It’s a shame Alan Johnson became embroiled in the controversy over the sacking of a drugs policy advisor just as he was making an important speech on immigration.
I hope nonetheless that the Home Secretary’s basic message gets through, because it suggests he ‘gets it.’
As I know from my time trying to explain government policy, immigration is always a difficult and contentious issue. It becomes even more so, as history and our own experience tell us, in a time of economic difficulty. It is that which the extremists and bigots seek to exploit.
But if we condemn all who have concerns about immigration as extremists and bigots, or suggest they are wrong to be worried, we play into the hands of the real extremists even more.
I felt that on the Nick Griffin Question Time Jack Straw, in answering the question about whether concerns about Labour’s ‘failure’ on immigration in part explained the BNP’s relative rise in support, he could, while challenging the concept of ‘failure,’ have acknowledged more the concern.
It is true that the European elections took place with the expenses row at its height, but it was not the only issue to explain Labour’s poor showing.
Ministers are understandably frustrated that they believe they now have better immigration policies, but feel there is little understanding of what they are.
We had much the same problem, though admittedly in a better economic climate, in the run up to the 2005 election. So much so that then Tory leader Michael Howard made the gross strategic error of building his woeful campaign around the issue.
Our belief was that provided we explained the benefits of successive waves of immigration, provided we acknowledged concerns over the issue were not wholly owned by racists, admitted that there was a downside as well as an upside to globalisation, and provided we devised polcies that were firm but fair, we could win the argument. Admittedly helped by Howard, we did.
In admitting we did not always get it right, and in admitting concerns were real and understandable, not least because of the pressure on public services, Johnson has reopened the door to getting a fair hearing on the issue. An important first step.
Briefly, on the drugs advisor, I back Johnson there too. Advisors advise. Ministers have to decide. And if every advisor was allowed to campaign openly against any or every piece of policy because any of every piece of their advice was not being followed to the letter, there would be plenty of room for chaos, little for clear policy.
It is a bit like those civil servants, a minority, who confuse independence and impartiality. They are meant to be impartial. That is not the same thing as being independent.
I spoke recently to a conference of senior Home Office civil servants and told them that sometimes, on immigration and anti-social behaviour, Tony Blair felt the advisors did not have the same sense of urgency as the politicians who, ultimately, are the ones who have to make decisions and, rightly, get credit where things go well and blame where they don’t.