I'm sitting just ten feet away from two Belgian soldiers, as I begin writing this article (it'll be a week before I find the time to finish it). My brother would recognise their weapons immediately; I don't. They carry handguns in a holster and a what appears to be at least a semi-automatic rifle strapped across their chests.
This is the reality of daily life in Brussels; I'm at a café in the heart of one of Belgium's main shopping districts. Two more soldiers join them presently. In the meantime, young children walk past the soldiers, see their guns, and stop. Are they scared? Curious? It's hard to be sure. Two soldiers go away to patrol another street; another two exit from the metro station.
Arrive in Brussels from the Eurostar, and it's instantly noticeable. The first thing you see as you leave the station isn't just soldiers, but their armoured vehicles. Vigilance has become a way of life here; recent terror attacks, arrests and legitimate security concerns have seen to that. Nobody bats an eyelid as they walk past the army on the streets any more. My colleagues suggest that they feel more secure knowing that the Army is there, given recent events.
Don't get me wrong, this place doesn't have the feel of a police state in any way. Soldiers allow themselves a smile and a cursory reply as an intensely curious young boy says hello with an expression of awe on his face. And yet, something feels wrong. It feels as though, in some ways, the change to Belgium's way of life might be a type of concession to ISIS and its sympathisers.
We live a sheltered existence in the UK. Most of us would look upon the army on the streets with particular horror. The brutality of Syria's war-torn nation, of an iconoclastic and brutal ISIS regime spanning parts of Iraq and Syria, seems a million miles away from the streets of Brussels.
Would we be so calm, so blasé, so indifferent, if the atrocities in Syria were happening on our own doorsteps? I don't think we would. I think we would want to help.
We are helping, of course. The UK has sent more financial assistance to displaced Syrian refugees in appalling conditions in countries such as Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey than pretty much any other country. It's certainly more cost-effective to help people directly in the region; for every one person we help by bringing them to the UK, we could help 20-30 directly for the same cost in that region.
It saddens me that successive governments, through their pro-mass immigration policies, have turned so many people's hearts hard against helping even those who are genuine. It's the Peter Mandelsons of this world (he famously said that Labour sent out search parties for more immigrants to rub the right's nose in diversity) that has turned a huge swathe of the population against caring.
Many people I speak to on the doorstep feel we're being taken for a ride with uncontrolled mass net immigration from the European Union. They feel that the government is misleading us over the scale of immigration, because twice as many people are registering for new national insurance numbers as are in the government figures. Yet for having these concerns, they are vilified. They're branded as bigots and racists when clearly they're not. They are the people who are impacted by uncontrolled mass net immigration. Controlled immigration means matching the skills our economy needs with the people who will come here, integrate, and make Britain a better place. Uncontrolled immigration means an oversupply of labour in certain sectors, wage compression and job losses.
Some people react badly to that. When they reject uncontrolled immigration, they don't always have a nuanced view. They don't always consider things from a broader social perspective, and the impact of all kinds of immigration. They think primarily from what they have seen, and what they have seen is a negative impact upon their community.
Part of being a (perceived) right-winger is about being able to see things from other people's points of view. Whilst the Left shriek accusations of every kind of 'ism' at those they don't understand, we try to understand where people are coming from, whether they have a genuine grievance, and whether their problems can be solved. When one prominent Labour MP tweeted "Don't speak to your grandfather, we know the problem are older white men", UKIP's Paul Nuttall MEP was quite right to blast her - saying "They treat British voters and their views with utter disdain. Anyone who doesn't fit their mould is considered to be less of a person".
Let's suppose that we had a sensible, controlled system of immigration. Just suppose, for the sake of argument, that we didn't have blue-collar workers losing out in pay and jobs due to uncontrolled mass immigration. That have net immigration running at 333,000 a year - and a gross figure of double that. Would people be more charitable, or less charitable, about the plight of refugees in that case?
I think that they'd be more charitable. And that's what I'd like to see. A society which protects citizens from the consequences of uncontrolled immigration is a society which is caring when it comes to opening our arms to the women and children stuck in refugee camps in Jordan and Lebanon. There's no prospect of such a society whilst we're members of the European Union, however. Unlimited immigration is a simple fact of life.
We don't want the kind of atrocities that have been seen in Brussels. Of course those who are most vulnerable, the women and children who have been abandoned in those refugee camps, are the least likely to have murderous intent.
People would, I'm sure, be accepting of refugees on that basis. On the basis that the UK would 'doing our bit', recognising that the issue is one which requires a global response not an appallingly ill-thought-out European response. That means getting our immigration system right first, and it means expecting the countries which have barely lifted a finger to play their own part too.Suggest a correction