As Braverman's anti-immigration rhetoric wins BNP’s praise, decent Tories should condemn it – Stewart McDonald

After Enoch Powell’s infamous speech on immigration, frontbench Conservatives threatened to resign unless he was sacked

Earlier this summer, James Cleverly stood in front of a crowd of foreign policy experts and spoke about United Nations’ reform. His speech, the first by a Conservative Foreign Secretary in full-throated praise of the global multilateral system for 30 years, was generous and wide-ranging, and made a powerful case for reforming bodies like the UN to better serve the interests of emerging economies and developing countries.

“The United Kingdom cares deeply about multilateralism. We were one of the architects of it. And we want it to succeed and thrive,” said Cleverly. He made a statesmanlike case for moderation and ambition in addressing the challenges of the 21st century and, echoing the 19th-century Whig politician Lord Macaulay, ended on a simple call: “Let us reform that we may preserve.”

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After that speech, well received in capitals across the world, you might imagine Cleverley’s reaction when he opened his phone to see his colleague’s face staring back at him, accompanied by a headline informing him that the Home Secretary, Suella Braverman, was “calling for UN rules to be ripped up”. Tobias Ellwood, Conservative MP and former chair of the Defence Select Committee, voiced Cleverley’s inevitable despair for him. Criticising Braverman’s speech, Ellwood said the UK has “earned our permanent seat on the United Nations Security Council because we’ve helped shape international law. We actually support it, we advance it. What we don’t do is then run roughshod through it.”

Running roughshod through the law, however, is exactly what the Conservative party does these days. It was not long ago that a Conservative minister admitted to the House of Commons that his government’s Northern Ireland policy “does break international law” – but only in “a very specific and limited way”. And those of us not born last week remember the Downing Street parties and the unlawful closing down of parliament all too well.

This week The Times reported that the Prime Minister had signed off on Braverman’s inflammatory speech – and her threat of the UK leaving the European Convention on Human Rights – as part of some bizarre four-dimensional chess move aimed at stopping the Strasbourg court from blocking deportation flights to Rwanda. In their words and deeds, successive Conservative Prime Ministers have made very clear that upholding the law, domestic or international, is not a priority for their government. We are governed by caprice.

Braverman’s speech at the right-wing American Enterprise Institute was, in the greatest traditions of the Conservative party, completely disconnected from reality. However, it went far beyond what her colleagues have said before, or indeed any UK Home Secretary in my lifetime.

She said that migration represented an “existential challenge” for the West, which was seeing its culture “diluted” by “immigration and high birth rates among foreign-born mothers”. Unless it was tackled, she argued, Western culture would “disappear”.

People have different views on immigration. That is a fact of political life and one that is all too easy for politicians to shy away from addressing. But Braverman’s rhetoric – the language of cultural dilution and existential threats – came straight from the foulest parts of the radical right-wing online ecosystem, which decent people everywhere should have the courage to condemn. It has no place in our political culture and is in direct conflict with our social, global and economic interests.

When Enoch Powell stood in front of a Conservative party branch meeting and said that watching 50,000 immigrants a year enter the UK was “like watching a nation busily engaged in heaping up its own funeral pyre”, his colleagues stood up to denounce the language and rhetoric he used. Iain Macleod, Edward Boyle, Quintin Hogg and Robert Carr all threatened to resign from the front bench after the speech unless he was sacked – which he eventually was.

Braverman may not be Powell. But her speech was enough for Joe Owens – a former BNP candidate and minder for Nick Griffin who was imprisoned for posting razor blades to Jewish families – to tweet approvingly that “Suella Braverman must be watching my videos”. The fact that far-right thugs can look at the governing party of the United Kingdom and smirk with approval should shame every single one of them.

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Not merely content with attacking immigrants and refugees, Braverman again followed in the grand traditions of the Conservative Party with an attack on LGBT people. “We will not be able to sustain an asylum system if in effect, simply being gay, or a woman, and fearful of discrimination in your country of origin is sufficient to qualify for protection,” she said.

I note here that, last year, 1.5 per cent of all asylum claims made in the UK cited sexual orientation as part of the basis for the claim. The Home Office’s own figures show that last year saw the highest number of people granted asylum on the basis of their sexuality in UK history. That was 739 people – 739 people out of 67,330,000; 0.001 per cent of the population. Against all the other issues facing the Home Office, it seems hard to have any reasonable grounds on which this tiny minority merited singling out. How cynical.

Rather than condemn this speech, however, the Prime Minister endorsed it. And that is where the UK stands today: the leader of the Conservative party and a man imprisoned for posting razorblades to Jewish families united in their support of a Home Secretary who trades in rhetoric about the “existential” threat of foreigners. It’s grotesque.

The values of moderation, temperance and caution are among those that we most prize in our politicians. But despite the Foreign Secretary’s temperate speech earlier this year, too many of his colleagues indulge in rhetoric that breeds hate, prejudice and fear – all for the sake of stemming the inevitable losses in next year’s general election. Decent conservatives everywhere should have the courage to condemn it.

Stewart McDonald is SNP MP for Glasgow South



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