The plight of Syrian children is far more important than politics, but Sturgeon richly deserves to tower over the Prime Minister from the moral high ground, writes Dani Garavelli
One of the criticisms frequently levelled at the SNP is that it suffers from a “moral superiority” complex. The idea, promulgated by its opponents, is that the party revels in its image of itself as an ethical cut above, particularly when it comes to immigration.
I am not entirely convinced. But if it’s true, then, goodness, isn’t the Conservative Party playing into its hands? Nicola Sturgeon may have her flaws; certainly, she is under-performing on education. But set next to Theresa May, she is what Saul Bellow called a “contrast gainer”: someone whose virtues are brought into focus by another’s vices. So May’s coldness accentuates Sturgeon’s compassion; and the UK government’s insularity accentuates Holyrood’s hearty welcome-to-all.
Last week was a case in point. On Tuesday, Sturgeon announced the Scottish Government was funding a scheme to retrain Syrian refugee doctors so they could work for the NHS – an inspired idea, given we are experiencing a GP recruitment crisis.
Then – like a slap in the face – it emerged May was ending the Dubs scheme to resettle lone child refugees from camps in Europe, less than a year after it had been introduced. The total number given sanctuary in the UK was to be capped at 350 (just over a 10th of the widely anticipated 3,000). Typically, the announcement, which came in the form of a written ministerial statement, was sandwiched between Prime Minister’s Questions and the Brexit vote. It was almost as if the party hoped no-one would notice.
Even in the current climate – when politics is in the gutter and every day brings some fresh attack on society’s weakest – this decision was reprehensible. There are tens of thousands of unaccompanied refugee children stranded in Europe. Only 200 of them have been resettled in the UK under the Dubs scheme so far, with 150 more expected to arrive from Italy and Greece. To call a halt now is to consign some of the world’s most vulnerable young people to hunger, disease, rape, persecution, people traffickers and death. It’s not as if they’re safely accommodated where they are. Already, refugee charities say, children who left the “jungle camp” on the understanding they would be relocated to the UK, are back in Calais, sleeping in woods or under bridges.
Perhaps it is the height of naivety to be surprised by the backtracking; after all, it took May long enough to denounce Donald Trump’s Muslim ban. And ever since the amendment was passed, the government has been doing its best to evade its responsibilities, drawing out children’s suffering by refusing to fast-track their applications, and moving the goalposts on eligibility.
Last week, the government wouldn’t even take ownership of its own decision, laying the blame everywhere but at its own door, and coming up with excuses so feeble they were insulting. Home Secretary Amber Rudd claimed the Dubs scheme was “incentivising” children to make perilous journeys to Europe, as if living in a war zone wasn’t incentive enough, and tried to pass the buck to local authorities for insisting they lacked the capacity to accommodate them. Given there are 217 councils across the UK – and that 350 works out at less than two children per council – this seemed unlikely.
It is true local authorities are struggling with cuts to funding, and that some claim the £40,000 a year they receive for every unaccompanied child they take is not enough to cover the cost of their care, but it appears little was done to win them over. Eight London council leaders have written an open letter calling on the government to reconsult.
Far more credible is the notion that the Home Secretary was reacting to the Daily Mail’s hysteria-inducing campaign which claimed many of the unaccompanied refugees who arrived last year were “clearly” over 18.
The scrapping of the scheme has already been criticised by many public figures including the man who moved the amendment, Lord Alf Dubs, a Jewish refugee who came to the UK on the Kindertransport; the Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby; and even the deputy leader of Ukip, Peter Whittle.
May herself is unshameable; even a ticking off from the daughter of the late Nicholas Winton, the man who organised the Kindertransport, didn’t seem to give her pause for thought. She was backed up by hard-as-nails Ann Widdicombe who defended the UK’s attempt to shirk its obligations on the grounds that the refugee crisis at Calais was all France’s fault.
Some Tory MPs are uncomfortable. Backbencher Heidi Allen criticised the Home Office’s presentation to local councils, saying it could have been “a pitch on pot holes” and insisted the government should not renege on its commitment, while David Burrowes accused Rudd of “trying to cut and run”.
Ruth Davidson, however, kept her views to herself. Last week, her Twitter feed was full of RTs on the First Minister’s apology over John Mason’s claim the IRA could be seen as “freedom fighters”, and a report suggesting Scottish pupils had fallen a year behind in science since the SNP gained power. Both were legitimate lines of attack. Even so: not a single mention of her own party’s dereliction of duty over child refugees? Sturgeon, meanwhile, must have been lapping up the flurry of tweets from disaffected English people, hailing Scotland as a bastion of enlightenment and asking if they could move up in the event of a successful indyref2.
The fight against the scrapping of the Dubs scheme is not over. Sturgeon herself has written to May urging her to reverse the “inhumane” decision to cut off a “vital route to safety” for child refugees. Allen has already secured a cross-party debate on the issue later this month, and the charity Help Refugees plans to challenge the decision in the High Court.
No doubt they will be accused of sanctimony for taking a stand. But better to be gripped by self-righteousness anger than to lose the capacity to feel anything at all. Better to launch an idealistic defence of human decency, than to surrender to the political nihilism of the post-Trump world.