It’s always pleasant to see a reactionary government hanging by its own petard when it tries to play the immigration card, but the UK Border Agency ‘relaxed border controls’ pseudo-scandal encapsulates so much that is toxic about the British ‘debate’ on immigration that the frisson wears off quite quickly.
First we have a Coalition government which has done so much to pander to anti-immigrant xenophobia, frantically trying to defend itself against media accusations that UKBA’s ‘failure’ during the summer let in hordes of terrorists, criminals and ‘illegal immigrants’. Then there is the Labour opposition attempting to score cheap political points by accusing the government of incompetence and ‘weakening our borders’, just as the Conservatives used to do when Labour was in power.
Thus we have Yvette Cooper asking Theresa May ‘how many terror suspects’ were allowed into the country as a result of the relaxed controls – a ridiculous question designed purely for political effect, since travellers coming through UK ports and airports do not generally have ‘terror suspect’ listed in their passport or included in their biometric data.
Cooper has tried to extract maximum political capital from the ‘bordergate’ scandal by linking UKBA’s supposed failings to the Coalition’s cuts agenda – but the assumptions behind her accusations are the same – that UKBA officials simply walked away from ports and airports to have a cup of tea and do the crossword, while hordes of criminals and terrorists happily skipped through the abandoned immigration desks and smart ‘e-border’ gates.
What appears to have happened is that UKBA stopped checking biometric chips on some travellers and allowed other non-EU travellers to enter the UK after checking their visas, but without asking follow-up questions. Anyone who has witnessed travellers ineffectually waving their passports around in an attempt to screen their biometric chips knows that the smartness of these ‘e-borders’ has been somewhat exaggerated.
The idea that these procedures constituted a fatal breach of national security is based on the purely speculative notions that a) thousands of criminals, terrorists and illegal immigrants pass through the UK everyday and b)that asking follow-up questions and checking biometric data would have revealed their real intentions and identities.
None of this matters for the British tabloids however, which have been working themselves into a lather of righteous fury against UKBA, the government, and above all against immigrants. As always the Daily Mail has led the charge, accusing the government of allowing thousands of ‘danger migrants’ to enter the UK.
The tone of its arguments was set by Melanie Phillips, for whom ‘ The chaos at the Border Agency reflects nothing less than the crisis over Britain’s very soul’.
With her usual bug-eyed intensity, and her prose creaking under the weight of impossible and incoherent ideas, Phillips argues that UKBA is a product of a broader demoralisation of British society produced by ‘ the iron grip on the political psyche of the belief that upholding the cultural identity of the nation is racist. Immigration has thus long been the driver of a cultural transformation that dare not speak its name.’
For Phillips ‘ The real culprit is surely a political culture that years ago lost the plot on national identity and race relations — and the legacy of which is an administrative class whose resulting attitudes are simply inimical to the national interest.’
This cultural transformation was spearheaded by a Labour conspiracy to destroy Britain’s ‘ancient national identity’ through ‘mass immigration’ and the promotion of multiculturalism, since ‘Labour despised the very idea of national identity based on Britain’s foundational culture, history, religion and traditions’ - all of which explains, to Phillips at least, why UKBA relaxed its border checks during the summer.
Get it? No, me neither. But this frantic drivel was eclipsed two days later by Max Hastings, a columnist who seems to be becoming more rancid and crypto-fascist with each passing month, who argues that
[stextbox id="alert"]this country has become a magnet for Muslim extremists and indeed terrorists, Russian gangsters, benefit tourists, phoney spouses and make-believe students. We have created an immigration system which exasperates honest travellers, but conspicuously to exclude undesirables. Now we have learnt that its despairing bosses recently washed their hands of their responsibilities altogether: for four months almost anybody who wished could wander into Britain unmonitored.
This is classic Mail hate-mongering, whose assumptions belong to a long xenophobic tradition that reaches back to the Mail‘s coverage of South African Jewish refugees coming to the UK during the Boer War. It is also a lie, since travellers were not ‘unmonitored’, but subjected to light-touch checks. Hastings spends much of his time agonizing about the numbers of immigrants entering the country and the ‘surge in population’ which resulted from New Labour’s supposed conspiracy to transform Britain into a multicultural society.
For Hastings, immigration is never about numbers and bordergate is merely a pretext for a vicious diatribe that would not have been out of place in the mouth of Enoch Powell or the BNP.
[stextbox id="alert"]To put the matter brutally, neither David Cameron nor Theresa May has to live in Southall, Bradford or Tower Hamlets. They do not experience at first-hand the bitterness of traditional English people, who see their communities overtaken, their culture pushed aside, by people who force a path into Britain without the smallest desire, or even willingness, to embrace our ways or share our values.
Hastings does not need to say who these ‘traditional English people’ are, or identify the ethnic or national origins of the immigrant invaders who are destroying ‘their culture’ and refusing to embrace ‘our ways.’ Others will make the necessary connections. This has been the position of the Mail in British culture for more than a century - a pool of bigotry, racism and anti-foreigner hatred, where ‘traditional English people’ can sup on bile and indignation until they become bilious with it.
‘Bordergate’ has provided another invitation to the feast.