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
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Benn vs McDonnell: how Brexit has exposed the fight over Labour's party machine

In the wake of Brexit, should Labour MPs listen more closely to voters, or their own party members?

Two Labour MPs on primetime TV. Two prominent politicians ruling themselves out of a Labour leadership contest. But that was as far as the similarity went.

Hilary Benn was speaking hours after he resigned - or was sacked - from the Shadow Cabinet. He described Jeremy Corbyn as a "good and decent man" but not a leader.

Framing his overnight removal as a matter of conscience, Benn told the BBC's Andrew Marr: "I no longer have confidence in him [Corbyn] and I think the right thing to do would be for him to take that decision."

In Benn's view, diehard leftie pin ups do not go down well in the real world, or on the ballot papers of middle England. 

But while Benn may be drawing on a New Labour truism, this in turn rests on the assumption that voters matter more than the party members when it comes to winning elections.

That assumption was contested moments later by Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell.

Dismissive of the personal appeal of Shadow Cabinet ministers - "we can replace them" - McDonnell's message was that Labour under Corbyn had rejuvenated its electoral machine.

Pointing to success in by-elections and the London mayoral election, McDonnell warned would-be rebels: "Who is sovereign in our party? The people who are soverign are the party members. 

"I'm saying respect the party members. And in that way we can hold together and win the next election."

Indeed, nearly a year on from Corbyn's surprise election to the Labour leadership, it is worth remembering he captured nearly 60% of the 400,000 votes cast. Momentum, the grassroots organisation formed in the wake of his success, now has more than 50 branches around the country.

Come the next election, it will be these grassroots members who will knock on doors, hand out leaflets and perhaps even threaten to deselect MPs.

The question for wavering Labour MPs will be whether what they trust more - their own connection with voters, or this potentially unbiddable party machine.