A cacophony of clucking reverberates around our shores as another flock of Brexit chickens, not yet chlorinated, comes home to roost. These particular metaphorical chickens have taken on the guise of asylum seekers who are desperate enough to pay up to £3000 each to people-smugglers to allow themselves to be put on overcrowded and unseaworthy small boats, pointed towards these shores, and pushed out into the English Channel. Taking advantage of the calm weather, they are arriving in our territorial waters in increasing numbers. Many of them will be fleeing the violence in countries like Syria and Somalia, many of them will have seen their homes and livelihoods destroyed, their friends, and members of their own families, killed. Some will be fleeing persecution, torture and death threats. Some are unaccompanied children. They will all have made their hazardous and unwelcomed way across Europe and will be traumatised enough to think that, after all they have been through, it is worth the risk to try to make it across the last twenty or thirty miles of open water to what they hope will be a safe haven where some of them already have friends and family.
We should be pleased that the UK is still seen around the world as the kind of country it is worth undergoing daunting hardship and perilous journeys to try to get to. After five more years of this government it almost certainly won’t be. Instead of meeting trauma, courage and resilience with compassion and understanding, our national figurehead where such matters are concerned, the execrable Priti Patel, Secretary of State for the Home Office, she of the permanent smirk, spews her xenophobic venom over Twitter and threatens to get the Royal Navy to sort them out. A Ministry of Defence ‘source’, according to the Independent, says the idea of using the navy is “completely potty” and elaborates as follows: “We don’t resort to deploying armed forces to deal with political failings. It’s beyond absurd to think that we should be deploying multi-million pound ships and elite soldiers to deal with desperate people barely staying afloat in rubber dinghies in the Channel.”
In essence, Patel’s problem is that ‘Taking Back Control’ and a national ‘Independence’ from anybody else’s rules was always a chimera. Just as operating on World Trade Organisation terms means exactly what it says on the tin – being bound by regulations we don’t determine ourselves – so the ‘law of the sea’ dictates that people in small boats in UK territorial waters have to be rescued and taken to land in UK. However much a furious Patel might feel inclined to sink the rubber dinghies, she can’t order the Navy even to ‘turn them back’. It isn’t possible to disregard internationally agreed rules without making one’s country a ‘world-beating’ international pariah with whom nobody would want to have any dealings. Genuine control would involve allowing the migrants to travel here safely, processing their asylum claims rapidly and humanely (which would require a different Home Office), welcoming those entitled to asylum and returning those we aren’t convinced by to the country of first entry to Europe to try to persuade that country to accept them.
Patel and her Brexiteer buddies are also going to sort France out, and make sure that France takes seriously its responsibility for stopping the boats leaving its shores, or turning them back before they leave French territorial waters. They had better remember who won the Battle of Agincourt. But if the Brexiteers were capable of coherent thought instead of perpetually playing to their fellow frothing-loon media supporters they might conceivably ask themselves two questions. First, why on earth should France bother? Once the transition period is over, the French would be entirely justified in feeling insulted, looked down on and patronised enough by the Brexiteers to stop spending what must be very extensive resources on trying to prevent migrants from making the crossing. Indeed, it would be sensible, and almost certainly cheaper, to provide the migrants with the boats and escort them into British territorial waters themselves, with a ‘You wanted to leave the EU and “take control of immigration”, so it’s over to you.’ Literally ‘over to you’.
The other, longer term, question they should be asking themselves – although it seems way beyond their intellectual capacity and the very limited horizon of the immediate self-interest on which their attention is exclusively focussed – is who on earth do they think is in a decade or two going to be staffing the NHS, looking after their parents, waiting on the tables in their restaurants, and keeping fresh food on their tables, as our birth rate declines and they make sure that what is left of the once United Kingdom is a wholly undesirable place for people from Europe to seek work? Many of the desperate people in those boats are highly qualified professionals (how else do they get to have the £3000?); they have all shown themselves to be enterprising, courageous and resilient. They can only, in the longer term, strengthen the shallow gene-pool that has given us the likes of Jacob Rees-Mogg and Mark Francois, to name just two of the leading lights guiding our apology for a government.