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About fourty migrants, fom various origins, board an inflatable boat before they attempt to cross the Channel illegally to Britain, near the northern French city of Gravelines on July 11, 2022. (Photo by Denis Charlet / AFP) (Photo by DENIS CHARLET/AFP via Getty Images)
Sunak’s “small boats” fixation is an unsettling echo of Trump’s Wall

Sunak’s “small boats” fixation is an unsettling echo of Trump’s Wall

About fourty migrants, fom various origins, board an inflatable boat before they attempt to cross the Channel illegally to Britain, near the northern French city of Gravelines on July 11, 2022. (Photo by Denis Charlet / AFP) (Photo by DENIS CHARLET/AFP via Getty Images)

“Taking back control” of the UK’s borders means recognising that control is not a trophy but a responsibility. It also means speaking unwelcome truths to the British public

In the last scene of Adam McKay’s 2015 movie adaptation of Michael Lewis’s book The Big Short, Jeremy Strong’s character, Vinny Daniel, reassures his hedge fund boss Mark Baum, played by Steve Carrell, that the financial crisis of 2007-08 will force a moment of reckoning and that the bad guys of casino capitalism will pay a heavy price.

“I don’t know, I don’t know,” says Baum. “I have a feeling, in a few years people are going to be doing what they always do when the economy tanks. They will be blaming immigrants and poor people.”

Thus far, Rishi Sunak’s government has not made scapegoats of the poor for the UK’s economic difficulties. Liz Truss and Kwasi Kwarteng certainly had a go, with proposals to tighten up access to universal credit that would have left many thousands indigent this winter. And it was tin-eared of Nadhim Zahawi, the Conservative party chairman, to suggest to Sky’s Sophy Ridge yesterday morning that nurses, along with all public sector workers considering strike action, should instead “send a very clear message to Mr Putin” by choosing national solidarity. This geopolitical mission seems a lot to ask of NHS workers, many of whom are presently forced to go to food banks to avoid going hungry.

But to return to Baum’s rule of thumb: it is immigrants (the “illegal” variety, of course) that are absorbing this prime minister’s political energies and immigrants towards whom he is relentlessly directing public attention. Inescapably, the cost-of-living crisis, energy prices and fiscal stability are his government’s top priority. But hard on the heels of the big economic issues are small boats.

It is hard to exaggerate the extent of this fixation. The weekend’s press was bursting with briefings about Sunak’s personal determination to tackle the alleged armada. According to one “ally” quoted in Saturday’s Times: “Rishi has completely taken control… He’s got teams of Home Office officials working directly to him and Suella [Braverman, the Home Secretary] has been sidelined.”

Naturally, both Downing Street sources and Braverman’s officials deny that there has been any such “sidelining” – perish the thought. But nobody questions the PM’s furrow-browed preoccupation with illegal immigration generally, and, specifically, the 44,000 asylum seekers that have arrived this year by crossing the Channel on small boats.

Indeed, those two short, headline-friendly words have become an almost religious refrain for ministers when asked just about any question. What does Sunak think is the main problem facing the country after the economic crisis? Small boats. What is the issue he wants to be judged on at the next election? Small boats. How many roads must a man walk down? Small boats.

In an interview with GB News on Saturday, the immigration minister Robert Jenrick offered a useful political gloss on his boss’s strategy, worth quoting at length, “Mass migration is going to be one of the stories of the 21st Century, and so we have to recreate our immigration system so that it’s fit for purpose. That will mean creating a system where deterrence is suffused through the whole thing. And, to me, that means that you should not get a route to life in the UK if you come here illegally. There will be policies like [deportations to] Rwanda at the heart of it – and I hope that we can enact that as soon as it gets through the British courts. It will also mean looking at how we treat people on arrival, so that nobody thinks that coming to the UK as a soft touch, and the UK is not a better site for asylum shoppers than our EU neighbour.”

In similar spirit, Braverman has written the preface to a hard-hitting report published this week by the Centre for Policy Studies – the Tufton Street think tank with closest links to the government – by Nick Timothy and Karl Williams. Under their plan, all immigrants arriving illegally would be immediately detained and given a choice between returning to their country of origin or being sent for processing to Rwanda (or any other country with which HM Government signs a deportation deal). 

Those who come here illegally or after travelling from a safe country should be barred from ever settling in this country. The UK should furthermore withdraw from the European Convention on Human Rights to end once and for all the logjam of asylum claims in Strasbourg. We’ll also need ID cards, the study’s authors insist. 

“While I do not agree with everything in this report,” writes Braverman in her preface, “I welcome it as a vital and necessary contribution to the policy debate about what can be done to tackle the crossings.” 

The wording is no accident. The home secretary knows full well that the prospect of most of these measures making it onto the statute book – especially given the splits with which the Conservative parliamentary party is now riven – is vanishingly small. But she wants to be associated with the muscular vigour of the study’s proposals.

Herein lies the problem. Senior ministers were seriously rattled by the headline finding of the Office for National Statistics, released on 24 November, that net migration to this country in the year ending June 2022 was a record 504,000; up from 331,000 in 2021. There are specific reasons for the increase – notably the number of refugees from Ukraine, Afghanistan and Hong Kong. But Sunak’s team do not believe that such nuances cut much electoral ice. Whatever happened to “taking back control”? As one Downing Street source puts it: “That sort of figure goes down in Red Wall seats like a fart in a spacesuit.”

Piled on to this (though not actually relevant) was ONS census data published last week indicating that the proportion of people in England and Wales identifying as Christian has fallen below 50 percent for the first time. On 21 March, 2021, 46.2 per cent of the population described themselves thus, down from 59.3 per cent a decade previously.

Though there has been a small increase in self-identifying Muslims (from 4.9 per cent to 6.5 per cent) and Hindus (from 1.5 per cent to 1.7 per cent), the real shift is to be found in the proportion saying that they had no religious beliefs: up from 25.2 per cent in 2011 to 37.2 per cent in 2021. 

While some may worry about this surge in agnosticism and atheism, only an idiot would conflate this sociological and theological change with patterns of immigration. Which is precisely why Nigel Farage immediately did so. 

Resting his head on a Union Jack cushion in the back of a car, the Roderick Spode de nos jours ranted for a social media clip about “minority white cities”, “massive demographic changes”, and “a massive change in the identity of this country that is taking place through immigration”. 

If God exists, I wish he would text Farage and explain the difference between population mobility and the rise of secularism. Then again: if He did, the former Ukip leader would only accuse Him of being a Remoaner, a globalist and a member of the “liberal celestial élite”.

From Farage, we expect such nonsense. More worrying is the way in which ministers present the extremely complex question of border control as if it were a military challenge, with the heavy implication that the wretched, exhausted refugees that row themselves across the Channel in unsafe dinghies, using shovels as oars, are somehow an army of aggressors. There have been few more shameful political statements in 2022 than Braverman’s claim in the Commons on 31 October that these pathetic vessels amounted to an “invasion on our southern coast”. 

But she is not alone. Senior members of the government miss no opportunity to militarise the language surrounding the policy challenge. Zahawi spoke yesterday of “operationalising Rwanda”, which was intended to sound seriously butch – but is actually pretty meaningless, given the formidable legal obstacles to the failing deportation scheme and the waste of public money (at least £140 million to date) upon the pointless “strongman” politics it enshrines. In his uncharacteristically feverish obsession with “small boats”, Sunak lowers himself perilously close to the level of Donald Trump and his Wall.

It would be idle to deny that migration policy is in a mess, and has been for many years. The outbreak of diphtheria at the Manston migrant processing centre – which appears to have led to at least one death so far – is emblematic of the deplorable conditions at the overcrowded facility, and, more broadly, of the structural deterioration of the whole system.

The most profound problem, however, is the failure of a generation of politicians, now descending to fresh depths of dishonesty, to level with the public about the true nature of border control.

First: it is 16 years since the then home secretary, John Reid – no bleeding-heart liberal – declared that the immigration system was “not fit for purpose”. Successive occupants of that high office of state have tried to fix it, without nailing the problem.

Its scale has been greatly increased by the UK’s (crazy) decision, post-Brexit, to withdraw from the Dublin Agreement, whereby migrants could be returned to the first EU member state that they had entered. Sunak is right to emphasise cooperation with the French but foolish if he expects such collaboration to solve the problem. Outside the EU, we are the supplicants now – and Emmanuel Macron knows it.

Dealing with human-trafficking gangs is going to involve a serious expansion of the National Crime Agency’s capacity; yet, to the contrary, the NCA is presently facing deep cuts. For months, Number 10 (in its various iterations) and the Home Office have claimed that deterrence is the key, and that the prospect of detention and, in due course, deportation to Rwanda will put off those who take their lives in their hands and cross the Channel. How’s that deterrence strategy working so far, prime minister? And which part of “desperation” do you not understand? 

It is a basic failure of empathy and psychological intelligence to believe that people who have made it, often in poor health, often carrying children, often travelling thousands of miles from the world’s death zones and killing fields are going to look at the cliffs of Dover and suddenly think: “You know what? I’m feeling seriously deterred by that scary Rishi Sunak all of a sudden. I won’t bother, actually.”

It should be obvious that there is no quick-fix, electorally friendly solution to the problem of border management in a century of unprecedented population mobility (of which there is going to be a lot more as a consequence of climate change). The answers, as and when they emerge, will be hard-won, detailed rather than broad-brush, reliably exasperating and (for the most part) electorally unrewarding. Immigration policy is, for the most part, a classic example of Max Weber’s definition of politics as “a strong and slow boring of hard boards” – by which he meant, the opposite of instant gratification.

Which brings us to the second problem. 

For many years, immigration – or rather “immigration” – has served as a proxy issue for fear of “change” in general. As Afua Hirsch writes in her book Brit(ish): On Race, Identity and Belonging: “It’s hard to take out your frustration on declining international might, globalisation or the bureaucratisation of trade and regulation. The presence of large numbers of immigrants, on the other hand, is a tangible symptom of these changes, so naturally it gets the hit.”

Part of “the hit” is a series of myths with no basis in reality. In spite of what you might hear to the contrary, the fiscal impact of immigration is marginal. Contrary to racist caricature, immigrants are traditionally less likely than existing citizens to be on benefits or to occupy social housing.

Most egregious of all is the (still-rampant) claim that “we were not consulted” about immigration to this country – to which the only truly honest answer is: “We absolutely were – and still are, daily and hourly.”

For decades, we have expressed millions of micro-preferences about the sort of society we want to live in. We insist upon an adequately staffed NHS; upon social care that has the necessary employees; upon a service economy of waiters, baristas, and delivery drivers; upon round-the-clock availability of plumbers and electricians. Every single one of these sectors would implode without a ready supply of migrant labour. Indeed, many of them are on the verge of doing so. 

It is infantile hypocrisy to pretend otherwise (funnily enough, this was one of the few things that Truss got right – grasping that immigration rules would have to be selectively relaxed to supply the labour needed by the UK economy). Sunak’s government and Keir Starmer’s Labour alike mouth platitudes about persuading the existing population to take on lower-paid jobs and combining such campaigns with “upskilling” – one of those telltale words that let you know that nothing is happening, or going to happen. Meanwhile, we still expect our Deliveroo orders on time and reserve the right to complain about NHS staff shortages.

It is a long time since this country has had a statesman-leader ready to tell the country to grow up and face difficult truths. Margaret Thatcher was one such and – at his best – so was Tony Blair. But today’s politics is entirely based upon populist appeasement and what Bill Clinton’s former pollster, Dick Morris, used to call the fight for the “daily mandate.”

Instead of the phoney khaki of our present immigration strategy – its bogus militarisation and pilfering of martial language – we need a leader with the courage to confront the British with the reality of the task.

We need a prime minister who will tell the public that the decision to build an economy dependent upon migrant labour was taken more than 50 years ago. That, whether or not they admit it (or like it), they have signed up to this by expecting a certain quality of life for as long as they have. And that while border management policy will always be an important part of a government’s remit, it is emphatically not how a decent nation defines its soul.

Above all, that prime minister will need to explain what “taking back control” actually means: that control is a responsibility, not a trophy. I do not know when, or indeed whether, such a statesman will be bold enough to break the rhetorical mould and to speak to the voters as if they were adults. But I am already certain that it will not be Rishi Sunak.