Michael Fallon was right: parts of Britain are in danger of being “swamped” by migrants, former Home Secretary David Blunkett has said. Fallon originally made his comments in an interview on Sky News, but was quickly forced to retract them and apologise by Downing Street. But Blunkett, who himself used the word “swamped” in relation to immigration in 2002, has stood up for his political opponent and accused the government of “peddling illusions” about the scale of the problem.
The furore began over the weekend, when, during an interview in which he was questioned on the German chancellor’s refusal to back down on the EU’s principle of freedom of movement, Fallon commented: “The Germans haven’t seen our proposal yet, and we haven’t seen our proposal yet. That is still being worked on at the moment to see what we can do to prevent whole towns and communities being swamped by huge numbers of migrant workers.
“In some areas, particularly on the East coast, yes, towns do feel under siege from large numbers of migrant workers and people claiming benefits. It is quite right that we look at that.”
His choice of words predictably sparked an immediate outcry swiftly followed by a governmental statement distancing the leadership from Fallon’s words, and eventually an apology from Fallon himself. A governmental source told the media that “he should have chosen his words better” and should have said some communities felt “under pressure”.
However, this morning former Home Secretary David Blunkett took to the pages of the Daily Mail to write a robust defence of Fallon’s words.
“I believe that both Michael Fallon and I were right to speak out on this issue and to voice the concerns of ordinary voters,” he wrote.
“Just because immigration is deeply controversial, that cannot mean that we should avoid talking about it.
“There are constant complaints today that politicians are ‘out of touch’, that they refuse to listen to the electorate.
“In facing up to the problems of particular neighbourhoods where a large number of new arrivals from overseas not only puts severe pressure on the civic infrastructure, but also challenges the ability of the local community to absorb newcomers — who often have different languages, social skills and cultures — we avoid living in a fantasy land where none of these difficulties exist.
“As politicians, we have a duty to address them. Our task is to find solutions, not peddle illusions.”
Blunkett landed himself in similar hot water in 2002 by using the term “swamped”. Speaking on Radio 4’s Today programme, he advocated educating children of asylum seekers in separate centres rather than putting them in local schools while their applications were being processed, saying “Whilst they’re going through the process, the children will be educated on the site, which will be open. People will be able to come and go, but importantly not swamping the local school.”
His comments too created a furore. Fellow Labour MP Diane Abbott remarked “I thought that David’s use of the word swamping was unfortunate. We are talking about children here, not raw sewage.”
Unlike Fallon, Blunkett stood by his remark saying “I’m afraid I don’t apologise”, and returned to the Today program to defend his use of the word, saying “I could have used “overwhelmed” or “overburdened” because the dictionary definition is exactly the same.” Downing Street backed away from the word “swamped”, but insisted that Blunkett had then Prime Minister Tony Blair’s “100 percent support”.
Even that was not the first time that the word “swamped” caused controversy. Blunkett’s use of the term was considered particularly incendiary as it echoed comments made by Margaret Thatcher in 1978. When asked how severely she would cut the number of migrants entering Britain, Thatcher replied “…there was a committee which looked at [numbers entering] and said that if we went on as we are then by the end of the century there would be four million people of the new Commonwealth or Pakistan here.
“Now, that is an awful lot and I think it means that people are really rather afraid that this country might be rather swamped by people with a different culture and, you know, the British character has done so much for democracy, for law and done so much throughout the world that if there is any fear that it might be swamped people are going to react and be rather hostile to those coming in.
“So, if you want good race relations, you have got to allay peoples’ fears on numbers.”
Her comments were widely criticised by Labour politicians and cabinet colleagues alike, but a survey conducted by National Opinion Polls showed Conservative support jump from two points behind Labour to 11 points ahead. Thatcher’s party subsequently won the general election the following year.