The story of the Chagossians

Vidisha Biswas investigates the story of the Chagossians - forcibly removed from their Indian Ocean

Four decades and three legal defeats later, the British Foreign Office is still unwilling to allow some 5000 Chagossians to return to their island homes.

It has tried virtually everything in its power to prevent them, from pretending the Chagos islands had never been inhabited - other than by migrant labourers - to invoking the royal prerogative to overturn a British High Court ruling.

Now several hundred have agreed to renounce their right to return. Despite this, the government has been reluctant to meet even the modest demands that they are making in lieu.

The tragedy of the Chagossians dates back to the 1960s, when Washington decided that the island of Diego Garcia was perfect setting for a US military base. Diego Garcia is the largest of the 60 plus islands that form the Chagos archipelago, located in the heart of the Indian Ocean.

Britain bought these islands from Mauritius in 1965 for £3 million. Its population is estimated to have been about 2000 at the time. The dilemma facing the US and UK governments was how to clear the islands of its inhabitants, to make way for the American base.

They resolved this dilemma by tricking or intimidating the islanders into leaving. “We were then dumped in the sordid slums of the Mauritian capital, Port Louis,” recalls Olivier Bancoult, leader of almost 4000 Chagossians, many of whom are based, to this day, in those same slums.

In return for the use of the island, the US is believed to have given the UK a $14m discount on its purchase of a Polaris nuclear missile system. But it was ten years from the time of expulsion, before the islanders received any sort of compensation from the British government. The money when it did arrive, was - at £3,000-a-head - both too little and came too late, insists Mr Bancoult.

A British High Court judgement last year denounced the government’s actions as “repugnant”. Both the High Court and the Court of Appeal ruled that the use of the royal prerogative, which allows decisions to be made by ministers without consulting Parliament, had been unlawful. The Court of Appeal also refused the Foreign Office leave to appeal to the House of Lords.

That should have been the end of the matter. But earlier this year, the Foreign Office decided to petition the Law Lords directly for the right to appeal. If the Law Lords cede to the government’s demands then the case will be heard in 2008. The legal battle so far is estimated to have cost the taxpayer up to £4m.

“The ruling about the royal prerogative did not apply just to the Chagos islands,” explains a spokesperson for the Foreign Office. “It has implications for other overseas territories as well. If royal prerogatives are challengeable, it makes all legislation unsound. That is why the Foreign Office decided to petition the Law Lords.”

But Richard Gifford, the Chagossians' lawyer, thinks otherwise. “The islanders have been delayed by endless litigation from returning home,” he said. “The government has used every means of obstructing them in the hope perhaps that as many as possible will die off, and the instinct to go back will lessen.”

If that indeed is the case, then government efforts appear to have been successful, at least as far as the British Indian Ocean People’s Party (BIOPP) is concerned. This group, which comprises of several hundred Chagossian families that have migrated in recent years to Crawley, West Sussex, no longer desires to return to the Chagos archipelago.

“The way of life now, compared to the way of life 40 years ago, is completely different," explains Allen Vincatassin, leader of the BIOPP. “Our island homes, moreover, have long been reduced to wild, forest land. To make them habitable once again will mean spending huge amounts of public money.

“It will be near impossible to take up from where we left off. The islander’s can have a much better future in the UK. This is where they can recover from what they have lost and all that they have had to suffer.”

Easier said than done. Mr Vincatassin’s party has been campaigning since 2004 for Chagossians- who are all British passport holders - to be entitled to welfare benefits immediately following arrival in the UK.

Their demands were rejected by the British High Court last year. The matter is currently being considered by the Court of Appeal and a decision is expected within the next month.

“My people have to pass the habitual residence test. They can’t claim state benefits for three months,” explains Mr Vincatassin.

“This may not seem like a very long waiting period to most people. But for many Chagossians, who arrive in the UK with next to nothing, it can mean the difference between life and death.

“The government says that the residency rule applies to all British citizens. It was on these grounds that the High Court dismissed our claims.

“But we believe that we should be exceptions to that rule. After all, we have had to give up our homes in the name of British national interest. They owe us at least this much. But even in this regard, the UK government has so far failed us.

“Still we will not give up hope. We eagerly await the Court of Appeal's judgement. Till the very end, we will hold on to the hope that Britain will eventually heed the call of justice.”

Olivier Bancoult, however, accuses Mr Vincatassin of selling out. He said: “The only way the UK government can redeem itself is by allowing the Chagossians to return home as soon as possible, and by putting in place the necessary infrastructure that will allow them to carry on with their lives as before.

“I speak for the majority of Chagossians, who share the same demands. In any case, irrespective of whether or not all the islanders ultimately return, the point is that they should be given the right and the means to return... in other words, the choice.

“I find it hard to believe the lengths the British government will go to. Every time we think we have won the fight, it finds a new way of prolonging our misery. Many of us have given up hope of ever seeing our homeland again.

“How can a government that claims that it gives the greatest importance to human rights refuse to recognise the rights and dignity of the islanders, who too are British citizens?”

Vidisha Biswas specialised in literature before deciding to pursue a career in journalism. Her interests include human rights, foreign politics, music and philosophy.
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The humbling of Theresa May

The Prime Minister has lost all authority. The Tories will remove her as soon as they feel the time is right.

Being politicians of unsentimental, ruthless realism, the Conservatives did not linger in the grief stage of their collective disaster after the general election. Disbelief, too, was commendably brief.

Currently, their priority is to impose some sort of order on themselves. This is the necessary prelude to the wholesale change that most see as the next phase in their attempt at recovery, which they all know is essential to their career prospects – and believe is vital to a country whose alternative prime minister is Jeremy Corbyn.

For that reason, talk of Theresa May enduring as Prime Minister until the end of the Brexit negotiations in two years’ time is the preserve of just a few wishful thinkers. Some sort of calm is being established but the party is far from settled or united; there is a widespread conviction that it cannot be so under the present leader.

Elements of the great change have been executed, as Nick Timothy and Fiona Hill, May’s former advisers, will testify.

However, this is only beginning, as shown by the debate in the media about how long May can survive in Downing Street. There is dissatisfaction about elements of her recent reshuffle, but it is quieted because few believe that some of the more contentious appointments or reappointments will last more than a matter of months. Her colleagues are also alarmed by the meal she has made of doing what was supposed to be a straightforward deal with the DUP.

The climate in the party at the moment is one in which everything – jobs, policies and, of course, the leadership – will soon be up for grabs. Debate over “hard” and “soft” Brexits is illusory: anyone who wants to be Conservative leader will need to respect the view of the party in the country, which is that Britain must leave the single market and the customs union to regain control of trade policy and borders. That is one reason why the prospects of David Davis, the Brexit Secretary, are being talked up.

Some of May’s MPs, for all their hard-mindedness about the future, speak of feeling “poleaxed” since the general election. Even before the result changed everything, there was dismay about the bad national campaign; but that, it was felt, could be discussed in a leisurely post-mortem.

Now, instead, it has undermined faith in May’s leadership and credibility. “The social care disaster was key to our defeat,” an MP told me. “It wasn’t just that the policy damaged our core vote, it was the amateurishness of the U-turn.” A more seasoned colleague noted that “it was the first election I’ve fought where we succeeded in pissing off every section of our core vote”.

The limited ministerial reshuffle was inevitable given May’s lack of authority, and summed up her untenability beyond the short term. Most of her few important changes were deeply ill judged: notably the sacking of the skills and apprenticeships minister Robert Halfon, the MP for Harlow in Essex, and a rare Tory with a direct line to the working class; and the Brexit minister David Jones, whose job had hardly begun and whose boss, Davis, was not consulted.

George Bridges, another Brexit minister, who resigned, apparently did so because he felt May had undermined the government’s position in the negotiations so badly, by failing to win the election comprehensively, that he could not face going on.

Much has been made of how Philip Hammond, the Chancellor, was marginalised and briefed against, yet reappointed. Patrick McLoughlin, the party chairman, suffered similarly. Conservative Central Office was largely shut out from the catastrophic campaign, though no one got round to briefing against McLoughlin, who kept his head down – unheard-of conduct by a party chairman in an election.

As a political force, Central Office is for now more or less impotent. It has lost the knack of arguing the case for Conservatism. MPs are increasingly worried that their party is so introspective that it just can’t deal with the way Corbyn is spinning his defeat. “An ugly mood is growing,” one said, “because militant leftism is going unchallenged.” That cannot change until May has gone and the party machine is revived and re-inspired.

***

Nobody in the party wants a general election: but most want a leadership election, and minds are concentrated on how to achieve the latter without precipitating the former. One angry and disillusioned ex-minister told me that “if there were an obvious candidate she’d be shitting herself. But most of us have realised Boris is a wanker, DD isn’t a great communicator and is a bit up himself, Hammond has no charisma, and Amber [Rudd] has a majority of 346.”

On Monday a group of senior ex-ministers met at Westminster to discuss next steps. It was agreed that, with the Brexit talks under way, the most important thing in the interests of restoring order was securing the vote on the Queen’s Speech. Then, May having done her duty and steadied the proverbial ship, the party would manage her dignified and calm evacuation from Downing Street.

Those who agree on this do not always agree on the timing. However, few can make the leap of imagination required to see her addressing the party conference in October, unless to say “Thank you and goodnight” and to initiate a leadership contest. Many would like her out long before then. The only reason they don’t want it this side of securing the Queen’s Speech is that the result, as one put it, would be “chaos”, with a leadership contest resembling “a circular firing squad”.

That metaphor is popular among Tories these days. Others use it to describe the ­apportioning of blame after the election. As well as Timothy and Hill, Lynton Crosby has sustained severe wounds that may prevent the Tories from automatically requesting his services again.

Following the Brexit referendum and Zac Goldsmith’s nasty campaign for the London mayoralty, Crosby has acquired the habit of losing. And then there was Ben Gummer, blamed not only for the social care debacle, but also for upsetting fishermen with a vaguely couched fisheries policy. These failings are becoming ancient history – and the future, not the past, is now the urgent matter – yet some Conservatives still seethe about them despite trying to move on.

“I haven’t heard anyone say she should stay – except Damian Green,” a former minister observed, referring to the new First Secretary of State. Green was at Oxford with May and seems to have earned his job because he is one of her rare friends in high politics. He is regarded as sharing her general lack of conviction.

Older activists recall how the party, in 1974, clung loyally to Ted Heath after he lost one election, and even after he lost a second. Now, deference is over. Most Tory activists, appalled by the handling of the campaign, want change. They would, however, like a contest: annoyed at not having been consulted last time, they intend not to be left silent again.

That view is largely reflected at Westminster, though a few MPs believe a coronation wouldn’t be a problem, “as we don’t want a public examination of the entrails for weeks on end when we need to be shown to be running the country effectively”. Most MPs disagree with that, seeing where a coronation got them last time.

With the summer recess coming up, at least the public’s attention would not be on Westminster if the contest took place mostly during that time: hence the feeling that, once the Queen’s Speech is dealt with, May should announce her intention to leave, in order to have a successor in place before the conference season. It is then up to the party to design a timetable that compresses the hustings between the final two candidates into as short a time as compatible with the democratic process, to get the new leader in place swiftly.

Some letters requesting a contest are said to have reached Graham Brady, the chairman of the 1922 Committee of backbenchers. One MP told me with great authority that there were eight; another, with equal certainty, said 12. Forty-eight are needed to trigger the procedure. However, engineering such a contest is not how most Tories would like to proceed. “She has had an international humiliation,” a former cabinet minister said, “and it is transparently ghastly for her. Then came the [Grenfell Tower] fire. There is no sense our rubbing it in. I suspect she knows she has to go. We admire her for staying around and clearing up the mess in a way Cameron didn’t. But she is a stopgap.”

MPs believe, with some justification, that the last thing most voters want is another general election, so caution is paramount. None doubts that the best outcome for all concerned would be for May to leave without being pushed.

Her tin-eared response to the Grenfell disaster shocked colleagues with its amateurishness and disconnection. “I’m sure she’s very upset by Grenfell,” someone who has known her since Oxford said. “But she is incapable of showing empathy. She has no bridge to the rest of the world other than Philip.” Another, referring to the controversial remark that torpedoed Andrea Leadsom’s leadership ambitions last year, said: “You would get shot for saying it, but not having had children hasn’t helped her when it comes to relating to people. Leadsom was right.”

***

May was quicker off the mark on Monday, issuing a statement condemning the appalling attack at Finsbury Park Mosque swiftly after it occurred, and going there shortly afterwards to meet community leaders. No one could fault her assurance that Muslims must enjoy the same protection under the law as everyone else, or the speed and sincerity with which it was made. She is learning what leadership entails, but too late.

Her administration has become unlucky. This happened to John Major, but, as in his case, the bad luck is partly down to bad decisions; and the bad luck that comes out of the blue simply piles in on top of everything else. Grenfell Tower, lethal and heartbreaking for its victims and their families, was merely more bad luck for the Prime Minister because of her slow-witted response and failure – presumably because shorn of her closest advisers – to do the right thing, and to do it quickly.

But then it turned out that her new chief of staff, Gavin Barwell, had in his previous incarnation as a housing minister received a report on improving fire safety in tower blocks and done nothing about it. That is either more bad luck, or it shows May has dismal judgement in the quality of people she appoints to her close circle. Form suggests the latter.

The idea aired last weekend, that May had “ten days to prove herself”, was a minority view. For most of her colleagues it is too late. It was typical of Boris Johnson’s dwindling band of cheerleaders that they should broadcast a story supporting Davis as an “interim” leader: “interim” until Johnson’s credibility has recovered sufficiently for him to have another pop at the job he covets so much.

They also sought to create the impression that Davis is on manoeuvres, which he resolutely is not. Davis has been around long enough to know that if he wants to succeed May – and his friends believe he does – he cannot be seen to do anything to destabilise her further. It is a lesson lost on Johnson’s camp, whose tactics have damaged their man even more than he was already.

Andrew Mitchell, the former international development secretary and a close ally of Davis, told the Guardian: “. . . it is simply untrue that he is doing anything other
than focusing on his incredibly important brief and giving loyal support to the Prime Minister. Anyone suggesting otherwise is freelancing.” That summed up the contempt Davis’s camp has for Johnson, and it will last long beyond any leadership race.

There is a sense that, in the present febrile climate, whoever is the next leader must be highly experienced. Davis qualifies; so does Hammond, who before his present job was foreign secretary and defence secretary, and who has belatedly displayed a mind of his own since May was hobbled. Hugo Swire, a minister of state under Hammond in the Foreign Office, said of him: “He’s got bottom. He was very good to work for. He is an homme sérieux. I liked him very much and he would calm things down.”

But, as yet, there is no contest. Calls for calm have prevailed, not least thanks to Graham Brady’s steady stewardship of the 1922 Committee, and his success in convincing the more hot-headed of his colleagues to hold their fire. Yet MPs say the 1922 is not what it was 20 years ago: ministers have become used to taking it less seriously.

However, many MPs expect Brady, at a time of their choosing, to go to Downing Street and deliver the poison pill to Theresa May if she is slow to go. Some who know her fear she might take no notice. If she were to play it that way, her end would be unpleasant. As the old saying goes, there is the easy way, and there is the hard way. Remarkably few of her colleagues want to go the hard way but, like everything else in the Tory party at the moment, that could change.

Simon Heffer is a journalist, author and political commentator, who has worked for long stretches at the Daily Telegraph and the Daily Mail. He has written biographies of Thomas Carlyle, Ralph Vaughan Williams and Enoch Powell, and reviews and writes on politics for the New Statesman

This article first appeared in the 22 June 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The zombie PM

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