Outside the marginals

A commentary on the politics that followed the UK 2010, 2015 & 2017 elections

I’m thinking what he’s thinking!

Today I find myself agreeing with Lord Howard – the former Conservative Leader, Michael Howard – possibly best remembered for his election slogan “Are you thinking what we are thinking?” – which was met with a resounding “No”.

He has shot back at the mayor of Calais – who has been complaining about the lack of action by the UK to stem the numbers of migrants loitering around that town waiting for a chance to sneak into the UK.

For someone who dislikes the whole tone of the Conservatives’ attitude to foreigners, finding myself agreeing with a politician whose politics are drier than Tio Pepe, is a little disconcerting.

Mayor of Calais Natacha Bouchart threatened to blockade the port unless the UK helped to control the number of migrants.

She claimed the town had been “taken hostage” by more than 1,000 migrants who wanted to cross the Channel.
BBC News Website 6 September 2014 : France must control its borders – Lord Howard (Warning to non-Conservatives: The “above the fold” of this webpage is dominated by a large photo of Lord Howard)

When these stories started to break, my initial thought was that the mayor was shooting in the wrong direction. Elsewhere she claimed that the UK should do more (!) to make clear that it did not welcome migrants.

Lord Howard:

told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme: “I’ve some sympathy for the mayor of Calais and the problems which she’s had to face but she’s directing her frustration and her anger at the wrong target.

“The general principle which every member state of the European Union has subscribed to is that people fleeing persecution should apply for asylum in the first safe country they reach.

“France used to take this very seriously. When I was home secretary we had an agreement with France under which if people came to the United Kingdom from France and claimed asylum we would return them to France, and France dealt with their claim, and that’s what really ought to happen.”

There is no doubt that there is a humanitarian crisis in North East France fuelled by war – which creates traditional refugees – and by economic inequality – which creates economic migrants. This is then exploited by people traffickers, who spread rumours about the UK being a land of milk and honey and then (for a fee) offer to smuggle people to the UK – which often means dumping them part-way there – either in the Mediterranean or off North West Africa, or somewhere in Europe if they are more lucky.

The idea that other European countries should (actively or passively) enable refugees and (illegal) migrants to pass through their countries on their way somewhere, anywhere else is an abdication of responsibility.

The mayor of Calais really ought to look for a solution or redress to those whose jurisdiction these desperate people have passed through. Basic humanity says that some form of humanitarian aid should be offered. But by allowing it to be offered (either by the state or by charities) within easy range of the ferry port and Channel Tunnel terminal is encouraging the problems of which the mayor complains.

Likewise when people are “arrested” for trying to break into port facilities, lorries, cars or trains – and then immediately released into the vicinity of the ports – is tantamount to saying “there, there – have another go, better luck next time”.

In fact the French attitude seems to be to do anything to shift “the problem” on to the UK – whether that “problem” is the people themselves, or the problems incurred around Calais.

A partial solution to the mayor’s problem would be if all humanitarian aid had to be dispersed to a zone at least 50km from the ports and which was clearly known to drivers as a “no-stop pass-through zone” on fast dual carriageways or autoroutes. All people arrested in the port area trying to illegally transit to the UK should be returned to that zone rather than released in the vicinity of the port.

That may take the pressure off the mayor of Calais, but it does not take the pressure off the member countries of the Schengen Agreement. Lord Howard continues:

“We have not lost control of our borders – we have control of our borders – but it’s the countries of the Schengen Agreement which ought to get their act together and deal with this problem.”

Once a refugee has reached Western or Central Europe, they have reached a place of sanctuary – possibly not of their choice, but to claim that refugees should be allowed access to the “sanctuary of choice” is a recipe for chaos. It also risks a rather nasty backlash in the countries “of choice” – that would be a self-stabilising situation – but I hope that no politician would advocate public backlashes as a means of stabilisation.

Likewise illegal economic immigrants are illegal before they reach Calais and should be handled as such.

In that respect I agree with Michael Howard – which is uncomfortable. But being politically uncomfortable is probably good for your political soul.

Where I suspect that I disagree with Lord Howard is that I don’t think that the attitudes and approaches advocated above are enough. I doubt that he is thinking what I am thinking – although it would be a nice symmetry.

Global inequality and unresolved conflicts fuel migration and create refugees. Just “dealing with” the migrants and refugees is not enough.  It is just using fire-beaters to put out the edges of a fire – it’s not extinguishing the fire.

“It was ever thus – nothing can be done” (about inequality and conflict), is a counsel of despair and in an ever more connected world is become an ever less effective strategy. Doing something about global inequality (sufficient for people to want to stay at home) and about conflicts (sufficient for people to feel secure in their homelands) will cost the “Western World” to a degree we have not even started to get our minds around. But the cost of ignoring these two issues generates the minor sort of issues being seen at Calais and elsewhere – and major anti-western movements, such as the Taliban, al-Shabab, Al-Qaeda, ISIS/ISIL/IS etc.. In the long run the cost of not addressing the “root cause” of the problems at Calais, is likely to be much higher.

I do not think it is useful to follow the “reparationist argument” (which says we are rich because of prior generations exploitation of the rest of the world – therefore we should pay-back) because that reduces the whole issue to a dry legal and accounting argument, when it should be a humanitarian argument – that says we should be offended by the conditions in which some of our fellow beings live and we should seek to help them improve their quality of life. (Is this the Bill Gates approach?)

We have not even started to seriously think how we do that without being patronising and imposing our values on peoples who may think differently to us and have different needs and aspirations. The problem with being patronising and imposing our values is this becomes “aid” that is in itself exploitative at worst and which leads to the MacDonaldisation™ of the world at best.




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