Open the borders

Last week saw two related items make the headlines. First, the idea of compulsory ID cards was dredged up again. Then we had the unveiling of a new government white paper on immigration and asylum. Both important issues for the Socialist Alliance. David Blunkett, the home secretary, announced that there was to be a "consultation exercise" on the possible introduction of ID cards - or "entitlement cards", as he prefers to call them. He aims to publish a "consultation paper" on the matter by the summer. Naturally, we were reassured, it would not be an offence to fail to carry your "entitlement card". Heaven forbid - this is freedom-loving Britain, not some ghastly authoritarian country (like France). Indeed it is proposed that the cards will be issued on an entirely voluntary basis - at least for the time being. However, Blunkett hopes they will eventually replace passports and driving licences, give you access to public services, and even act as a bank card as well. But you are perfectly free, of course, not to have a passport, driving licence, credit card, welfare benefits, etc. Supporters of such schemes like to tell us that post-September 11, opinion polls showed 80% or so in the UK backed the introduction of some form of ID card. They also claim that new technology will make the new card easier and cheap to manufacture, having in mind the 'biometric' technology similar to the cards introduced two weeks ago for asylum-seekers. These cards carry computer chips with data including photographs, fingerprints, and other personal details such as address, birth date, family members, and serial numbers. Wonderful though science is, it remains the case that it could cost up to £1 billion to implement the ID card scheme. Far worse is the political implications of such a step - towards greater social control and creeping authoritarianism. In the words of Mark Littlewood of Liberty: "The introduction of an entitlement card would mark a very serious step. Not only would such a scheme be prohibitively expensive, but it would pose a real threat to civil liberties." Then we have the new government white paper, Secure borders, safe haven - integration with diversity in modern Britain. Soothingly, it seeks a more "holistic and rational" approach to the global movement of people in the 21st century. The white paper is also keen to remind us that Britain is a 'mongrel' country - "for centuries we have been a multi-ethnic nation," it unarguably states. But the main thrust of the white paper is to hammer home the idea of 'Britishness' - which all newly arrived migrants have to learn about and subscribe to. All 'races' and creeds are welcome so long as they wrap themselves in the union jack and unite in hostility to 'outsiders' (Taliban, Osama bin Laden, Saddam Hussein, Slobadan Milosevic, British National Party, racists, etc). In other words, the white paper wants the 60,000 who apply for British citizenship each year to develop an active appreciation of "British institutions" and "British culture". To inculcate this warm feeling of national 'belonging' there will be adult education classes, and study packs will be handed out to every new hopeful. The aim of these packs will be to open up their eyes to "the country's traditions" (Alfred the Great? Nelson? Scott of the Antarctic?) and to instruct us in "what it means to be a British citizen" (bowing and scraping before the monarchy?). Let us not forget - you can be a devout muslim and a devout royalist. Did not prince Charles say he wanted to be 'defender of faith', not 'defender of the faith'? Safe borders, safe haven is a near perfect codification of the rapidly developing anti-racist, national chauvinist ideology of the bourgeoisie - however much some on the left scream idiotically about the UK state, and capitalism in general, being 'inherently racist'. In an attempt to speed up the envisaged process of top-down national cohesion, the white paper wants applicants for UK citizenship to demonstrate that they have met a certain standard of English. After objections that Welsh and Scottish Gaelic are also spoken by native Britons, it seems that those languages will also be acceptable. So Welsh-speaking Bangladeshis should be OK then. In many respects, the new government paper is a sequel to the Cantle report published last December, which was an investigation into the so-called 'race riots' which erupted last summer in Burnley, Oldham and Bradford. The report grimly concluded that many communities "operate on the basis of parallel lives", and declared that "immigrants should adopt norms of British life". At the same time, Blunkett was stirring up controversy with his comments lamenting the (supposed) inability of sections of the British-Asian community, particularly women, to speak English. You can read into these gripes an inchoate semi-critique of the dominant, liberal ideology of multiculturalism. Yet the white paper also wants to distance itself from some of the 'excesses' of liberalistic multiculturalism - which in the name of promoting diversity, pluralism, cultural self-expression, etc actually helped to institutionalise 'racial' difference (even if the ever-myopic Socialist Worker maintains that multiculturalism has been "overwhelmingly positive" - December 22). So Blunkett wants new migrants to take a "citizenship pledge" and undergo some sort of ritualistic, United States-style 'loyalty test'. As Blunkett told The Sun, "I want a formal ceremony to celebrate, just like when we are baptised, get married or graduate from university. That way we could celebrate British citizenship and welcome new citizens into the community." He added that he envisaged "public occasions appropriate to our way of doing things for Britain. When they apply for citizenship, we shall expect them to learn about British society and institutions." Under the British Nationality Act of 1981, applicants were required merely to sign an oath of allegiance to the queen. Now - according to Secure borders, safe haven - the oath or pledge will go: "I swear by almighty god [or, do solemnly and sincerely affirm] that, from this time forward, I will give my loyalty and allegiance to her majesty Queen Elizabeth the Second, her heirs and successors, and to the United Kingdom. I will respect the rights and freedoms of the United Kingdom. I will uphold its democratic values. I will observe its laws faithfully and fulfil my duties and obligations as a British citizen." Obviously to be truly British you have to show deference to your betters. First the monarch, then the constitutional monarchy state (god is now optional - even agnostics and atheists are allowed citizenship nowadays). Predictably, Blunkett has been charged with "linguistic colonialism", amongst other things. Even more predictably, Socialist Worker went into auto-anti-racist mode: "Blunkett is using the issue of English as a smokescreen for the instiutional racism that is the real obstacle to the advancement of newcomers to this country" (February 16). In response, Blunkett insisted that there was "no contradiction" between retaining a distinct cultural identity and identifying with Britain. There is a truth to Blunkett's words. Genuine assimilation is a "two-way street", as he put it, which enriches both 'partners' and breaks down national/ethnic parochialism and all forms of insularity. The existence of a developing British-Asian culture, for example, means there is a new way to be both 'Asian' and 'British'. This can only be progressive. Which is why communists disagree so strongly with the statement of the National Coalition of Anti-Deportation Campaigns (NCADC), which says that the new white paper "reintroduces the discredited notion of assimilation under the name of integration" (February 7). No, what is "discredited" is any notion of forced assimilation from above as opposed to voluntary assimilation from below. It is for this reason, then, as well as for its chauvinistic agenda, that we oppose Blunkett's whole project with its authoritarian assimilationist approach. This is combined with a desire to further control and curtail immigration - especially from family dependants, who are likely to be 'unproductive' and a 'burden', as far as the bourgeoisie is concerned. Thus his comment that British-Asians should confine arranged marriages to partners already living here - ie, to fellow British-Asians. Blunkett quickly added that he had no problem with arranged marriages that were genuinely voluntary. Blunkett's views were condemned as "abhorrent". Milena Buyum of the National Assembly Against Racism complained: "Telling established British communities whom they should or should not marry is quite abhorrent to these communities. To propose interfering in their private choice of who to marry is a big infringement of their cultural rights." In reply, Blunkett complained about "a kind of reverse racism that if you're white and middle class you can't say or do anything that might upset someone's who's black or Asian". Once again, there is a certain degree of truth to his 'anti-PC' contention. Forced marriages must certainly be opposed. However, Blunkett's concern is not for the rights of women in wedded imprisonment per se. There is no attempt to restrict arranged marriages - consensual or not - just to contain them within British shores. Buyum is right to condemn him for "interfering in their private choice of who to marry" - a universal right which cannot be limited, as she seems to imply, to "established British communities". On the question of immigration, Blunkett certainly went some way to meet the demands of influential sections of British capital for a relaxation of restrictions which currently prevent them addressing shortages in skilled and medium-skilled workers. Some also wanted a scheme to enable unskilled economic migrants to enter the UK legally - maybe even the introduction something akin to the US 'green card' system. It is estimated that more than 60% of workers in London's catering trade are illegal immigrants, and the white paper estimates that overall there are "hundreds of thousands" in Britain. Naturally, these workers are open to exploitation at below minimum wage rates and employers use 'illegals' to undercut the wages and condition of 'legals'. However, Secure borders, safe haven lived up to its name - no green cards for 'illegals'. Instead, immigration rules should be "tough and tender". Far from 'rationalising' immigration to embrace such workers within the system, it seems that Blunkett preferred to leave well alone. Why risk the competitiveness of those sections of British industry that depend on illegal immigration? Certainly, companies who knowingly employ illegals could be fined up to £5,000 for each employee. And so-called "people-traffickers" will face new 14-year jail sentences. But there is a problem here, as Blunkett well knows. If he cracks down too hard, the service sector in much of urban Britain would collapse. Still, at least such rhetoric goes down well in Daily Mail-land. All of this shows once again that capital's insistence on controlling immigration usually has nothing whatsoever to do with racism. Irrespective of their 'race' capitalists, entrepreneurs and self-sufficient professionals are allowed to come and go virtually as they please. But access for workers is dictated by the requirements of the labour market. At present skilled workers are at a premium, but again there is no preference for white people - just those who speak good English and can easily be incorporated. It is poor, unskilled workers - largely from eastern and central Europe at present - who must be kept out. As our Socialist Alliance general election manifesto, People before profit, states, "The SA fights for freedom of movement, open borders and an end to immigration laws." Absolutely correct. We oppose immigration controls not because they are "racist" or "improperly managed", as the NCADC alleges, but because they divide workers along the lines of nationality (real or imagined). For communists, immigration is a progressive phenomenon, which breaks down national differences and national prejudices. It unites British workers with the world working class and hence lays the foundation for a genuinely emancipatory world order. Eddie Ford