The Spectator is a magazine for conservatives written by liberals. From that tension comes an editorial persuasion — there is no line — that can seem winsome, beguiling, even perverse. Optimistic but never idealist, sceptical of the big but not the new, The Spectator combines a radical’s grasp of the possible with a reactionary’s sense of the inevitable. It is instinctually Whiggish but plagued by spasms of Toryism, looking forward through the rear-view mirror of life. If National Review is in the business of standing athwart history yelling ‘stop’, the The Spectator has more often been found sprinting ahead of history yelling ‘hurry up’.
In the 1860s, it came close to bankruptcy for lining up behind Lincoln in the American Civil War while the sainted Guardian was for the southern slave-owners. It advocated a Jewish return to Eretz Yisrael 15 years before Theodor Herzl was born and was branded ‘The Bugger’s Bugle’ when it called for homosexuality to be decriminalised in 1957. The Spectator is a fun, sprightly read that wears its history-making lightly but the tradition of noising up respectable consensus lives on. The magazine backed Brexit because it saw what so many clever people — and those of us who thought we were clever — could not: a chance for British renewal, not by withdrawing from the world but pushing past the boundaries of an old continent, ‘out — and into the world’.
The centre-right weekly has also become one of the sharpest, smartest voices for immigration reform. This teases out a longer-running thread — a 2001 leader asked why it was legitimate ‘to want to leave your homeland out of fear of persecution but not out of fear of poverty’ — but it is in recent years that these instincts have been stitched into a credible prospectus for a liberal, pragmatic border policy. So it is with some trepidation that I say the call for an asylum amnesty issued in The Spectator’s 18 September's leading article is wrong. Wrong, wrong-headed, wrong for the times and wrong in principle.
The leader appears confused on its own terms. It uses ‘asylum amnesty’ and ‘migrant amnesty’ interchangeably and so this rejoinder is forced to veer awkwardly between the two. It is also unclear what is meant by amnesty, since the leader proposes both ‘an amnesty for migrants who may not have formal status but have been living here peacefully for many years’ and that the Home Office ‘speed up the process for asylum application, with speedier, high-profile deportations for those who fail to meet the criteria’. We are left to wonder whether it is advocating the most progressive migration policy, the most populist asylum policy, or both. When The Spectator speaks, ministers listen, but it’s anyone’s guess what they might have heard this time.
I object to a blanket amnesty either for illegal immigrants or non-qualifying refugees, not because I’m for closed borders but because I’m for open borders. I want to see Britain become the dream destination for migrants from all nations and all skill sets. I want us to be an unrivalled sanctuary for the oppressed and persecuted and, subject to rigorous verification and security protocols, I would like to see us accept many more refugees. In 2018, and in response to the Windrush outrage, I argued for the Home Office to be abolished and for immigration to ‘go from being seen as a burden and a threat to a source of wealth generation, upskilling, and demographic security’. As you can see, I am a hopeless idealist.
An idealist, but not a chump. Everyone who comes here, immigrant or asylum seeker, must do so lawfully and, should their visa expire or their application to remain be rejected, they must leave. Those who do not must be removed. The systems in place must be lawful, expeditious and compassionate but systems there must be. Restrictionists contend that a liberal migration system would be no system at all, that it would be a free-for-all in which lawyers and people-smugglers set border policies. I am not prepared to concede this talking point and I am certainly not about to lend it credibility. Liberal does not mean weak; open does not mean soft. A flexible migration policy would still be a rules-based approach in which the public could have confidence.
The editorial is correct that keeping 60,000 asylum seekers trapped in bureaucracy and banned from seeking employment is cruel and wasteful. Even when claimants do not qualify for asylum, consideration should be given to their skills and experience and, where appropriate, indefinite leave to remain offered.
Where the editorial refers to ‘illegal migrants’, they too should be considered on a case-by-case basis that takes into account education, skills, employment, relationships formed, contributions made to their communities and affinity shown for Britain.
However, to grant an across-the-board amnesty, either to failed asylum seekers or illegal immigrants, would be to declare that it does not matter how you enter this country, or whether you have the right to do so. All you need is a large number, a sympathetic media, an ability to dodge the authorities and the enduring British aversion to bureaucracy. You do not get less of something by incentivising it. Making the right to live in Britain a matter of ingenuity rather than law is an incentive to come here by means of the former rather than the latter. If you like the first Spectator amnesty, you’ll love the second and the third and the rest.
The editorial recalls that Boris Johnson previously floated a similar idea but wonders: ‘Why have we heard no more about a migrant amnesty since he became Prime Minister?’ Is it because he, like the magazine he once edited, is a liberal addressing a country that is conservative on these matters? The answer, according to the article, is not to let such things deter him and to press ahead with amnesty. Note the editorial does not recommend that Johnson reconsider an idea his political judgement convinced him it was wise to drop. Note, too, that the Spectator does not suggest putting this policy before the voters in an election manifesto. I would take parliamentary over popular democracy any day but to think such a radical prescription on such an incendiary issue could be sprung on the voters mid-Parliament, without severe political consequences, is so naive as to seem almost innocent.
This last point is my real beef. What the magazine counsels is so intolerable to a sizeable section of the electorate — the section, incidentally, upon which this government will rely heavily for re-election — that the views of Not London appear never to have been factored in. This is what comes from writing about a country from a distant city. When Ipsos asked survey respondents last November whether immigration had a positive or negative impact on Britain, only 27 per cent of Londoners said negative compared to 38 per cent from the north of England. If we want a liberal immigration system, London is not where the argument must be won.
Brexit has drawn some of the poison out of the migration issue but, noble though its intentions may be, The Spectator’s proposal would retoxify the political bloodstream. A magazine that saw Brexit’s potential should not be so quick to unlearn its lessons.