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Gary Younge
Detox our racist culture

With the Premiership closed down, our Olympic ambitions in tatters and music stations struggling to fill airtime, the Last Night of the Proms could again make a play as the nation's signature cultural event. With most pharmacies abandoned and the NHS collapsed, we would once again be the sick man of Europe.

"Just as the Carthaginians hired mercenaries to do their fighting for them, we Americans bring in mercenaries to do our hard and humble work," wrote John Steinbeck in Travels With Charley back in 1960, in a passage that could equally apply to the UK today. "I hope we may not be overwhelmed one day by peoples not too proud or too lazy or too soft to bend to the earth and pick up the things we eat."

Herein lies the primary tension between the two conflicting and apparently contradictory trends regarding immigration throughout the west. Economically, without the huge pool of cheap labour emanating from the developing world, documented or not, we simply could not function as we do at present. Politically, if Britain's last election campaign is anything to go by, without scapegoating and marginalising that same pool of labour it appears our political culture would be unable to function.

So we are left despising the very people on whom we depend, and immigrants are left with the worst of all worlds - economically exploited and socially demonised. Vulnerable to unscrupulous employers, opportunistic politicians and racist hatemongers, they work simply to exist in a place where their very existence has become an affront.

We should not be in denial that there is a problem with immigration. A system where the poor are forced to arrive in the most perilous of circumstances - in hock to smugglers, hanging on the bottom of trains, hiding in trucks or huddled in the cargo holds of planes - is in serious need of repair. The question is not whether we should have a debate about it but whether that debate will be honest and progressive, or deceitful and reactionary. Will these repairs take place in the interests of big business and bigotry, or of the most vulnerable, whether they were born here or not?

No forward-thinking approach to this issue can be promoted against the backdrop of the white cliffs of Dover, as Tony Blair did shortly before the election. The promise of 600 more immigration officers to target "removals and enforcement operations in respect of failed asylum applicants and illegal immigrants" as a response to Michael Howard's shameless bigotry was worse than inadequate. For a party dedicated to modernisation, Blair's rhetoric was prehistoric: New Labour, old racism. To sustain a progressive consensus on immigration we must appeal to people's humanism and nurture a sense of internationalism, not pander to their xenophobia and malevolence.

For it is the thrust of globalisation that underpins the direction and scale of immigration. There can be no candid discussion of immigration to the developed world, let alone a liberal response to it, that does not take account of poverty in the developing world. That means fair trade, universal and enforceable labour standards, and international development. At home and abroad the west can only afford the standard of living to which it has become accustomed - be it food, clothes, minicabs or domestic services - as a result of cheap foreign labour. But while we pursue an international trade policy that allows capital to roam freely across borders in search of the low wages, we pursue a domestic agenda to stop poor people from travelling in search of better wages. The higher walls we build to keep people out do not prevent the desperate from trying to scale them; it simply criminalises those who make it over.

Their illegality compounds the problem, since it renders their labour cheaper still. They are less likely to organise for higher wages, complain about poor working conditions or be eligible, let alone apply, for state benefits. In short, they are more desperate and vulnerable, and therefore more likely to undercut wages and earn the resentment of local working people. Business takes the profit, the immigrants get the prejudice.

There is nothing inevitable about this. If the only way we can enjoy our standard of living is through other people's poverty and misery then maybe we should live within our moral means. True, there aren't many votes in that; but then there weren't many votes in bombing Iraq either. And this, at least, has the benefit of being the right thing to do.

Similarly, if our political culture is addicted to racist invective then it is high time we went into detox. "How far trouble between white and black people can be avoided in future if the coloured community continues to increase is a matter for speculation," read a cabinet minute from 1953, advocating immigration controls. Half a century later, the population has risen at a far slower rate than life expectancy, leaving us with an ageing, multi-racial population with acute labour shortages. Indeed everything seems to have changed apart from the political discourse, with Howard still claiming that to avoid racial tension there has to be "confidence that there is a proper system of [immigration] control".

That Labour has a vested interest in turning this debate around should be self-evident. One of the most consistent causes of scandal has involved getting or keeping people in the country. The former home secretary David Blunkett was laid low by his attempt to cut through his own red tape to get a visa for his love child's foreign nanny. Cherie Blair came under fire after allegations that she had intervened to prevent the deportation of her confidante's boyfriend. Peter Mandelson was forced out the second time amid claims that he was involved in a passport application for the Hinduja brothers.

A more honest and liberal approach to immigration would remove the one issue where Labour looked vulnerable. Its weakness on immigration was, in large part, a result of its pandering to racism. Blunkett routinely conflated race and immigration, and Anthony Giddens, architect of the third way, advocated a policy of "tough on immigration, but tough on the causes of hostility to immigrants", as though the presence of immigrants was the cause of discrimination. Labour claimed its hard line would see off organised racism. But as the Tory campaign suggests - along with the rise in racist attacks and that of the British National party - it only encouraged it.

Howard took the ball and ran with it, but only after New Labour had scored an own goal.

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