David Cameron speaking at a press conference after last week's European summit. Image: Getty.
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Britain's refusal to play its part in the Mediterranean migrant crisis will be a stain on our history

Makes you proud to be British.

In the late Thirties, as the Nazis closed in on Czechoslovakia, British stockbroker Nicholas Winton headed up an operation to get Jewish children out of the country and to find them new homes in Britain. The kindertransport, as it's known to history, saved 669 lives.

It’s an incredible story. But the reason I mention it here is less because of what happened in 1938-9, than because of what happened when the world found out about it half a century later. On a 1988 episode of the BBC magazine programme That's Life! Esther Rantzen retold Winton's story, noted that he was in the audience, then asked if anyone else in the studio owed him their lives. Several dozen of the surrounding people stood up. Winton, not knowing that this was coming, looked around him, dumbstruck, and visibly tried to hold back tears.

You can see the clip below: it’s an amazing piece of film, heartbreaking and joyful all at the same time. Even knowing that it's coming – even knowing quite how emotionally manipulative the whole thing is, and that Winton himself later said he was uncomfortable with being ambushed like that – I defy you not to tear up.

On the offchance you haven't seen it, here's the clip of Nicholas Winton on That's Life!

In the years since, Winton – who is still alive, now aged 105 – has been awarded honours by both the British and Czech governments, and dubbed the “British Schindler” by the press.

The Mail and the Express would probably not have been quite so supportive back in 1938, when they were busy attacking the “flood" of German Jewish refugees as an "outrage". It's hard to know what they'd have said of Winton, if they'd known what he was up to, but it seems unlikely it would have been "give the man an OBE". Now, though, he’s a national hero.

Anyway. Last week, David Cameron confirmed that he would use Britain's opt-out to ensure that we wouldn't have to play any part in dealing with the tens of thousands of migrants washing up on Europe's southern shores. Most countries will take a few of these guys, to ensure the whole burden of housing and feeding them doesn’t fall so heavily on the Italians; Britain, though, will not take any.

On leaving the summit, our prime minister said what a successful meeting it had been because they'd let him talk about his plans for reform. Maybe I'm being cynical, but it's hard to imagine footage of that doing the rounds as a feel-good tear-jerker in half a century’s time.

I'm not trying to draw direct parallels between the Nazis' treatment of European Jewry and the things that are causing today’s crisis in the Mediterranean. That would be silly. But one lesson you can take from the Winton story is that posterity favours compassion. The man who did the right thing is now feted as a national hero. The newspapers who described Jewish refugees as alien invaders look like shits.

Those newspapers are still at it, and Britain’s policies are still being influenced by their coverage. Cameron, as a politician, needs the approval of the Mail and the Express in a way that Winton never did.

Nonetheless, he just won a majority we all thought was impossible: today, he has as much political capital as he's ever likely to have. He could have used some of that here – could have said that these migrants are human beings, in need of help; that our friends and allies across the channel need international support to address this crisis; that it would be an act of moral cowardice for Britain not to play its part, just because a few tabloid newspapers would object.

But no. Instead, our prime minister decided he’d rather look big in front of the same newspapers that once warned us of the flood of Jewish refugees.

I'm sure there has been a time I've been less proud to be British, but it doesn't immediately come to mind.

Still, Cameron clearly knows what he’s doing. No doubt, this rejection of European solidarity will have done wonders to win him friends in his campaign for European reform.

Jonn Elledge is the editor of the New Statesman's sister site CityMetric. He is on Twitter, far too much, as @JonnElledge.

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Richmond is a wake-up call for Labour's Brexit strategy

No one made Labour stand in Richmond Park. 

Oh, Labour Party. There was a way through.

No one made you stand in Richmond Park. You could have "struck a blow against the government", you could have shared the Lib Dem success. Instead, you lost both your dignity and your deposit. And to cap it all (Christian Wolmar, take a bow) you self-nominated for a Nobel Prize for Mansplaining.

It’s like the party strategist is locked in the bowels of HQ, endlessly looping in reverse Olivia Newton John’s "Making a Good Thing Better".

And no one can think that today marks the end of the party’s problems on Brexit.

But the thing is: there’s no need to Labour on. You can fix it.

Set the government some tests. Table some amendments: “The government shall negotiate having regard to…”

  • What would be good for our economy (boost investment, trade and jobs).
  • What would enhance fairness (help individuals and communities who have missed out over the last decades).
  • What would deliver sovereignty (magnify our democratic control over our destiny).
  • What would improve finances (what Brexit makes us better off, individually and collectively). 

And say that, if the government does not meet those tests, the Labour party will not support the Article 50 deal. You’ll take some pain today – but no matter, the general election is not for years. And if the tests are well crafted they will be easy to defend.

Then wait for the negotiations to conclude. If in 2019, Boris Johnson returns bearing cake for all, if the tests are achieved, Labour will, and rightly, support the government’s Brexit deal. There will be no second referendum. And MPs in Leave voting constituencies will bear no Brexit penalty at the polls.

But if he returns with thin gruel? If the economy has tanked, if inflation is rising and living standards have slumped, and the deficit has ballooned – what then? The only winners will be door manufacturers. Across the country they will be hard at work replacing those kicked down at constituency offices by voters demanding a fix. Labour will be joined in rejecting the deal from all across the floor: Labour will have shown the way.

Because the party reads the electorate today as wanting Brexit, it concludes it must deliver it. But, even for those who think a politician’s job is to channel the electorate, this thinking discloses an error in logic. The task is not to read the political dynamic of today. It is to position itself for the dynamic when it matters - at the next general election

And by setting some economic tests for a good Brexit, Labour can buy an option on that for free.

An earlier version of this argument appeared on Jolyon Maugham's blog Waiting For Tax.

Jolyon Maugham is a barrister who advised Ed Miliband on tax policy. He blogs at Waiting for Tax, and writes for the NS on tax and legal issues.