How we feed asylum-seekers

Despite the instances of racial attacks, and the evidence of racism in institutions such as the police service and the education system, most people, and not just the liberal chattering classes, now accept blacks and Asians as part of Britain. The murder of Stephen Lawrence was greeted with almost universal horror, and leading politicians of all parties fall over one another to deplore outright racism. Talk of repatriation has faded into the memory, along with the urban riots of the 1980s. A black or brown Briton is not generally regarded as any more peculiar or surprising a person than a Scottish, Welsh or Irish Briton. More important, as the Daily Mail so cleverly intuited over the Lawrence affair, middle-class, law-abiding, industrious whites now find it perfectly possible to identify with similarly inclined blacks, who share their hatred and terror of the yobbish underclass. There is not only a Black Britain but also a growing Middle Black England.

And that is the clue to the present national panic about asylum-seekers, and to Jack Straw's handling of it. Open prejudice against blacks is no longer acceptable in polite society - who now would complain about the smell of curry or repeat urban legends about West Indians and pet food? But open prejudice against asylum-seekers - with tales about aggressive child beggars, women masturbating in public and money going to luxury mansions in deepest Transylvania - is entirely acceptable and, paradoxically, all the more so if these people are not so much black or brown as rather swarthy white from eastern Europe. Besides, blacks and Asians have votes in British elections; asylum-seekers in general, and Romanian gypsies or Albanian imposters in particular, do not. Thus, racism, largely defeated in one guise, re-emerges in another, rather as it does from time to time over Muslim fundamentalists or as it has just done over Turkish football fans.

Fear and suspicion of outsiders and foreigners, of people not like ourselves, are basic to the human psyche. So, to take another example, is the desire for immediate vengeance against those who have harmed us or our families. But it is the mark of a civilised society that, one way or another, it rises above such primitive emotions; and it is the mark of a progressive and liberal political party that it should appeal to people's finer and more generous instincts, not to their baser and meaner ones. In these tests, our contemporary politicians fail miserably. The Home Secretary's handling of the issue suggests that new Labour is not just popular, but populist, in the worst sense of the term. William Hague's latest response - to lock up every asylum-seeker on arrival - simply takes the Tory party even further into the English laager mentality on which it now seems to pin its hopes of salvation.

As the NS has argued before, the issue of refugees is far more complex than either side is apt to acknowledge. The real need, as Mr Hague himself has said, is to reconsider international conventions on refugees that were designed for a world where most applications for asylum came from the victims of totalitarian states, whose rulers strove as mightily to keep them in as our rulers now strive to keep them out. The conventions are inadequate for a world where people are more often driven into exile by state weakness than by state oppression. In these circumstances, it is all the more important - particularly in a government that claimed, only a year ago, to wage war for humanitarian purposes - for ministers to encourage cool heads and rational language. That, however, is not the temper of the times. This is the age of zero tolerance, of "crackdowns" on "welfare scroungers", of ministerial sermons against the "something-for-nothing" society. It is hardly surprising that the poorer sections of British society, who are so often on the receiving end of all this "toughness", feel it unfair for outsiders to be treated any less harshly.

It has been well said that we should watch carefully how governments treat refugees because, given the opportunity, that is how they would treat the rest of us. Nothing better illustrates the present meanness of mind and spirit than the food voucher scheme for asylum-seekers, which goes to elaborate lengths to avoid a few stray pennies falling into Albanian hands, and costs more to administer than a cash benefits scheme. Can it be very long before we have similar voucher schemes for the unemployed, single mothers and others on benefits? Our rulers may eventually get rid of the asylum-seekers, but they will still want someone to kick around.

This article first appeared in the 24 April 2000 issue of the New Statesman, Are the loonies coming back?