Lesley Riddoch: Blair’s immigration plan is far from liberal

Prime MInister Tony Blair in Parliament Square, Edinburgh, the morning after the referendum on Scottish devolution which was a decisive Yes Yes
Prime MInister Tony Blair in Parliament Square, Edinburgh, the morning after the referendum on Scottish devolution which was a decisive Yes Yes
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The ex-prime minister’s intervention shows how the immigration debate has become poisoned, writes Lesley Riddoch

Let’s give the guy his due. He’s got a nerve.

Fourteen months ago, the long awaited Chilcot Report into the Iraq War was published, revealing that Blair’s decision to invade wasn’t just a regrettable foreign policy blunder costing the lives of British soldiers and Iraqi civilians but also a moment of cavalier disregard for democracy which created the preconditions for radicalisation in the Middle East, destabilisation across the world and an erosion of public confidence in the probity of Government so profound that it ended automatic support for the Labour Party in its former heartlands and gave Ukip the foothold needed to hound David Cameron into the fateful European Referendum that was held last year.

Nice work.

No matter how much Tony Blair has repeated that he had no option but to join American forces in the 2003 invasion, the alternative version of reality presented by Sir John Chilcot exposed the autocratic one-man style of Blair’s decision-making, the tendency towards dangerous groupthink and the lack of real challenge from civil servants, government backbenchers or opposition MPs.

It explained the steady loss of public faith in Westminster along with every other bit of the Establishment and the collapse of confidence within the BBC after Director General Greg Dyke was forced to walk the plank over its coverage of the “sexed up” dossier. All the weaknesses in BBC political coverage – including the indyref – found their origins in the lily-livered cave-in to Tony Blair and Alistair Campbell over Iraq.

Yes it’s true the former Labour leader hasn’t been tried for misconduct in public office because that law is vague, and Parliament backed his call. He hasn’t been tried for breaching the UN’s prohibition on the use of force because the only body competent to try him is the UN Security Council and both the US and UK are permanent members and lawyers maintain the International Criminal Court in The Hague does not have the jurisdiction to decide if the Iraq invasion was a pointless act of war.

So parents have come to the rescue – as they had to do over the Hillsborough cover-up and countless other scandalous abuses of political power.

Roger Bacon and Reg Keys, whose soldier sons were killed in Iraq, have crowd-funded £150k to bring a civil case against Tony Blair. Over the summer their lawyers have undertaken a “full and forensic” analysis of the 2.6 million-word Chilcot report. A trial could yet take place.

If it does the families must raise the money themselves, while taxpayers will foot the former Prime Minister’s legal bills because he is indemnified by the Cabinet Office.

So this is Tony Blair.

A man who may soon face trial for his part in one of the worst foreign policy disasters of recent times – but still has the gall to present himself as the honest broker in the Brexit debate. Only someone with the colossal self-belief of Tony Blair could think the world is waiting for him to find a “middle way” through this hopelessly intractable stand-off. Mind you, since he’s had the nerve to amass a fortune (“no more than £10 million”) by milking international contacts since leaving office in 2007, Blair is nothing if not bold.

The question is why the media lends him credibility, why politicians hang on his every word and why some voters want him back at the helm of a Labour Party he helped destroy. Nostalgia? Yearning for the days when voters had nothing more to worry about than the sincerity of Cool Britannia?

Blair’s intervention does only two things.

It distracts from the profoundly undemocratic power grab being forced through parliament this week by Theresa May and it indirectly validates her party’s vicious and hysterical position on immigration.

Why? Well look at the detail of Blair’s “compromise” proposal and ask yourself how it can possibly be described as a “Middle Way.”

Force EU immigrants to register on arrival. Force EU immigrants to show confirmation of a job offer.

Ban those without permission from renting a house, opening a bank account or accessing benefits. Introduce “discriminatory controls” to NHS treatment if migrants are economically inactive. (Do they get left to suffer on the pavement?)

Charge EU students more than home students. Negotiate an “emergency brake” on migrants arriving when public services are overstretched.

These are draconian measures against workers who’ve proved they contribute more in tax than locals, return home when they say they will and have no undercutting impact on British wages. So Tony Blair’s punitive and hostile measures only constitute a “Middle Way” compared with the Tory party’s xenophobic and “catastrophic” proposals to deport unskilled migrant workers after two years and prevent those on a low income arriving here in the first place.

Do Scots really want to live in a country where these are the only available shades of grey in immigration policy?

Of course some will argue the debate over borders has become hysterical across the whole world right now.

Donald Trump has vowed to halve immigration to 500,000 and cap the number of refugees at 50,000 and Hungary, Poland and the Czech Republic are being sued by the EU for refusing to accept their share of refugees.

But there is another more humane and economically sensible approach. In the German leaders debate last week, Conservative Angela Merkel defended an open border policy that saw one million migrants arrive – she insisted they pose no threat to voters. Her Social Democratic opponent agreed. It’s true that this defiantly upbeat position may help extreme right win parties – but probably not enough to topple Ms Merkel.

The lesson is clear. Within a liberal consensus, the Middle Way is fairly liberal.

Within a political culture of foreigner-blaming, grandiosity and panicky protectionism, the Middle Way resembles the modern thinking of Genghis Khan.

Blair’s intervention is not liberal because the British political consensus is not liberal. Or let’s be specific – the political consensus of England minus London is not liberal. It is disempowered, angry, suspicious, distant from power, unequal and lagging far behind London (and Scotland) in terms of investment, jobs and infrastructure.

Are we happy to see this outlook shape our future, foreign policy, relations with Europe and our attitude to incomers?

Sooner or later, Scots will have to decide.