Dinghies and Dog-Whistles

Are the British people really so stupid as to make stopping rubber dinghies full of refugees (or claiming-to-be refugees) coming from across the Channel, their chief concern? Rishi Sunak claims that this is their ‘main priority’; and so is his just now. (See https://www.bbc.com/news/uk-politics-64884435.)

Well, maybe it’s true among a few denizens of the Kent and Sussex coast, binoculars trained on the waters to the south; but even their concerns seem unreasonable, in view of the relatively small numbers entering the country in this way, and Britain’s poor record just now in welcoming and admitting almost any refugees, compared with other European countries, who are taking in far more. (The single exception is Ukrainians, a family of whom I’m hosting presently. But then they’re victims of Russia, an object of phobia in Britain even before Communism, and so more deserving, apparently, of charity.)

Yes, the ‘people smugglers’ who exploit these poor people in this way – leaving many of them to drown in la Manche – are evil (capitalist) bastards, and should be hunted down; and the government should find better ways of accommodating the refugees than in expensive hotels. (Sweden does rather better in this regard: see https://bernardjporter.com/2022/12/10/homes-from-home/.) The ‘people smugglers’ are the aspect of all this that Suella Braverman likes to emphasise, because it makes her look a smidgeon more liberal. But there can be little doubt that it’s the racist tendency in the Tory party and its voters that she is mainly targetting, calculating that this is the single policy that marks them off clearly from Labour and its ‘Lefty Lawyer’ leadership, and so will win them more ‘red wall’ votes in the general election that’s about to hit them in (probably) just over a year. The Conservatives have precious little else to show for their thirteen years in government, after all.

I watched the Commons debate on Suella Braverman’s new (but really quite old)  ‘Illegal Immigration’ bill yesterday, on Parliamentlive.tv. Quite apart from the bill’s obvious flaws even on its own terms (virtually no-one thinks it will work), and the lies, exaggerations and sheer spite she came out with, the thing that struck me as a historian of British patriotism (Britain’s Contested History. Lessons for Patriots: Bloomsbury 2022) was her claim that only those who supported her policy could claim to be ‘patriotic’; which is a monstrous slur on radical and internationalist patriots through the ages. The welcome that Britain gave to foreign immigrants in the 19th century, especially, including to Braverman’s despised ‘economic migrants’, was one of Britons’ major sources of pride then; far more admirable – as I argue in the book – than, for example, their empire. Not many people on the Right today seem to be aware of that.

It’s also somewhat dispiriting to see a British prime minister latching on to these populist prejudices in such an obviously opportunistic way. I’d expected Sunak, with his expensive education, to be more subtle and intelligent than to leap – with all his eggs – into this basket; hoping, obviously, that racism and xenophobia will carry him and his party safely through the hostile territory that the Conservatives have created for themselves otherwise: the cost of living crisis, a collapsing NHS, austerity, corruption, the lingering smell of Boris and his cronies, the disaster of Brexit… and all the rest. Can a dog-whistle appeal to proto-fascism (yes, Lineker was right about that) carry Sunak past all this? We’ll see.

About bernardporter2013

Retired academic, author, historian.
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