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 edits the New Statesman's sister site CityMetric, and writes for the NS about subjects including politics, history and Daniel Hannan. He is on Twitter, almost continously, as @JonnElledge.

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Donald Trump ushers in a new era of kakistocracy: government by the worst people

Trump will lead the whitest, most male cabinet in memory – a bizarre melange of the unqualified and the unhinged.

“What fills me with doubt and dismay is the degradation of the moral tone,” wrote the American poet James Russell Lowell in 1876, in a letter to his fellow poet Joel Benton. “Is it or is it not a result of democracy? Is ours a ‘government of the people by the people for the people’, or a kakistocracy rather, for the benefit of knaves at the cost of fools?”

Is there a better, more apt description of the incoming Trump administration than “kakistocracy”, which translates from the Greek literally as government by the worst people? The new US president, as Barack Obama remarked on the campaign trail, is “uniquely unqualified” to be commander-in-chief. There is no historical analogy for a President Trump. He combines in a single person some of the worst qualities of some of the worst US presidents: the Donald makes Nixon look honest, Clinton look chaste, Bush look smart.

Trump began his tenure as president-elect in November by agreeing to pay out $25m to settle fraud claims brought against the now defunct Trump University by dozens of former students; he began the new year being deposed as part of his lawsuit against a celebrity chef. On 10 January, the Federal Election Commission sent the Trump campaign a 250-page letter outlining a series of potentially illegal campaign contributions. A day later, the head of the non-partisan US Office of Government Ethics slammed Trump’s plan to step back from running his businesses as “meaningless from a conflict-of-interest perspective”.

It cannot be repeated often enough: none of this is normal. There is no precedent for such behaviour, and while kakistocracy may be a term unfamiliar to most of us, this is what it looks like. Forget 1876: be prepared for four years of epic misgovernance and brazen corruption. Despite claiming in his convention speech, “I alone can fix it,” the former reality TV star won’t be governing on his own. He will be in charge of the richest, whitest, most male cabinet in living memory; a bizarre melange of the unqualified and the unhinged.

There has been much discussion about the lack of experience of many of Trump’s appointees (think of the incoming secretary of state, Rex Tillerson, who has no background in diplomacy or foreign affairs) and their alleged bigotry (the Alabama senator Jeff Sessions, denied a role as a federal judge in the 1980s following claims of racial discrimination, is on course to be confirmed as attorney general). Yet what should equally worry the average American is that Trump has picked people who, in the words of the historian Meg Jacobs, “are downright hostile to the mission of the agency they are appointed to run”. With their new Republican president’s blessing, they want to roll back support for the poorest, most vulnerable members of society and don’t give a damn how much damage they do in the process.

Take Scott Pruitt, the Oklahoma attorney general selected to head the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). Pruitt describes himself on his LinkedIn page as “a leading advocate against the EPA’s activist agenda” and has claimed that the debate over climate change is “far from settled”.

The former neurosurgeon Ben Carson is Trump’s pick for housing and urban development, a department with a $49bn budget that helps low-income families own homes and pay the rent. Carson has no background in housing policy, is an anti-welfare ideologue and ruled himself out of a cabinet job shortly after the election. “Dr Carson feels he has no government experience,” his spokesman said at the time. “He’s never run a federal agency. The last thing he would want to do was take a position that could cripple the presidency.”

The fast-food mogul Andrew Puzder, who was tapped to run the department of labour, doesn’t like . . . well . . . labour. He prefers robots, telling Business Insider in March 2016: “They’re always polite . . . They never take a vacation, they never show up late, there’s never a slip-and-fall, or an age, sex or race discrimination case.”

The billionaire Republican donor Betsy DeVos, nominated to run the department of education, did not attend state school and neither did any of her four children. She has never been a teacher, has no background in education and is a champion of school vouchers and privatisation. To quote the education historian Diane Ravitch: “If confirmed, DeVos will be the first education secretary who is actively hostile to public education.”

The former Texas governor Rick Perry, nominated for the role of energy secretary by Trump, promised to abolish the department that he has been asked to run while trying to secure his party’s presidential nomination in 2011. Compare and contrast Perry, who has an undergraduate degree in animal science but failed a chemistry course in college, with his two predecessors under President Obama: Dr Ernest Moniz, the former head of MIT’s physics department, and Dr Steven Chu, a Nobel Prize-winning physicist from Berkeley. In many ways, Perry, who spent the latter half of 2016 as a contestant on Dancing with the Stars, is the ultimate kakistocratic appointment.

“Do Trump’s cabinet picks want to run the government – or dismantle it?” asked a headline in the Chicago Tribune in December. That’s one rather polite way of putting it. Another would be to note, as the Online Etymology Dictionary does, that kakistocracy comes from kakistos, the Greek word for “worst”, which is a superlative of kakos, or “bad”, which “is related to the general Indo-European word for ‘defecate’”.

Mehdi Hasan has rejoined the New Statesman as a contributing editor and will write a fortnightly column on US politics

Mehdi Hasan is a contributing writer for the New Statesman and the co-author of Ed: The Milibands and the Making of a Labour Leader. He was the New Statesman's senior editor (politics) from 2009-12.

This article first appeared in the 19 January 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The Trump era