Over the weekend Mark Harper, the now ex-Minister of State for Immigration, resigned. The reason, of which I’m sure you’re all familiar already, is that he had been caught employing an illegal immigrant as a cleaner. Many will (and have already been) using this as a chance to enjoy the schadenfreude of it all; the man who justified the use of the “Immigrants Go Home!” vans gets caught hypocritically doing what he’d previously admonished. However, I think it would be much more interesting to look at how the Tories (and everyone else for that matter) ended up where they are on illegal immigration and talk about what’s possibly ahead.
Illegal immigration is a tough topic for the Conservatives because it cuts to the core of their contradictions as a party (all political parties have contradictions, by the way – I’m just picking on the Tories for the moment). On one hand it is seen as a traditional strength of the Conservatives that they are “tough” on immigration, whatever that means. In a democracy, no one likes to chuck away anything that might spell electoral advantage for themselves (unless it comes with some sort of heavy long term downside), so the Conservatives have wanted to be seen to be “doing something” about illegal immigration the whole of this parliament. Unfortunately, this jars with their ethos of being a party of free market neo-liberalism. For instance, one of the key planks of the Tories’ 2010 general election campaign was their stance against ID cards. But ID cards would have been one of the best possible ways to combat illegal immigration. I’m not saying this because I was pro-ID cards; I was and remain firmly against them. But then again, I’m not frothing at the mouth about illegal immigration either. I am happy to trade living in a free and open society for having to tolerate a few people in the country who shouldn’t legally be here.
Yvette Cooper was on Radio 4 this morning talking on the issue. She said that the Tories were wrong to try and push people to police their neighbourhoods for illegal immigrants (the thrust of the white van campaign) and instead be putting more resource into the Home Office to both control the borders more efficiently and to throw more people out who shouldn’t be here after they’ve got in. This is completely empty rhetoric; you could quintuple the budget of the Home Office and it would make little difference. You really want to stop illegal immigration as much as humanly possible? It’s very simple: one, introduce ID cards. Two, make it law that any shops dispensing any food or drink (so supermarkets, off licences, restaurants) cannot sell products to anyone not producing a valid ID card. Three: run a mass advertising campaign telling the people of Britain that heavy rewards will be offered to anyone turning in an illegal immigrant into the Home Office. Four, introduce a new, secret police force that has the power to use any means necessary of finding and deporting illegal immigrants. I don’t know about you, but this sounds a lot like East Germany to me. And I don’t particularly like the idea of Britain turning into some sort of quasi-Soviet Block identikit. Particularly as it would all be in pursuit of trying to rid the country of a handful of people who are willing to work for two quid an hour and sleep on a brick floor in order to have their children grow up in Britain (the Tories used to openly admire people such as this, once upon a time, but I digress).
I can understand why politicians talk nonsense on this subject; it is because it seems to strike a raw nerve with the public. But I think we all just need to grow up a little, be realistic about the effects of illegal immigration and how much we are willing to change the country to combat the problem. Looking to the future, I predict that illegal immigration will continue to be an emotional topic for years to come (although a continuation of economic recovery will soften it) and that the Home Office, whomever is in power, will still have no real answers. Because ultimately, no one really wants to turn to the “East German Option”, not even UKIP. It would never be stood for in this country and rightly so.