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Green’s pleasant land

Deborah Ross talks to the head of Migration Watch, and finds herself becoming a little unladylike

6 March 2004

12:00 AM

6 March 2004

12:00 AM

So, off to meet Sir Andrew Green, retired Foreign Office mandarin, now founder and chairman of Migration Watch, which is either an ‘independent think tank which has no links to any political party’ (Migrationwatch.co.uk) or is a ‘nasty little outfit with a distinctly unpleasant agenda’ (the Independent). It depends, I suppose, on where you are coming from. Whatever, Sir Andrew lives in Deddington, an extremely pretty village on the edge of the Cotswolds, in a lovely house of delicious honey-coloured ironstone dating back to the mid-18th century. Through the gate and up the front path, which bisects a just-as-lovely garden, filled with snowdrops, crocuses, daffodils, hellebores, rose beds and the first brave geranium leaves pushing through the frost. It’s all so gloriously English. There is even a St George flag, with ‘Proud To Be English’ marker-penned across it, pinned to some scaffolding on the house opposite. ‘Would you care for a wash?’ Sir Andrew asks, when he answers the door, just as a proper Englishman, perhaps, should always ask a lady after a tiring journey. I think, now, that if I’d worn Laura Ashley, say, teamed with a bodice, we might have got on rather better. At least I didn’t fart. His hobbies in Who’s Who are listed as ‘tennis, sailing, bridge and desert travel’.

Sir Andrew, who founded Migration Watch in 2001, is now 63. He is dapper, handsome, articulate, the acceptable face of something, although I’m not yet sure what. Into the living-room: bookcases, dainty china thingies, photographs of his two children and pretty inks of Devon and Cornish coastlines. The son of an RAF group captain and a diplomat all his life, he was latterly ambassador to Syria and then Saudi Arabia, but there appear to be few, if any, Middle-Eastern flavours here. He offers tea, which I accept, then his conditions, which appear non-negotiable. ‘Now, you understand that I don’t do personal questions. We’re talking about migration.’

Infuriatingly, he’s as good as his word. So, Sir Andrew, can you tell me why you first got interested in this subject? ‘Personal question.’ So, Sir Andrew, do you miss the Middle East? ‘I miss the desert. And other things, but that’s a personal question.’ As Migration Watch is funded solely by private donations, could you tell me how much is donated a year? ‘No.’ Wouldn’t life be so much easier, Sir Andrew, if people could just learn to live in countries that might not be as clearly defined as they’d like? ‘That’s your opinion. These are matters of personal opinion which I don’t get into.’ I’m guessing there is no point asking how often he and Lady Green have sex these days. I think, though, that he’s less the stereotypical closed-up, upper-class Englishman, more the kind of man who cannot admit, even to himself, what he truly wants to say.

I tell him, first off, that having tried to read myself into the subject over the last couple of days, my brain (which I admit is on the smallish side) now feels fit to burst. The government says net immigration is running at about 160,000 a year; you say 245,000 (and believe that ‘such massive immigration is contrary to the interests of all sections of our community’). You say we take more asylum-seekers than any other country in Europe. Others say we are tenth on the list. You say that come 1 May, when the central European countries join the EU, 40,000 will make their way to the UK annually, whereas the government predicts 5,000 to 11,000 …how can one have a proper debate based on such unreliable figures? Or when the numbers can, it seems, be loaded any way you want to play it? How worried should I be that, in the near future, I won’t be able to get down the shops for Roma gypsies either on their way to barge into some hospital queue or coming back from having bled the benefits system dry?


Sir Andrew says, by way of reply, that he has made some notes. He then, alas, proceeds doggedly to read from them: ‘Let me start by saying the most striking feature of the current situation is that the immigration lobby and government avoid all discussion of numbers. They like to stick to generalisations about hard-working immigrants and lazy Britons. The key issue is that the numbers are very large and having a significant impact on our population. This raises three major concerns: 1) quality of life; 2) cohesion of our society; 3) the efficacy of our democracy. Shall I take these in turn?’ Can’t wait. ‘As far as the quality of life is concerned, the impact of net immigration is accentuated by the fact that it is concentrated. Seventy-five percent of international immigrants go to London …one of its effects is a massive increase in commuting as people move out of London. So where are the extra trains and roads going to come from? And what about the impact on housing and schools?’

I am beginning to question — or at least be immensely puzzled by — Sir Andrew’s motivation. When I ask him why, in his retirement, when he could be tending that glorious garden, he has chosen to put himself at the very heart of such an emotive issue, he says: ‘I don’t think it should be. The fact that a subject is emotive is not a reason for closing it down. Particularly when it affects every person’s life.’ Does it? Does it affect your life, Sir Andrew? You don’t live in London and I don’t imagine you’ve used a state school, the NHS or been in a queue for public housing. Ever. I put it to him: does immigration affect your life on a daily basis? In any way? ‘That’s a personal question. The answer is “no”, but it’s a personal question. I’m not going to answer personal questions.’ Are there any immigrants in Deddington? ‘No …there is a Chinese restaurant.’ A good Chinese restaurant? ‘I don’t know. I don’t like Chinese.’

He presses on with his notes. Lots of bewildering statistics. Lots of concerns about cohesion and ‘integrating foreigners at this pace’. No, we don’t need immigrant workers because our population is in decline: ‘Complete unmitigated rubbish!’ We don’t need unskilled workers: ‘There are 1.5 million unemployed. There are 2.2 million who the government wants to get off welfare to work.’ (Although I’m not sure they want to live in a caravan in Norfolk and pick spring onions.) No, we don’t need skilled workers: ‘We should rely primarily on training and retraining our own workers.’ And then on to the efficacy of democracy. The thing is, he says, ‘the public have neither been informed nor consulted about these very considerable changes taking place. Successive opinion polls have shown that 80 per cent of the British public want to see much tighter immigration controls, and the government is not listening. No one is representing their views.’ This, he continues, ‘means the field is left wide open to extremists. Our overriding concern is a harmonious society for future generations.’ But you must, I say, see that you’re playing into the hands of extremists. The BNP love ya, baby. The BNP have called Migration Watch ‘long overdue’ and have applauded it for having ‘nothing to do with racism but everything to do with common sense’. At this point, Sir Andrew looks rather pained. Rather as if I had farted. I press on. Plus, the Mail/Sun/Express all use your figures to support ‘flooding’ and ‘swamping’ stories. He looks saddened now. ‘We never use language of that kind,’ he says. No, he’s too careful, I think — but I put it to him that he gives others the tools to do so. ‘You can’t avoid that. Wh
at you have to do is get the facts out.’

I start to get a little shirty. Hopelessly unladylike, I know, but there you have it. Look, I say, you can’t just keep going on about ‘facts’ and ‘figures’. You wouldn’t be interested in those ‘facts’ or ‘figures’ if you weren’t interested in the consequences. And some of those consequences — economically, culturally and socially — are positive, surely. ‘Of course,’ he says, ‘we are not denying there are benefits.’ Have you heard, I ask, about the once-failing school in Tower Hamlets that’s been turned round by an increase in immigrant and refugee children, because, basically, they are so keen to get on? ‘That is perfectly possible,’ he says. So why, as an ‘independent thinktank’ (which, by the way, offers many policy suggestions, including pulling out of the 1951 Geneva Convention), do you just bang on about frightening things? Why not mention some of the positives? ‘There are plenty of people saying that. It’s in the Guardian every day. What we are saying is what other people are not saying.’

Sir Andrew sports some fine humanitarian credentials. He is chairman of Medical Aid for Palestinians, and a board member of Christian Solidarity Worldwide. Can’t you sympathise with immigrants on humanitarian grounds? I ask. And I’m not, I continue, particularly talking about asylum seekers. Economic migrants, after all, are simply people who want what most people want: better lives for themselves and their families, even though it may mean working in the Dorchester’s kitchens for 18 hours a day. He says: ‘I’m not blaming them for a minute, of course. Most people want a better life. The problem is the number of people who would regard Britain as [providing] a better life runs into absolutely huge numbers.’ I ask him if there isn’t some vanity in the assumption that everyone is desperate to live here. He thinks not. ‘Most people in the world would have a better life in Britain. I’ve lived in ten countries and this is by far the best.’ Why? ‘Freedom, tolerance, climate, the British people.’ Do you respect immigrants? ‘I’ve spent my entire life in the Foreign Office. Of course I respect foreigners, but …’ I don‘t answer personal questions? ‘…I don’t answer personal questions. Shall I call you a taxi? Do you need a wash before you go?’

What are we to make, then, of Sir Andrew Green? No doubt he is voicing a popular view. The Migration Watch website, he says, ‘gets 3,000 hits a day, sometimes 20,000’. But that’s what it is: a view, no matter how much you play the ‘independent’ and ‘non-political’ card. And I’m not sure he can face his own views, or the fact that he might be further polarising the issue rather than contributing to a proper, much needed debate. What we are probably seeing, as much as a rise in the number of immigrants, is a rise in the fear of immigrants, and I don’t think Sir Andrew is especially helping matters. Indeed, Migration Watch predicts that, come 2031, the British population will have expanded by seven Birminghams. Scary, until you ask how such projections can be made. Situations change. Should high rates of unemployment come along, say, in the intervening years, presumably people won’t come, people will leave. ‘All projections are vulnerable,’ he accepts. He then adds that, whatever happens, immigrants just won’t go. ‘If you look at the northern towns, we brought in, of our own volition, substantial numbers of people from the Indian subcontinent to work in the textile industry, which was struggling. That industry collapsed but, of course, we were left with the workers. And they are still here. They’ll draw unemployment benefit in Britain and still be ten times better off than in their home country.’ Is, I wonder, inviting someone somewhere and then booting them out when they no longer serve a useful purpose now called doing an ‘Eleanor Mills’?

Time for a last question. What exactly does motivate you, Sir Andrew? ‘I think it’s a huge concern for my fellow citizens and I have a duty to address it. I’ve been a public servant all my life and I still am.’ Perhaps this is the key. Perhaps Sir Andrew is of the generation and class which feel that England — a sentimentalised England, in his case, from having spent so many years abroad — somehow belongs to them. Go Home Everyone Else! I get my wash, then my taxi and go home myself, returning to the inner-city London street that is meant to be terrifying hell, but looks OK to me.


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