The news on the strikes against foreign workers has made depressing reading: British workers (and trade unions) demonstrating in favour of expelling foreigners. All rather reminiscent of Powell and the dockers. Woolly liberals such as myself find all this unsavoury. Free marketeers and economists will be profoundly concerned at any pressure towards protectionism, as that was what led to the disaster that was the 1930s and the Second World War. Gordon Brown must surely be rueing his foolish use of the crass phrase ‘British jobs for British workers.’ Only the likes of the BNP and Migrationwatch will be pleased, although I suspect Phil Woolas will (wrongly) be saying “I told you so.”
New Labour have dithered about the best way to deal with the debate on immigration. Since David Blunkett, there has been a strong tendency to say ‘the debate must be had, immigration must be discussed, the public’s concerns about immigration must be addressed’. Phil Woolas very clearly strongly subscribes to this point of view and wants to lead a high profile debate about immigration. Or, at least, he wants his name in the headlines, which unfortunately amounts to the same thing in his case.
Is this the right approach? Many liberals would say that a public debate on immigration is almost bound to be inflamatory and to worsen race relations, not improve community cohesion. It increases the sense of there being an ‘Other’. Perhaps it is better to seek to keep a lid on things and quietly promote cross cultural understanding while also seeking to correct common misapprehensions in the public sphere (about the right to housing and benefits, about the actual numbers of immigrants, about there being a fixed number of jobs in the economy and so forth). This seemed to be the preferred apprpach of the quietly competent Liam Byrne. Sadly, though, as we enter difficult times, we are lumbered with a loudmouthed bumbler as the responsible minister.
I’ve certainly never seen any sign of a sensible debate about immigration being promoted by the Government. The moral and legal duty to offer sanctuary to refugees rarely gets a mention, the enormous economic benefits of immigration have never been promoted (and certainly will not be now, although those benefits are certainly not diminished in a recession), the rights of immigrants are never discussed, only their duties, and the kudos Britain gains from our historic links around the globe (admittedly with countries we once invaded) is never discussed.
For there to be a debate, someone has to put a positive case. Someone has to defend the other side. I can’t imagine that happening. Without it there will be no debate, only fear and hate.