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What is it about those vans?

Surely Cameron's modernising senses detect the toxic smell given off when a Tory Home Secretary runs a "migrants go home" campaign.

The Home Office's van. Photo: gov.uk

I can’t stop thinking about the vans. I don’t like them. I don’t like mobile billboards being driven around London – soon to be extended to other regions – urging illegal migrants to contact the Home Office for help with repatriation. That isn’t what I’ve been thinking about. Not liking the vans was instinctive. Arriving at that position didn’t take any cognitive time and that, in itself, bothered me. Unthinking reactions are an unreliable guide in politics and journalism.

So the question that has been occupying my thoughts is why don’t I like the vans?

Mark Harper, the immigration minister, has today written a defence of the vans in the Daily Mail. His argument is that there is no racist message or intent. The purpose of the policy is to spread the word to illegal migrants that help is at hand if they want to go “home”. (It is, of course, possible that they now consider the UK home but that isn’t what the minister means.)

I accept one important element of Mr Harper’s case. There is nothing intrinsically racist about a policy of repatriating people who are in Britain illegally, nor is it necessarily racist to encourage them to leave, advise them that help exists to facilitate the process and remind them that failure to do so puts them on the wrong side of the law. By definition, the policy is race blind. It covers a person’s legal status not their identity.

I depart from the minister’s analysis when he asserts that the only intended audience for this policy is the migrants themselves. He says if the evidence shows the vans aren’t having a positive impact on voluntary repatriations, they will be withdrawn. They will of course be withdrawn at some point anyway. No campaign runs forever.

I doubt that many illegal migrants are itching to make themselves known to the Home Office. The decision to come to the UK without official permission or to overstay a visa is driven by a combination of despair and economic rationality. Whatever it is that has been left behind has been left behind for a reason. Some go back. Others see no incentive to do so. The offer of government help is probably peripheral to that calculation. The element of the Home Office message that has the most communicative value is the picture of handcuffs. Its value is as a threat.

Illegal migrants don’t need a visual aid to tell them to fear the police. I think Mr Harper is being disingenuous. At least part of the intended audience for this campaign is people who are British, who think there are too many immigrants here and want some of them to leave. The posters are to reassure them that the government is on the case.

That still doesn’t make the vans racist. This is an old problem. Not everyone who wants less immigration is a racist but every racist wants less immigration. So it is hard to craft a message for the concerned non-racist without earning unwanted nods of approval from the racist. Hard. Not impossible. Clarity of intent is vital. The vans fail this test because they are unlikely to have a discernible impact on numbers, while certain to reinforce the impression that the nation is overrun with illicit foreigners. The government accepts the view of many voters that Britain is full to the brim with people who don’t deserve to be here. That assertion doesn’t always recognise a difference between legal and illegal status, nor between economic migration and political asylum. For the Home Office to drive around brandishing a pair of handcuffs is to abet the suspicion that there is something generically illegitimate about being foreign-born in the UK.

Halfway through his defence of the posters, Mark Harper makes the following assertion:

In some neighbourhoods, uncontrolled immigration has put intolerable pressure on our country’s infrastructure: on schools, housing, and the NHS.

There follows a reiteration of the government’s determination to reduce net migration. At no point does the minister indicate that he has stopped talking about illegal migrants and started talking about all the other people living, working and paying taxes in Britain who happen not to be British. The government defence of the vans, in other words, is that they are part of a wider strategy to get the numbers down. By implication, legals and illegals are different categories of the same scourge, defined as being foreign and over here – with the prescribed remedy being departure.

So what? I am second-generation British, born to foreign parents. I have liberal views on immigration. That puts me in a minority and governments are under no obligation to craft their policies to satisfy my prejudices. The vans aren’t aimed at me and they aren’t aimed at people like me. That I react badly to them might even be taken as a sign of their success. There are Tories who measure the effectives of their message by the volume of anguished cries in bien pensant cosmopolitan commentary. What I find intriguing is that David Cameron used not to be one of those Tories.

There is no need here to rehearse the whole “modernisation” argument again. The story of how Cameron tried and largely failed to decontaminate his party's problematic brand has been told often enough, including by me in these pages.

No-one any longer expects the David Cameron who is Prime Minister in August 2013 to say the same things as the David Cameron who was newly elected Tory leader in December 2005. His protean nature – what Labour calls unprincipled slipperiness – is in the price. Most Tory MPs accept that their leader is unburdened by ideological consistency. It should come as no surprise if now Cameron signs off on policies that, in a former incarnation, he would have resisted.

Yet there is something qualitatively different about those bloody vans. They are a gimmick that could hardly have been better designed to cause the maximum affront for the minimum policy outcome. The impact on net migration will be negligible; the ugliness of the message is palpable – at least to those attuned to the offence. And I suspect Cameron is one of those people. He could not, I believe, have played the role of modern “progressive” Conservative in the period 2005-07 as well as he did without some possession of the liberal sensibilities that go with the part. No-one can have studied the toxic miasma that hangs over Tory party immigration policy as thoroughly has he has and come away without knowing the obnoxious potential of a “sneaky migrants go home” campaign run by a Conservative Home Secretary.

I’ll wager that Cameron gets it. He gets exactly why some people viscerally hate those vans. He knows what it is that makes some of us recoil in disgust. I bet he can smell it too – and yet he holds his nose because he has calculated that the stench only chokes people who probably won't vote Tory anyway. That shows a capacity for cynicism that should be worrying in a leader even to people who admire the Conservative party's current immigration policy.