In this deleted scene from his book All in It Together: England in the Early 21st Century, Alwyn Turner records the press coverage of immigration twenty years ago, in January 2003. It may be that little has changed.
In the 1960s and ’70s, more people left Britain than arrived, so that in 1968, for example, the year of Enoch Powell’s Rivers of Blood speech, the migration figure stood at minus 56,000. That began to turn in the ’80s, and by 1997, when Labour came to office, annual migration was up to plus 48,000. And then there was a surge. In the re-election year of 2001, it had risen to 179,000, the highest level yet recorded, and would go on to increase still further, boosted by countries in East Europe joining the EU, so that it reached 267,000 by the next election. These were the net figures; looked at another way, immigration topped half-a-million a year in 2002 and stayed there for the rest of the decade.
This was an unprecedented development in the country’s history, and the scale of the change provoked some strong reactions in the popular press. ‘The betrayal of the British people is irreversible,’ wrote Trevor Kavanagh, the influential political editor of the Sun, in January 2003. ‘The flood of cheap labour was encouraged by chancellor Gordon Brown to boost his “economic miracle”. It has brought with it alarming levels of infectious TB, Hepatitis B, incurable AIDS – and a horrific knife culture.’
Kavanagh wrote when the economy was still strong, having been growing steadily, if not spectacularly, for well over a decade. But what might be the consequence if his had become the popular narrative by the time a downturn came, as it surely must? Or when Britain was hit by terrorism, as Eliza Manningham-Buller (the director general of MI5) suggested was probable?
Thus far, Britain had escaped major incidents of Islamic terrorism, but there had been scares. The most sensational came the same month as Kavanagh’s comments, when police raided a flat in Wood Green, North London, arresting six men alleged to be part of a terrorist cell that was planning attacks on the London Underground using ricin, a toxic biological weapon.
‘It’s here – deadly terror poison found in Britain,’ screamed the front page of the Daily Mirror, accompanied by a scarily yellow map of the country with a skull and crossbones superimposed. The only other words on the page were hardly any more reassuring: ‘Where is it? Who has it? How much is there? And can we cope? Full shocking story: Pages 2, 3, 4, 5, 6 and 7’.
As it turned out, there was no ricin at all on the premises (though this wasn’t revealed to the public for two years) and no charges were brought against any of those arrested that day.
The only person who was charged and convicted as a result of the incident was an illegal immigrant, apprehended a few days after the others in a separate raid in Crumpsall, North Manchester. During the arrest, he stabbed to death an anti-terrorist officer named Stephen Oake, and the murder of a policeman by – as home secretary David Blunkett put it – ‘a failed asylum seeker who couldn’t be sent back to Algeria because of the human rights issues’ only served to ramp up the rhetoric in the media still further.
‘It is feared there are 200 Algerian terrorists living illegally in the UK,’ warned the Sun in a piece headlined: ‘Read this and get angry – Asylum meltdown’. Under its new editor, Rebekah Wade, the paper said it was launching a ‘crusade’ against abuse of the asylum system and provided a form for readers to fill in, calling on Blair to do something ‘before it is too late’.
Meanwhile the Daily Express also hammered at asylum seekers, publishing a spread of twenty of its previous front pages on the subject, accompanied by the headline: ‘We told you so’. And a Daily Mail editorial described Britain as a haven for ‘Albanian gangsters, Kosovan people smugglers and Algerian terrorists’, while denouncing the silence of the ‘ruling classes’ and the ‘McCarthyite tactics of the left who have sought to stifle honest debate by demonising anyone who has dared to draw attention to the crisis’.
It was time, wrote Charles Moore in the Daily Telegraph, that Britain insisted on changes to the European Convention on Human Rights so that ‘terrorist acts, including their funding and planning, should place their perpetrators outside the protection of refugees’. Until this was implemented, Britain ‘should act unilaterally’ and withdraw from the Convention…