A terrible viciousness is born

Once, refugees were just scroungers. Now, they are also terrorists and plague carriers. As war appro

At the end of last year, it seemed that the over-quoted remark that 11 September "had changed everything" seemed as discredited as "Things can only get better". No one in power or with influence in journalism believed it for a moment. In the opinion of the giggling media grandees who handed out the What the Papers Say Awards in December, the most important news of 2002 was: Edwina Currie selling her story about nights of "sticky" sex with John Major to the Times; the butler of the late and excessively lamented Princess of Wales selling his story of the royal family's perversion of the course of justice to the Daily Mirror; and persons unknown selling the story of Cherie Blair's property deals and love of crystal therapies to the Daily Mail and Mail on Sunday.

All gossipy tales, signifying not very much. But there was comfort in that. A land obsessed by its trivia is happy, if stupid. A few months on, and the conflict Osama Bin Laden began is poisoning left and right and making dangerous fools of both. Asylum-seekers and the conflicts that push them into flight are all anyone wants to put on the front page.

The "left", if that label means anything any more, considers itself to be the refugees' dearest friend. It is concerned about racism and unafraid of "the other". Leftish love of the persecuted is so demanding that it requires more and more refugees to satiate it. The great source of refugees in Europe was the former Yugoslavia. Much of the left opposed the intervention in Kosovo which stopped Muslims fleeing ethnic cleansing, and the Marxist-Leninist wing mourned the fall of Slobo, who sent more refugees into exile than any European leader since Hitler and Stalin. Taliban Afghanistan bested Serbia and produced virtually nothing other than murderers and refugees. Islamic fundamentalists joined Marxist-Leninists - a Hitler-Stalin pact between supporters of the one-church state and the one-party state - and members of a wider left in denouncing the war in Afghanistan. Since the fall of the Taliban there have been frequent and well-merited complaints that the west has not poured aid into Afghanistan - well-merited, that is, as long as you accept that the complaint is not that the west has been imperialist, but that it has not been imperialist enough. Life can't be so bad, however, as two million refugees have found the confidence to go home.

Now we have Iraq. In arguing against the anti-war party, I am frequently struck by its imaginative failure. People can imagine the horrors of war: there are folk memories of old wars and television pictures of new ones. Perhaps because of the absence of footage of Saddam Hussein's atrocities in the Guernicas of Kurdistan and the torture chambers of Baghdad, they seem unable to imagine life under a tyrant who has murdered hundreds of thousands. They cannot grasp what it must feel like to see your husband disappear and not be able to complain; to know that if you dissent and are caught, your wife will be tortured and raped as a matter of routine. (Probably in front of you, if you refuse to confess.)

The greatest breakdown in sympathetic understanding is the inability to comprehend the paucity of options open to Iraqis. Saddam can be removed only by civil war, which the secret police make impossible, or by foreign invasion. In the absence of either, four million Iraqis have fled. Arguing against war is arguing for a status quo which drives them into exile.

The European left's conservatism explains why Iraqi democrats and socialists don't care greatly about the anti-war protesters. The Kurds have tried to argue with them, but as few of the fine people who once wept tears of rage and pity for their suffering will give them a hearing, they shrug and attempt instead to influence the fierce debates in Republican Washington. The left offers them no escape routes. The consequence of its policy is more tyranny and more exiles. As I said, we love refugees so much that we can't get enough of them.

Although there are affinities between the Douglas Hurd type of Conservative and the anti-interventionist left, the Tories in general are the mirror image of leftish bad faith: they hate refugees but love the western interventions that stem the flow of the oppressed.

There is nothing new about the loathing that now dominates the media. In 1900, the Daily Mail described the flight from tsarist pogroms thus: "There were Russian Jews, Polish Jews, German Jews, Peruvian Jews: all kinds of Jews, all manner of Jews. They fought and jostled for the foremost places at the gangways; they rushed and pushed and struggled into the troopshed, where the Mayor of Southampton . . . had provided free refreshments.

"They had breakfasted well on board, but they rushed as though starving at the food. They brushed the attendant to one side, they cursed if they were not quickly served, they helped themselves at will, they thrust the children to the background, they pushed the women . . . they jostled and upset the weak, they spilled coffee on the ground in wanton waste."

Greedy, selfish and barbarous parasites were invading Britain. They did so again as Hitler swept through Europe. "The way stateless Jews from Germany are pouring in from every port of this country is becoming an outrage," said the Daily Mail of 20 August 1938. When the persecution of East African Asians began, the Daily Express announced: "There are 200,000 Asians in East Africa all possessing British passports, who may come here soon."

A series of stories about "floods", "tides", "stampedes", culminated in the headline of 1 March 1971 that: "A million Chinese can arrive here next week if they want to". They didn't. The Daily Telegraph wasn't much better: "Kenyan Asian exodus numbers double - 100,000 may enter Britain by end of the year". The report was based neither on official sources nor the informed speculation of the Telegraph's man in Nairobi, but anonymous airline officials.

The world we are now in is still that produced by the fall of the Berlin Wall, which opened up the Eurasian land mass. No one would pretend that economic migration and escaping persecution has not become easier, and that the problems governments face are not enormous. However, every problem is also an opportunity, as the business school motivators say.

The problem for politicians in the boom years of the 1990s was that the political differences between the parties had vanished. If everyone agreed that capitalism was the best and only way, and that inequality could and should widen, what was there left for politicians to talk about? They had to find the words which would convince those voters who weren't share-option-guzzling CEOs that their elected representatives were on their side. Crime and race provided the links between snobs and mobs.

The media faced a similar quandary. Although they were hugely powerful as a collective, nearly all the individual components were suffering from declines in sales and ratings which echoed the decline in voting. In the press, the collapse was greatest in readership of the red tops. The middle-market Express has fared as badly. The once indomitable Mail grew in the 1990s, but is now showing signs of running into trouble.

The class gap between journalists and the public was then, and is now, far greater than the divide between politicians and the electorate. Editors, BBC managers, star columnists and presenters would be insulted if they were offered the Prime Minister's pittance of a salary.

In its first term, new Labour exploited asylum shamelessly. I will never recover from the sight of Mike O'Brien and Jack Straw being attacked from the left by the Tories when they took through parliament an asylum bill which pushed asylum-seekers into the hands of criminal smugglers by the neat trick of making it impossible for them to enter Britain legally.

The press both incited and followed the government. A selection I collected for the New Statesman from the Mail four years ago shows what was standard fare. All the pieces shared the same theme: asylum-seekers were scroungers, not victims, taking money which could be spent on the native sick and elderly.

When the war against terrorism hit Britain in January this year, with the alleged murder of Stephen Oake in Manchester and the uncovering of a suspected "ricin factory" in London, it pushed the press over an edge on which it had been teetering for years. Like men psyching themselves up to commit a vile crime, journalists had fantasised about the deed and wondered if they could get away with it. When they realised they could, the adrenalin rush hit.

If you visit www.diversity-online.org you can read page after page of poisonous coverage, if you have the stomach for it. "Asylum-seeker" once meant "scrounger" and now means "terrorist". The Sun makes the connection explicit in a mass petition from readers to Downing Street telling the Prime Minister that "We campaign for a nation that lives in fear of Algerian terrorists who are allowed to roam free among us." The differences between high and low journalism are negligible and the Sun's sister paper the Times announced after the arrests in London: "Terrorist leaders realise that one of the surest ways to plant agents successfully in Britain is to have them apply for asylum. At least three of the seven men being interrogated by Scotland Yard in connection with the north London ricin 'laboratory' are understood to have made applications . . ." Well, that settles it, then.

The logical consequence is to ban asylum applications from the citizens of Islamic countries, including applications from the victims of Islamic fundamentalism. And indeed the calls for Britain to abandon the 1951 UN Refugee Convention have been getting louder. In truth, logic has nothing to do with the coverage. Algerian terror suspects do not even need to be convicted by judge and jury: they can be interned without trial even if there isn't much of a case against them. But meanwhile, if "terrorist leaders" could no longer "plant agents" as asylum-seekers, they would send them in as tourists or students. The only way to stop them would be to ban all Algerians or - why not? - all Muslims from visiting Britain. The Tories haven't quite gone that far, but asylum has helped push the party back towards the far right.

William Hague ran on a manifesto of Daily Mail editorials in 2001, hoping that low turnout would give the right-wing minority a disproportionate influence. There was an appalling turnout but Hague still took the Tories to a second landslide defeat and left politics as that most ignominious of losers: the failed opportunist.

Iain Duncan Smith and Oliver Letwin, the shadow home secretary, are now aping Hague. They have abandoned the attempts to be nice and inclusive and made an insane call for MI5 to weed out terrorists by interviewing all asylum applicants. I don't have the confidence of MI5 officers, but I would guess that the Conservative policy wasn't checked with them before it was announced to the press. The security service has to contemplate the possibility of previously unimaginable crimes. It needs to be "intelligence-led", in the police jargon; that is, it needs to throw resources at specific threats.

The Conservative Party is now committed to taking MI5 officers away from these urgent tasks and giving them the drudge work of screening applicants. Duncan Smith and Letwin must know that their proposal endangers national security, but to point out their deliberate folly is to miss the point of elite populism. In its strange mental universe, those who object to Letwin and the Murdoch press are themselves "elitists", who snobbishly disregard the fears and wishes of the masses.

This line of cant has been developed by Anthony Browne, an occasional contributor to this paper, and a writer for the Times and Spectator, elite journals both. "Blair's epidemics" of Aids, TB and hepatitis B are being spread by asylum-seekers, he has asserted to great acclaim. You can understand the reasons for the applause. Browne has moved the debate on. Asylum-seekers are not only scroungers and terrorists but plague carriers, like the rats that brought the Black Death.

Browne insists that he is a brave dissident bringing a truth which few dare utter. The "elite" has covered up the crisis and attacks men such as him with the "McCarthyite" smear of racism. In his writings, Labour is no longer a party which has denied legal entry to asylum-seekers and slashed their benefits, but a government "whose intellectual faculties are so crippled by political correctness that not offending would-be immigrants has become more important than saving the lives of British people".

As with Algerian terrorism, Aids offers no obvious authoritarian solution. You can screen asylum-seekers from Africa for, say, Aids, but what about visitors from Africa? Or east Europeans? The fantasy of the right is of a world without movement.

There are darker thoughts, too. Browne complained that David Blunkett, under the protection of parliamentary privilege, had described his writings as "bordering on fascism". If the Home Secretary were to repeat this outrageous slur outside the Commons, he would, he implied, sue.

Blunkett would have a little supporting evidence should the case come to court. The Observer printed details of a US anti- immigration website that hero-worships Browne as "Sir Anthony". Browne was delighted by the compliment and brought news from the disease-ridden dictatorship that is Blair's Britain. No one dares criticise asylum-seekers because the BBC "brainwashes the people about the delights of multiculturalism at every opportunity", he told the appalled Yanks. But there was hope. A page of pro-British National Party views run recently in the Times was, he said, "a truly incredible event".

Browne told the Observer that his remarks about the BNP had been in a private e-mail, and in any case he hadn't meant "truly incredible" as in "absolutely marvellous" but as in "utterly unthinkable in a country usually wary of fascism".

Make of that what you will, but at the very least I think we can safely say that barriers are being broken in politics and the media; and old restraints, which were only ever feeble, are being loosened.

The threat of al-Qaeda goes some way towards explaining the wanton thoughtlessness. In other respects, however, the viciousness is coming astonishingly early in the economic cycle. We are in the last days of a period of plenty. The great stock market crash has yet to hurt the rest of the economy. Unemployment is still falling and real wages are still rising.

I don't want to scare you, but can you imagine what this country will be like when the hard times hit?