From David Maughan Brown in York: National embarrassment

August 21st

There is a limit to the extent to which a governing party can scrape the bottom of the electoral barrel to win votes by pandering to the worst instincts of its electorate without ultimately embarrassing itself.   Having chosen to align themselves with Farage and UKIP in sneaking a marginal win in the Brexit referendum via unashamed displays of xenophobia, and then having rendered UKIP obsolete by adopting its policies and creating the most hostile of environments towards asylum seekers and refugees, the Tories under Johnson and Patel have painted themselves into a corner.   While the immorality and short-sightedness of xenophobia can pass without too much notice in the normal course of events,  people are liable to sit up and take notice when it comes to prime-time television footage of desperate people clinging to the fuselages of aircraft before plunging to their deaths, or parents despairing enough to pass their babies to unknown soldiers over barbed wire fences because they think that getting out of Afghanistan somehow, even without them, is their children’s only hope for the future. 

Boris Johnson and Priti Patel are, of course, way beyond being able to be embarrassed by anything, no matter how contemptible, but there are clearly a significant number of more humane and intelligent Tory politicians – which by definition excludes anyone in the cabinet – who still have the capacity to feel deeply ashamed of what they are seeing on the news, which they must recognise they are in some measure responsible for.

Over the course of the past 20 years many thousands of Afghans will have condemned themselves to outer darkness in the eyes of the Taliban, with summary execution being the most direct route to that darkness, as the penalty for having worked with our armed forces, with Western governments, and with charities funded from Western countries.  The panicked crowds on the runways at Kabul airport and trying to get to the airport testify to the tens of thousands of Afghans who are now living in fear of their lives.  And our xenophobic government’s response to the chaos and crisis is graciously to offer to accept ‘up to’ (and we know from the practical  outcome of the Dubs Amendment to the 2016 Immigration Act what ‘up to’ means)  5000 Afghans under the Afghanistan citizen’s resettlement scheme over the coming year with ‘up to’ another 15,000 accepted over the following four years.   Boris Johnson tells us: “I am proud that the UK has been able to put in place this route to help them and their families live safely in the UK.”[1]

The response to this on the part of our more humane members of parliament was predictable, with Labour MP Chris Bryant posing the most trenchant question to the Prime Minister: ‘What are the 15,000 meant to do?  Hang around and wait until they have been executed?’[2]  But the vehement response to Johnson’s apparent lack of any vestige of understanding about the humanitarian crisis unfolding in Afghanistan was by no means confined to the parliamentary opposition.  Theresa May said, ‘We boast about Global Britain’, and asked: ‘But where is Global Britain on the streets of Kabul?’ Tory MP David Davis said that the UK should be prepared to take in more than 50,000 Afghans over the next few months if necessary and added a statement of what to anyone watching their televisions over the past few days will have been the bleeding obvious: ‘And I mean right now, in the short term.  This will be resolved, one way or another, within the next few months.’  According to Adam Forrest in The Independent, Tobias Ellwood, the Tory chair of the Defence Committee said ‘the government should be aiming to accept “at least” tens of thousands of Afghan refugees in the short term’: ‘The commitment to resettle a mere 5,000 refugees, from a population of 38 million Afghans, falls hopelessly short – a drop in the ocean given the sheer scale of the humanitarian crisis.’

All of which presents a bit of a dilemma to a government which owes its majority to the cultivation and reinforcement of racism and xenophobia on the part of a large enough section of the electorate to get them into power.  Have those voters been watching their televisions? Do they really have no sympathy whatever for the women so desperate about the future of their children that they are prepared to hand them over to unknown British soldiers for safe-keeping?  Around 50% of our electorate are women:  don’t those women care in the least about what is likely to happen to the women of Afghanistan now that the Taliban has regained power?

Priti Patel’s and Boris Johnson’s answer to the question is clear.  The appalling way they have treated ‘illegal’ refugees and asylum seekers by, among other things, incarcerating them in condemned Covid-19-infested army barracks in Kent hasn’t lost them any votes in the shires.   Looking to send asylum seekers to be “processed” in Rwanda or on Ascension Island doesn’t seem to have gone down badly either.   So Priti Patel, the darling of those shires, claims that the UK cannot accommodate 20,000 refugees “all in one go”.[3]  So what, apart from the arrival of Priti Patel and Boris Johnson on the scene, has happened to prevent tens of thousands of refugees from being accommodated by UK “all in one go”, as happened in 1972 when 28,000 asylum seekers from Uganda, who were fleeing from Idi Amin as Afghans are currently fleeing from the Taliban, were accommodated by UK “all in one go”?  Priti Patel herself was, of course, one of the fortunate 28,000.  But, heigh ho, what is a ladder for, apart from being something to be pulled up behind one?


[1] https://www.theguardian.com/world/2021/aug/17/uk-to-take-20000-afghan-refugees-over-five-years-under-resettlement-plan

[2] https://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/politics/afghanistan-refugees-uk-settlement-scheme-b1904242.html

[3] https://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/politics/priti-patel-afghan-refugees-settlement-b1904414.html

From David Maughan Brown in York: Kindred spirits?

Rwanda Genocide

27th June

So our quintessentially awful Home Secretary, Priti Patel, has abandoned her bright ideas of using first St Helena and then Gibraltar as suitable places to transport asylum-seekers to for ‘processing’, and has now hit on the even brighter idea of trying Rwanda for size.  As a proven bully whose sacking was cravenly ducked by our inimitable prime minister, resulting in the resignation of his independent standards adviser, Patel could hardly have chosen a country better suited to her temperament, and worse suited to the business of welcoming traumatised and desperate asylum-seekers.   There’s nothing like choosing a country best known for genocide as a suitable place for ‘processing’ people a Home Secretary would love to get rid of.

As someone whose treatment of asylum seekers who have managed to reach our shores, notably at the notorious Napier Barracks, demonstrates an open contempt for human rights, Patel will, at best, not have been remotely interested in Human Rights Watch’s views on Rwanda, and, at worst, have felt the attraction of kindred spirits. It isn’t difficult to see why Patel might have felt that attraction:

‘The ruling Rwandan Patriotic Front continues to target those perceived as a threat to the government.  Several high-profile critics have been arrested or threatened and authorities regularly fail to conduct credible investigations into cases of enforced disappearances and suspicious deaths of government opponents.  Arbitrary detention, ill-treatment, and torture in official and unofficial detention facilities is commonplace, and fair trial standards are routinely flouted in many sensitive political cases, in which security-related charges are often used to prosecute prominent government critics. Arbitrary detention and mistreatment of street children,sex workers and petty vendors occurs widely.’[1]

A Human Rights Watch report on press freedom tells us that ‘In a country where the president coolly gives speeches gloating about the assassination of political opponents, his 2019 warning to online critics that “they are close to the fire” and that one day “the fire will burn them” will likely be taken very seriously.  It is not unusual for Rwandan journalists to go missing or end up dead in mysterious circumstances.’[2]  And those who end up ‘dead in mysterious circumstances’ are not confined within the borders of Rwanda: taking a leaf out of apartheid South Africa’s playbook, Rwandan dissidents and critics, not just in in neighbouring Uganda and Kenya but further afield in South Africa and Europe, have been attacked and murdered.  Neighbouring Uganda is, of course, the country from which Priti Patel’s own family had to flee to seek asylum from Idi Amin in the UK.  They were welcomed; they weren’t immediately sent to Rwanda for ‘processing’.

The almost unbelievable callousness of wanting to send asylum seekers for ‘processing’ all the way to Rwanda, of all places, wasting tax-payers’ money in the process, is sickening.  And it is deeply disheartening to know that we have a government and electorate that might take this insane idea seriously.  But it is even more sickening to hear Patel hypocritically pretending that what this is all about is stopping asylum-seekers from drowning in the English Channel.  It isn’t. Judging by her bullying treatment of asylum-seekers, there is no reason whatever to think that she would give a damn about that.  What this is all too obviously about is a base pandering to the xenophobia of traditional, mainly elderly, Conservative Party supporters in the shires and new Tory converts behind the former ‘red wall’.  

If you don’t want people to die, don’t force desperate asylum-seekers into small boats at the mercy of people-traffickers.  Instead, provide safe routes for them to arrive in the way that Patel’s own family arrived. A report in today’s Independent quotes a Home Office spokesperson going through the necessarily mindless process of defending everything Patel says or does: ‘Our asylum system is broken and we cannot sit idly by while people die attempting to cross the Channel…. We will not rule out any option that could help reduce the illegal migration and relieve the pressure on the broken asylum system.’ [3] ‘Broken’ because brave and desperate people are actually managing to get to the UK to seek asylum despite the Home Office’s best attempts to thwart them.   ‘Any option’ now clearly includes looking for help in ‘processing’ asylum-seekers from a country made notorious by genocide.  What has our country come to?


[1] https://www.hrw.org/africa/rwanda

[2] https://www.hrw.org/news/2021/05/03/what-press-freedom-looks-rwanda

[3] https://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/politics/priti-patel-johnson-immigration-offshore-b1873903.html

From David Maughan Brown in York: Protests against racism

June 7th

Protest marches against racism, most notably under apartheid, have been so memorable and regular a feature of much of my life that I am finding it increasingly frustrating not to be able to do anything active by way of demonstrating my support for those protesting against the murder of George Floyd, and institutionalized racism more generally.   Judging by the TV news coverage, the proportion of ‘vulnerable’ protesters (in this new world in which anyone over 70 is, by definition, ‘vulnerable’) is far lower than usual.  Of course the news footage has made it all too clear that anyone who protests in USA is vulnerable when it comes to police brutality.  The absence of older protesters suggests that, because we are statistically 500 times more likely to be seriously affected by Covid-19 than people who are only 20, even the most inveterate protesters of my age are with good reason less inclined right now to take part in large protest gatherings which are bound to preclude social-distancing.  But that does nothing to lessen the frustration.  Nor does the fact that I can’t possibly march more than a few hundred yards until such time as I can have a fusion operation on my back – and today’s Independent suggests that I am now one of ten million people waiting for non-emergency procedures of one sort or another.  I could ride my bike, but bicycles can’t very easily be accommodated in protest marches.

George Floyd’s killing, passively assisted by the three other policemen with him, was an outrage and it took far too long, even for the USA, for them all to be arrested and for charges to be brought against them.  It will no doubt be argued that they are ‘bad apples’ in an otherwise squeaky-clean police force.  The extraordinary footage of the elderly white man being pushed to the ground by the policemen in Buffalo, falling backwards, hitting his head on the pavement, and being left lying unconscious with a pool of blood seeping rapidly from a head wound is, in its way, more telling.   Afro-Americans are murdered by white policemen time and time again in the USA and I have no doubt the ‘bad apple’ argument is trotted out every time.  What was telling in Buffalo is that one policeman did try to tend to the fallen man but was hurried on by his colleagues, and that when the two men who appeared to be responsible were suspended, the entire 57 man emergency response squad resigned in protest. No 57 varieties there.  One can only hope that by doing so they will all be charged as accessories to the violent assault.  Whether or not that happens, and it probably won’t, this episode has blown the ‘one bad apple’ argument out of the water:  that whole barrel-full of apples has declared itself to be bad.

Leaving aside the almost certain second spike in Covid-19 infections that seems bound to result, it has been encouraging to see so many people coming out to protest against racism.   Many of those who have been interviewed by reporters have expressed optimism that this is the ‘break-through’ moment; that now something really will be done to address institutionalised racism in USA (and Australia and UK).  To which I can only respond with a world-weary sadness.  Would it were so.  As both South Africa and the United States show all too clearly, there are no break-through moments for societies built for centuries on institutionalised racism.   If ever there were was the potential for such moments, the elections of Mandela and Obama as Presidents should have been ones, but they only made the smallest of dents.  It will take generations to eradicate the legacies of slavery and apartheid from the consciousness of individuals instilled from birth with notions of racial superiority.

Racism hasn’t been codified in our law and practice in the UK in the way it has in USA and South Africa, but the UK is obviously not exempt from a similar legacy of institutional racism: much of our wealth was built on the backs of slaves, the history of Empire is not one to be proud of, and many black people have died at the hands of the police over the years here too.   More recently the racism and xenophobia underlying much of the Leave rhetoric in the 2016 Brexit referendum struck enough of a chord with the electorate to win the day, and in the process has given copious licence for racist abuse.   Much of the behaviour of our Home Office, the body responsible both for policing and immigration, is nakedly racist, as exemplified most obviously by the ongoing Windrush scandal.   There are multiple layers of irony in our Home Secretary’s instruction to us all not to attend this weekend’s protests against racism – if one could be bothered to waste time unpeeling them.  Priti Patel, recently crowned Queen of the Hostile Environment, whose presence in UK in the first place is entirely the result of Idi Amin’s racist expulsion of ‘Asians’ from Uganda, takes the lead for the government in ordering people not to attend demonstrations against racism – once again, you couldn’t make it up. Perhaps, given the very real difficulty associated with protest marches during lockdown, they did try to find a credible cabinet minister to deliver the message but realised that there isn’t one.