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  1. Politics
24 January 2000

Straw’s no worse than the rest

The Home Secretary is conservative on immigration, liberal on gays. His European counterparts are ju

By John Lloyd

Jack Straw, giving an after-dinner speech recently, was asked by a senior French industrialist in the audience what gave him most pride among his actions in the first two and a half years of his tenure of the Home Office. He did not pause. He said it was his response to the murder of Stephen Lawrence – the legislation and other initiatives taken to ensure colour-blind policing and to address the role of racism and racial violence in British society.

It was a clear, emphatic and classically liberal reply. However, it came at the end of a week in which the Home Secretary had strongly defended his legislation designed to reduce the scope of jury trials; branded as “Hampstead liberals” those who did not agree with that reduction, and with other elements in his programme; announced that he was “minded” to let General Augusto Pinochet leave the UK; and allowed the boxer and rapist Mike Tyson to enter the UK.

Straw has what Hampstead liberals call chutzpah. He has become a kind of advance guard for the concept of new Labour – occupying, in one week and sometimes in one day, a series of positions that would once have been thought to come from different parts of the political spectrum: radical, centrist and conservative.

Yet outside the confines of UK politics, Straw is less remarkable than he seems within it. He takes his place in a pantheon of European interior and justice ministers, who are all (except for the Spanish) located on the centre left and are all becoming adept at being tough and tender. The trend in all these countries (including Spain) is paradoxical.

It is the steady and sometimes quite rapid acceptance of a doctrine of “inclusiveness” – of those seen as sexually and racially and in other ways marginalised – conjoined with a harsher approach, sometimes even by the standards of right-wing governments, to crime of all kinds and to applications for immigration and asylum.

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Straw is not the most outre among his colleagues from major countries. Otto Schily, the German interior minister, was much further to the left than was Straw in his twenties; he was a committed radical lawyer who passionately defended the Baader-Meinhof gang and was a member of the radical, anti-establishment Green Party. Schily moved to the SPD and was elected to the Bundestag. Now he faces an influx of immigrants and asylum-seekers that, encouraged by relatively liberal laws and by relatively generous state benefits, is greater than to any other European state. He has promised to restrict the flow.

At the same time, however, Schily is putting through a law that will give citizenship to many of the three million Turks who are now more or less permanently resident in Germany.

This shift from a blood to a civic basis for inclusion in the German nation is of immense importance to a country that still sees itself as a liberal state.

Schily’s colleague in France, Jean-Pierre Chevenement, is also a maverick, and he has cultivated a tougher image. Immigration is a hot issue in France, because of the size of Jean-Marie Le Pen’s far-right Front National. Now, although Le Pen’s party is split and fading, Charles Pasqua, a former interior minister has formed a new movement, the “Rassemblement pour la France”, which is poised somewhere between the old right parties and the Front. It is hostile to immigration and harshly sceptical of European Union.

Chevenement, who also heads a radical group (of the left) that is sceptical on Europe, will not allow himself to be too upstaged by Pasqua. Yet the legislative agenda of the leftist government includes new laws against discrimination, new rights for gays and increased human rights for all.

Here, as in most other European countries, there is a split between the interior and the justice ministers: Elizabeth Guigou is a liberal, reforming and Europhile justice minister who frequently sounds a different note from Chevenement, though the latter outranks her. Here, Straw combines both “interior” and “justice” functions, and that accounts, in part, for the schizophrenia of his image.

In Italy, the new interior minister, Enzo Bianco, was appointed in a reshuffle, by the prime minister, Massimo d’Alema, just before Christmas; he has thus had little time to display his form. He also had little time to settle in: in the first week of the new year, the Italian media were filled with images and stories of the “babygangs of Milan” – bands of teenagers, many between the ages of 12 and 15, who roam the streets of Milan robbing and beating up vulnerable citizens. Bianco went to the city himself to take charge of the crisis. He faces a tough environment. Italians now constantly complain to each other that there are more non-Italians – often Albanian immigrants – on public transport than Italians. The crimes that have been laid at the door of these immigrants, and the expense of housing them, increases the pressure for harsher rules.

The more traditional matter with which Italian interior ministers must concern themselves is the Mafia, and the former mayor of a Sicilian city may be expected to have some ideas about that.

Across Europe, there are now a number of common initiatives in progress. On the “liberal” side, a new charter for basic rights is being drafted. On the “conservative” side, there is much work going on to thrash out a common policy on asylum-seeking. Jack Straw’s move, in the current legislation, to make payments to asylum-seekers and immigrants in kind via vouchers rather than in cash reflects a European consensus.

A document now being considered by interior ministers across Europe shows what obsesses them. It includes action against organised crime, electronic crime and drug trafficking. It also includes the development of the still-embryonic Europol.

On each of these, there are large differences of policy and emphasis: Europol, for example, though seen as a necessary organisation, is the subject of deep dispute as to its scope and role. All the present member countries fear that the burgeoning problem of organised crime will get much worse when the central European countries join: the Czech Republic, Hungary and Poland all suffer from major penetration by Russian and other post-Soviet mafia gangs, and from weak border controls. Bringing them into Europe could threaten the security of existing citizens.

The new centre left is concerned with their electors’ fears and wishes in a way their predecessors were not. In every case, their “natural” base in the industrial working class has weakened. This has enforced a strategy of putting together coalitions of support – a coalition that in all countries must include the millions who work in professional occupations in which the general tone is liberal – though the market is fully accepted; and those who live in areas where crime is high and pressures from new immigrants strong. In such areas, often dominated by state housing, support for leftist governments is conditional on their being tough against crime and immigration.

Thus Jack Straw is in good, if controversial, company in his remarkable man- oeuvres at the Home Office; remarkable manoeuvring is the order of the day in Europe as a new tough-tender consensus is put in place.