Why populist rabble rousers like Suella Braverman are feeding a cycle of hatred - Euan McColm

It might come as a surprise to any who knew of his politics to learn the late Alasdair Gray owned a novel inside which was inscribed a quote by the Tory MP Kenneth Clarke.

The great artist and writer was, after all, an enthusiastic supporter of Scottish nationalism whose disdain for Conservative policies was hardly a secret.

However, on the question of immigration, Clarke expressed a view of which Gray heartily approved and of which he wished to be reminded.

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This I know because, on the evening of Saturday, September 1, 2001, Gray asked me to write Clarke’s words on the title page of the book he was reading.

Home secretary Suella Braverman (third right) during a visit to the migrant processing centre in Dover, Kent. Picture: Gareth Fuller/PA Wire

I didn’t know Gray at all well, but we frequented the same pub in the west end of Glasgow and, from time to time, would pass the time over a drink. On that particular Saturday, I’d been in Perth, covering the Scottish Conservative Party’s conference where the two contenders to replace departing leader, William Hague, had made their pitches to members.

The man who would win that contest, Iain Duncan Smith, pandered to the worst instincts of his audience that day, talking tough on the dangers of unchecked immigration. Clarke, on the other hand, wasn’t interested in playing ball.

The people we demonise as illegal immigrants, he told the audience, are doing what any one of us would do if we thought we could provide a better, safer life for our children.

The ladies and gentlemen of the Scottish Conservative Party did not respond enthusiastically to this.

After I told Gray about the deathly silence that followed that section of Clarke’s speech, he responded “good for him” and passed me whatever novel he’d been reading and had me write down the politician's words.

We talked about the people in the audience and how they’d preferred Duncan Smith’s hardline approach to Clarke’s compassion. Dinosaurs, we agreed. People like that were on the way out and their views with them.

Gray’s been gone a while, now. The glee with which the Tory right dehumanises asylum seekers, however, lives on. This tendency is, I think, worse than it ever was.

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Home secretary Suella Braverman, the woman who was sacked for breaking the ministerial code by Liz Truss then reappointed by her successor as Prime Minister, Rishi Sunak, just six days later seems to relish tormenting those seeking refuge.

Last Monday, she told the House of Commons the south of England was being “invaded” by immigrants. This deliberately inflammatory language is the sort of thing we heard in dark days of the 1970s when the far-right National Front was on the rise. It’s a matter of national shame the home secretary should think it appropriate to use this sort of rhetoric today.

Debate – if we can call it that – around immigration has never been more fraught. Braverman and others on the right would have us believe that each and every person who seeks asylum in the United Kingdom is a grifter. Their talk of invasions and swarms suggests a stream of crooks who see the UK as a soft touch.

This is the strawman stuff that racist populists have been spouting for years.

Of course, it is true that not everybody who arrives in the UK hoping to settle will be allowed to stay. This is as it should be. A fit-for-purpose asylum system should be able to differentiate between those with genuine claims and those without.

But I can’t help but think back to what Clarke told the Scottish Tories 21 years go. Even those whose claims might not be legitimate are not necessarily monsters. I believe, as he said, they are only doing what any of us might do if we saw the chance of a better life for ourselves and our children.

It is easy for mainstream politicians to demonise asylum seekers. There are plenty of people ready to lap up their bile.

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It’s more difficult to show compassion, to display a little humanity.

It should be possible to maintain a firm immigration policy without gloating at the misfortune of others.

Braverman and the boors on the Tory benches who encourage her are playing a dangerous game, indeed. Last Sunday, a migrant centre in Dover was firebombed, The man suspected of the attack – Andrew Leak, who was later found dead – had a history of sharing far-right content and posting racist comments online. Last October, Leak wrote he had sent a “parcel” to the Government, warning it that we would “end illegal immigration into this country within one year from the French boat side”.

Words have consequences. Populist rabble rousers – whether it’s the English Defence League thug Tommy Robinson or the Conservative home secretary Braverman – fuel the anger of those prone to extreme reactions and then feed off it. They create a terrifying cycle of hatred. They embolden the Andrew Leaks among us.

The United Kingdom is not being “invaded” by illegal immigrants. That’s foolish, reckless talk.

Yes, there are people coming here by dangerous and illegal means, but we have no reason to believe they mean us harm. We have no reason to believe they are not desperate.

If I lived in a third world dictatorship where the chances of my children getting a decent education were negligible, then I would be one of the people Braverman wants us to hate. I daresay many of you would be, too.

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Those of us born in the affluent west have already won a lottery jackpot. Shame on any politician who would try to make us despise those less fortunate simply because they want the freedoms and opportunities that we take for granted.

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