Wednesday 15 June 2022

Refugees as Political Pawns

Thanks to the ruling from the European Court of Human Rights, Tuesday night's scheduled deportation of the first tranche of asylum seekers to Rwanda was thwarted. In response, Priti Patel vowed that Home Office lawyers would immediately start working to make sure the next flight isn't so delayed. Egg on the government's face, then. Or is it? The consensus amongst the professional commentariat and Twitterati is the delay suits Boris Johnson, Patel, and Number 10's little shop of horrors. It gives them another wedge issue where the Tories can portray themselves as the people's voice against an alliance of lefty lawyers and bleeding, liberal hearts. And it resurrects the ghost of Brexit. The ECHR and EU are entirely separate, but for the low information and/or permanently angry sections of Tory and Tory leaning voters, it's still Europe, it's still foreigners overruling the British, so what's the difference?

The Tories have had the ECHR in their sights for some time. In Johnson's and Theresa May's manifestos, there was a commitment to look at human rights and the Human Rights Act. This was reiterated in an interview with the Prime Minister following the flight's cancellation. Dave and Osborne's 2015 manifesto committed them to scrapping the HRA and redefining the UK's relationship with the ECHR. This was a low key pledge in the battery of Tory promises, fronted by the referendum pledge, to win back the UKIP vote. But prior to this senior Tories earned cheap applause from the press for fulminating against human rights - this included May who, in her then capacity as Home Secretary, toyed with leaving the ECHR. The Rwanda plan is the latest moment in an inglorious recent record shared across the Tory party.

Yet, despite the advantage the Tories think being beastly to the wretched of the earth affords them, it's not just about cynical vote chasing and distraction tactics. It goes to the heart of Tory statecraft. As explained here many times, successive governments for 40 years have centralised power and authority in the executive. During its expansion in the post-war period, the state became a constellation of institutions which had relative autonomy from and purviews separate to government. Tory class war on public sector unions and the introduction of market mechanisms as principles of governance theoretically cemented their separation from the centre, but in practice it gave the Cabinet and senior Whitehall officials carte blanche to intervene in them with all the subtleties of a wrecking ball. Jacob Rees-Mogg's policing of civil servants and declared intention to cut 91,000 jobs is typical of the relationship between government and the state's institutions.

This relates to the Tories' purpose, which is to consolidate, maintain, and see off any challenge to capitalist relations of production. They instinctively rail against any formally independent expertise or spaces of autonomy within the state because these offer the potential for initiative and spaces of organisation that run counter to their purposes. The Tories' eternal task, as borne out by 200 years of history, is to make sure labour is subordinate to capital and that nothing should come between them and their raison d'etre. Which is where the hostility to the EU came in. To paraphrase Thatcher, her Tories did not roll back the frontiers of the state in the 1980s only to have them reimposed at European level. She came round to the view that the EU was an impediment and brake on what the party of the British bourgeoisie think is necessary to manage "their" subordinates. Hence the high correlation between professed Thatcherism and Brexit enthusiasm. For them, exiting the EU is the removal of the final fetters on their programme of class rule. All the drek about sovereignty, democracy, and self-determination is about their freedom, their autonomy. The unsightly scrap with the EU over the Northern Ireland Protocol, and the contrived fight with the EHCR are extensions of the same logic.

This is an ongoing political project, and demands a political response. Unfortunately but predictably, Labour is nowhere to be seen. Having once used a wedge issue to his own advantage, these days Keir Starmer's isn't interested in leading public opinion. Not wanting to take a stand on anything, least of all something the Labour right regard as electoral Kryptonite, Starmer thinks remaining aloof from "culture war" issues will avoid him getting drawn into fighting where the Tories think they're comfortable and wield an advantage. But if the leader's office had a bit of nous about them, they might consider how Johnson is overplaying his hand. As we recently saw in Australia, the Coalition was pulverised because they had no answers on the pressing issues of the day and, crucially, a layer of their former support had grown fed up with their provocations and nonsense. The same is happening here with Tory worries about so-called Waitrose Woman and those stunning Liberal Democrat by-election victories. The harder the Tories push, the deeper they're driving a wedge into their own coalition. This layer, who found Tony Blair beguiling all those years ago, also exist in Labour's target seats - like the left wing voters Starmer has shown no interest in - and could be won to the party if our self-proclaimed "human rights lawyer" said something. But because Starmer wants to stay away from political struggle, he's unnecessarily handing the Tories the advantage of setting the terms of debate.

For now, refugees who were bound for Rwanda get to remain. But their future as political pawns in the Tories' games is, sadly, certain. As is the refusal of the official opposition to provide them and their supporters with any help.

Image Credit


Blissex said...

«not just about cynical vote chasing and distraction tactics. It goes to the heart of Tory statecraft.»

And of Starmer's and Davey's.

«As explained here many times, successive governments for 40 years have centralised power and authority in the executive. During its expansion in the post-war period,»

My usual quote from G, Orwell writing in 1932 noting that pre-WW2 the UK was already quite authoritarian:
George Orwell, "Review of The Civilization of France by Ernst Robert Curtius" (1932):
In England, a century of strong government has developed what O. Henry called the stern and rugged fear of the police to a point where any public protest seems an indecency.
But in France everyone can remember a certain amount of civil disturbance, and even the workmen in the bistros talk of la revolution - meaning the next revolution, not the last one.
The highly socialised modern mind, which makes a kind of composite god out of the rich, the government, the police and the larger newspapers, has not been developed - at least not yet.

Our blogger's thesis is that the "composite god" was weakened by the growth of the state beyond the capacity of its control apparatus, and I guess there is something in that:

«the state became a constellation of institutions which had relative autonomy from and purviews separate to government.»

But that is a rather infelicitous claim because it looks like that having no democratic accountability to the elected government is something valuable; in my wild imagination perhaps the underlying idea is that autonomous institutions run by progressive do-gooders ("philosopher-kings") with unpopular policies is preferable to them democratically accountable to a retrograde and mean electorate.

There has been I think a small degree of that, but what has mostly changed seems to me something else though: that institutions under *local* political control have moved to more *central* political control, rather than autonomous (and apolitical and at least progressive) institutions becoming more controlled (by political and reactionary decision makers).

It is the location of political control of those institutions that has changed, more than their autonomy, in part driven by a progressive, do-gooding desire to eliminate "postcode lotteries" by central control of KPIs, in part driven by regressive, mean desire to take the control from spending away from "trot" local political control.

Phil said...

2019: keep the Left, lose Remainer liberals to the LDs and Brexiter cultural conservatives to the Tories
202?: lose the Left, lose liberals to the LDs and bank everything on chasing a dwindling body of cultural conservatives - but lose those to the Tories because they can always outflank Labour to the Right.

Great plan from little Keir.

georgesdelatour said...

If you google image search “ECHR courtroom” you will see that the floor of the chamber is dominated by a huge EU circle of stars logo; the judges’ uniforms include sashes with EU circle of stars logos; and the huge sign saying “European Court of Human Rights” also features an EU circle of stars logo at the bottom. This is all rather odd for an institution that has nothing to do with the EU.

Symbolism in courtrooms matters. There have been huge fights in the USA to remove historic 19th century sculptures depicting the Ten Commandments from courtrooms, for instance. The argument is that such symbols make petitioners who do not have Judeo-Christian beliefs feel the court is pre-biased against them.

RobertD said...

Re comment of Georgesdelatour

Yes, because the European flag was created and adopted by the Council of Europe in 1955, 2 years before the EEC was founded at the signing of the treaty of Rome in 1957.

Do your research before sounding off.

georgesdelatour said...

So the EEC/EU chose to tell the world that it had absolutely nothing to do with the Council of Europe by borrowing its flag and anthem. Weird.