Vilifying asylum seekers? Attacking lawyers? Just standard Home Office operating procedure

Sunday National, 30th August 2020.

From the deepest well of grief, it is impossible to imagine a scene with more pathos. It has been stuck in my mind all week. A young mother lies dead. Beside her, a child of just one year of age, crying and hungry, calls out for a parent whose spirit has already left this world.

Mercy Baguma was just 34 years of age. Her body was found in Govan this week. She had reportedly been living and working in Scotland for a number of years – but lost her job when her limited leave to remain in the UK expired and her right to work evaporated. Described in the Guardian by a friend as a “rainbow” personality – you can understand why those who knew Mercy and loved her want to rescue the memory of all the light she shed from the gloom of her death. It is encouraging to read reports her wee boy is “thriving” in the care of relatives. You’ve got to snatch any thin reed of hope you can. We don’t yet know the full circumstances which led to this terrible scene. In a sense, they don’t matter.

Their experiences are a commentary on the inhumanity of the UK’s immigration and asylum systems, and the destitution and hopelessness to which people can be reduced by bureaucratic systems built on suspicion and hostility, rather than understanding and compassion – with the enthusiastic backing of a large part of the British public and almost all of its media.  

Too many of our political journalists treat their subject like film critics. They’ll talk about framing, narrative, and above all – casting, as if the success or failure of political projects turns only on the performances of the leading men and women. But the structure of public opinion isn’t as evanescent as all that. The fundamentals shift more slowly than the 24 news cycle would have you believe. And political ideas are like lacquer. Add layer on layer, year after year, and they’ll harden.

According to a YouGov poll earlier this month, just shy of half of the British public have little or no sympathy for asylum-seekers making the desperate journey across the English Channel. This indifference is – surprise, surprise – particularly concentrated in those over 65 years of age, 62% of whom told the pollster they are unmoved by this sad human flotilla.

Numbers like this don’t come out of nowhere. In part, you can thank the political triangulations of the Labour Party under Tony Blair for the deadly mutation of the term “asylum seeker” into a generic term of abuse for undeserving outsiders here to nick your country. Stick the word “bogus” in front, and you have the kind of screamer headline which the British public have been glutted on for decades. The sentiment has helped shift thousands of copies of tabloids and supposedly “quality” papers alike. Stoking up resentments of this kind isn’t a fringe hobby in the UK. Nigel Farage may be a particularly objectionable spokesman for this outlook – but the outlook itself is impeccably mainstream.

These days, it is difficult to tell whether Boris Johnson’s Tory party has successfully cannibalised UKIP – or vice versa. But the roll of guilty men and women, responsible for the current state of public indifference and hostility towards refugees is as long and distinguished. For countless bad faith actors in British public life, scapegoating asylum seekers has been “just good business.”

It has been good business for huckster columnists and good business for the reprobate newspapers, and editors, and proprietors who publish them. It’s been good business for talk radio, and, yes, it’s been good business for political parties in the battle for votes too. When you contemplate the range of bottom-feeders who have turned a buck or made political capital by immiserating other human beings and stirring up public hostility against people fleeing persecution, you’ve got to ask yourself who the real parasitic lifeforms are here. They don’t give a damn.

In 2001, Jack Straw outlined the early immigration priorities of the first Blair government. He established now-familiar themes of official suspicion towards people who arrive in this country as refugees. A hostile environment, if you like. “Would-be migrants are taking advantage,” Straw said, of the “obligation on states to consider any application for asylum made on their territory, however ill-founded.”

As Home Secretary, Jack Straw helped put the image of the phoney economic migrant taking advantage of Britain’s soft-touch immigration system at the heart of the policy discussion. Having introduced the Human Rights Act, he was also responsible for undermining its protections, while attacking “well-heeled” “so-called civil liberties lawyers” for enforcing its provisions in courts. This may all strike you as an uncannily familiar.

This week, the Home Office once again attracted the scorn of my other profession. In a 21 section clip on Twitter, the Home Office claimed “we are working to remove migrants with no right to remain in the UK, but current return regulations are rigid and open to abuse.” This, they said, is “allowing activist lawyers to delay and disrupt returns.” The video has now been spiked by the department’s Permanent Secretary – but pretending the clip is much of an innovation on Home Office messaging for the last two decades is bad joke.

A succession of “hardline” Labour home secretaries fetishised dawn raids and detention centres, crackdowns and stepping up enforcement. The change of parties in charge in Downing Street has barely disrupted the press releases. The vans Theresa May sent around Britain bearing the legend “go home or face arrest” were a gruesome innovation in delivery and style – but the message was familiar. Scratch Priti Patel’s rhetoric and clichés today, and you could be hearing from almost any Home Secretary in the last two decades.

A succession of Home Secretaries – red and blue – have taken baseless pops at the courts for actually enforcing the law parliament has written, and at lawyers for zealously representing their clients within it. Theresa May told the 2011 Tory conference that “we all know the stories about the Human Rights Act” and “the illegal immigrant who cannot be deported because, and I am not making this up, he had a pet cat.” She was, in fact, making this up. As the Judicial Office at the Royal Courts of Justice confirmed, the pet had “had nothing to do with” the judgement allowing the man to stay. But hey? It feels true, and that’s all that matters. May’s conference speech was entirely in keeping with the persecution complex Britain’s right-wing politicians and their media voices endlessly encourage.

Our politicians have a choice. They can be prisoners of this narrative, or they can challenge it. Most have opted to follow Ed Miliband, who brought us Labour’s mug of deepest red bearing the legend “controls on immigration” – so you can sip your Columbian coffee, without the risk of encountering any actual Columbians. Labour’s analysis is essentially this. If cynically adopting just a little anti-immigrant rhetoric could keep the real racist bastards out, aren’t you responsible – as a good democratic socialist and an internationalist – to give that dog-whistle a little toot? You can, with a bit dismal imagination, see just how such calculations are made, as worldly politicians try to strike pacts with public opinion, dealing with the world as it is – not the world as it could or should be. Sir Keir Starmer will face the same choice.

But the burning question for political triangulators remains this: why expect the public to vote for the lesser evil? If you want your government to put the boot into vulnerable people, to “keep ‘em out or get ‘em out” of our not so green and pleasant land, why not back parties who really seem to relish the knifework? If you think more people need nabbed, grabbed, locked up and deported – why not back a smirking ghoul like Priti Patel who’ll take to the task with real gusto? You don’t win political arguments by not making them.

Where do ordinary people like Mercy Baguma and her son fit into this great political game? They’re just human collateral. Sometimes the cynicism and inhumanity of our politics makes you despair.

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