Sunday, March 04, 2007

Speaking out about Speakout

'It is time to devolve power to the local level, restoring the civic pride that once made the town and city halls of Britain the source of public loyalty and affection.'

Hear, hear. Though it might be quibbled that affective emotions were probably never in play with any level of English government. But an excellent sentiment, recognising as it does that the great untold story of twentieth-century British politics is the shift away from strong local government to overpowering central diktat.

My heart would usually leap to read that (an excitable organ, my heart). It would have especial reason to do so, considering the statement arrived among the items of post that land on my doorstep and encourage me to attend various local government conferences (at exorbitant prices) or rally to the barricades to fight some cause which is usually either already lost or fundamentally misunderstood.

But it comes from Speakout, a 'non-party political, people's movement.' The failure to punctuate as English requires is notable, if the least of this group's failings. I'm afraid that I was agin 'em from the moment I opened their envelope. The first sheet I read had pictures of the three party leaders -- at, it must be said, their least photogenic -- underneath a banner: 'a migrant a minute is entering Britain.'

They might have been better representing each party by, say, Austin Mitchell, Michael Howard and Lembit Opik. That might have made their point even better. Migrants, you see, to Speakout, are apparently a Bad Thing. They say 'our elected MPs have handed control of our borders to the European Union, allowing unlimited migration into Britain.'

So, what's their alternative? In effect, let's have a poll to send the Poles back, let's leave the Hungarians hungry. And, while we're at it, who likes ice cream and pizza anyway? Out with those olive-oiled Mediterraneans and keep Britain for the British. Whoever they are. Speakout are the sort of people who would have complained about Golders Green going to the doghouse a century ago.

Speakout wants to know what 'every elected UK politician' thinks about having a referendum on immigration, the EU and probably the Radio Four medley. I'm all in favour of referendums: as it is, we live in a democracy which is not just indirect but also incomplete. So anything to improve citizens' engagement with decision-making. (And, no that doesn't mean inviting 0.000001% of my electorate into my front parlour).

But this is not an organisation keen to improve democracy in a non-partisan way. It is as 'political' as a party (as their failed punctuation reveals), and it is funded by ex-Tory millionaires like Paul Sykes, who bemoan the leftward swing of the Conservatives, even if it is not discernible to anyone else. So, if they want to know my view, here it is: let's devolve power to our cities, where their ethnic mix and their multicultural nature is their strength not their weakness. Let's celebrate what immigration brings to our communities. Let's put up a sign: all newcomers welcome. After all, their qualities might come to outweigh the unBritish intolerance fluanted by some who are 'proud' to call themselves British.