What is it about those vans?

Surely Cameron's modernising senses detect the toxic smell given off when a Tory Home Secretary runs a "migrants go home" campaign.

I can’t stop thinking about the vans. I don’t like them. I don’t like mobile billboards being driven around London – soon to be extended to other regions – urging illegal migrants to contact the Home Office for help with repatriation. That isn’t what I’ve been thinking about. Not liking the vans was instinctive. Arriving at that position didn’t take any cognitive time and that, in itself, bothered me. Unthinking reactions are an unreliable guide in politics and journalism.

So the question that has been occupying my thoughts is why don’t I like the vans?

Mark Harper, the immigration minister, has today written a defence of the vans in the Daily Mail. His argument is that there is no racist message or intent. The purpose of the policy is to spread the word to illegal migrants that help is at hand if they want to go “home”. (It is, of course, possible that they now consider the UK home but that isn’t what the minister means.)

I accept one important element of Mr Harper’s case. There is nothing intrinsically racist about a policy of repatriating people who are in Britain illegally, nor is it necessarily racist to encourage them to leave, advise them that help exists to facilitate the process and remind them that failure to do so puts them on the wrong side of the law. By definition, the policy is race blind. It covers a person’s legal status not their identity.

I depart from the minister’s analysis when he asserts that the only intended audience for this policy is the migrants themselves. He says if the evidence shows the vans aren’t having a positive impact on voluntary repatriations, they will be withdrawn. They will of course be withdrawn at some point anyway. No campaign runs forever.

I doubt that many illegal migrants are itching to make themselves known to the Home Office. The decision to come to the UK without official permission or to overstay a visa is driven by a combination of despair and economic rationality. Whatever it is that has been left behind has been left behind for a reason. Some go back. Others see no incentive to do so. The offer of government help is probably peripheral to that calculation. The element of the Home Office message that has the most communicative value is the picture of handcuffs. Its value is as a threat.

Illegal migrants don’t need a visual aid to tell them to fear the police. I think Mr Harper is being disingenuous. At least part of the intended audience for this campaign is people who are British, who think there are too many immigrants here and want some of them to leave. The posters are to reassure them that the government is on the case.

That still doesn’t make the vans racist. This is an old problem. Not everyone who wants less immigration is a racist but every racist wants less immigration. So it is hard to craft a message for the concerned non-racist without earning unwanted nods of approval from the racist. Hard. Not impossible. Clarity of intent is vital. The vans fail this test because they are unlikely to have a discernible impact on numbers, while certain to reinforce the impression that the nation is overrun with illicit foreigners. The government accepts the view of many voters that Britain is full to the brim with people who don’t deserve to be here. That assertion doesn’t always recognise a difference between legal and illegal status, nor between economic migration and political asylum. For the Home Office to drive around brandishing a pair of handcuffs is to abet the suspicion that there is something generically illegitimate about being foreign-born in the UK.

Halfway through his defence of the posters, Mark Harper makes the following assertion:

In some neighbourhoods, uncontrolled immigration has put intolerable pressure on our country’s infrastructure: on schools, housing, and the NHS.

There follows a reiteration of the government’s determination to reduce net migration. At no point does the minister indicate that he has stopped talking about illegal migrants and started talking about all the other people living, working and paying taxes in Britain who happen not to be British. The government defence of the vans, in other words, is that they are part of a wider strategy to get the numbers down. By implication, legals and illegals are different categories of the same scourge, defined as being foreign and over here – with the prescribed remedy being departure.

So what? I am second-generation British, born to foreign parents. I have liberal views on immigration. That puts me in a minority and governments are under no obligation to craft their policies to satisfy my prejudices. The vans aren’t aimed at me and they aren’t aimed at people like me. That I react badly to them might even be taken as a sign of their success. There are Tories who measure the effectives of their message by the volume of anguished cries in bien pensant cosmopolitan commentary. What I find intriguing is that David Cameron used not to be one of those Tories.

There is no need here to rehearse the whole “modernisation” argument again. The story of how Cameron tried and largely failed to decontaminate his party's problematic brand has been told often enough, including by me in these pages.

No-one any longer expects the David Cameron who is Prime Minister in August 2013 to say the same things as the David Cameron who was newly elected Tory leader in December 2005. His protean nature – what Labour calls unprincipled slipperiness – is in the price. Most Tory MPs accept that their leader is unburdened by ideological consistency. It should come as no surprise if now Cameron signs off on policies that, in a former incarnation, he would have resisted.

Yet there is something qualitatively different about those bloody vans. They are a gimmick that could hardly have been better designed to cause the maximum affront for the minimum policy outcome. The impact on net migration will be negligible; the ugliness of the message is palpable – at least to those attuned to the offence. And I suspect Cameron is one of those people. He could not, I believe, have played the role of modern “progressive” Conservative in the period 2005-07 as well as he did without some possession of the liberal sensibilities that go with the part. No-one can have studied the toxic miasma that hangs over Tory party immigration policy as thoroughly has he has and come away without knowing the obnoxious potential of a “sneaky migrants go home” campaign run by a Conservative Home Secretary.

I’ll wager that Cameron gets it. He gets exactly why some people viscerally hate those vans. He knows what it is that makes some of us recoil in disgust. I bet he can smell it too – and yet he holds his nose because he has calculated that the stench only chokes people who probably won't vote Tory anyway. That shows a capacity for cynicism that should be worrying in a leader even to people who admire the Conservative party's current immigration policy.

The Home Office's van. Photo: gov.uk

Rafael Behr is political columnist at the Guardian and former political editor of the New Statesman

Photo: Getty
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The UK press’s timid reaction to Brexit is in marked contrast to the satire unleashed on Trump

For the BBC, it seems, to question leaving the EU is to be unpatriotic.

Faced with arguably their biggest political-cum-constitutional ­crisis in half a century, the press on either side of the pond has reacted very differently. Confronting a president who, unlike many predecessors, does not merely covertly dislike the press but rages against its supposed mendacity as a purveyor of “fake news”, the fourth estate in the US has had a pretty successful first 150-odd days of the Trump era. The Washington Post has recovered its Watergate mojo – the bloodhound tenacity that brought down Richard Nixon. The Post’s investigations into links between the Kremlin and Donald Trump’s associates and appointees have yielded the scalp of the former security adviser Michael Flynn and led to Attorney General Jeff Sessions recusing himself from all inquiries into Trump-Russia contacts. Few imagine the story will end there.

Meanwhile, the New York Times has cast off its image as “the grey lady” and come out in sharper colours. Commenting on the James Comey memo in an editorial, the Times raised the possibility that Trump was trying to “obstruct justice”, and called on Washington lawmakers to “uphold the constitution”. Trump’s denunciations of the Times as “failing” have acted as commercial “rocket fuel” for the paper, according to its CEO, Mark Thompson: it gained an “astonishing” 308,000 net digital news subscriptions in the first quarter of 2017.

US-based broadcast organisations such as CNN and ABC, once considered slick or bland, have reacted to Trump’s bullying in forthright style. Political satire is thriving, led by Saturday Night Live, with its devastating impersonations of the president by Alec Baldwin and of his press secretary Sean Spicer by the brilliant Melissa McCarthy.

British press reaction to Brexit – an epic constitutional, political and economic mess-up that probably includes a mind-bogglingly destructive self-ejection from a single market and customs union that took decades to construct, a move pushed through by a far-right faction of the Tory party – has been much more muted. The situation is complicated by the cheerleading for Brexit by most of the British tabloids and the Daily Telegraph. There are stirrings of resistance, but even after an election in which Theresa May spectacularly failed to secure a mandate for her hard Brexit, there is a sense, though the criticism of her has been intense, of the media pussy-footing around a government in disarray – not properly interrogating those who still seem to promise that, in relation to Europe, we can have our cake and eat it.

This is especially the case with the BBC, a state broadcaster that proudly proclaims its independence from the government of the day, protected by the famous “arm’s-length” principle. In the case of Brexit, the BBC invoked its concept of “balance” to give equal airtime and weight to Leavers and Remainers. Fair enough, you might say, but according to the economist Simon Wren-Lewis, it ignored a “near-unanimous view among economists that Brexit would hurt the UK economy in the longer term”.

A similar view of “balance” in the past led the BBC to equate views of ­non-scientific climate contrarians, often linked to the fossil-fuel lobby, with those of leading climate scientists. Many BBC Remainer insiders still feel incensed by what they regard as BBC betrayal over Brexit. Although the referendum of 23 June 2016 said nothing about leaving the single market or the customs union, the Today presenter Justin Webb, in a recent interview with Stuart Rose, put it like this: “Staying in the single market, staying in the customs union – [Leave voters would say] you might as well not be leaving. That fundamental position is a matter of democracy.” For the BBC, it seems, to question Brexit is somehow to be unpatriotic.

You might think that an independent, pro-democratic press would question the attempted use of the arcane and archaic “royal prerogative” to enable the ­bypassing of parliament when it came to triggering Article 50, signalling the UK’s departure from the EU. But when the campaigner Gina Miller’s challenge to the government was upheld by the high court, the three ruling judges were attacked on the front page of the Daily Mail as “enemies of the people”. Thomas Jefferson wrote that he would rather have “newspapers without a government” than “a government without newspapers”. It’s a fair guess he wasn’t thinking of newspapers that would brand the judiciary as “enemies of the people”.

It does seem significant that the United States has a written constitution, encapsulating the separation and balance of powers, and explicitly designed by the Founding Fathers to protect the young republic against tyranny. When James Madison drafted the First Amendment he was clear that freedom of the press should be guaranteed to a much higher degree in the republic than it had been in the colonising power, where for centuries, after all, British monarchs and prime ministers have had no qualms about censoring an unruly media.

By contrast, the United Kingdom remains a hybrid of monarchy and democracy, with no explicit protection of press freedom other than the one provided by the common law. The national impulse to bend the knee before the sovereign, to obey and not question authority, remains strangely powerful in Britain, the land of Henry VIII as well as of George Orwell. That the United Kingdom has slipped 11 places in the World Press Freedom Index in the past four years, down to 40th, has rightly occasioned outrage. Yet, even more awkwardly, the United States is three places lower still, at 43rd. Freedom of the press may not be doing quite as well as we imagine in either country.

Harry Eyres is the author of Horace and Me: Life Lessons from an Ancient Poet (2013)

This article first appeared in the 20 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The new world disorder