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.”
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?’ 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”. 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?