Rishi Sunak's 'British values' attack on Keir Starmer over Rwanda plan is dangerous populist rhetoric – Scotsman comment

Prime Minister’s claim that Keir Starmer’s opposition to the Rwanda immigration plan is at odds with ‘British values’ has a sinister undertone

There was a time when talking about the UK’s shared values would not have been controversial. Democracy, human rights and the ethos of the National Health Service would have likely featured in the minds of many.

However, the rise of populism has seen the concept of national values, to which virtually everyone can subscribe, subverted in a way that raises serious concerns. Today, politicians who talk about British or Scottish values are usually trying to score points against an opponent, rather than making any kind of case that we “have far more in common than that which divides us”, to quote murdered MP Jo Cox’s first Westminster speech.

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And so it proved in the Commons yesterday. As Rishi Sunak and Keir Starmer traded blows over the controversial Rwanda immigration plan, the Prime Minister said of the leader of the Opposition: “When it comes to this question of how to deal with people who are here illegally, his values are simply not those of the British people.”

Starmer plans to “stop the boats” by using old-fashioned police work; Sunak’s expensive Rwanda plan is designed as a deterrent with the same aim. It is, therefore, a dispute about tactics. Yet Sunak is seeking to assert that his values, down to the fine detail of policy, and the nation’s are one and the same. Anyone who, like Starmer, disagrees is seemingly therefore to be considered at odds with ‘the will of the people', unBritish.

It is not much of a leap to draw the conclusion that this makes the Labour leader an ‘enemy of the people’ or even a traitor, the kind of Stalinist language that became increasingly common during the Brexit debate and which, regrettably, still lingers. Such populist tactics can be seen in a more extreme form in the US, where Donald Trump has described his opponents as “vermin”.

Shared national values are supposed to be a unifying force. Populists, and those who copy them, are corrupting that noble idea in a bid to sow division for their own ends. Those who hold liberal democracy dear should speak up for their values before it’s too late.



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