Tuesday columns for Newcastle Journal by George Hepburn

Month: October, 2014

Is it sensible for Mt Cameron to pull the handbrake?

David Cameron is considering applying the ‘emergency brake’ on immigration. At first, I thought he must  have been on a driver awareness course.  Had he, like me, been caught speeding?

The numbers of deaths through road traffic accidents continues to fall – from 10 a day in 2003  to under  5 a day last year. The fall is attributed to safer design of cars, better road infrastructure and improved  motoring by you and me.

More safety conscious driving stems  in part from courses offered as an alternative to points on the license  for drivers caught just over the speed limit. My transgression was to be snapped at 36mph in a 30 mile zone early one Sunday morning.

Although most of us  attended under duress, the  speed awareness course was taught in such a clever and good humoured way that we came away resolving to observe the speed limits in future. Education is a marvellous thing.

I learned that the chance of killing a pedestrian is four times higher driving at 40 mph than at 30mph and that stopping distances greatly increase over 70mph. In other words, there is some science behind setting the limits at their current  level.

I realised that  I  reach my destination only  a few minutes later by observing the speed limits and can relax and enjoy the journey. I especially liked the way that the trainers prefaced their statements with the phrase “Would you agree that….” which invited my consent without laying down the law.

Would this kind of didactic approach work on the more contentious issue of immigration as well? Here is what an immigration awareness trainer might ask the students:

Would you agree that young people should have the chance to  work abroad  and that others should similarly have the chance to do so here?  Sounds a good idea to me.

Would you agree that immigrants are hard workers?    My experience of being served coffee by people  born on other shores is generally positive. Their smile engagingly.

Would you agree that immigrants plug gaps in the labour market? – Yes. Care homes depend on overseas staff to look after our elderly people.

Would you agree that immigrants make a net contribution to the economy?  Yes. I heard that they pay about  more 1/3 in taxes  than they cost in public services and benefits.

Would you agree that we should be continue to be a tolerant  country that gives shelter to people who would be tortured or killed in their own country?  I hope so.

Would you agree that the United Kingdom  is enriched  by the culture and outlook of the different nationalities? Well, I always enjoy  a meal in an Indian restaurant.

It is surprising how much we can agree about on the subject of immigration.  Despite this,  British perceptions remain far more negative than our daily experience.  59% of the population believe there are too many immigrants compared to only 27% in Germany or The Netherlands which actually have a higher level of foreign born immigrants.

We overlook facts that might challenge our perceptions . Most people think 3 in 10 of UK population are first generation immigrants whereas the actual figure is about 1 in 10. A lot of  people think that immigrants are mainly asylum seekers where the largest group are students paying their way in our universities.  A few fear they are all jihadists.

Driver awareness courses are only offered to people who have marginally broken the speed limit in the hope that a four hour course will influence their future behaviour. So far, I  am driving more slowly, often to the irritation of the car behind me.

Maniacs who drive recklessly fast lose their licence and in extreme cases are locked away.  Some of those vehemently opposed to immigration are racists who should also be denied a public platform.

Of course, we need to plan how better to assimilate newcomers to this country. There are some local problems to be overcome. We must  be clear about the limits of our tolerance. We  must contain the comparatively small group of potential terrorists.   We may even  need to debate whether there comes a point at which  the country is  “full”.

But most of us could be persuaded  about the  overall benefits of immigration if the case is put in the proper way.  Would some good old fashioned facts and figures   defuse the rhetoric increasingly put about by politicians of all persuasions?    70% of UKIP supporters say immigration  is the biggest issue to be tackled but there is no rational reason why it should  dominate political debate in the run up to the election.

It has long been a  blue  touch paper.  Reading a new biography of Roy Jenkins  this week, I recalled that Edward Heath’s  government in the seventies introduced measures  to restrict immigrants from the new commonwealth in an attempt to counter support for Enoch Powell and the far right.

There is not much evidence that we have learned our lessons. Appeasing the ‘send them home’ brigade does not work. It is also disingenuous of credible politicians who should know better than to curry favour.

It now looks as if  the free movement of labour may become the breaking point in renegotiating  our membership of the European Union. If David Cameron  throws in  the towel  on this issue and campaigns for leaving the European Union in the promised referendum, the far right will have won an even greater victory.

We need to move up a gear and  see  ourselves as Europeans – as Heath and Jenkins argued so passionately forty years ago – which means accepting  the interchange of workers across Europe as part of  a stronger economy and a more diverse culture.  We need to debate  the terms of our membership but  should not be obsessed the single issue of immigration.

David Cameron must know that a sensible driver does not apply an emergency hand brake. Does he need to go on a speed awareness course or is he hurtling  regardless towards the exit?

Diplomacy is the best way to honour a good man’s memory

I woke up on Saturday to the news that Alan Henning had been beheaded. It made me feel sick.  That is exactly the effect that Isis  wanted to achieve. Another victory for the jihadists But I must nevertheless hang on to my belief there is no point in bombing them in return.

There is something especially primeval and grotesque about this form of death. Sadly, it is not only the Queen of Hearts who has a penchant for summary execution. This is all too real and repulsive.

It is  the stuff of war, and always has been. Reading Anthony Beevor’s account of the Spanish civil war, I was shocked at the way that opponents with a different ideology or even a different shade of the same ideology – the Stalinists shot anyone suspected of Trotskyism  – stood their opponents against a wall and shot them without more ado, again and again.

Isis militia are similarly accused of  killing civilians, abductions, and desecration. In August, according to the U N Commissioner for Human Rights, “150 women and girls, predominantly form the Yazidi and Christian communities, were reportedly transported to Syria, either to be given to Isis fighters as a reward or to be sold as sex slaves.”

But it is the death of a British man, on a humanitarian mission to Syria, that brings the story back on to the front page, after a week in which we have tried to pretend that we are not at war with Isis.

I had been wondering what all the fuss had been about. Two Tornados a day hitting specific targets in Iraq was no big deal; sophisticated weaponry maybe but hardly shock and awe. The motion to bomb Iraq may have been passed by a massive majority thanks to a three line whip but the debate did not convince anyone the following day.

Here was a nervous Prime Minster, humbled by his failure to get support to bomb President Assad only a year ago and haunted by the vote for war  that ruined a predecessor back in 2003.  There were few signs of sabre rattling this time and much equivocation about whether this limited resolution would have any effect. No one believes bombing can turn a war. It is a symbolic move to join the American led coalition and we have been there before.

Perhaps I should be pleased that Britain can now only go to war if Parliament approves? The result was a compromise motion that nobody wanted: opposition parties aware of the coming election and not brave enough to oppose the motion.

I was impressed by Rushanari Ali, a Muslim, who wrote eloquently to Ed Miliband resigning her shadow cabinet post.   “Despite good intentions” she said” too many mistakes have been made over the last decade and far too many people in conflict zones have had to pay a high price for misconceived actions by the UK and other countries.”

I admit to a sinking feeling that once again we are at war without a clear aim in a country where we have no right to be and where our past endeavours have only made matters worse.

I remember the dodgy dossier and so doubt what I hear from the front benches. Are we being strung along with a story about a group of  extremists, only 1300 strong  when they saw off the Iraqi army in June,  but are now deemed to be such a threat to world security? Are the fears of atrocities to be committed by returning radicalised Muslim soldiers  blown up out all proportion?

We have been sucked in again. The showcase execution  is a honeypot that  draws  western governments into a war they cannot win.  Muslim extremism thrives on retaliation which kills more innocents and swells its ranks. The  jihadists know they can wage a crusade far longer than public opinion in the west can bear.

The government would be  better to redouble its diplomatic efforts. This may involve trying to persuade the Saudis, to whom we sell arms and  hold in such  respect, not to bankroll Isis. It may mean making friends with the new more moderate regime in Iran. It should lead us to recognise the government of Palestine.

In the strangest turn of events, it probably means supporting a repressive and brutal  regime in Syria  which we were trying to overturn last year. We have to learn that well meaning attempts to overthrow oil rich dictators and introduce democracy  have been presumptuous wishful thinking.

Alan Henning may not be the last hostage to be executed. The most dignified way we can honour his memory is to work towards a diplomatic solution to the problems of the Middle East in whatever way we can.

Train ride with a Treasure

Just south of Seaham. I broke into fits of uncontrolled  laughter  to the bemusement of my fellow passengers on a packed Pacer train.  After regaling you with tales of broken down trains  two weeks ago,  I can report that they  chugged down the line to Middlesbrough at an average speed of 20ph without incident last week giving me the time to stick my head in a book.

Call me sentimental, but by the time I got to Thornaby, I had finished the novel in tears which was even more embarrassing. I was reading  David Almond’s new novel, ‘The Whistle Blowers’, written for once for grown ups, and constructed in the same territory of South Tyneside through which I was travelling.