The man leading a Conservative Party revolt in Parliament against a government plan to admit up to 250,000 immigrants from Hong Kong says he is concerned about a demographic shift in the United States that will “inevitably” drive the United States and Britain apart.
“I’ll be sorry to see the United States becoming a less Anglo-Saxon country, a less European country,” Norman Tebbit, the former Cabinet minister and Conservative Party chairman, said in an interview.
Together with the diminished Soviet threat, he said, the change will result “by the early years of the next century” in an American policy that “is less concerned about Europe and looks more to the south and into the Caribbean. . . . I think the demography is pointing more clearly in that direction,” he said, “and unfortunately the political imperatives are pointing that way too.”
Tebbit, 59, who was once compared to “a semi-house-trained polecat” by a political opponent, burst back into the national spotlight last month when he told the media that if Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher steps down, he will enter the succession contest as a right-wing alternative to those Conservatives who might wish to water down the social and political revolution she began.
To the left wing in British politics, Tebbit represents the worst excesses of the heartless, every-man-for-himself creed that they call “Thatcherism.” But to the right, he may be the last true Thatcherite, the man who might save the revolution from lethargy.
Ironically, Tebbit’s campaign against the government’s proposed Hong Kong immigration bill threatens to trigger an embarrassing defeat for the prime minister, whose third election victory he helped engineer in 1987.
Tebbit says that up to 80 other Conservatives will bolt the party and join him today in a possibly crucial vote on the bill. That could be enough to defeat a measure meant as a “safety net” for up to 50,000 Hong Kong families who fear repression after the British colony reverts to Chinese rule in 1997.
In Hong Kong, the government plan, which includes stringent selection guidelines, is considered a virtual betrayal by the 3.5 million people who are now British subjects. But here, the admission of such a number of Asian immigrants is seen by Tebbit, and apparently by a majority of Britons, as a threat to the national character.
Tebbit said he has been denounced as racist and added: “That’s a very foolish thing to do, because if you say to a lot of people out there in the street that Tebbit is racist, they’ll scratch the back of their head and say: ‘Well, so am I. If that’s what being racist is, then I’m one as well.’ ”
A poll published recently by the Sunday Independent found that 65% of the more than 1,000 voters questioned were opposed to the Hong Kong bill and that 50% said Britain is under no obligation to take in any refugees from the colony.
Also, 84% wanted tighter restrictions on all immigration. Substantial majorities said that Britain cannot absorb any more West Indians (83%), Indians and Pakistanis (84%), Chinese (77%), Jews (67%), nationals of other European Community countries (60%) and whites from Commonwealth countries (54%).
The poll results were decried even by such conservative commentators as William Rees-Mogg, chairman of the Broadcasting Standards Council, who wrote in the Independent the next day that they show the British to be “indeed a miserable people . . . deeply prejudiced, deeply isolated, pathologically suspicious of strangers.”
The results were no surprise to Tebbit, who said: “What it means to me is that I am an inhabitant of these islands, which are not very large, which have had the great gift of being islands and which have repelled those who wanted to come take them from us for the last 1,000 years very successfully. Very crowded islands, and I think immigration policy ought to be one which is in the interests of the people of . . . this island.”
This position, in Tebbit’s view, is not racism, it is legitimate national self-interest, and as much Britain’s right as it is “for West Indians to make it difficult for us to emigrate to the West Indies, if they wish.”
Britain’s population is about 95% Anglo-Saxon, but it has “very severe problems of integration in many areas,” Tebbit said.
“Where you have a clash of history, a clash of religion, a clash of race,” he said, “then it’s all too easy for there to be an actual clash of violence. A nation is a nation because of what it shares in common.”
Tebbit complained that “a large proportion” of Britain’s Asian population failed to pass what he called the “cricket test.”
“Which side do they cheer for?” he said. “It’s an interesting test. Are you still harking back to where you came from, or where you are? And I think we’ve got real problems in that regard.”
It is still common in Britain’s Asian communities to search for husbands or wives in the family’s native country, he said, and added, “Well, you can’t have two homes.”
He said the United States has had little such problem in the past.
“So that for all the delight that everyone takes in being Italian or Jewish or whatever it is, which is one of the delights of the country, they have also been intensely American,” he said. “And whatever the culture at the particular restaurant or the particular church, the culture of the town, the culture of the United States has been essentially Anglo-Saxon. And nobody until recently has questioned that.”
But now he sees all that changing as a result of such efforts as bilingual education.
“Your troubles are coming, and they are coming fast,” he said.
Britain’s Conservative, or Tory, Party was long seen as the party of the elite, but Tebbit is the son of a pawnbroker and in the United States would be called a high school dropout. He quit school at age 16--a year beyond the legal minimum at the time--and joined the Royal Air Force, then became a commercial pilot. Britain’s Sunday Times described him as “the closest the modern Conservatives have to a working-class hero.”
Tebbit was severely injured and his wife was paralyzed from the neck down by an Irish Republican Army bomb that killed five people in Brighton during the 1984 Conservative Party convention there. He says the incident changed the way he must live--but not his personality.
“This is something which puzzles me,” he said, “the enormous amount of verbiage which is written now about the terrific psychological impact of being in some form of disaster, either as a witness or as a participant.”
The bombing did not change his politics, either, Tebbit said.
“I would always have executed terrorists,” he said, “and I haven’t changed my mind about that one way or another.”
As for the erosion he sees in the “special relationship” between Britain and the United States, Tebbit is equally philosophical.
“It means we’ll have to be more firmly self-reliant,” he said.