A boat with refugees. Photo: AFP/Getty Images
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Why does the UK now oppose funding search and rescue operations in the Mediterranean?

Political expediency trumps the needs of the most desperate.

How do you solve a problem like desperate foreigners risking their lives to get to the UK? The government has a new answer. 

Britain will not support search and rescue operations to prevent refugees drowning in the Mediterranean. “We do not support planned search and rescue operations in the Mediterranean,” the Foreign Office minister Baroness Anelay has explained, asserting that search and rescue operations acted as “an unintended ‘pull factor’, encouraging more migrants to attempt the dangerous sea crossing and thereby leading to more tragic and unnecessary deaths”. The implication, therefore, is that the policy is a humane one, designed to save lives.

It is easy to take a different view. Those who flee from Libya or Syria do so in desperation. The existing rescue operations hardly make crossing the Mediterranean as a refugee risk-free. Over 3,000 people have died attempting to reach Europe from the Mediterranean so far this year. The idea that they will cease now that the quality of the search and rescue operation has deteriorated even further is extraordinary.

The UK has long maintained a certain sense of moral superiority in its attitude to welcoming immigrants and refugees. When the Australian government released its notorious posters two weeks ago – ‘NO WAY: You will not make Australia home’, accompanied by the image of a boat being tossed in a threatening sea – many said that it could not happen here.

That claim just became a lot harder to make. In the quest to clamp down on immigration, of any sort, the UK government has put thousands of desperate refugees at risk. One of David Cameron’s most notable achievements has been the development of the What Works Network, with its emphasis on evidence in policy-making. Yet there seems no indication whatsoever that evidence that reducing search and rescue operations will save lives, as Lady Anelay suggested.

The conclusion is inescapable. The UK government is acting brazenly out of a need to be seen to be doing something – anything, really – about immigration. Political expediency trumps the needs of some of the most distressed people in the world.

They are not the only losers. Acts like these, together with the ‘Go Home or Face Arrest’ vans last year, create the image of the UK as distrustful and even resentful of foreigners, which has already manifested itself in the steep drop in foreign students studying in the UK. If talented foreign people see a country that seems suspicious of them, they will be less likely to work in the UK or do business with it, with negative economic consequences for everyone in the UK.

The government’s stance on search and rescue operations not only fails on a humanitarian case, but also on the most hardheaded business one too.

Tim Wigmore is a contributing writer to the New Statesman and the author of Second XI: Cricket In Its Outposts.

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Ignored by the media, the Liberal Democrats are experiencing a revival

The crushed Liberals are doing particularly well in areas that voted Conservative in 2015 - and Remain in 2016. 

The Liberal Democrats had another good night last night, making big gains in by-elections. They won Adeyfield West, a seat they have never held in Dacorum, with a massive swing. They were up by close to the 20 points in the Derby seat of Allestree, beating Labour into second place. And they won a seat in the Cotswolds, which borders the vacant seat of Witney.

It’s worth noting that they also went backwards in a safe Labour ward in Blackpool and a safe Conservative seat in Northamptonshire.  But the overall pattern is clear, and it’s not merely confined to last night: the Liberal Democrats are enjoying a mini-revival, particularly in the south-east.

Of course, it doesn’t appear to be making itself felt in the Liberal Democrats’ poll share. “After Corbyn's election,” my colleague George tweeted recently, “Some predicted Lib Dems would rise like Lazarus. But poll ratings still stuck at 8 per cent.” Prior to the local elections, I was pessimistic that the so-called Liberal Democrat fightback could make itself felt at a national contest, when the party would have to fight on multiple fronts.

But the local elections – the first time since 1968 when every part of the mainland United Kingdom has had a vote on outside of a general election – proved that completely wrong. They  picked up 30 seats across England, though they had something of a nightmare in Stockport, and were reduced to just one seat in the Welsh Assembly. Their woes continued in Scotland, however, where they slipped to fifth place. They were even back to the third place had those votes been replicated on a national scale.

Polling has always been somewhat unkind to the Liberal Democrats outside of election campaigns, as the party has a low profile, particularly now it has just eight MPs. What appears to be happening at local by-elections and my expectation may be repeated at a general election is that when voters are presented with the option of a Liberal Democrat at the ballot box they find the idea surprisingly appealing.

Added to that, the Liberal Democrats’ happiest hunting grounds are clearly affluent, Conservative-leaning areas that voted for Remain in the referendum. All of which makes their hopes of a good second place in Witney – and a good night in the 2017 county councils – look rather less farfetched than you might expect. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. He usually writes about politics.