Beverley can be melted down to make a new robot minister
A ROBOT has malfunctioned. Beverley Hughes has been decommissioned. But what has happened was not, in any serious sense of those words, her fault. The mistake she made does not, in any serious sense of that word, matter. There is a great deal wrong with the way we handle the politics of immigration, and none of it can be pinned on Beverley Hughes.
Ministers resign for all the wrong reasons. They resign for mistakes even the best people make. They resign for unwitting blunders, for honest lapses of memory, for tactless remarks, for sexual susceptibilities and for letting cats out of bags. They resign on points of detail, or — sometimes — for actions that mark them out as bigger men or women than their more cautious colleagues. They resign because they have been caught out according to the rules — as though government were a kind of game. They never resign, as they should, because they were playing it.
There is irony in the circumstance of Beverley Hughes’s fall. She fell because she forgot something, she was not careful enough. But the horror of Ms Hughes as a political phenomenon lay not in carelessness; quite the reverse. As a politician she was a ghastly and reprehensible example of new Labour reliability.
Senior colleagues made regular use of her for media interviews that they did not want to risk themselves. The reason was obvious. She never said anything interesting, she never engaged with her interviewer, she never answered the question and she never let anything slip. I used to bark at her voice on my morning radio, talking of “addressing issues”, “debating issues”, “issues around” this and “issues around” that. I used to scream at all her sentences which, avoiding the question, began “the important thing is”.
Ms Hughes struck me as one of those figures who emerge in moderately senior roles in the former East German Stasi, the Church, Oxfam or the Zanzibar police: functionaries so expert at applying the required filters to reality that man and mask merge, and it becomes imaginable that they have gone a step beyond refusing to acknowledge the inconvenient, and genuinely cannot see it any longer. When such ministers break, one imagines they can be melted down to make new ones.
Let this not sound personal. I expect there is a real Beverley Hughes — those who know her, as I do not, like her — but I used both to hate and to envy her ability to conceal it. Like the indistinct and rounded outlines of hard objects beneath the snow, too many of Tony Blair’s junior colleagues have allowed their political personalities to blur beneath the soft snowfall of happy thoughts, empty words and Third Way truth. It has seemed that we had a government not of men but of mannikins. A mannikin has just fallen. RIP. But there will be plenty more where that came from.
For Ms Hughes’s resignation, gracefully and briskly executed in a way which does her credit, solves nothing. Whoever succeeds her in her job will either prove to be another infuriating robot, or an awkward embarrassment. Ministers whose job is to represent immigration policy to Parliament and to the people will continue to dismay and to disappoint.
There is a reason for this, and a reason why mannikin-ministers will be sought for such posts. Immigration policy, under governments of all colours, has been conducted on the basis that the electorate cannot handle the truth. The untruths our politicians have chosen to offer in its place are not even consistent with each other, but our political parties are scared of the newspapers and their readers, and, wary of clarity, have preferred a dishonest muddle. No wonder Ms Hughes tripped.
I do not pretend to be a master of the administrative details, which are highly complex and confusing, but the guiding principles of immigration policy are not. We admit people on one or more of three grounds: compassion, international obligation and economic advantage. Difficulties in principle arise under the headings of compassion and international obligation, difficulties our governments seem unwilling to share with us and discuss. The problem with economic advantage is different: there is no difficulty in principle with this argument, but governments are afraid that voters will simply refuse to accept it.
By “compassionate” immigration I refer to those who are allowed to come here on the ground of their relationship with somebody who already has the right to be here, mostly marriage. Since the proportion of our fellow citizens who choose their partners from outside the United Kingdom is likely to remain small, and the argument for letting them do so is clear and strong, there would be little problem with this, were it not for two types of marriage that worry voters.
One is marriages of convenience: fake relationships, contracted as a means of avoiding the ordinary tests for would-be immigrants. We should be honest about this: it happens, and to some extent it always will because no test of genuineness can be completely proof against guile. But the Home Office keeps a watchful eye and can often spot abuses. This problem is manageable.
The other is marriages contracted by people who are themselves of recent immigrant stock, mostly Asian. Here there is some public resentment of what is seen as a “bringing in” of more friends, relations and countrymen by people who, though now British, may not themselves have yet been completely assimilated here. We should be honest about this, too: that is a fair description of the practice but it does not happen on a very large scale and it is likely in time to diminish.
In both cases it is better for politicians to acknowledge readily what everybody knows does happen, and then to discuss with us the scale on which it is happening, so that we can judge for ourselves whether (as I would argue) it is tolerable.
Next comes the category of those whose right to come here arises from international obligations: principle among them our obligations to existing and aspirant EU partners, and asylum-seekers applying under the Geneva Conventions. Of course, many of the former and some of the latter may be an economic asset too, but we are not free to make that our criterion.
With the EU, we just have to bite the bullet, and ministers should say so. It may well be that poorer regions of Europe will be exporting their citizens to richer regions where the prospects look tempting; it happens within the United Kingdom too. In the 19th century we may be said to have offloaded a great deal of Irish poverty on to the United States in that way, but it worked out well for both sides. Such problems as arise are unlikely to be suffered by Britain alone, and should be tackled in co-operation with (for instance) Germany and France. If the difficulty is that no rules can be devised that are proof against the pressures, then let ministers say so. If the difficulty is that we lack the machinery or public-service manpower to implement the rules we have, then let ministers say so, instead of making fatuous promises about cutting the Civil Service.
The Geneva Convention I do find tricky. As I have written here three times before, the problem is that the number who might in principle be honestly entitled to seek political asylum outside their own countries is so large and imponderable as to be to all intents and purposes infinite. If politicians in all “recipient” countries were more honest about this then we might together find the political will to renegotiate the convention; or (with the United Nations) to agree a system of quotas.
Finally, there is the category of what we call “economic migrants”. Some of the political difficulty this presents our leaders is entirely of their own making. For more than a decade now the term “economic migrants” has been used by politicians as well as newspapers as a term of abuse. People claiming asylum have been described as “bogus” on the ground that they are (secretly) economic migrants. In one sense that is true, but the impression has been allowed to arise that to seek a better life for yourself or for your family is somehow disreputable. The cuddly mask of the asylum-seeker is ripped off, and the fangs of the economic migrant revealed.
Arguably, it is the other way round. True economic migrants will be the very best kind of people. One could make an argument for rejecting those who seek political asylum, who may be troublemakers, and preferring simple economic migrants, whose whole aim will be to work.
As someone of a fairly conservative disposition, I see no reason to despair of making this argument to fellow citizens, even some of the more reactionary among them. It is foolish for politicians to think that voters are unable to bear too much honesty. Often, what ministers dread that we should contemplate or discuss is what we already assume, and talk about.
Let ministers join the discussion. They might be surprised at the variety (and, among many, the maturity) of opinion. We are ready to hear about the difficulties, discuss the solutions and accept that some will not be ideal.
Instead, wary and defensive, ministers have ducked the debate. That is why, when we catch one out as Beverley Hughes was caught out, things turn nasty. On the radio and at the dispatch box she sounded frightened. There was no need to be.