It takes a strong stomach to dismiss those risking their lives as mere opportunists - Euan McColm
Some years ago, a friend following me into the strange and exhilarating world of parenthood asked if I had any useful advice.
What, he asked, did I wish I’d known before becoming a father?
I took from this that what he really wanted was reassurance. We’d been pals long enough for him to know that I’m the last person anyone should look to for guidance.
But he wanted an answer and so I offered an observation which, on reflection, was probably less reassuring than he'd hoped. Since the moment my daughter was born, I told him, I’d lived with the ever-present fear that she might come to some harm.
Sometimes, this was a distant white noise in the back of my mind and sometimes it was a terrifying visualisation of disaster, prompted by a news story or a scene in a movie.
A few weeks later, my friend told me he knew what I meant.
This protective drive never fades.
So, I’m afraid nobody can tell me the parents of the three children among 27 people drowned in the English Channel last week took the risks they did lightly.
The British and French governments have turned this devastating tragedy into a diplomatic row. The focus is now on the political fall out over a failure to agree a joint protocol on dealing with people deemed illegal immigrants.
But this is a story, I think, about heroes. What, after all, could be more heroic than risking everything for a better life?
It is easier for politicians to make this a row about process than it is for them to address the truth that 27 people - viewed without compassion by either government - are now dead.
The Tory right and various pro-Brexit fringe parties are relentless in their pursuit of the narrative that immigrants take something away from people who were born here. The language may be carefully chosen to conceal the depth of this blood and soil nationalism but the dog whistles screech loudly.
Those same politicians know the truth is that immigrants mean more productivity and taxes. They also know we need immigrants now, more than ever. Brexit has revealed to us the extent to which different sectors, from hospitality to the National Health Service, were previously enhanced by immigrant workers.
The right-wing version of events has long been that the UK is becoming overwhelmed by illegal immigrants who see the place as a soft touch.
But these “patriots” could choose to take the desire of those fleeing conflict to come to the UK as the considerable compliment it is.
These immigrants are people who see in the UK a nation that’s free and fair and which offers opportunities. They want to come here because they consider it the best place to be. Some want to come because relatives, driven by the same motivation, have already settled here.
It takes a strong stomach to be able to dismiss those willing to risk their lives to come to the UK as mere opportunists. Don’t they value their lives as much as we value our own?
Twenty years ago, when the Tory Party was in the grip of a mob of right-wing half-wits, shadow home secretary Ann Widdecombe took a ferry across to Calais and attempted to gain entry into the holding centre for asylum seekers in nearby Sangatte.
Having met some helpful members of the British public, idiots willing to spit out scare stories about immigrants taking advantage of the system, en route to the camp, Widdecombe’s big finale was the hint that every man, woman and child in Sangatte might soon be making their way across the channel. Why weren’t these people trying to stay in France?
The entirely misleading implication of her question was that all of them wanted to come to the UK.
Widdecombe seemed a dinosaur back then, the last of a dying breed of Tory right-wingers, all of whom were bewildered by the resurgence of the Labour Party and sought refuge in the comforting prejudices of Little England.
Fifteen years later, pro-Brexit campaigners showed there was still mileage in that kind of scaremongering. Fine talk about sovereignty was accompanied by a perpetual slide show of images of asylum seekers, trudging through fields or queueing at border checkpoints but always - always - coming to the UK in order to take advantage.
The centre left’s response to this new wave of jingoism has been weak. Labour, recognising that immigration remains a concern for many of its traditional voters and haunted by the memory of former Prime Minister Gordon Brown being caught describing a voter as a “bigoted woman”, has struggled to find a satisfactory position. The party’s decision, in 2015, to sell a Labour-branded mug bearing the slogan “controls on immigration” lingers in the memory.
Of course, the effort to track down and detain people smugglers is key to reducing the risk of further tragedies such as last week’s. But perhaps these parasites might find their services less in demand if the UK could operate a compassionate immigration policy.
With an increasing elderly population, the UK needs more young people in the workforce. Immigration is only a problem in that we don’t have enough of it.
It would be pleasing to hear a clearly articulated, patriotic case for the UK offering asylum willingly to those who wish to settle here.
Doesn’t the British past so cherished by the most fervent Brexiteer include in it acts of great good and compassion? Can it really be so difficult to articulate a vision of Britishness that appeals to the romantic notions of voters while including at least a little kindness?
A message from the Editor:
Thank you for reading this article. We're more reliant on your support than ever as the shift in consumer habits brought about by coronavirus impacts our advertisers.
If you haven't already, please consider supporting our trusted, fact-checked journalism by taking out a digital subscription.
Want to join the conversation? Please or to comment on this article.