In the Media

Bouncers on Britain's borders? It's more hot air from Blair

PUBLISHED July 24, 2006

Such is the general cynicism about this government that some people saw Kim Howells's anti-Israel outburst at the weekend as part of some clever plot.

Wasn't it convenient for Tony Blair to look as if he was covering all the bases on the Middle East within his own Cabinet? Even the appearance of a government split on foreign policy might be a contrivance that was worth the risk.

Well, I doubt it. Having encountered Mr Howells many, many years ago when we were both of a Trotskyist tendency, I think I can declare pretty confidently that the Foreign Office minister was just shooting his mouth off. His remarks about the Israeli offensive in Lebanon came from the same ad hoc store as his fatuous comparison of the Beirut evacuation to Dunkirk.

So no, I think this particular mess was what it seemed to be: a contradiction between an undisciplined government spokesman and his leader. But there is no stopping the speculation that is generated by every Labour utterance. The country believes that it has this government's number and it will not be disabused. What it sees clearly now is that Labour succeeded by a series of illusionist techniques. What the party likes to call its "election-winning machine" is based on creating impressions in the electorate's eye that have almost no connection with lived reality. This is the political embodiment of Bishop Berkeley's dictum, "to be is to be perceived".

For the Blair project, to be perceived to be doing something is tantamount to doing it. And when people complain that nothing is being done about, say, crime, or illegal immigration, or school standards, ministers just produce another blizzard of announcements to reinforce the impression that they are taking action that is even more spectacular or Draconian than before (and this time, we really, really mean it). But the words never make contact with real life.

I remember talking, years ago, to an experienced Tory former minister about this phenomenon. Why was Labour, I wondered, with its huge parliamentary majority and its initial tide of public good will, accomplishing so little? Because, he said, they cannot make the mechanisms of government work: they don't know how to engage the gears.

So the Prime Minister and his few remaining allies in the Cabinet continue to gun the accelerator without seemingly being aware of how to release the clutch. The bus gets noisier and noisier but fails to go anywhere, and the passengers on board get more and more angry and frustrated.

I sometimes get the impression that even the ministers themselves (as well as Mr Blair) are mystified by this failure to make things happen. They may have thought that it was terribly clever at first to behave in government just as they had in opposition, which is to say, to talk a good game without giving much attention to how you would accomplish anything. But now they see how it looks to the rest of us: nine years of hot air and big talk, and what is there to show for it?

On crime and immigration, there is a clear sense of panic. The Home Office is in outright meltdown and Labour is responding to a genuine crisis in its familiar way: the new Secretary of State is spewing forth yet more initiatives that have visibility as their chief recommendation. His government having deliberately dismantled control of our borders and stood down the very people whose responsibility it was to pursue illegal immigrants, John Reid now proposes ("for the first time in our history") a uniformed border control force. The presence of these ostentatiously uniformed officials will, he says, "act as a deterrent" to illegal entrants to Britain. Oh, really?

Perhaps the Home Secretary is taking his cue here from the public demand for uniformed police on the streets whose presence does indeed deter criminals. If so, he is confusing two very different kinds of problem: illegal immigrants are not planning unmistakeable crimes that can be detected by the naked eye, which they can decide - on spotting a uniformed officer - not to commit. As often as not, they are arriving in ambiguous circumstances (or even, in the first instance, legal ones) which then turn out to be unacceptable as grounds for remaining, or else they become illegal by overstaying their original legitimate permit.

The chief reasons that illegal immigrants are not being removed from the country is that the mundane clerical investigations that used to locate them have been run down, and the Courts have consistently refused deportation orders on the grounds of human rights.

An intimidating-looking heavy in a uniform patrolling the airport reception hall, or the quayside at Dover, will not solve these problems. Mr Reid's new army of bouncers, even if they were armed, would be virtually powerless so long as immigration officials of the non-uniformed kind, and the judiciary, interpreted the rights of would-be settlers in the way that they do. Don't be fooled: the uniformed guys (if indeed, they ever appear) will be there to reassure the voters rather than deter the immigrants. Yet another Blairite simulacrum of effectual action.

But pretending to do things that ought to be done is only one side of Labour's project. Sometimes what they actually manage to do, in the interests of public approval, reveals a superficiality and outright ignorance of our constitutional arrangements that is deeply shocking.

As well as creating a border patrol of toy soldiers, Mr Reid is also planning to bring the victims of crime into a much more active role in criminal proceedings. Having gathered that the law-abiding citizenry feels that its interests are regarded with less concern than those of offenders, the Home Secretary and the Attorney General, Lord Goldsmith, are promising to engage the victims of crime in every step of the prosecution, trial and sentencing of criminals.

This would have the effect of obfuscating the distinction between the criminal law and the civil law. A criminal prosecution is brought by the state against an individual: it is not a contest between a victim (a plaintiff) and an offender (a defendant). In our legal system, the victim is just a special sort of witness to a crime, which is considered to have been committed against society. Again, the problem of how victims of crime are regarded lies with the interpretation of the law and the attitudes of those who enforce it.

Tampering with our traditional concept of criminal justice is a dangerous way to get a quick headline. But that, of course, is what Labour is all about.