New UK immigration minister goes bananas

Phil Woolas is exploiting the economic crisis – and a boy nicknamed ‘Banana’ – to clamp down on immigration.

Nathalie Rothschild

Topics Politics

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It was only a matter of time. When news headlines announced last week that the number of people out of work in Britain is expected to rise to three million within two years, the spotlight inevitably turned on immigrants.

Britain’s new immigration minister, Phil Woolas, used the gloomy forecast to make his grand entrance, stating, in an interview with The Times (London), that: ‘Clearly if people are being made unemployed, then the question of immigration becomes extremely thorny.’ (1)

While prime minister Gordon Brown has banked on the economic downturn to give him a new lease of life – as an opportunity to show his leadership potential – it has now also become the banana skin upon which Woolas can slip into the immigration debate.

Woolas used the Times interview, his first since taking over as immigration minister, to explain that ‘fighting racism’ got him into politics. Ever since a Ugandan Asian boy who joined his all-white grammar school in Lancashire earned the nickname ‘Banana’, Woolas has been appalled by racism and dedicated to dealing with immigration.

Perhaps haunted by the schoolyard taunts of ‘Banana’ against the Ugandan Asian boy, Woolas has decided that the best way to ease racial tension is to keep foreigners out and to urge employers to hire British workers first. It is curious that an anti-racist should rehabilitate the old National Front slogan: ‘British jobs for British workers.’

But this is not about colour, Woolas insists. For instance, there is a high level of unemployment in the Bangladeshi community and so people who look like ‘Banana’, but who have lived here for a while, should also be prioritised over new immigrants.

It’s the oldest trick in the New Labour book to hide behind the presumed concerns and fears of the public in order to push through its illiberal policies. Woolas has the nerve to imply that failing to prioritise British workers will fuel racism and turn working-class people, en masse, to the British National Party, when it is he who is scapegoating foreigners for the economic downturn. ‘It’s been too easy to get into this country in the past and it’s going to get harder’, he told The Times.

Making foreigners suffer for financial crises and structural problems within market economies is not a new phenomenon. Recruitment of foreign workers into Western Europe in the post-Second World War period stopped short in the early 1970s, when an economic downturn, triggered by the global oil crisis, led most European countries to suspend their guest worker programmes. Back then, ethnic minorities were turned into scapegoats for a global market crisis.

In his interview, Woolas echoed a recent proposal by the new Balanced Migration group, chaired by Frank Field and Nicholas Soames, Labour and Conservative ministers respectively, which said there has to be a balance between people coming to and leaving Britain. So what we need, he said, is to introduce a cap on non-EU immigration, which makes up the largest portion of immigration into Britain.

But if the experiences of the 1970s and 1980s are anything to go by, when immigration requirements were tightened, closing the borders might just compel people to stay, even if they don’t really want to. In the 1970s, when formal recruitment schemes ended, guest workers, rather than going home to visit their families and risk being denied re-entry, encouraged dependants to come and join them here.

Similarly, in Britain in the 1950s most of the initial immigrants were young and single and they planned to return home after working here for a short period. Once the 1962 Immigration Act was passed, imposing tight controls on the number of people that can come to Britain, migrant workers had no choice but to settle and to bring their families over (2).

Across Europe, family reunification, refugees and illegal entrants largely account for post-1970s migration (3). Whereas open borders allow people to move in and out according to their – and our – needs, tightening controls only leads people to rush in to beat the closing door.

The Balanced Migration group seems to have taken this into consideration: it wants to break the supposed chain between work permit and citizenship, and to that end it has proposed that non-EU workers who are allowed into Britain should only be granted a four-year work permit. Only 20,000 migrants per year should be granted citizenship, it says, and that number includes their dependants.

The Balanced Migration group says that the UK population should be ‘stabilised’, so that it is no higher than 65million by the middle of this century. Woolas says that the government will not allow the population to go up to 70million. Apart from the fact that predictions of population changes are unreliable estimates rather than scientific certainties, a net zero increase in population levels cannot be achieved simply by restricting non-EU immigration into Britain. More draconian population control measures would have to be introduced. Perhaps that uncomfortable fact, combined with accusations that he was ‘pandering to the right’, explains why Woolas refused to repeat this arbitrary figure in a later media appearance (4).

As for the current economic downturn, it has already led migrant workers to leave as jobs have become harder to find and the pound has weakened against European currencies. Phil Woolas himself said just a week ago that ‘it would appear that an estimated 100,000 Polish workers left over the past year’. A spokesman for the UK Border Agency said figures show that ‘fewer Eastern Europeans are coming here and research suggests that half of those that came to the UK to work [since the 2004 EU enlargement] have now gone home’ (5).

This confirms that migrant workers, by definition, are flexible and mobile. They are willing to go where the jobs are. Slamming the door on would-be migrants now will only send a message to the world that Britain is an unwelcoming place. This could have harmful consequences in the long-term, when the economy stabilises and Britain will inevitably need to attract foreign workers.

Rather than being a practical or workable proposal, the suggestion to cap the British population at 70million is a symbolic gesture. For Woolas, ‘on a common-sense level, there has to be a limit to population’. This idea has indeed become ‘common sense’ (that is, mainstream) in recent years. The Tories have already suggested a cap on immigration, for instance. Yet far from simply ‘pandering to the right’, Woolas is pandering to the neo-Malthusians who today can be found across the political spectrum.

The cap obsession shows how the immigration debate has become infused with environmentalist ideas. Population control is now the acceptable face of anti-immigration campaigns – and the idea that the British isles are ‘full up’ is no longer a fringe view.

Britain’s population is growing, but if this means that millions of people are able to come here to make a better life for themselves while raising productivity and increasing economic and cultural dynamism in Britain, then that is all to the good.

Woolas ended his Times interview by saying: ‘I think [the immigration system] has been too lenient and I want to make it harder, but I also want to be nice to people who do come to settle here. That’s what I have wanted to do all my life since the boy came to my school and was called “Banana”.’

It’s lucky for ‘Banana’ that Woolas wasn’t immigration minister when he and his family came to Britain. They wouldn’t have made it in.

Nathalie Rothschild is commissioning editor of spiked. She is speaking in the session Immigration: the more the scarier? at the Battle of Ideas festival at the Royal College of Art, London on 1&2 November.

(1) Phil Woolas: lifelong fight against racism inspired limit on immigration, The Times, 18 October 2008

(2) Myths of the stranger at the gate, Kenan Malik, The Times, 7 March 2005

(3) Migration and its Enemies: Global Capital, Migrant Labour and the Nation-State, Robin Cohen, Ashgate, 2006

(4) Phil Woolas ‘backtracks’ on immigration, 20 October 2008

(5) 100,000 Polish workers say goodbye to Britain as jobs become harder to find, 13 October 2008

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Topics Politics


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