- Whitehall and The Jews 1933-48 by Louise London
Cambridge, 313 pp, £30.00, March 2000, ISBN 0 521 63187 4
Three scenes from London life. 1) Westminster in 1999, when the tidal wave of ‘bogus asylum seekers’ that would break across tabloid front pages was just a gentle swell on the horizon. A House of Commons standing committee is discussing the Government’s proposal to replace welfare benefits (of around £46 a week) with a system of food vouchers worth £35 a week. ‘Many asylum seekers come from communities where wealth may be stored in jewellery,’ explains the Home Office minister Mike O’Brien, ‘and it is right for us to take account of that wealth.’
‘Is the minister suggesting,’ asks Diane Abbott MP, ‘that asylum seekers should sell their jewellery, perhaps their wedding rings, as an alternative to the Government meeting its moral and international responsibilities to provide a reasonable level of support?’
When O’Brien replies, ‘I certainly am suggesting that,’ a Tory back-bencher is heard to mutter: ‘You’ll be wanting the gold fillings out of their teeth next.’
2) The David Irving libel trial in February. Reading from the transcript of an interview with Irving on Australian television, Richard Rampton QC, barrister for the defence, asks why Irving had said that the idea of black men playing cricket for England made him feel ‘queasy’.
Irving: My reply to him on air was, what a pity it is that we have to have blacks on the team and that they are better than our whites.
Rampton: Why is that a pity?
Irving: It is a pity because I am English.
Rampton: Are they not English too?
Irving: Well, English or British, are you saying?
Rampton: I am saying that they are English. Most of them are born here, just as all the Jews in England were born here, most of them.
Irving: Are we talking about blacks or Jews now?
Rampton: It does not matter. They are all English.
3) A traffic jam in North London. To pass the time, my daughter and I start to argue about whether having been born here makes her English. On her mother’s side her grandparents were Greek refugees; on her father’s side, American Jews, themselves the descendants of the ‘economic migrants’ of the 19th century. My daughter agrees with Rampton, and however much I argue to the contrary remains convinced that she is, as she puts it, ‘an Englander’. I am too fond of her to make use of the fact that she is, unknowingly, undercutting her case by using Yiddish. Besides, she is only four years old.
When Diane Abbott asked whether asylum seekers should be forced to pawn their wedding rings, she may have thought her question was rhetorical – like Rampton’s dismissal of the notion that being born here doesn’t make you English. (Surely he knows that under Margaret Thatcher’s 1981 Nationality Act, being born here doesn’t even make you British.) But something besides wishful thinking links these episodes – a more disturbing set of associations thrown into high relief by another scene, this time in Dover, when customs officers opened the back of a lorry and found the bodies of 58 Chinese refugees piled against the back door. Press accounts said that the officers concerned would receive counselling and be allowed several days’ leave.