Monday, January 24, 2005

What's Michael Thinking?

The launch of a Conservative focus on refugees during this election campaign seems a rather odd move, and would appear to suggest that the Tory party is still worried about securing its base vote than reaching out to the middle ground on which elections are won and lost. While anti-immigration viewpoints may be regretfully common, Labour have hardly been fainting liberals on this issue and it seems one unlikely to sway any large number of voters unless the government is truly apathetic to the question. The idea isn't new, and matches one floated by Michael Howard last year, but the fact this is one of the Tories' main campaigning planks is staggering, and perhaps indicative of their new desire to mimic John Howard's successes on that issue in Australia.

As it is, the policy unveiled, a carbon copy of the one proposed by that serious political figure Robert Kilroy-Silk, stands as testament to the desperation and moral bankrupty of Conservatism in modern British politics. The very idea of withdrawing from the UN convention on refugees and imposing a strict quota system defies the basic principle of immigration and asylum. Why? Because Michael Howard has failed, along with many sections of the media, to understand the practical, legal and moral distinction between immigrants and asylum seekers.

Deciding on the numbers of immigrants, that is to say individuals moving to Britain for economic or personal reasons, each year is an established part of planning and ethically justifiable. Their entry is essentially a contract between the admitting nation and themselves, undertaken from a mutual consent they will benefit from it. To decide if it is always advantageous for Britain to admit new Britons would be perfectly reasonable and, indeed, it is.

However, asylum seekers are, plainly, those in need and distress, where Britain's role is as a bastion of civilisation and protection in a world filled with oppressive regimes and vile repression. In such cases, the idea of imposing a quota, when we act based on need, is foolish. Cases must be judged only on their own individual merits for asylum. In some years that could mean only 12 asylum seekers are admitted, whereas in others in could mean, 15,500. Imposing a quota of 15,000 would be an ignorant and imbecilic act, leading to easy and unjustified admissions in quiet years and the abandonment of desperate individuals when chaos reigns in troubled sectors of the globe.

Michael Howard has used his own background, as the child of Jewish asylum seekers from Nazi terror, to attempt to shield himself from accusations of callous politicking and downright racism. In many ways, it is particularly odious that someone who owes his chance in life to British liberalism now claims that it is time to abandon a historic role as a place of stability, liberty and tolerance. Britons often like to associate themselves with a Whiggish pride, not entirely misplaced, in this country's historic englightened stance on many issues. They would do well to remember that such achievements were due to stances now under assault from cheap and ignorant populism.

Integration and immigration are legitimate issues for political debate, but to simply renege on asylum obligations is evidence that the Conservative Party now proposes to surrender Britain's membership of civilization. Our only consolation must be that the quota on Conservative votes at the next election looks to be pathetically low. With policies like this one, it deserves to sag far further.