Sir Nicholas Winton at the ceremony in Czechoslovakia
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Leader: Lessons of the Kindertransport

On 28 October, the day Britain ­announced it would not support search-and-rescue ­missions aimed at preventing migrants from drowning in the Mediterranean, Sir Nicholas Winton, who is 105, was honoured at a ceremony in Prague.

When a senior minister speaks of our towns and cities being “swamped” by immigrants you know two things: that the government is rattled and that an ill wind is blowing through the land. Nations turn inwards when people feel unhappy and insecure. The outsider, welcomed in good times, is perceived as a threat, an agent of change, even of chaos.

The remark made by Michael Fallon, the Defence Secretary, has since been withdrawn. Apparently, he did not mean what he said. Mr Fallon is not a bad man but he has the buffoonish manner of a small-town alderman who doubles up as captain of the local golf club. And he is meant to be one of David Cameron’s more sensible and reliable lieutenants.

What is clear is that our politics is becoming ever more fragmented, with no one party able to command the kind of support that would guarantee a strong majority government in next May’s general election. This fragmentation is testament to the collapsing authority of the political class and to the havoc being wrought by the forces of globalisation: the free flow of capital and people, open markets, the dominance of a deracinated plutocracy, instantaneous digital communication. Ed Miliband used to say, in the depths of the Great Recession, that the latest crisis of capitalism had provided a “social-democratic moment”. It had created the space in which to build a new society and political economy and he would lead that change.

That was then. Today, with Labour’s poll ratings so poor, Mr Miliband is fighting insurgencies on several fronts – against the Greens and the UK Independence Party in England, and the Scottish National Party and an assortment of leftist pro-independence groupings in Scotland. The age of two-party politics is over and that, at least, should be welcomed.

Mr Miliband is also reported to have instructed his MPs to address the issue of immigration and engage candidly with voters about their anxieties. But we would caution him and his party against making a right turn and of indulging the prejudices of Ukip and its supporters.

On Tuesday 28 October, the day that Britain ­announced that it would not support search-and-rescue ­missions aimed at preventing migrants from drowning in the Mediterranean Sea, Sir Nicholas Winton (pictured), who is 105, was honoured at a ceremony in Prague. As a young man, Sir Nicholas had arranged for hundreds of Jewish children from Czechoslovakia to escape Nazi terror and find safety with foster families in the UK. Some of those whose lives were saved and who travelled to Britain on the Kindertransport were at the Prague ceremony.

Today’s refugees, whether they are fleeing war in Syria and Iraq, the torment of life in Gaza or the poverty of the sub-Saharan African interior, want no less than what anyone would want for their families: security and stability. So forlorn are most of those seeking to make the perilous journey from North Africa to southern Europe that they are compelled to submit to the demands of nefarious traffickers and risk their lives on the high sea.

The challenges of immigration and the mass movement of peoples will not be solved by Britain seeking to leave the EU or by nations closing their borders to refugees from failed or crumbling states. Nor will the pledge by the EU to limit search-and-rescue missions deter the desperate. The people will come or attempt to come.

The world’s population is seven billion; it is forecast to reach 11 billion by 2100, by which time the pressures of overpopulation and resource scarcity will be even greater. In an interview with the NS in 2009, ­David Miliband, then foreign secretary, said: “Foreign policy is ­inseparable from domestic policy now.” The interconnectedness of the world today means that analysis was broadly ­correct – and, consequently, we must not retreat into fearful ­nationalism and protectionism, but engage with the world in and through multilateral organisations. And as politicians talk of immigrants “swamping” our island, we should heed the example of Nicholas Winton, a true and compassionate ­humanitarian. 

This article first appeared in the 29 October 2014 issue of the New Statesman, British jihadis fighting with Isis

Photo: Getty
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If the left leaves it to David Cameron, we'll have Brexit for sure

Only an upbeat, leftwing case can keep Britain in the European Union.

After months flapping and hesitation, and with much of the reporting and detail so dull that it has barely penetrated the consciousness of even those who speak the language of ‘directives’ and treaty provisions, the EU referendum is upon us. With David Cameron signalling concrete outcomes for negotiations, we seem to be set for June, whatever the protests from opposition parties about the date being too close to local and national elections.  

Cameron’s deal, whose most substantive element consists of denying in-work benefits to European citizens, exemplifies the kind of debate that Conservative strategists want to create: a tedious, labyrinthine parochialism, blending the EU’s procedural dullness with an unquestioned mythology of the little Englander. Try actually reading the various letters, let alone the draft decisions, that Cameron extracted from Donald Tusk, and the agreement turns to putty in your head. But in summary, what Cameron is negotiating is designed to keep the EU debate as an in-house affair within the right, to continue and formalise the framing of the debate as between two strains of anti-migrant sentiment, both of them backed by big business.

The deal may be reactionary, but it is also mediocre in its scope and impact. The worries that many of us had in the leftwing pro-In camp, that Cameron’s deal would push back freedom of movement and working and environmental protections so far that we would be unable to mobilise for continued membership of the EU, can now be put to bed. Quite the opposite of allowing Cameron's narrative to demoralise us, the left must now seize an opportunity to put imagination and ideas back at the heart of the referendum debate.

The British political landscape in which that debate will play out is a deceptively volatile environment. Party allegiance is at a nearly all time low. Inequality is growing, and so is the gap between attitudes. The backbone of the UKIP vote – and much of the Out vote – will come from a demographic that, sometimes impoverished by the legacy of Thatcherite economic policy, sees itself as left behind by migration and change. On top of the class war, there is a kind of culture war underway in today’s Britain: on one side those who see LGBT rights, open borders and internationalism as the future; on the other side, those who are scared of the future. About the only thing these groups have in common with one another is their anti-establishment instincts, their total disdain and mistrust of politics as usual.

The only political movement to have broken through the fog of cynicism and disillusionment in British politics has come from the left. Jeremy Corbyn’s rise to the leadership of the Labour has unleashed something new - and while large parts of the press, and some Labour backbenchers, have portrayed this rise as a crusade of the “croissant eating” metropolitan elite, the reality is very different. The rise of the new Labour left has given voice to a renewed socialist and working class politics; its explicitly radical, outsider approach has given it traction across the social divides – among the young looking for a future, and among Labour’s old base. 

A politics of hope – however vague that term might sound – is the only real answer to the populist Euroscepticism that the Out campaign will seek to embody. Radical politics, that proposes an alternative narrative to the scapegoating of migrants, has to find voice in the course of this referendum campaign: put simply, we need to persuade a minimum wage worker that they have more in common with a fellow Polish migrant worker than they do with their employer; we need to persuade someone on a social housing waiting list should blame the privatisation of the housing market, not other homeless families. Fundamentally, the real debate to be had is about who the public blames for social injustice: that is a question which only the left can satisfactorily answer.

The outsider-led volatility of British politics gives the EU referendum a special kind of unpredictability. For voters who have lost faith in the political establishment – and who often have little materially to lose from Brexit – the opportunity to deliver a blow to David Cameron this summer will be tempting. The almost consciously boring, business-dominated Britain Stronger In Europe campaign makes a perfect target for disenfranchised public sentiment, its campaigning style less informed by a metropolitan elite than by the landed gentry. Its main weapons – fear, danger and uncertainty – will work on some parts of the electorate, but will backfire on others, much as the Better Together campaign did in the Scottish referendum.

Last night, Another Europe is Possible held a launch meeting of about a hundred people in central London - with the backing of dozens of MPs, campaigners and academics across the country. It will aim to provide a radical, left wing voice to keep Britain in the EU.

If Britain votes to leave the EU in June, it will give the Right a mandate for a renewed set of attacks on workers’ rights, environmental protections, migrants and freedom of movement. But without an injection of idealism and radicalism,  an In vote will be a mandate for the status quo - at home and in Brussels. In order to seize the real potential of the referendum, the left has to approach the campaign with big ideas and demands. And we have to mobilise.