Greasy Pole: Howard’s End?

A collective shiver must have run down a few thousand spines at the news that Michael Howard, all ambition apparently spent, intends to retire from the Conservative Front Bench (or perhaps had been pushed off it by William Hague). For a lot of people his time as Home Secretary is remembered now like a nasty operation or a serious accident on the motorway—for Howard was among the grisliest of that gruesome lot who, until May 1997, were the government of British capitalism.

Behind a condescending manner and voice and an immovable smile, reminiscent of an oil slick, there lurked, in Howard’s misunderstood breast, a steely ambition. When the Tories, reeling from their drubbing in 1997, were electing a leader to replace John Major, Howard proposed to Hague that they stood as a twosome—with Howard for leader and Hague for deputy. Of course Hague, not being of a suicidal turn of mind, turned the offer down. At the time Howard’s chances were rated highly; he seemed to love being Home Secretary with all the opportunities it gave to boost his popularity by playing up to the prejudices of the party conference. “Prison works,” he told them and they clapped until their wrists ached. “I have 27 points in a plan to fight crime,” he announced and they proved they were not entirely comatose with roars of approval. “If you can’t do the time don’t do the crime,” he shrieked and they rose as one person in an ecstatic standing ovation.

Criminal statistics
One problem with all this is that it did not seem to impress the criminal to any significant extent. The crime statistics—for what they are worth—went up and down (when they went down Howard was hysterically quick to claim this as proof of how effective he was) with little or no regard for what went on in the Home Office. That, to the despair of the reformers, is the way with crime. Meanwhile Howard was busily upsetting almost everyone who, unlike his mindless fans at Tory conferences, are actually in contact with the problem and so have some knowledge of the background to crime. Howard, it seemed, was just about the most unpopular Home Secretary there could be.

Until, that is, the arrival of Jack Straw, who seems bent on outdoing Howard in his zeal to go down in history as the Home Secretary who locked up so many people that there simply weren’t enough left outside the prison gates to commit crimes. Consider, for example, the manner in which asylum seekers are treated when they arrive in this country. When Howard was Home Secretary the Tory government introduced regulations which stipulated that unless an asylum seeker declared their status immediately on arrival they would not be eligible for any state benefits until their application for asylum had been approved by the Home Office. This was the kind of crackdown which Tory activists at their conferences love so much, colluding as it does with one of their grosser prejudices—that most of the people who arrive in Britain saying they have escaped from a brutal dictatorship are not genuinely in need of asylum but come here in search of an easy living on the dole.

One problem with the new regulations was in the time it took—and still takes—for the Home Office to deal with the applications. One recent report said that there are over 76,000 cases gathering dust somewhere there. This can go on for months on end, with no acknowledged reason for the delay. While this is happening the asylum seekers are marooned here with nothing to live on. As a concession local authorities are empowered to provide the very minimum of maintenance, which could mean vouchers exchangeable for basic food and clothing or an arrangement which allowed the applicant to eat at local hospitals or hostels. Another problem was the expectation that an asylum seeker would be in a fit state to pick their way through the bureaucracy of making a claim for benefit immediately they arrived in Britain. When we consider what they had been through in their country of origin, this had to be unlikely but the basis of the new arrangements was that they had not experienced anything unusual and were here to try to sponge on the state.

Cases we could cite are not of people who have come here for an easy life on the dole. Given the choice, they would prefer to be in their country of origin; they have fled to Britain in fear of their lives. This was, it seemed, well understood by the Labour Party when they opposed the Tory government’s restrictions on the refugees. One Labour MP remembers those restrictions as “…an act of spite and vengeance against refugees”.

Labour’s recently published Asylum and Immigration Bill provides wider powers, such as in finger-printing, for the immigration officials, who are already not famous for a commitedly anti-racist stance in dealing with people coming into this country. Registrars will be able to demand evidence of personal details from couples applying to get married and to stop marriages on suspicion. The “cashless” system of subsistence through vouchers will continue, except that even this level of support will be used to discipline the asylum seekers who do not toe the line. Under a new arrangement, they will be directed to live in certain parts of the country and if they leave that area for more than the occasional night their subsistence will cease. So far we have not heard about how it is proposed to find out whether the asylum seekers have stayed where they have been placed nor what powers will be given, for example to the police, to enforce the arrangement. And just to make sure that the message gets across, the government will stop all state support for any asylum seeker who tries to challenge their treatment by the immigration authorities in the courts.

These proposals will be justified by the government on the spurious grounds that this country is being submerged by a flood of illegal immigrants who are undermining all civilised life here with excessive claims for state benefit. We are hearing hints about the menace of “economic immigrants” as if people who come here in the hope of getting a better life are some kind of criminal and as if this has not been an established incentive for millions of people all over the world to set up home abroad. Britain teems with “economic immigrants” from the past, as does the USA, France, Germany . . . and all these countries have had people leave for “economic” reasons. In any case when we look at the figures for people applying for refugee status in 1997 we see that the UK, with 41,000, comes below Germany (135,700) and the USA (103,700) and just a little above the Netherlands (34,400).

In fact the proposals have nothing to do with any alleged problem of resources and bogus claims but a lot to do with the Labour Party’s need to pander to every popular prejudice if they are to have a hope of staying in power for any length of time. This is what informs their every policy and action. This is the explanation for the string of broken promises and the hoards of disappointed supporters who are questioning whether this was what they voted Labour for. The behaviour of Labour in government is not a matter of accident or incompetence. Labour asked for power to govern British capitalism and that was what those voters opted for. The system has to be run like this—the assurances given in opposition have to be exposed as cruel fantasies. In his time Jack Straw was a prominent left-winger; in his mouth it was all a simple matter of changing one set of leaders, one manifesto of deception, for another. Now he shows the reality of it all: Howard may be at an end but his policies live on.


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