The "go home" vans haven't been banned

Provided that it corrects the misleading claim "106 arrests last week in your area", the government is free to continue to use the "go home" slogan.

No policy attracted greater condemnation at the Labour and Lib Dem conferences than the Home Office's "go home" vans, so today's ruling by the Advertising Standards Authority is likely to be studied closely in Westminster. 

Most of the media is reporting that the vans, which told illegal immigrants to "go home or face arrest" (a slogan that Yvette Cooper rightly warned was "reminiscent of the 1970s National Front"), have been banned by the ASA, but this seemingly favourable outcome isn't supported by the facts. 

The watchdog ruled that the line "106 arrests last week in your area" was "misleading" since the data on which it was based related to north London, rather than the areas in which the poster was displayed (Barking and Dagenham, Redbridge, Barnet, Brent, Ealing and Hounslow), but, significantly, it cleared the government of using "offensive" and "irresponsible" material that was likely to "incite or exacerbate racial hatred and tensions in multicultural communities". 

While acknowledging that the phrase "go home" was "reminiscent of slogans used in the past to attack immigrants to the UK", the ASA said that the vans were "unlikely to cause serious or widespread offence or distress." In addition, while "noting that many of those areas had multicultural, ethnically diverse populations", it argued that the poster was "clearly addressed to illegal immigrants rather than to non-naturalised immigrants who were in the UK legally or to UK citizens, and it would be understood by those who saw it as communicating a message in relation to their immigration status, not their race or ethnicity." As a result, it concluded that the vans were "unlikely to incite or exacerbate racial hatred and tensions in multicultural communities, and that it was not irresponsible and did not contain anything which was likely to condone or encourage violence or anti-social behaviour."

So, while the ASA ended by warning that the ad "must not appear again in its current home", this order applies only to the "106 arrests" line, not the "go home" slogan. There is nothing to prevent Home Office using the vans again and it has notably refused to rule out doing so. A spokesman said: "We are pleased the ASA has concluded that our pilot was neither offensive nor irresponsible.

"We have always been clear that this campaign was about encouraging illegal immigrants to leave the country voluntarily and was not targeted at particular racial or ethnic groups.

"In respect of the ASA's other findings, we can confirm that the poster will not be used again in its current format."

Provided the government corrects its misleading data (not the first time it's been ordered to do so), it is free to use the slogan "go home" again. Last Sunday, Theresa May said that she would decide whether to use the vans again after she had seen the results of an "evaluation". She said: "once I’ve seen the results of that evaluation, we can make a decision about the impact of those vans. I think from the public’s point of view, I think what they want to see is a government that is clearly doing everything it can to remove people from this country who have no right to be here, who are here illegally and that’s what we are doing."

Given the political outrage the vans have caused, the government may well decide to retire them, but nothing the ASA has said today forces it to do so. 

A van carrying the Home Office's message to illegal immigrants: 'Go home or face arrest.'

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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Qatar is determined to stand up to its Gulf neighbours - but at what price?

The tensions date back to the maverick rule of Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani.

For much of the two decades plus since Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani deposed his father to become emir of Qatar, the tiny gas-rich emirate’s foreign policy has been built around two guiding principles: differentiating itself from its Gulf neighbours, particularly the regional Arab hegemon Saudi Arabia, and insulating itself from Saudi influence. Over the past two months, Hamad’s strategy has been put to the test. From a Qatari perspective it has paid off. But at what cost?

When Hamad became emir in 1995, he instantly ruffled feathers. He walked out of a meeting of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) because, he believed, Saudi Arabia had jumped the queue to take on the council’s rotating presidency. Hamad also spurned the offer of mediation from the then-President of the United Arab Emirates (UAE) Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan al-Nahyan. This further angered his neighbours, who began making public overtures towards Khalifa, the deposed emir, who was soon in Abu Dhabi and promising a swift return to power in Doha. In 1996, Hamad accused Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and the UAE of sponsoring a coup attempt against Hamad, bringing GCC relations to a then-all-time low.

Read more: How to end the stand off in the Gulf

The spat was ultimately resolved, as were a series of border and territory disputes between Qatar, Bahrain and Saudi Arabia, but mistrust of Hamad - and vice versa - has lingered ever since. As crown prince, Hamad and his key ally Hamad bin Jassim al-Thani had pushed for Qatar to throw off what they saw as the yoke of Saudi dominance in the Gulf, in part by developing the country’s huge gas reserves and exporting liquefied gas on ships, rather than through pipelines that ran through neighbouring states. Doing so freed Qatar from the influence of the Organisation of Petroleum Exporting Countries, the Saudi-dominated oil cartel which sets oil output levels and tries to set oil market prices, but does not have a say on gas production. It also helped the country avoid entering into a mooted GCC-wide gas network that would have seen its neighbours control transport links or dictate the – likely low - price for its main natural resource.

Qatar has since become the richest per-capita country in the world. Hamad invested the windfall in soft power, building the Al Jazeera media network and spending freely in developing and conflict-afflicted countries. By developing its gas resources in joint venture with Western firms including the US’s Exxon Mobil and France’s Total, it has created important relationships with senior officials in those countries. Its decision to house a major US military base – the Al Udeid facility is the largest American base in the Middle East, and is crucial to US military efforts in Iraq, Syria and Afghanistan – Qatar has made itself an important partner to a major Western power. Turkey, a regional ally, has also built a military base in Qatar.

Hamad and Hamad bin Jassem also worked to place themselves as mediators in a range of conflicts in Sudan, Somalia and Yemen and beyond, and as a base for exiled dissidents. They sold Qatar as a promoter of dialogue and tolerance, although there is an open question as to whether this attitude extends to Qatar itself. The country, much like its neighbours, is still an absolute monarchy in which there is little in the way of real free speech or space for dissent. Qatar’s critics, meanwhile, argue that its claims to promote human rights and free speech really boil down to an attempt to empower the Muslim Brotherhood. Doha funded Muslim Brotherhood-linked groups during and after the Arab Spring uprisings of 2011, while Al Jazeera cheerleaded protest movements, much to the chagrin of Qatar's neighbours. They see the group as a powerful threat to their dynastic rule and argue that the Brotherhood is a “gateway drug” to jihadism. In 2013,  after Western allies became concerned that Qatar had inadvertently funded jihadist groups in Libya and Syria, Hamad was forced to step down in favour of his son Tamim. Soon, Tamim came under pressure from Qatar’s neighbours to rein in his father’s maverick policies.

Today, Qatar has a high degree of economic independence from its neighbours and powerful friends abroad. Officials in Doha reckon that this should be enough to stave off the advances of the “Quad” of countries – Bahrain, Egypt, Saudi Arabia and the UAE - that have been trying to isolate the emirate since June. They have been doing this by cutting off diplomatic and trade ties, and labelling Qatar a state sponsor of terror groups. For the Quad, the aim is to end what it sees as Qatar’s disruptive presence in the region. For officials in Doha, it is an attempt to impinge on the country’s sovereignty and turn Qatar into a vassal state. So far, the strategies put in place by Hamad to insure Qatar from regional pressure have paid off. But how long can this last?

Qatar’s Western allies are also Saudi Arabia and the UAE’s. Thus far, they have been paralysed by indecision over the standoff, and after failed mediation attempts have decided to leave the task of resolving what they see as a “family affair” to the Emir of Kuwait, Sabah al-Sabah. As long as the Quad limits itself to economic and diplomatic attacks, they are unlikely to pick a side. It is by no means clear they would side with Doha in a pinch (President Trump, in defiance of the US foreign policy establishment, has made his feelings clear on the issue). Although accusations that Qatar sponsors extremists are no more true than similar charges made against Saudi Arabia or Kuwait – sympathetic local populations and lax banking regulations tend to be the major issue – few Western politicians want to be seen backing an ally, that in turn many diplomats see as backing multiple horses.

Meanwhile, although Qatar is a rich country, the standoff is hurting its economy. Reuters reports that there are concerns that the country’s massive $300bn in foreign assets might not be as liquid as many assume. This means that although it has plenty of money abroad, it could face a cash crunch if the crisis rolls on.

Qatar might not like its neighbours, but it can’t simply cut itself off from the Gulf and float on to a new location. At some point, there will need to be a resolution. But with the Quad seemingly happy with the current status quo, and Hamad’s insurance policies paying off, a solution looks some way off.

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