On the first day of Operation Desert Storm, in January 1991, the editor of the newspaper I was working on strode into his office and took command of his “troops.” He was a small, irascible Scot with a conceit of himself as an attack dog and never had we seen him so much in his element as when he was organising for copies of the papers to be sent out to “our boys”. So transported was he hatching plans and co-ordinating manoeuvres, he clearly imagined himself as a general on whose strategical nous the lives of frontline soldiers depended.
His delusions of importance – much-mocked by us rank and file reporters – came back to me last week as I watched Home Secretary Sajid Javid talk about taking control of the Channel “crisis” as if he were single-handedly holding back the Wehrmacht as opposed to dealing with a handful of desperate asylum seekers looking for a safe haven.
There he was, in the shadow of the White Cliffs of Dover, calling back ships from the Mediterranean and issuing (potentially illegal) “They Shall Not Pass” declarations, like some wannabe Churchill.
Of course, I didn’t know Winston Churchill; I didn’t serve with him nor was he my friend, but I am pretty sure Sajid Javid is no Winston Churchill. The Second World War leader had his flaws, but I am confident that if he had ordered border patrol ships back from the Med, then back from the Med they would have come (HMS Valiant, on the other hand, is stuck in a shipyard near Athens awaiting repair). And his demand for a Navy vessel would not have descended into an undignified inter-departmental squabble over who should cover the £20,000-a-day cost.
This is what happens if you make a drama out of a crisis; especially if that crisis has been fabricated for the sole purpose of distracting from the many real ones you have neither the will nor the capacity to solve.
Even as Javid spouted his belligerent sound bites, senior Leavers were talking about warlike food shortages as a result of a no-deal Brexit. “We won’t be able to get certain foods like bananas or tomatoes, but it’s not like we won’t be able to eat,” one said summoning up as much Blitz spirit as he could muster. “And we’ll be leaving at a time when British produce is beginning to come into season so it’s the best possible time to leave.”
Personally, I can’t wait to plant my own Victory Garden; I will contemplate the dreadful irony of its name while trying to protect my spring cabbages from late frosts.
Talking of cabbages, no-one else in the cabinet cut short their holidays to deal with the real, urgent crises all around us: the looming Brexit deadline, child poverty, the queues at food banks – all those problems the Tory government has spent the past two years avoiding.
You might have thought the prospect of chaos would focus minds; that it would make MPs reflect on the way their stoking of hatred brought us to the edge of this precipice.
But no. Javid, whose parents were of Pakistani descent, could hardly wait to swap his luxury safari holiday in South Africa for a bit more migrant-baiting. Nothing like the prospect of arresting a bunch of miserable Iranians on a Kent beach to raise the endorphin levels.
The reason there has been a slight spike in the number of people trying cross in dinghies in the past few months is that the French authorities have been clearing the camps on their side of the Channel. Even so, the several hundred who have attempted the trip since November is negligible – fewer than seven a day.
Of course, the 21-mile journey is hazardous and they could drown, which makes their desperation all the more poignant. But it did not seem to be the risk of death that was worrying Javid as he wrongly branded them “illegal”, said they should have claimed asylum in the first country they reached and threatened to ship them straight back to France; it was the possibility that the UK might be seen as a “soft touch”.
It is difficult to see how this could be so. In 2017, there were 26,350 applications for asylum in the UK compared with 198,255 applications for asylum in Germany, 126,550 in Italy and 91,070 in France. The UK pledged to take 23,000 refugees from the Middle East by 2020; so far, it has taken just 11,000.
Unsurprisingly, the hostile environment policy, which strips asylum seekers of dignity, means the number of migrants making their way here is falling.
All this talk of “a major incident” is nonsense; Javid knows that, but he has an eye on the leadership and, like potential rival Chris Grayling, who last week handed a ferries contract to a British company with no ships, he knows exactly which buttons to push; the two of them are engaged in a pissing contest to see who can be the most inward-looking.
All this just a week after the government released a cheesy video telling EU residents – some of whom have paid taxes here for 50 years – how they will have to apply for “settled status” just so as to remain in their own homes after March.
What an utter humiliation; to have your contribution to this country flung back in your face; to be told that – for all the effort you invested in integrating – you never really belonged.
The video features shiny, happy people filling in forms to elevator muzak, but Twitter told a truer story. There, EU residents told of the hurt and instability they were experiencing as the deadline approached; they told of the complexity of the procedure and the injustice of being expected to pay and prove your worth to remain in your own home.
The video channels the saccharine vibe of Disneyland’s tribute to international unity – It’s A Small World After All – then turns it on its head. It’s a small-minded world after all. Under the current Tories, the UK has become an insular disgrace. We are – almost all of us – descended from migrants; but, like a bunch of 70s skinheads, the Javids of this world want to exclude “outsiders”.
Or rather, they want to further their careers and their power base; and if othering foreigners who have made their lives here or ejecting foreigners facing persecution can help secure their future, then so be it.
The thing is that in the process, they’re changing the country from the kind of place foreigners find attractive to the kind they will eventually want to steer clear of. “This is a local country for local people. There’s nothing for you here,” as The League Of Gentlemen might put it.
They should be careful what they wish for. If they push their vision of Britain for the Brits hard enough, then that’s exactly what they’ll get. It is becoming increasingly easy to imagine us in a state of not-so splendid isolation, spurned by all those who used to seek us out.