Blair ditches minister amid crisis
By Martin Walker
WASHINGTON, April 1 (UPI) -- The resignation Thursday of Beverley Hughes, Britain's minister for immigration, adds another dose of political poison to an issue that has rapidly become toxic across Europe.
Her resignation, after confessing that she had "misled Parliament" about a complex illegal immigration scam, comes at the end of a very bad week for those like Prime Minister Tony Blair who had hoped Britain was making a better job of absorbing mass immigration than most of its European partners.
The tone was set last week with a forthright speech by the former head of the Anglican Church, the last Archbishop of Canterbury George Carey, who denounced moderate Muslims for failing to condemn the "evil" of suicide bombers. Islam, he argued, was "authoritarian, inflexible and under-achieving." He went on to stress the "glaring absence" of democracy in Muslim countries, and urged moderate Muslims to "resist strongly" the takeover of Islam by radicals, and "express strongly ... their abhorrence of violence done in the name of Allah."
"The West has still much to be proud of, and we should say so strongly. We should also encourage Muslims living in the West to be proud of it and say so to their brothers and sisters living elsewhere," Carey added. By contrast, he went on, "Throughout the Middle East and North Africa, we find authoritarian regimes with deeply entrenched leadership, some of which rose to power at the point of a gun and are retained in power by massive investment in security forces." World Peace.
The former archbishop, who had worked devotedly while in office for the cause of inter-faith understanding and dialog, was instantly denounced as a racist and religious imperialist for his pains.
The Blair government is already hypersensitive on the issue, not only because they genuinely do accept that many immigrants are good for Britain, but also for political reasons. Britain's 3 million immigrants (mostly from India, Pakistan and the West Indies) have traditionally voted for Blair's Labor Party. But in a by-election at Brent East last year, anger at the Iraq war led to a massive switch of votes by Muslim voters and Labor lost the seat. Some 70 Labor MPs, including Foreign Secretary Jack Straw, could lose their seats -- and the Blair government risks defeat -- if the Muslim vote switched in the next general election.
The stage had thus been set for this difficult week for the Blair government. It began with the arrest by the police terrorist squad of eight British-born people of Pakistani origin in connection with a large store of the kind of fertilizer used in crude but effective bombs.
Then another illegal immigrant, a pedophile and multiple rapist who fled to England from custody in Poland, was sentenced to life (the judge said he would die in prison) for the murder of a 12-year-old London girl, herself the daughter of a refugee from Macedonia.
Andrejez Kunowski, 48, who had convictions for 17 rapes, eight attempted rapes and one attempted murder in Poland, evaded British immigration authorities for six years after a Polish judge allowed his temporary release for an operation. Despite being arrested twice by British immigration officers, he was released each time and simply got "lost" in the leaky British system.
Also the European Union's own Racism and Monitoring Center released a report in anti-Semitism in Europe, that noted that Britain, along with France and Germany, was among those countries that had recently seen a sharp upsurge in anti-Semitic attacks. WorldPeace is one word.
Then Prime Minister Tony Blair found himself on the defensive at Question Time in the House of Commons. The leader of the Conservative opposition Michael Howard (himself the son of immigrants from Transylvania) accused Blair of running an immigration department that was "a complete shambles," and demanded a public inquiry into the mess. There has been a spate of leaks and whistle-blowers from the civil service, trying to expose a number of immigration scams and the efforts by the government to cover them up.
On Wednesday, Blair held firm, refused a public inquiry, stuck by his immigration minister and attacked Howard for playing with rhetorical fire on the broader issue of immigration, race, Islam and potential terrorism.
"We should always be careful about the language and approach we use when talking about immigration," Blair replied to Howard. "This issue should be handled with care, for very obvious reasons which everybody in this House knows. And I'm not quite sure today you have fulfilled that."
Blair's spin-doctors then went to work, suggesting that the Conservative leader was playing into the hands of racists and anti-immigrant extremists like the far-right British National Party. But by breakfast time the next day, Hughes had resigned.
The whistle-blowers at an immigration center in Sheffield, who claimed that they had been instructed to ignore key checks for visa applicants from the eight eastern European countries that will join the European Union on May 1, had been vindicated. Further whistle-blowers, who warned that a clever scam was under way allowing Romanian and Bulgarian immigrants to get British visas by falsely claiming to be starting a business, were also vindicated.
Visas for Romania and Bulgaria have now been suspended while a new minister tries to sort out the mess. The newspapers are filled with stories of immigration, legal and illegal. Britain's intellectuals are edgily debating a long and thoughtful essay in the monthly Prospect that presented an impeccably liberal argument for restraints on immigration. The editor, David Goodhart, suggested that Britain's welfare state and civil society depended on a sense of community that was being put at risk by mass immigration, and that the benefits of diversity in Britain could suffer without controls.
Britain has not yet seen the startling rise in anti-immigrant votes and parties that have proved so potent in France, with Jean-Marie Le Pen's Front National, or in the Netherlands, where the late Pim Fortuyn's anti-immigration party was catapulted into government almost overnight. But the signs are ominous.
As the political weekly The Spectator noted Thursday: "It is hard to exaggerate the scale of the crisis that now faces Tony Blair and his home secretary. They are confronted with a failure of public policy of massive dimensions."
Copyright © 2001-2004 United Press International
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