Michael Howard is a Powellite, at least in one respect. Talking about immigration, Enoch Powell said that numbers were of the essence. Mr Howard would agree, although his numerical restrictions would be far less severe.
The Tory leader is really more of a Blairite. ‘Every country must have firm control over immigration and Britain is no exception.’ That is from Labour’s 1997 manifesto; it summarises Mr Howard’s views. ‘We and only we decide border policy and ... immigration, asylum and visas ... [these policies will be] made in Britain, not in Brussels.’ That was Tony Blair in late 1993, and Michael Howard could not have put it better. His disagreements arise from the PM’s failure to turn deeds into words.
It is easy to make the moral case for restricting immigration. Almost any level of immigration causes social change; on a large scale it can alter the character of urban areas, and of an entire society. Many people — not only the British — prefer to live in settled, stable communities. They remain sceptical of the benefits of immigration. Those benefits do exist; cultural diversity in large cities plus a reinvigorated labour market. But in order to maximise the advantages and minimise the disadvantages, it is necessary to impose strict limits on numbers.
Despite Mr Blair’s assurance, that is not happening. Legal immigration has doubled since 1997, while illegal immigration is out of control. Though the government may be retreating from the policy of allowing pubs to remain open at all times, our borders are open 24/7. When the voters are listening, Tony Blair may talk like the British bulldog. When he thinks that nobody is noticing, his government signs directives giving more and more power to the EU. ‘Made in Britain, not in Brussels.’ No one in Brussels thinks that this now reflects reality. Yet a nation which cannot control its own borders has ceased to be a nation.
It should not be difficult for Mr Howard to defend his new policy. It has been crafted with the help of Sir Andrew Green of Migrationwatch. He has thought as hard about the problems of immigration as anyone in Britain. With his help, the Tories should be able to justify their approach, as well as insisting that it is honest.
That deals with morality, so what about the politics? To judge by the opinion-poll data, the Tories ought to benefit. Much of the public is convinced that immigration has increased, is increasing and ought to be diminished. If anything, a majority of voters would want a more restrictive policy than the one which Mr Howard is proposing.
The Blairites are certainly alarmed. This is one reason why their spokesmen have not been exactly busy over the past few days. Moreover, the government is shortly launching its own immigration proposals. It is beyond even this lot’s audacity to denounce the Tories one week for being inhumane and the next week for not being tough enough. Labour will also face some awkward questions about Europe. That should all be good news for Michael Howard. He has the government rattled and the silent majority on his side.
Yet it is not as simple as that. For the past few decades, right-wing politicians have dreamt of appealing over the heads of metropolitan elites to the real people, who were natural Conservatives and who, once mobilised, would be an irresistible electoral force. There have been successes, notably under Ronald Reagan and George Bush II; the word ‘conservative’ is now much more widely used in American political discourse than it was a generation ago.
But that is America, where culture wars are of much greater political significance than in Europe. European Conservatives who are tempted to imitate their American cousins face two further obstacles. The first is the Labour movement, which is so much weaker across the Atlantic. Since November, liberal commentators have been wailing and gnashing their teeth over the willingness of many poor Americans to vote Republican for cultural and religious reasons. In Europe, however, working-class voters who might be attracted by right-wing values are still constrained from voting Conservative by traditional allegiances.
The second is the importance of vocal minorities, who resent crude attempts at populist politics. There is also the anxiety, widespread if covert among many Tories, that the silent majority may not be what it was. For a lot of Conservatives, the lowest moment in the past eight years was the death of Diana, Princess of Wales. The absence of all dignity, the abject sentimentality, the hysteria: a number of my friends concluded that they no longer understood their own country.
Even if the Diana cult was an aberration, there is a further reason to doubt the efficacy of silent-majority politics. Over the past 40 years, two Tory home secretaries managed to project themselves as conspicuously right-wing: Henry Brooke and Michael Howard. They were also two of the most unpopular members of dying Conservative governments. Appealing to the hard-line law-and-order vote is not nearly as electorally successful as the polls would suggest.
There is an explanation. It is too easy to put people off, while there is a lot of evidence that the silent majority is good at only one thing: remaining silent. Even so, it is important that the Tories should repeat their message, now that they have one. But Mr Howard should ensure that it is not only he and David Davis who are projected. The leadership needs media support from the humanitarian wing of the party: Ken Clarke, Damian Green, Caroline Spellman, George Young. Michael Howard should also use his youngsters. David Cameron and George Osborne are both good at pretending to be humanitarians, as is that blond-haired fellow from Henley who seems to have a rapport with the cameras.
There is one further argument which the Tories ought to find a way of making. Even if economic policies appear to converge, there is an enduring distinction between Right and Left. British right-wingers feel comfortable with their country’s past. When talking about history, even the most devout Tory tends to turn Whig. He bases his optimism on four great themes: social and economic progress, the relatively harmonious development of freedom under the rule of law, a benign imperialism and the ability to conscript the entire nation in order to fight world wars while remaining gentle and unmilitaristic.
That is not how the Left sees things. For them, the past is another country, and a repulsive one. This helps to explain their instinctive desire for constitutional vandalism, and their hatred of many traditional aspects of British life, such as fox-hunting. That is why it is a complete misnomer to call Tony Blair a Conservative. It also explains why a lot of left-wingers are in favour of unrestricted immigration. They see it as the quickest way to change the country irrevocably.
Until now, Tony Blair has been talking like a Tory on immigration while acting like a Britain-hating lefty. That is a contradiction which the Tories must expose.