The Observer view on the UK’s increasingly harsh immigration policy

The Observer view on the UK’s increasingly harsh immigration policy


Attitudes have changed hugely since Enoch Powell’s day, so why is Theresa May still so willing to scapegoat immigrants?

A Bristol mural celebrating the arrival of migrants from the West Indies on the Windrush.




A Bristol mural celebrating the arrival of migrants from the West Indies on the Windrush.
Photograph: Alamy Stock Photo

This week marks the 50th anniversary of Enoch Powell’s infamous “rivers of blood” speech, delivered to a meeting of the Conservative Political Centre in Birmingham and widely condemned for its anti-immigrant, racist sentiment. It led to his immediate sacking from the Conservative shadow cabinet. But though shunned by the political establishment, he won significant public support for his assertion that immigration was a “preventable evil”, akin to “watching a nation busily engaged in heaping up its own funeral pyre”. And the context of his speech was significant: it came in the wake of the then Labour government’s shameful immigration policy, which revoked the guaranteed right of Asian Kenyans with British passports to settle in Britain and left them stateless, rightly described as “racial discrimination” by the European Commission on Human Rights.

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The past five decades have shown how wrong Powell was: as Britain has grown more diverse, it has become markedly less xenophobic. Yes, there remain significant problems: Islamophobia is on the rise, while reported hate crimes spiked in the wake of the Brexit referendum.

But this should not obscure the fact that Britain has on the whole become more, not less, tolerant in recent years. Attitudes towards immigration have improved: 55% of people think immigration is good for the country, compared to 40% in 2011. More than 90% of Britons believe immigration is essential but that economic need should determine its levels, and the proportion of people whose hostility to immigration is driven by opposition to all ethnicities or religions other than their own has shrunk from 13% in 2011 to 5% today.

What is striking is that despite this profound shift in attitudes – and latent public support for an economically pragmatic immigration policy – echoes of those racist immigration policies of the 1960s can still be detected. Theresa May is pursuing an approach that seems designed to ape the far right and appeal to the sliver of outright xenophobia that still exists. What else could explain her arbitrary target to reduce migration to “tens of thousands” or her objective to turn Britain into such a “hostile environment” for illegal immigrants that they are driven out?

Not only is there little evidence that the latter is working in encouraging illegal immigrants to leave – it is making the problem worse by driving them further underground, vulnerable to trafficking and slavery.

Another sickening consequence is that it is catching in its cruel tangles people who have been legally resident in Britain for decades. Many in the “Windrush generation”, who came to Britain from Commonwealth countries with their parents, are now finding that if they never applied for a passport it has become almost impossible to prove their rights, leaving them unable to access NHS care or take jobs, facing deportation to a country they do not know.

The callousness doesn’t stop there. The clampdown on spousal visas has left thousands of children living without one of their parents. And the “hostile environment” policy has obliged doctors, landlords and bank staff to effectively become border policemen. One study found landlords less willing to rent to people with foreign accents or names for fear of getting the paperwork wrong. Far from keeping pace with social change, government policy is dragging us backwards.

Meanwhile, incompetent Home Office bureaucracy, the scrapping of legal aid and the removal of the right to appeal against decisions in many types of case have removed any sense of natural justice from the immigration system. Asylum seekers are locked up like criminals; last year, the government tried to close the scheme to take unaccompanied child refugees from Syria.

This is politics at its most cowardly and shaming. A government that is loading the burden of austerity on low-income families with children, with few positive solutions to offer in the wake of the financial crisis, slyly nods to an immigrant scapegoat as one cause of the country’s economic woes. History has proved Enoch Powell conclusively wrong: Britain has never been more tolerant and diverse. So why does our government insist on acting as though he was right?

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