THE Home Secretary Priti Patel has assumed personal powers to order vessels conveying refugees, migrants and asylum-seekers across the English Channel to be turned back.
Civil servants working for the Border Force will be instructed to deploy these new powers on her authority.
There is undoubtedly a measure of sober calculation behind the announcement of this policy.
It may be a dead cat device to deflect attention from the mounting public disapproval of the new social care taxes which have wrong-footed the government’s media managers. These desperados failed to anticipate that the opinion polling which revealed “soft” approval for new taxes to pay for social care might not survive the realisation that these taxes will fall disproportionately on working people.
The consequent storm of social media comment seems to have galvanised opinion among younger people and produced a quiver of fear in government ranks.
It may be that the Tories are worried about the loyalty of the most reactionary section of their supporters and think that an old-fashioned appeal to racism dressed up in red, white and blue might do the trick.
In the minds of government ministers and Tory Party chieftains these might appear as unalloyed electoral benefits. But they should beware.
Some sections of public opinion can be persuaded to conflate the categories of migrant, refugee, asylum-seeker and alien and see a threat that can be contained by executive action.
Patel may think she has found the magic key to political popularity. She is wrong.
Patel should quickly consult her boss. Boris Johnson, the beneficiary of an Eton education and in possession of a Classics degree from Balliol College, Oxford, can remind her of the line in Sophocles’s play Antigone: “Evil appears as good in the minds of those whom god leads to destruction.”
Sophocles presents his audiences down the ages with an essentially political question — whose law has the greatest capacity to command obedience: that of the the gods or of man?
In warning of the moral consequences — the destruction of Athens — Sophocles sensibly comes down on the side of the law of the gods.
In our enlightened time we can choose to take our guidance on moral questions from faith or reason, but whichever guides us it is clear that this policy is morally compromised.
Worse still, from a political perspective, it will encounter any number of obstacles.
The first is the clearly expressed unwillingness of the French authorities to go along with such an explicit defiance of international law and the legal obligations of maritime powers.
The second is the moral repugnance which will greet the first images of a rubber raft load of Afghan children drowning in the wash of a Border Force cutter.
The third is the reluctance of sea-going Border Force officials to carry out any instructions that come from the Home Office unless they bear the imprimatur of of the Home Secretary — and even then to find ways to avoid the probable consequences of following these instructions.
Politicians have the responsibility to lead public opinion. The first responsibility is to be truthful. In this case it means explaining why English-speaking people from lands which Britain once ruled and have more recently bombed travel across continents to come here.
The second, particularly important in the run-up to the upcoming climate conference in Glasgow, is to explain how climate change is driving desperate people to migrate to more temperate climes and the moral obligations that flow from our understanding that it is the industrialised and largely colonial powers who bear most of the responsibility for creating these conditions.
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