“Anyone here been raped and speaks English?” one of those brilliant bastards of the trade would proclaim upon arriving in the latest war zone.
That reporterly black humour speaks not just to Fleet Street cynicism but to the reality of foreign news: It feels very far away until it reaches our shores.
The rising tide of a humanitarian disaster has now arrived on the coastline of our conscience, washed in with the flotsam and jetsam of two young brothers, Aylan and Galip Kurdi — the Boys of Ali Hoca Point. The image of Aylan’s lifeless body prostrated on the Turkish sand enters history grimly, just as the sight of Phan Thi Kim Phuc screaming along the road from Trảng Bàng or Jeffrey Miller face-down on concrete on a Midwest college campus did before it.
The photograph is a potent, immediate and ultimately futile propaganda tool: It stuns us in the moment, perhaps even reaps a change in outlook or policy, but the memory soon fades and with it goes the lesson. Burns lamented “man’s inhumanity to man” and three centuries on we’re still doing the same.
This is not a wail of déclinisme. Quite the opposite: We in Britain are generally a good and decent people. We do our part, look out for elderly neighbours, stick a few quid in the charity box, hand in a bag or two to the food bank, and try to give everyone a fair go. There is, however, a parochialism to our engagement with the world. When disaster strikes a far-off country, news editors in London shout: “Get onto the Foreign Office and see if any Brits are involved.” When there are, news editors in Glasgow follow up with the cry: “Is there a whiff of Jockery to any of them?”
Don’t shake your head in mock disgust, hypocrite. You read the papers. You watch the news. You know how this works. We have the numbers. We know you buy more papers and watch Sky News for longer when “our people” are caught up in some atrocity. Everyone has a bit of the crass war correspondent in them.
David Cameron is pinned between the politics of the parish pump and the politics of the pulpit. “We know no spectacle so ridiculous as the British public in one of its periodical fits of morality,” Lord Macaulay recorded, and the arenas of politics and social media have been especially fitful in the past few days.
Demagogues are getting their chutzpah in. Alex Salmond accuses the Prime Minister of“shaming humanity” by his inaction; how Cameron must wish the refugees were Kosovar Albanians. The Sun which half-led, half-reflected a shift in the public mood with a now-famous front page is taunted rather than congratulated for easing up on its inflammatory rhetoric. There is more joy on Twitter in an echo from The Guardian than in a right-wing tabloid that repenteth.
Twitter, Top Trumps for the young and morally superior, has fallen to the occasion this week. Corbynmania and Lena Dunham’s career aside, competitive compassion must be the most obnoxious innovation of the millennial generation.
We need to do something to help these migrants.
They’re not migrants, they’re refugees!
It reminds me of the Vietnamese boat people.
Oh yeah? Well, it reminds me of the Holocaust.
It’s these awful regimes’ fault.
No, it’s our fault. Remember the Empire?!
I don’t care what you call them. Some are refugees, some are migrants. Some want a better life, others are fighting to keep theirs. Is fleeing poverty less legitimate than fleeing persecution? The legal nomenclature doesn’t exercise me and I would much rather we called them “people”.
Nor do I need the comparison with the Shoah and the Jews who pleaded for sanctuary in the United States and Britain or an easing of the blockade on Palestine. Begging often on behalf of their children, knowing their own lives were gone.
Spare me the lectures on the bitter fruit of colonialism or our moral responsibility to the harried and hounded. Some of the pedagogues should audit their own class the next time a dictator is subduing his people or gassing his neighbours.
“Refugees are welcome here,” says this tendency — just don’t ask us to do anything about the people making you refugees. #NotInMyName. The rank hypocrisy of notinmynamers is too much to bear. “Not in my name” they said to intervention in Syria. “Not in my name” they say to the consequences of not intervening. Have they ever considered that their name is not the most important thing in the world? That their reputation means little to the tortured or the torturer? When it comes down to it, the pulpit and pump are still in the same parish.
Emoting is no substitute for a foreign policy. Those who caution that we cannot be the world’s policeman insist that we must be the world’s social worker. That sincere progressives can only recognise a Syrian child’s right to a better life once they’re dead on a beach but not while they’re living under Assad is profoundly disturbing. The messiness of Iraq and its gleeful celebration by the war’s opponents have sapped our confidence that we can do any good in the world beyond handing out bottled water.
As the human security analyst Julie Lenarz reminds us, “Action has consequences, inaction does too.” The world needs an active and assertive United States to turn the tide against tyranny and towards liberal democracy and the United States needs a democratic world resolved and ready to play its part in Syria and farther afield. (North Africa, where the regional machinery of Islamism is waging a campaign of mass murder against Christians, is assuredly our next refugee crisis.) The choice is not between F-16s and food parcels; a coherent strategy means military, humanitarian, and diplomatic approaches are indivisible.
You may not like these prescriptions but they are a practical response that can be measured for impact and outcomes. Hashtags and selfies fulfil their primary purpose, to make the user feel good about themselves, but achieve little except dialling up the self-satisfaction and empty sentimentalism. Something must be done, you say? Somethingis being done: David Cameron has ceded ground and will take a few thousand Syrians, details to be confirmed. Cameron’s concession is just that, a tactical shift to get him past some difficult headlines. A classic PR move from a savvy PR man but when you reduce politics to 140 characters, you license politicians to do the same.
If much of the Left has responded with vapid hypocrisy, many on the Right have indulged the isolationism that ever-tempts their worldview. Conservatives flail around for a palatable reason not to help. Security. Cost. Cultural cohesion. The European Union. Why aren’t the oil-rich Gulf states helping?
There is some truth in each of these objections but they also conveniently mask a nasty little thought: What’s it got to do with us?
Conservatism is not merely ordered liberty; it has a moral dimension too. It was Tory Britain that gave safe haven to Hungarian refugees in the 1950s and two decades later a Conservative government did the same for Ugandan Asians. The Republican Party is fixed by anti-immigrant fervour today but their secular saint Ronald Reagan granted amnesty to families of illegal aliens facing deportation. In his first act as prime minister, Menachem Begin — a right-wing nationalist — brought Vietnamese “boat people” to Israel when no one else would take them. Malcolm Fraser, conservative prime minister of Australia in the late 1970s, took in 50,000 asylum seekers from Vietnam.
These are not aberrations from that political tradition but examples of its values in action. If a conservative does not believe in the dignity of the individual, the unity of the family, and the virtue of charity, he should find something else to call himself.
There are limits to what we can do but we are in no danger of reaching them any time soon. Of course we must control our borders, which is why Germany’s proposal ofbinding refugee quotas for EU member states is sensible. The situation in the Channel Tunnel is hardly an advertisement for border security; quotas and fast-tracked asylum assessments would give the UK genuine control over its perimeters.
There is potential in every person we bring to Britain, migrant or refugee. Who among them might be skilled craftsmen or world-beating surgeons? Who among their children might grow up to be the researcher who discovers the cure for cancer or the inventor of a life-saving device or an entrepreneur who creates jobs and wealth in their adopted homeland? Many will play more mundane but essential roles in our communities, as teachers and taxi drivers, restaurant owners and restaurant customers, neighbours who bring new flavours into our lives and friends who sit beside us in church or mosque or temple.
Right-wingers fear accepting large numbers of newcomers will change Britain. It will. It will make us more diverse, more competitive, and more at ease with the world. It will force us to define Britishness beyond heritage and cultural foibles; to decide who we are, what we stand for, and where we’re going as a country. This process will strengthen, not weaken, our identity.
David Cameron seems not to grasp this. He is failing not just the humanitarian test but the conservatism test and the leadership test. The Prime Minister can refuel the economy, streamline public finances, nobble the unions, and cut taxes but if he wants to be remembered as more than a good, sound chap who kept things ticking over — if he wants to be remembered as a leader — he needs a legacy. This is it.