Monday 29 November 2021

Which crisis is the most important?


During the Cold War, the boundary across Germany between East and West was heavily policed on both sides, nowhere more so than in Berlin itself. Border police regularly detained people trying to cross into their respective zones. As far as I’m aware, though, only on one side of the border were people regularly shot for trying to get out rather than in. Most borders, and the policing of them, are about keeping people out; borders which have the equal objective of keeping people in are comparatively rare. They are generally associated with authoritarian regimes, fearful that – given the opportunity – their people would seek to move elsewhere en masse.

Listening to Patel and Johnson, it appears that they want the French to police their borders much as the East Germans used to do, ensuring not only that no-one can get in without permission, but also that no-one can leave without consent. One even has the impression that they wouldn’t mind a great deal if the French border police went further and emulated the East German practice of shooting people. They probably think it would win them votes, and they might, sadly, even be right about that. But it isn’t the way modern European states work. Most European states – a paranoid UK being the most obvious exception – have spent decades trying to improve freedom of movement and remove barriers, not erect them. French border controls – just like those in the UK, as it happens – are designed to prevent entry rather than exit. And whilst people smuggling is illegal in France, as it is in the UK, no-one should be at all surprised if the reality on the ground isn’t quite as simple as Patel says it is (very little is as she says it is). Not all the people are being smuggled, some desperate families are simply clubbing together to buy boats. There is, ultimately, nothing illegal about a group of people setting off in a boat from a French beach; adding British border force agents to those patrolling the beaches would do nothing to alter that, even if the suggestion were not a gross insult to France. Unlike the UK government, the French government still seems to have at least a vestigial grip on the idea of applying the rule of law rather than acting out of prejudice, malice and self-interest.

Last week, in the wake of a mass drowning which was inevitably going to happen at some point, the PM convened a crisis meeting of Cobra. It was, though, addressing the wrong crisis. Many of us would have thought that the real crisis here is the desperation (just how desperate does a parent have to be to take small children on such a perilous crossing?) of so many people fleeing war, oppression, hunger and poverty in search of a better life. For Johnson, the crisis is that the drownings aren’t acting as a sufficient deterrent, and that the extremists in his party, egged on by a vicious and callous media, are demanding further action to stop refugees from arriving on these shores, even if that means taking deliberate action, of dubious legality, which will lead to more deaths.

As Simon Jenkins pointed out last week, many of those seeking to come to the UK in dinghies have the training, skills and experience which the UK economy desperately needs. There is an obvious insanity about spending so much time and effort in turning away people who could be filling the gaps, simply in order to play to prejudice about ‘others’. It’s the result of a desire to gain and retain power by whipping up and then appealing to people’s darkest instincts, even if it means tanking the economy in the process. And that, perhaps, is the biggest crisis of all that we face: we have a government incapable of feeling, let alone displaying, empathy or humanity and no immediate way of changing it. Worse still, the English electorate is, apparently, happy to go along with this.

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