Be decent, Tony, and shock us!

Bill Morris and Tony Blair don't strike me as soulmates. But they share a political language, and when Bill Morris says, as he did to me the other day (see page 18), that the asylum issue is fundamentally a moral question, that is surely a direct challenge to the Prime Minister's sense of himself. Because, like Morris, Blair believes in moral purpose. The accusation that he flits from one TV studio to another, wearing an inane grin and repeating soundbites, overlooks the thing that took him to No 10 in the first place and that gets him up each morning - a strong moral sense.

He is genuinely infuriated by left-wing critics, because the charge of moral corruption hurts him so much. You may disagree with his analysis, deride his strategy and dislike his friends, but he is driven by a living, restless moral sense.

This has been apparent in his ceaseless drive to secure peace in Northern Ireland; it is evident in his strong interest in the tragedy of modern Africa. Always that question: "Will history judge me a good man?"

Moral sense, however, becomes harder the closer you get to home, and the louder the bully boys of the tabloid press shout. So, sadly, there is not much evidence of a moral purpose over the asylum issue. When Morris tells the New Statesman that "the policy is in chaos", he is not overstating his case. Scores of desperate people are trying, by any means possible, to get through the Channel Tunnel each week. Their determination to make it to Britain is matched only by their astonishing disregard for their personal safety: night after night, the television news bulletins carry interviews with people who have only just cheated death by jumping on to or crawling under Eurostar trains, and yet who are ready for another go come nightfall.

But now Britain, a country that has for centuries prided itself on its decency and tolerance, is snarling back at them. Britain is too crowded. Britain is full. They are somebody else's problem. Put up more barbed wire. Buy more dogs. Never in recent times have we faced a situation that more urgently needed brave moral leadership.

This, I accept, is easy to say. Outrage is useless unless it comes armed with practical policies. The response of some on the left, which is in effect to allow unlimited migration, is not practical politics. The xenophobic right, who dream of keeping them all out and sending back those who are already here, are nastier but equally impractical.

David Blunkett and his Home Office team, we are told, are focusing on long-term solutions. But what might they be? Blair likes to be tough and tender at the same time, and here, at last, is an issue where the conjunction is appropriate.

First, the tough bit. The truth is that Britain has become a magnet for people fleeing not just oppression but poverty. We cannot simply absorb ever-larger numbers of the world's poor because Britain is a better place to be than, say, Slovakia.

But this is becoming confused, in a dangerous and offensive way, with the problem of genuine political refugees. Part of the problem is that the UN Convention on Refugees was written for a different era - one when the Iron Curtain was still hanging across Europe, and long before relatively cheap air travel. There is an evident need for a new international treaty, with a clearer statement of what defines a refugee, and for better burden-sharing among European countries.

Yet even that won't stop the growing numbers of people prepared to risk life or limb to get here, when they know that there are rich - or at least adequate - pickings to be had in the black economy: the building trade, the catering industry, the world of domestic help.

Perhaps, finally, in order to dull the magnet's attraction, it is time to look at what divides us from other European countries: our lack of a system of identity cards. It would undoubtedly enrage libertarians, yet the truth is that there is already a system of cards in this country. It is one that creates a kind of economic apartheid between rich and poor. If you want to do anything much these days, you need the backing of a bank or credit card. Would a national identity card system be such a terrible thing? It would certainly help to stop some of the social security scams that give ammunition to the right-wing press.

Harsh, yes. But the other side of the coin - the tender bit - is that Blair should, as Morris suggests, embrace a programme of "managed migration". Because we are short of vast numbers of vital workers: nurses, teachers, policemen. What better answer to that problem than to announce that Britain will take in a certain number of economic migrants each year? You don't have to think for very long to see the problem with this. It is doubly unpopular. Identity cards would be unpopular. Honest acceptance of a new era of immigration would be unpopular. It would be - probably will be - much safer to muddle on, trying to avoid the hidden migration, putting up a few new fences, leaving the ID card issue alone. Why stir things up?

The answer is that going on as we are is immoral and is leading to a situation where the government is visibly losing control. Unlike the fuel protesters, who dogged Blair's return from holiday last year, the asylum-seekers are not going away. They cannot be bought off, or persuaded to change their ways; this is a problem that will dog the government for years to come unless it is prepared to take radical and decisive action.

Just sometimes, leaders with a moral sense have to shock their followers. Maybe now is such a moment. It is time for Blair to shock his party and the country by doing something harsh - and something decent - about tomorrow's Britons.

This article first appeared in the 10 September 2001 issue of the New Statesman, The New Statesman Essay - The love of a robot