Reputation and Confrontation

© UNHCRLast time, we took a look at the UK government’s refusal to consider saving lives in the Mediterranean a priority, and its proposed alternatives to it.

In this blog, I propose to suggest how it has arrived at this inhumane and uninspired position and – if not explicitly – make a plea that it might change its outlook before making a costly, unreasonable, dangerous and cruel mistake.But before we get there, it’s worth touching once again on the basic fact that for Hammond’s proposal to blow up boats with drones (to be fair it should be noted that the EU itself is also inclined towards insane military intervention – the difference is that it at least hoped to offer help to people who need it. The UK government stands in opposition even to that small comfort) to be put into action, it must be permitted by the UN.
In this context, we can benefit from examining some of the language which is being used to describe this mass movement of people who are attempting to flee repression, torture and death.

In the UK, the government (and to an almost equal extent UKIP) has repeatedly described the people getting aboard boats which they know are fairly likely to carry them to their deaths as ‘economic migrants’. It’s a first step towards an interesting line of thought, and one that’s touched upon in my forthcoming book ‘The Toss of a Coin: voices from a modern crisis’ in a slightly different context.

That is, the way language works, and how it can be used.

The term ‘economic migrant’ in its strictest sense refers to a person who looks at their situation in the place they live, and realises they can become richer somewhere else, then ‘gets on their bike’ (ironically the advice of Conservative grandee Norman Tebbit) to arrive in the new place and access the extra cash on offer there.

So it’s true that people who are starving to death and come to the UK are ‘economic migrants’ in that sense (though the phrase itself is wrongly applied here: at least as many people if not more are fleeing war and terror – it would be like saying ‘UK inhabitants have brown eyes’ well…yes, but not all of them. In fact, not most of them).

But the phrase ‘economic migrant’ – as opposed to ‘migrant’, ‘refugee’, or in fact, ‘person’ – is also deliberately loaded with negativity. It sets people who fall under its definition aside from those who are ‘deserving’, as if aspiring to a better life is something that should be stamped out and in this instance as if aspiring to avoid death from starvation is less worthy than aspiring to avoid death in a war.

And the same politicians using ‘economic migrant’ to excuse their refusal to offer safety to people threatened by death have also taken to describing those who pilot the death boats as ‘people smugglers’.

In exactly the same way as ‘economic migrant’, at its base, the phrase ‘people smuggler’ is exactly accurate. But as anyone who has lived in the UK for any period of time knows, the phrase is laden with extra meaning.

Not only does it have negative connotations to do with law and the way the smuggled people are treated (often totally justified connotations) it also invokes ‘people trafficking’ in which people are forced from their countries to work as slaves – often young women forced into the sex trade against their wishes.

This is simply not what is happening here. These people smugglers are often ruthless and unpleasant human beings who charge vast sums for carrying people over the sea and abuse their power over them while they do (both of which could, ironically, be cut at a stroke by dealing with the reasons people want to travel, and will not be by blowing up boats) but they are not kidnappers, people traders or slave masters.

It’s important because the truth does matter. People here in the UK do need to understand what is happening elsewhere in the world, and what is being done in their name, and because Hammond is very likely to use these phrases and others like them to justify to the UN a bombing campaign which is likely to make things far worse, rather than better.
Finally, we come to a question: why? Why would the UK government want to stand so squarely against offering people a safe place to stay, rather than letting them die, and stand against helping people to create a better life for themselves in their own home countries? Why, instead, campaign for yet more violence, which is likely to fuel yet more violence further down the line?

For those of us fortunate or unfortunate enough to have any experience of the attempts by people to cross the Mediterranean, it’s easy to fall into the idea that they simply don’t care. That human life means nothing to them, and that they are not interested in preventing death, just preventing people from escaping it somewhere else.

In fairness, its stance delivers the same result as if that were the reason. But it is probably not. Because why would anyone actively desire people to die? Particularly people who have no connection to them, positive or negative.

One could just as easily ask, however, why should someone actively want to avoid acting to save lives, and in the case of the UK Conservative Party, the answer to this is key.
Because in almost every instance, it comes down to reputation, and to the Conservative Party’s very shaky grip on domestic UK politics.

Since 2009, the Conservative Party has told people in the UK that there is too little money to do things like continue to run a decent health service paid for by all and free at the point of use.

It’s a useful stance because it enables them to load blame onto their major political opponent the Labour Party, and to pave the way for the privatisation of public services in the UK by driving down investment in them on the grounds that they can’t be afforded, then pointing to their ‘failures’ as a way to justify what would otherwise be an unpopular policy (and the vast majority of people in the UK do oppose the privatisation of services as a concept).*

*briefly, because this is not what this is about, the Conservative Party’s view of privatisation is very different from its discourse on the topic: it believes that a small state where services are provided by private, profit-making actors is better – that it will work better – than a state in which people work together and contribute to publicly-owned services. This is not the place to argue whether they are correct, but that is the outlook of the Party. 

It knows, however, that most people in the UK disagree, and would prefer public services to remain publicly-owned. So instead of making its argument on the grounds of ‘what would be best’ – that is, its beliefs – it has instead developed a way of ‘excusing’ its unpopular policy by developing and refining the idea that ‘there is no alternative’, originally stated by Thatcher in the 1980s.

The global economic crash of 2008 handed it an opportunity to put this into action: it enabled it to paint the Labour Party as reckless, and simultaneously to start arguing that as a result of ‘shortage of cash’, there was literally no alternative to reduced investment and then privatisation.

This argument has not proven entirely convincing, because most people are aware that the UK is a remarkably rich state, and many prioritise the NHS over most other issues.
But a ‘weak economy means the NHS is impossible’ argument is remarkably persuasive, and in any case, the argument does not have to be entirely convincing. Fewer than one in four people of voting age actually voted Conservative, yet the party is now the government.

This is not, by the way, to make a case for the NHS remaining publicly-owned or being privatised, just an illustration of the way in which Conservative discourse on the matter differs from the party’s underlying belief.

It’s hard to justify a claim that there is ‘too little money’ to do anything in the world’s sixth wealthiest state, and it’s also left the Conservatives open to attack from further Right parties who have been strengthened by their claim (on the lines of ‘if we can’t afford healthcare for English people, then we certainly can’t allow immigration), but it has enabled the party to return to power.

It has also left it in a position where it cannot, even faced with widespread death which it can play an active role in preventing, step in and actually save lives.
Because if it can afford to do this (and in fact, it can) then it loses its justification for slashing public services which it would then be expected to increase investment in OR lose ground to Right wing parties its actions have helped strengthen, by handing them an argument that the government wants to put ‘foreigners’ before people from the UK.
It’s actually cheaper – and more attractive to Right-wing voters who tend to favour strong punishment for wrongdoing rather than issue-based response – to do what Hammond suggests: bomb people, than to save people’s lives.

It simultaneously enables May, as Home Secretary, to be seen to take a stance against the EU, and to be ‘putting the UK first’ in a state which is somehow simultaneously the world’s sixth-richest and unable to pay for basic services, thus furthering the Conservatives’ image as ‘prudent’ and ‘patriotic’, stealing ground back from UKIP.

We need not believe that these attitudes would be held by all who are economically Right-wing. Just that they are necessary to continue to feed the convenient Conservative story of economic hardship, and help it win back support from its traditional Right-wing.
There is also the matter of Libya. A secondary line of strength for the Conservative Party is that it, traditionally, has been regarded as a ‘safe pair of hands’ with the UK’s military.
It has gained a great deal of approval in recent years for its criticisms of the wars in and against Afghanistan and Iraq (both of which it noisily supported) and basked in the ‘glory’ of withdrawing troops from Afghanistan. Its intervention in Libya, meanwhile, has been presented as swift and efficient.

But if one accepts that Libya’s collapse came about as a direct result of the nation’s Civil War, in which the UK under Conservative governance played an active part (and its collapse did occur as a direct result, though that in itself would not necessarily mean the intervention should not have taken place) and that the migrant crisis is in part a result of that collapse, the Conservatives once again suffer a reputational body-blow.
Far better, perhaps, to simply find someone to blame and offer to bomb them.*
*The UK received support from France in opposing a quota of refugees for each EU state. Though the Guardian described this as ‘surprising’, it’s worth noting that the far-Right in France has also been on the rise – and its attention is centred on matters of immigration following the Charlie Hebdo massacre – and that France was one of the three leaders (along with the US and UK) of the military intervention in Libya.
The problem with this reputational massage, of course, is that it completely ignores the fact that people are dying.

Whether they die at sea, or in a state overrun by war, by terror, or where starvation stalks the weak and unprotected makes little difference. The fact is that the UK government can make a difference, and can save lives, and in order to protect its own reputation and the argument that gained it power, has lost sight of the matter which should be central to all representatives of the people – safeguarding human life.

By refusing a sensible long-term policy (using its wealth and influence to improve people’s lives) and a humane last-minute one (pulling people from the sea and offering them safety), the UK government has left itself little option but to advocate an impossible one (preventing people even attempting to leave the places where they are likely to die, horribly) which even if it were to work would result in thousands and thousands of avoidable deaths, and a violent one (bombing boats) which stands to worsen poverty and strengthen terror groups.

The Conservative party has been correctly swift to criticise Tony Blair for ignoring expert advice regarding Iraq. It should be careful not to allow the importance with which it regards its own reputation to lead to it doing the same. The people of the UK – and the people of the world – deserve better than that.

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