Last week the Express, Mail and Telegraph were, unsurprisingly, leading on the scandal around Theresa May and the “relaxation” of passport checks by the UK Border Agency. But aside from the predictable xenophobia it wasn’t at all clear what they actually made of it.
It is striking that, despite this being the subject closest to their hearts (challenged only by the linked obsession with Europe), these papers are not the place to go if you want to understand what the problem is or what has caused it.
In Parliament the debate has focused on whether May was acting improperly by rushing to blame a senior civil servant who could not answer for himself and whether she lied in doing so. He (Brodie Clark) resigned claiming that May had lied and promising to prove it in a constructive dismissal case. May claims Clark allowed border controls to be too relaxed to make it easier to manage entry into the UK. Clark say he only eased checks when requested to by the police or because of Home Office policy.
For the Express and Mail there is only one angle to this story — far too many people are getting into the country, we are being swamped by foreigners, and it has to stop.
The Sunday Express described Britain as “an open house”which allows “many thousands of bogus asylum seeker and economic migrants” to enter “on the nod”. The Express coverage was based on an “investigation” they carried out at the Croydon base of the Border Agency. Their story ran with the headline “Criminals enter UK as border staff battle over targets”.
No distinction is made between people fleeing persecution or poverty or simply visiting friends and family, and hardened criminals. Repeated twice in the lead story and then again in an editorial is the claim that “Jamaican gangsters and Nigerian fraudsters were allowed entry to Britain because staff did not have time to check their cases”.
The Express really likes to give their readers something to fear and these combinations — not just gangsters and fraudsters but the especially unknowable Jamaican and Nigerian versions — are sure to conjure up the required vision of a Britain where no white man can sleep safe in his bed.
But the comments here aren’t just about gangsters and fraudsters, they’re about all immigrants, refugees and asylum seekers. Arguably it’s about all incomers, all travellers. The Express editorial finished with this: “The British people want a zero tolerance policy on immigration. If the Government doesn’t take tough action it will further betray our citizens and store up even bigger problems for the future.”
The same technique was used in the Mail which claimed that “Britain has never been easier to enter”. On whether May or Brady is to blame, they dodge the issue by blaming Labour when they were in power. Only Peter Hitchens in the Mail extends the blame to the Tories. In particular what he describes as (and I am not making this up), “the liberal, PC Home Secretary” (Theresa May!).
None of this addresses either the specifics of the dispute between May and Clark or the bigger issue of why no recent government has been able to deliver on its tough-talking, illiberal promises on immigration. Both Labour and Tories in recent years have spoken the language of overcrowding and restriction. And the specific and general are inextricably linked here. Both the relaxation of controls which May knew about and approved (in favour of EU citizens) and the one she complains about (where the police request it) were introduced to avoid gridlock, huge queues and potential disorder at airports and ports.
Millions of people travel in and out of Britain every year, mainly tourists, workers, people on business in both directions. They want to do that as easily and with as little unnecessary hassle as possible. It’s one thing to promise ever tighter controls but it’s quite another to enforce without simply closing borders. It is even more unrealistic when the Coalition’s austerity programme has cut Border Agency staff by 25%.
The Tories are discovering that the populist dog-whistle politics of attacking immigration and promising to be tough on border control conflicts with capitalist society as it actually exists.
Their real dilemma is highlighted in the press of the rational bosses — the Financial Times.
“The UK government’s approach to immigration has been rightly criticised for policy goals that obsess with keeping people out while paying mere lip service to welcoming people in, to the detriment of business and growth. Now Theresa May, the home secretary, is under fire for how her department implements policy on the ground.
“In this case the government and its critics show an equal preference for popular pandering over rational policy…
“Westminster is consumed with what can be pinned on Ms May, and government and opposition joust to paint each other as unconcerned with terrorists entering the country. This circus ignores the true scandal: that at a time when Britain needs growth more than ever, the country is far from being ‘open to business’.”
Not our politics, for sure, but evidence that that the persistent (and, sadly, effective) campaign by the Express, Mail, Sun and their like to convince people that our borders are far too open is plain racist and xenophobic fear-mongering. The FT thinks that it is necessary to have what they call “a sensible immigration policy”. They don’t say what that is but we can assume it would involve making it easier to catch gangsters (wherever they come from) and maybe fraudsters (though that might be more of a problem for the bosses).
They do, however, nail the problem for Tory and Labour populists when they ridicule “the obstinate view that the only goal of immigration rules is to keep people out”.