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Immigration Minister's woeful reply to policy criticisms

The Immigration Minister’s failure to engage with genuine criticisms of new immigration controls betrays his appeasement of the far right minority and constitutes a failure for freedom of expression, cultural association and freedom of movement.

There's a certain tone used by those in government recently, a paternalistic and patronising voice whereby the minister claims to know best – and certainly better than you – combined with a mock-victimized whining that the minister has been misunderstood. 

This tone was epitomized in Tony Blair’s preaching about the decision to go to war in Iraq, when he portrayed himself as omniscient in terms of the reasons for this war whilst making out that the people in the UK were woefully ignorant, and equally depicted himself as sadly misunderstood by all those in protest.  Foreign Minister, David Miliband, used the same tone yesterday, in response to new polls showing that most people now support troops out of Afghanistan, mixing claims that he has an overview of coalition military strategy, that the common people do not, with voiced regret that the people are prey to misunderstanding.  Today, in The Guardian, Immigration Minister, Phil Woolas, employs much the same tone in dismissing criticisms of border controls which restrict access of non-EU artists and academics to the UK as ‘naive’ or ‘misinformed’. 

Just as Miliband refers to being privy to military defense strategy to justify his stance that he knows more than the people, his critics, the misguided or ignorant, Woolas too refers to the day-to-day work of border control officials, trying to bolster his claims to ‘know best’ by relying upon his superior insights into operational information.  This reliance on supposedly-privileged knowledge as a central argument in response to heartfelt criticisms of government policy betrays a serious failure by the government to engage with critics and to respond to the genuine questioning of their way of governing.  The Minister’s resultant tone, both defensive and belittling, is predictably insulting,  as it refuses to address the people as quite capable of thinking politically and forming their own analysis of relevant issues from their own, multiple and infinite, sources of knowledge in relation to immigration control.

Besides the rhetorical device of posing as the all-knowing parent faced with the rather silly or wilful child, the actual response of the Immigration Minister to the sound critique of the new border controls presented by the Manifesto Club’s report, ‘Cancelled!’ and Henry Porter’s article following on from that report, to which the Minister is responding, is remarkably devoid of content.  What does it consist of?

Woolas falls back on slogans about only letting the 'right' people in – those who play by the rules.  Once again, as has been a governmental trend in the UK, as much as in the US, since Cheney first expounded his ‘one per cent doctrine’, the threat of a few terrorists is used to justify what amounts to drastic restrictions on the freedom of movement of all:  the Minister links immigration to national security and enlightens daft Joe Public that ‘Unfortunately not everyone is a good guy’.  This statement is used to justify the new policies entailing the massively increased ‘sifting’ of people at the UK borders, and this bears little scrutiny if we recall that the 7/7 bombers in London were not immigrants but is given no further analysis.  This sloganistic approach is quite typical of the new face of the UK Border Agency, whose website is full of such slogans and tabloid images of hurdles, the antithesis of hospitality.  It fails both to address the careful and knowledeable criticisms of the current system and to respond to the genuine dissent at this highly defensive and anti-libertarian approach to border control, in the specific context of visiting artists and academics who have never found it more difficult to get in to the UK.  The rest of Woolas’ article repeats government policy without engagement with any of the detail of the counter-arguments.

It is dismaying that the Minister totally fails to address the growing perception of the UK as no longer a welcoming place for foreign artists and academics, thanks to the new exclusive immigration measures.  This is a perception which emerges very strongly from comments on the Manifesto Club petition site.  Surely this should concern the government?  Apparently, it does not do so, because, but for a few shallow platitudes about consultation and the importance of the arts, which give the appearance of someone who is in a tight corner reciting the names of people they claim to be friends to avoid an illusion of isolation, the Minister entirely fails to address the strength of feeling conveyed by the petitioners about threats to the UK's reputation as a free and hospitable country. 

One can only conclude that the Minister is concerned not with a genuine dialogue with his critics, but rather with seizing an opportunity to repeat policy which is proving extremely unpopular and to appease the minority on the far right.


'Our border controls are firm but fair', by Phil Woolas, 14 July 2009

'Stopping culture at our borders', by Henry Porter, 11 July 2009

Manifesto Club campaign and petition against Home Office restrictions on non-EU artists and academics:  here

Related links:

Institute of Race Relations, 25 June 2009 

The Times, 3 June 2009

PS – Sorry, the links were not working, I have now updated them so they work.

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