Here’s another reason to feel ashamed of being British just now, and glad of my (dual) Swedish nationality. I don’t want to push historical ‘lessons’ too far, but just to say that the present British government’s determination to prevent Shamima Begum from returning to Britain, to be tried there voluntarily for her crimes in joining Isis in Syria, conflicts with one very proud British tradition; which used to be to admit everyone into the country, even potentially violent foreign refugees (and Shamima isn’t even foreign, or wasn’t until the Home Office took her citizenship away), without question. If they were thought to be potentially dangerous, then the Special Branch put a watch on them. In Karl Marx’s case this lasted until after his death. I’ve seen a report by the police officer charged with this task. (True! I imagine him camped by the grave in Highgate Cemetery in case the old Commie popped his head up through the daisies.)
So the Victorians would never have tolerated this: https://www.theguardian.com/uk-news/2021/feb/26/shamima-begum-cannot-return-to-uk-to-fight-for-citizenship-court-rules. And Shamima was only 15 when she absconded! After which, having married an Isis fighter and had several miscarriages, I believe, it must have been difficult for her to escape, even if she’d wanted to. I hate to think how many of us would have fared if as adults we were judged on our views and actions as 15 year-olds. (At 15 I was backing Eden over Suez, for pity’s sake!) As it happens I have a Swedish acquaintance who also went over to join the Jihad, and had children with ‘terrorists’, but then was allowed back into Sweden and is presently a model citizen here. Is there any reason to think that Shamima, with care, would turn out differently? Well, maybe. Perhaps Priti Patel and MI5 have good evidence that the poor girl would be a ‘danger to national security’. I can’t judge; though I doubt whether the Court of Appeal could, either.
The only point I want to make here, and it’s directed at all the Brexiteers and xenophobes and self-styled ‘patriots’ who are violently abusing her on social media just now – here’s one I spotted: ‘she is a traitor to united Kingdom, rot in hell I say’ – is that in terms of many of Britain’s proudest past traditions this was a profoundly un-British – i.e. unpatriotic – decision. For what that’s worth. (It’s only History, after all.)
PS: Kajsa tells me that there are similar cases to Shamima’s coming up in Swedish courts just now where the legal debate appears to be similar to Britain’s. So Sweden may no longer be as safe for Isis ‘returnees’ as it was for my friend. I’ll look into this, and maybe report back.
PPS: There’ll be a chapter on Britain’s past ‘asylum’ policy in my forthcoming Britain Before Brexit. That is, if you don’t want to bother with my The Refugee Question in Mid-Victorian Politics CUP, 1979. I’ve only cited these so you’ll know that I know what I’m talking about.