch Powell had to say about it when challenged by Archbishop Trevor Huddleston on the BBC in 1969.

Huddleston: "What I still want to know from you, really, is why the presence of a coloured immigrant group is objectionable, when the presence of a non-coloured immigrant is not objectionable."

Powell: "Oh no, oh no! On the contrary... the reason why the whole debate in this country on immigration is related to coloured immigration, is because there has been no net immigration of white Commonwealth citizens... It is not because there is anything different, because there is anything necessarily more dangerous, about the alienness of a community from Asia.... that we discuss this inevitably in terms of colour."

I leave open the question of whether Powell, in many ways a remarkable man who was at various points not only the youngest professor in the British Commonwealth but also the youngest brigadier in the British Army, was a racist. There is no doubt, however, about the views of many who were inspired by his speeches.

But I would like to quote further from his debate with Huddleston, for it seems to me that the issue of how we treat our fellow men and women - whether one starts from a Christian or a Human Rights viewpoint - is always predicated in the language of universality. Immigration, however, is a subject that immediately shrinks its borders to that of nationality. It stands directly at odds with the universal beliefs we profess about rights and duties to one another.

Huddleston: "The Parable of the Good Samaritan tells us that our neighbour is everyone... it specifically says the Samaritan, the enemy of the Jewish people at that stage of their history, the man who could not be thought of as a neighbour because of his religious and cultural differences, this is the man who shows love to the other. Now, has this not got anything to say to you about the attitude of the white race to the black race?"

Powell: "It says to me that in Christianity there is neither black nor white, bond nor free; but in the world in which I live there is black and white, bond and free.... I find it insuperably difficult to draw deductions from my Christian religion, as to the choices which would lie open to me in my political life."

I don't think it's at all difficult to draw deductions from one's belief system and apply them to politics. In fact, I think a politics that did not draw from such principles would be no more than shallow managerialism.

When it comes to immigration, I freely admit that it is a difficult area and I do not pretend to know what the answer is - although my strong inclination is to ask why we should close the door to anyone, if we too wish to be able to travel and work freely around the world. I also find it hard to see how either a Christian or a humanist could square with his beliefs the act of turning away a "neighbour", merely because he wasn't in possession of the right passport or papers certifying his abilities at carpentry or plumbing.

I'll come to a close here, but would like to leave you with two final questions. If St George were alive today, he would be a non-EU citizen and his skills - dragon-slaying in particular - would probably not score very highly on any points system. Would we let England's patron saint in if he wanted to come and live here now?

I think we know the answer. Is it one of which we can really feel very proud?

Sholto Byrnes is a Contributing Editor to the New Statesman
Getty
Show Hide image

An Irish Sea border – and 3 other tricky options for Northern Ireland after Brexit

There is no easy option for Northern Ireland after Brexit. 

Deciding on post-Brexit border arrangements between Northern Ireland and the Irish Republic is becoming an issue for which the phrase "the devil is in the detail" could have been coined. Finding a satisfactory solution that delivers a border flexible enough not to damage international trade and commerce and doesn’t undermine the spirit, or the letter, of the Good Friday Agreement settlement is foxing Whitehall’s brightest.

The dial seemed to have settled on David Davis’s suggestion that there could be a "digital border" with security cameras and pre-registered cargo as a preferred alternative to a "hard border" replete with checkpoints and watchtowers.

However the Brexit secretary’s suggestion has been scotched by the new Irish foreign minister, Simon Coveney, who says electronic solutions are "not going to work". Today’s Times quotes him saying that "any barrier or border on the island of Ireland in my view risks undermining a very hard-won peace process" and that there is a need to ensure the "free movement of people and goods and services and livelihoods".

The EU’s chief Brexit negotiator, Michel Barnier, has made dealing with the Irish border question one of his top three priorities before discussions on trade deals can begin. British ministers are going to have to make-up their minds which one of four unpalatable options they are going to choose:

1. Hard border

The first is to ignore Dublin (and just about everybody in Northern Ireland for that matter) and institute a hard border along the 310-mile demarcation between Northern Ireland and the Irish Republic. Given it takes in fields, rivers and forests it’s pretty unenforceable without a Trump-style wall. More practically, it would devastate trade and free movement. Metaphorically, it would be a powerful symbol of division and entirely contrary to the spirit of the Good Friday Agreement. The Police Federation in Northern Ireland has also warned it would make police officers "sitting ducks for terrorists". Moreover, the Irish government will never agree to this course. With the EU in their corner, there is effectively zero chance of this happening.

2. Northern EU-land

The second option is to actually keep Northern Ireland inside the EU: offering it so-called "special status". This would avoid the difficulty of enforcing the border and even accord with the wishes of 56 per cent of the Northern Irish electorate who voted to Remain in the EU. Crucially, it would see Northern Ireland able to retain the £600m a year it currently receives from the EU. This is pushed by Sinn Fein and does have a powerful logic, but it would be a massive embarrassment for the British Government and lead to Scotland (and possibly London?) demanding similar treatment.

3. Natural assets

The third option is that suggested by the Irish government in the Times story today, namely a soft border with customs and passport controls at embarkation points on the island of Ireland, using the Irish Sea as a hard border (or certainly a wet one). This option is in play, if for no other reason than the Irish government is suggesting it. Again, unionists will be unhappy as it requires Britain to treat the island of Ireland as a single entity with border and possibly customs checks at ports and airports. There is a neat administrate logic to it, but it means people travelling from Northern Ireland to "mainland" Britain would need to show their passports, which will enrage unionists as it effectively makes them foreigners.

4. Irish reunification

Unpalatable as that would be for unionists, the fourth option is simply to recognise that Northern Ireland is now utterly anomalous and start a proper conversation about Irish reunification as a means to address the border issue once and for all. This would see both governments acting as persuaders to try and build consent and accelerate trends to reunify the island constitutionally. This would involve twin referendums in both Northern Ireland and the Republic (a measure allowed for in the Good Friday Agreement). Given Philip Hammond is warning that transitional arrangements could last three years, this might occur after Brexit in 2019, perhaps as late as the early 2020s, with interim arrangements in the meantime. Demographic trends pointing to a Catholic-nationalist majority in Northern Ireland would, in all likelihood require a referendum by then anyway. The opportunity here is to make necessity the mother of invention, using Brexit to bring Northern Ireland’s constitutional status to a head and deal decisively with the matter once and for all.

In short, ministers have no easy options, however time is now a factor and they will soon have to draw the line on, well, drawing the line.

Kevin Meagher is a former special adviser at the Northern Ireland Office and author of "A United Ireland: Why unification is inevitable and how it will come about"

Kevin Meagher is associate editor of Labour Uncut and a former special adviser at the Northern Ireland office.