David Cameron speaking at a press conference after last week's European summit. Image: Getty.
Show Hide image

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 edits the New Statesman's sister site CityMetric, and writes for the NS about subjects including politics, history and Daniel Hannan. You can find him on Twitter or Facebook.

Getty
Show Hide image

Theresa May’s stage-managed election campaign keeps the public at bay

Jeremy Corbyn’s approach may be chaotic, but at least it’s more authentic.

The worst part about running an election campaign for a politician? Having to meet the general public. Those ordinary folk can be a tricky lot, with their lack of regard for being on-message, and their pesky real-life concerns.

But it looks like Theresa May has decided to avoid this inconvenience altogether during this snap general election campaign, as it turns out her visit to Leeds last night was so stage-managed that she barely had to face the public.

Accusations have been whizzing around online that at a campaign event at the Shine building in Leeds, the Prime Minister spoke to a room full of guests invited by the party, rather than local people or people who work in the building’s office space.

The Telegraph’s Chris Hope tweeted a picture of the room in which May was addressing her audience yesterday evening a little before 7pm. He pointed out that, being in Leeds, she was in “Labour territory”:

But a few locals who spied this picture online claimed that the audience did not look like who you’d expect to see congregated at Shine – a grade II-listed Victorian school that has been renovated into a community project housing office space and meeting rooms.

“Ask why she didn’t meet any of the people at the business who work in that beautiful building. Everyone there was an invite-only Tory,” tweeted Rik Kendell, a Leeds-based developer and designer who says he works in the Shine building. “She didn’t arrive until we’d all left for the day. Everyone in the building past 6pm was invite-only . . . They seemed to seek out the most clinical corner for their PR photos. Such a beautiful building to work in.”

Other tweeters also found the snapshot jarring:

Shine’s founders have pointed out that they didn’t host or invite Theresa May – rather the party hired out the space for a private event: “All visitors pay for meeting space in Shine and we do not seek out, bid for, or otherwise host any political parties,” wrote managing director Dawn O'Keefe. The guestlist was not down to Shine, but to the Tory party.

The audience consisted of journalists and around 150 Tory activists, according to the Guardian. This was instead of employees from the 16 offices housed in the building. I have asked the Conservative Party for clarification of who was in the audience and whether it was invite-only and am awaiting its response.

Jeremy Corbyn accused May of “hiding from the public”, and local Labour MP Richard Burgon commented that, “like a medieval monarch, she simply briefly relocated her travelling court of admirers to town and then moved on without so much as a nod to the people she considers to be her lowly subjects”.

But it doesn’t look like the Tories’ painstaking stage-management is a fool-proof plan. Having uniform audiences of the party faithful on the campaign trail seems to be confusing the Prime Minister somewhat. During a visit to a (rather sparsely populated) factory in Clay Cross, Derbyshire, yesterday, she appeared to forget where exactly on the campaign trail she was:

The management of Corbyn’s campaign has also resulted in gaffes – but for opposite reasons. A slightly more chaotic approach has led to him facing the wrong way, with his back to the cameras.

Corbyn’s blunder is born out of his instinct to address the crowd rather than the cameras – May’s problem is the other way round. Both, however, seem far more comfortable talking to the party faithful, even if they are venturing out of safe seat territory.

Anoosh Chakelian is senior writer at the New Statesman.

0800 7318496