They say that the Middle East conflict has become domestic politics in Europe. And they’re right.
Of all the issues exercising European minds, none is more contentious and emotive than that of immigration. In Italy, there are strenuous attempts to hold back the boat people who are flooding in from North Africa. In France, violence has become a summer ritual in the banlieues around Paris. In Switzerland, a referendum is to be held on whether to ban the building of minarets. In Holland, there is a proposal to impose a “headscarf tax” (ostensibly to encourage migrants to integrate). And in Britain, the Labour Party now finds that unfettered immigration and Muslim votes are critical to the results of at least 20 parliamentary seats it currently holds.
Such numbers could be decisive at the next general election. And not just in Britain. The problem is acute, too, in France, where a largely alienated, self-segregating Muslim population amounts to about 10% of the total. President Nicolas Sarkozy, battling negative poll numbers, will be closely monitoring the voting intentions of French Muslims.
That is at least some of the Byzantine background to last month’s vote in the UN General Assembly on Richard Goldstone’s deeply flawed inquiry into the Gaza conflict. Britain and France cravenly, shamefully, abstained. In Western eyes, the decision was clear. But Britain and France cynically allowed political expediency to trump principled conviction.
Even those who do not take a particularly Judeo-centric view of the world were shocked by revelations last month that showed that for several years, Britain had covertly operated a virtually open-door policy for immigrants. This “fast-track” approach to immigration had allowed more than 300,000 immigrants, many from the most dangerous parts of the Islamic world, to settle in Britain unchecked. Among them, it has since transpired, were scores of Taliban who fled Afghanistan after their regime was toppled.
First, the government policy was revealed in an article by Andrew Neather, speech-writer to former British Prime Minister Tony Blair and political adviser to then-Home Secretary Jack Straw. According to Neather, the two men had met in 2002 and agreed to conceal a plan to open the floodgates to immigration. They suppressed the policy, he wrote, because they feared a public backlash if it was made public. At the heart of the policy, he added, was a determination to make Britain “truly multicultural” and to “rub the Right’s noses in diversity”.
Then came the second blow. The government was compelled through the Freedom of Information Act to disgorge key documents which contained a “smoking gun” – a letter from Britain’s most senior immigration officer, Sir Bill Jeffrey, to then-Immigration Minister Beverley Hughes.
Under pressure to clear a backlog of applications for visas, work permits and extended residency, Sir Jeffrey spelled out his fast-and-loose approach to his political mistress in March 2003: “We are still in a situation where some risks have to be taken,” he wrote, “and staff should feel that if they are encouraged to take risks they will be supported when something does go wrong.”
All these disclosures prompted current Home Secretary Alan Johnson to admit that ministers had erred. They had failed to deport bogus asylum-seekers and foreign nationals who had committed crimes in Britain. Most tellingly, he acknowledged, the ministers also failed to appreciate public unease about the growing social pressures.
In normal times, the jaded British public might have been persuaded that this was yet another bizarre example of bureaucratic eccentricity. But these are not normal times. The global economic crisis has plunged Britain into a deeper, more protracted recession than any of its European partners, and the squeeze is being felt in jobs, housing, health, welfare and education.
Cock-up or conspiracy, the consequences for the faltering Labour Government of its hyper-relaxed immigration policy are dire. The recent flood of unchecked migrants is said to include a potentially dangerous, jihadist element which could have serious implications for the stability of the settled Muslim community and for the security of the wider community. Moreover, revelations of government malfeasance on the immigration issue have profoundly angered core Labour voters, who are having to compete for homes and jobs in some of the poorest areas of Britain.
Not least, the social dislocation caused by the economic crisis has been conflated with widespread anger over the government’s covert behaviour on immigration. All this came together to provide a bonanza for the far-right British National Party, which caused a sensation when it won two seats in recent European elections. What the Labour politicians could not have predicted when they turned a blind eye to the recent influx was that votes for the BNP would come from the Labour heartland.
Shame, in every sense of the word, about that vote in the UN. The British Government might be seeking to buy its political way out of trouble at the expense of Israel, but the true price of its folly is likely to be paid in next year’s general election.