Yesterday evening, in a debate in Parliament on the probation service, Conservative MP Richard Drax summed up how farcical thinking on immigration in Britain has become. Drax, an ex-army officer who, rather unfortunately, shares his name with a Bond villain, suggested a simple way that Britain’s borders could be protected while also improving the probation system. Out with the UKBA and in with, a private army of press-ganged offenders, defending Britannia using obsolete military equipment. In his own words the proposed force would be ‘militaristic’. Drax’s namesake would have been proud.
To anyone possessing the function of both lobes of their brain the rambling of the MP for South Dorset is nonsense. The UKBA may be an unwieldy, opaque body, capable of serious acts of intimidation but it has its basis firmly in reality, not in the pages of Ian Flemming. However, that an MP even made such an unusual suggestions is alarming. It indicates how universally absurd the issue of immigration has become.
Partly out of fear of the British right and partly because of its own entrenched Europhobia the Conservative party has spent the last three years unable to take a concrete position over the EU. David Cameron may not be a Euroskeptic but he is powerless in the face of those within his own party, and indeed his own cabinet, who are. Any hope that the Liberal portion of the coalition government might act as a counterweight to Tory policy over Europe vanished soon after the awkward political wedding between Clegg and Cameron that was the Coalition Agreement. With Cameron talking about ‘renegotiation’ Britian’s membership of the EU, the right-wing press pursuing every possible story featuring European immigrants in a negative light and Nigel Farage biding his time in the nearest country pub it has, in effect, been open season on the Union.
Why does Europe matter in the immigration debate? Because ever since the explosion of migrants coming to Britain from the new member states in the mid-noughties it has been the European citizens, with their ability to come and go as they please, that have become the boogeymen of the British right wing imagination. Racism and Islamophobia have played a part, but it is the more acceptable prejudice against Polish plumbers that has been the prevailing theme in arguments against immigration. The idea is promoted that immigrants are stealing ‘British job’ or sponging off the NHS (benefit tourism has to one of the greatest lies spread by Tory spin doctors in recent years) and are able to do so because of ‘Europe’ (as a political entity rather than as a landmass).
With such a negative view of legal migrants from our closest neighbours what chance is there that migrants and refugees from further afield, whose status if often murkier, will be treated any better? If the recent trend for the UKBA to stop and intimidate people on the street because of how they look or sound can teach us anything, it is that in modern Britain appearances still matters. When the state feels able to intimidate legal, hardworking immigrants, many of them British citizens who may never have lived in the countries right-wing thugs would have them ‘go home’ to, there is something truly wrong with how we perceive immigration.
Yet the UKBA if infinitely preferable to a militia of conscripted offenders. Returning to the Drax proposal, can an elected representative suggest such a hare-brained scheme in seriousness? Does he really reflect the views of his Dorset constituents? Probably not as South Dorset is hardly an immigration flash point or a haven for closet racists. Would a serious politician have suggested such a notion a decade ago? Again, probably not. There was a time when talk of closed borders or policies encouraging immigrants to ‘go home’ was the frenzied wet dream of the far right. Now it would appear both are becoming politically acceptable. UKIP no longer has to tone down its anti-immigration rhetoric and Tory cabinet ministers really can tell lies about ‘benefit tourism’ and send vans plastered with intimidating messages through neighbourhoods where large immigrant populations reside. Against this background it is hardly surprising that Drax felt comfortable suggesting what he did. When your bosses start pedaling policies torn from the copybook of Enoch Powell what is there to stop ones from daring dream a little wilder?