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Friday, 31 October 2014

This immoral government

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I have rarely felt so ashamed, or so angry. David Cameron, it seems, regards it as a "moral duty" to cut taxes -- but not to save desperate migrants from drowning in the Mediterranean. By comparison, Marie Antoinette ("let them eat cake") was compassion incarnate.

Sometimes, it's a real disadvantage in politics to be blessed with a memory. But I do have a memory -- and I remember the days when Mr Cameron branded himself as a "compassionate Conservative". As recently as 2011, the Tories published a pamphlet in which they still insisted that they stood for "modern, compassionate Conservatism".

Huh. Compassionate, as in: No, we won't help to fund an operation that rescues drowning migrants, because -- get this -- it might encourage others to embark on equally perilous journeys. As in: No, I won't rescue a child running across a busy road, because it might encourage other children to do the same.

Not my definition of compassion. Not, I suspect, Sir Nicholas Winton's either. He's the man who, at the age of 105, was honoured in Prague this week for having arranged the escape from the Nazis of more than 600 mostly Jewish children from Czechoslovakia in 1938. What did he say as he received the Order of the White Lion from the Czech president? "I thank the British people for making room for them."

That was then. This is now. With a government that blithely announces it won't help to fund an operation aimed at saving migrants from death. It's in good company, by the way -- other EU governments have similarly decided that the message from Europe to those who are fleeing for their lives is: "We'll let you drown. We don't care."

The immigration minister, James Brokenshire, had the brass neck to stand in the House of Commons and argue, apparently in all seriousness, that the Italian rescue operation in the Mediterranean has had the "unintended consequence" of risking more migrants' lives as more and more desperate people try to flee to a place of safety.

Someone needs to take him to one side and explain the difference between causation and correlation. Yes, there are more people risking their lives; no, it's not because some of them are rescued when their rotting vessels sink beneath them.

Mr Brokenshire clearly can't be expected to have noticed what's been happening in places like Syria and Libya, from which many of the migrants come. The idea that perhaps the ever-worsening conditions there have caused even more people to risk their lives clearly hasn't crossed his tiny little mind.     

According to the European Border Agency, more than 180,000 people have arrived in Europe by sea so far this year. The population of the EU is 500 million.

In Jordan, there are more than 600,000 registered refugees from Syria alone  (the true figure is probably far higher.) The population of Jordan is 6.5 million.

In Lebanon, Syrian refugees now make up well over a quarter of the country's total population. So do they shoot refugees at the border -- to discourage the others? No, they do not.

Mr Cameron and his colleagues have no such scruples. There are too many people fleeing from terror and violence, they say. If we let some of them drown, others who may have been thinking of trying to flee will decide instead to stay at home to be shot, bombed, starved, tortured or raped.

As an example of cold-blooded heartlessness, it would be hard to beat. Instead, our prime minister talks of morality in terms of tax rates: “It is morally right that the rich pay their fair share in tax; and right that those who are able contribute to our public services and safety nets,” he wrote in The Times yesterday. “But what is morally wrong is government spending money like it grows on trees."

How disgusting. To dare to use the words "morally wrong" in a discussion about taxation levels within days of having admitted that you're prepared to let people drown without even trying to help them.

I'm not naïve. I know Mr Cameron has an election to win, and is terrified about UKIP snapping at his heels. I understand why politicians need to win votes -- but by deliberately letting people die? I'm not easily shocked -- but I do find that truly shocking.

It may have escaped Mr Cameron's notice, but when people are threatened by war, genocide or famine, they try to escape.  They do not flee because they think they might like to try a life on benefits in the UK, but because they are terrified. How hard is that to understand?

The migration debate has now become so toxic that it will soon lead directly to avoidable deaths at sea. It is also woefully misinformed: the average British voter thinks nearly a quarter (24 per cent) of UK residents are foreign-born; the true figure is 13 per cent, which is almost exactly the same proportion as in France, Germany, Spain, and Belgium. So no, Mr Fallon, we are not being "swamped". And shame on you for suggesting otherwise.

(Funny, isn't it, how support for UKIP is highest in places with the lowest numbers of immigrants -- and lowest in places like London with the most immigrants. It's fears, not facts, that drive this debate, yet the government still, shamefully, feels the need to pander to those fears.)

I wrote last May that I was proud to be a citizen of a country that is so attractive to immigrants. I still am. But I am ashamed, deeply ashamed, of our government.

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