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29 January 2024

The paranoid battle for RAF Scampton

A proposed asylum seeker camp has unleashed radical politics in deep England.

By Felix Pope

Take the A15 north from Lincoln and you will soon see the flags. First the St George’s Crosses, then the RAF colours, then a sign that demands: “Britons first – illegals deported”. The banners fly above a sort of Midlands shanty town erected by the side of this old Roman road: one large green canvas tent, two caravans, portaloos, and an oil drum from which flames rise to keep its sentries warm.

The handful of people living here, the dozen or so visiting every day, and the many thousands of supporters across the country sending money and moral support have come together to block the creation of an accommodation centre for asylum seekers.

Scheduled to open on a former RAF base just outside Scampton village later this year, it is just one of a new network of former military camps, airfields and decommissioned prisons used by the state to intern those claiming refugee status who enter Britain on a small boat and by any other means.

With the total asylum backlog still at 99,000 and the Rwanda scheme stalled by the Supreme Court, the question of what to do with those in limbo has become existential for the government. According to a succession of Tory home secretaries, these internment camps are a practical solution to the soaring cost of housing those waiting to be granted or denied refugee status. (Up to £8m a day by last September.) According to their critics, it is a cruel scheme that will increase the suffering of vulnerable people without reducing spending.

Scampton residents, meanwhile, furious at the government’s seizure of the location, have established a string of 24-hour protest camps at gates around the site. Far-right activists have arrived too, eager for a springboard from which to launch a national campaign against migration. On the flat plains of rural Lincolnshire the government’s bungled attempt to take control of our borders is sparking chaos.

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RAF Scampton was first opened as Home Defence Flight Station Brattleby in late 1916. British airmen flew missions against Zeppelins from here at the dawn of aerial combat, before it was converted into a training centre for young men piloting Sopwith Camels, Pups and Dolphins. It was the Second World War, though, that brought the aerodrome to fame. Just six hours after Britain declared war, a string of planes slipped from its runway to launch the first raid against German forces.

In 1943, 19 aircraft led by the 24-year-old wing commander Guy Gibson perpetrated the most eulogised raid of the war. His men flew from Scampton to Germany, and, skimming 20 yards above the water under enemy fire in total darkness, dropped bombs that breached two dams crucial to Ruhr Valley industry. Gibson would later write that the “dambuster” mission stood alongside the tales of King Arthur and Robin Hood as historical myths that no later scholarship could vanquish. 

Visiting on a blustery December morning, I am driven around the base by the local activist Sarah Carter. An impassioned woman with a mass of blond curls, her life has been consumed by nine months of struggle against the Home Office. “I didn’t know what a shadow secretary was before this started,” she tells me. Since becoming the first person to pitch a tent outside RAF Scampton, the cake decorator has taken on a second life as a high-profile media pugilist.

Days before my visit, when the High Court ruled that the government’s plans for the site could go ahead, TV crews from the BBC and Sky pressed into her living room to capture her response, while journalists from the local and national press stood outside. Her husband, Paul, has remortgaged their house to fund the battle, while doctors have been forced to double the dose of medicine she takes for her heart condition. “I would rather be interviewed because one of my cakes went viral,” she says drily.

For Sarah, the fight to preserve the airfield must be fought on mainstream grounds. “The protest is all about history, regeneration, heritage,” she says. “I wouldn’t have any England flags at my camp because of the connotations.” The key issue for her, and many other locals, is that a £300m regeneration plan to convert the base into an aviation heritage centre has been put on ice thanks to the government’s seizure of the site, perhaps never to resume.

The land, says Roger Patterson, a Conservative councillor who represents Scampton on the district council, is totally unsuitable to house people in any case.

“RAF Scampton is derelict,” he claims. “Now they’re putting portacabins there that are completely open to the elements. In 2010 we had temperatures of -20°C and snow.” The government, he adds, must look after those who are eligible for refugee status. “You can’t just dump them somewhere in awful conditions and hope they’re grateful for it. We’ve got a responsibility to make sure they’re safe and looked after.”

Having dealt with “lies” from the Home Office for nearly a year, he is insistent the department his own party runs is no longer fit for purpose and ought to be broken up.

In Sarah’s attempt to gather a broad base of support to defend Scampton she has worked with the local MP, military historians, and a clutch of refugee charities. The proposed introduction of 2,000 asylum seekers to Scampton does make her concerned for the safety of local residents, however. “They’re undocumented,” she says. “People called me racist, they might as well call me sexist as well because they’re all men. They’re coming from countries where they have different attitudes towards women. If it’s racist to want to protect your home, your family, your community, then call me racist.”

As we drive around, Sarah points out the shop that closed when the military left, the streetlights that no longer turn on at night, and the flimsy row of fencing that will separate the asylum seekers from her neighbourhood. 

She, Paul and about 700 others live in residences built on the base itself for air force families. From the couple’s doorway you can see the runway. Describing her years of living in armed forces accommodation, she hailed the sense of security it provided. “It was a military base, it’s as safe as houses,” she says. On previous RAF sites she had left her front door unlocked and neighbours came and went. “People would come in while I was in the bath to borrow food.”

Others, drawn to the protest from across Britain, are less concerned than Sarah about what the press might think of them. Days after she set up her camp in September, the Home Office held a forum in which it said the first tranche of asylum seekers were due to move in the following Monday. 

Soon, self-styled citizen journalists Alan Leggett, who goes by Active Patriot, and Amanda Smith, or Yorkshire Rose, turned up to protest. The pair – part of a growing band of itinerant anti-migrant activists who travel the country to crash hotels housing asylum seekers, film the arrival of small boats, and report on the “illegal invasion of the UK” – have both been arrested, with Leggett recently branded racist by a judge after he abused a Jewish woman during an internet live-stream.

But before they could arrive, Sarah had been warned. After establishing the Save Our Scampton campaign, she reached out to others across Britain who had taken on the government’s frequently ill-prepared attempts to open asylum accommodation centres among rural communities. When she spoke to campaigners in Linton-on-Ouse, North Yorkshire they gave her advice on taking on the bureaucrats, and tips about the far-right figures likely to turn up.

Laura Towler, the deputy leader of Patriotic Alternative (PA), and her husband Sam Melia, would arrive with their baby and start ingratiating themselves with locals, one claimed. Now Britain’s largest white nationalist group, PA has popped up in towns where angry residents want to block refugee accommodation. Soon enough they would arrive at Scampton too. 

In a video posted online by the group, their grinning leader, Mark Collett – a BNP veteran who was covertly filmed as a university student declaring his admiration for Hitler – toured the protest camp and helped to build its wooden foundations. “We’ll have a big call to action when we know that food’s coming in,” he told viewers. “We’ll get every activist we can outside these gates blockading so they can’t get any more food or any of these migrants in.”

Linton-on-Ouse was the Home Office’s first attempt to convert an abandoned military facility into a “Greek-style” asylum accommodation site. In April 2022, the department announced that a former RAF base next to the leafy Yorkshire village would become this country’s inaugural “asylum reception centre” under the New Plan for Immigration where up to 1,500 men seeking refugee status could live until their claims had been assessed.

The genesis of this policy was clear. A year earlier, the then immigration minister Chris Philp, and later his boss, the former home secretary Priti Patel, had visited a “closed controlled access centre” during its construction on the Aegean island of Samos. Surrounded by barbed-wire fencing and – according to Médecins sans Frontières – featuring frequent breakdowns of adequate air-conditioning and heating, it was designed to contain and control asylum seekers away from public view.

In Linton-on-Ouse, locals were outraged that the government could even consider accommodating hundreds of young men in a village of only 700 people. “The Home Office were not interested in facts, such as utilities, accessibility, staffing and so on,” says Professor Olga Matthias, a spokesperson for residents who fought the department. “They had no answers to actual problems, and were not interested in anything other than repeating their proposal, as if repetition would make the impossible possible.”

By August, the plan had been dropped. Accounts released later revealed the government had spent £2.9m redeveloping the site to accommodate asylum seekers who never came.

In Essex, several hundred have been housed on a former RAF base in the Home Secretary James Cleverly’s constituency. Since the “open-air prison”, as migrant charities have described it, opened last July residents have demonstrated, and there have been reports of attempted suicide and of people trying to set themselves on fire.

Despite this, the site is listed by the Home Office as a “success story” on its own website. When I contacted the department, they told me that delivering accommodation on surplus military sites provides “more orderly, suitable accommodation for those arriving in small boats while reducing the use of hotels”, but that they “understand the concerns” of local communities.

In Scampton, the government is still fighting to move anyone on to the site, and in turn increasingly fervent resistance has developed. By autumn 2023, a string of protest camps were up and running at several of the nine gates located around the circumference of the former RAF base. At the site’s main entrance, some of the most hardcore protesters began to gather and soon accusations of heavy drinking, cannabis use, and raucous parties were flying around. In October, police discovered what they suspected to be a petrol bomb by the front gate.

The atmosphere became “absolutely toxic”, claims Rachel, an older woman who lives on Scampton base and who has been demonstrating against the Home Office plans since they were announced. She stopped protesting at the main gate, she says, because of the extreme views she heard. Bemoaning “outsiders coming in” to her community, she adds: “When Pittsy [Scott Pitts, who has tried to take on a leadership role among the demonstrators] got involved, so many unpleasant things were being said… I thought it was all going the wrong way.”

Around that time, Sarah tells me, she was horrified to see a banner appear at the main camp that declared, “refugees are raping here”. They are not refugees, they are asylum seekers, she says contemptuously, and none of them are at Scampton yet anyway.

As the wind picks up and dusk crept in over the plain, I arrive at the main camp, where the need to prevent foreign men from committing sex crimes became a constant theme. Outside, Simon – sporting an orange fluorescent jacket, Brexit Party badge, and rolled cigarette – says he has been living at RAF Scampton for 57 days.

“My grandad flew a Lancaster,” he explains as we stand by a fire burning inside an oil drum. “Illegals shouldn’t be here at all. The rapes would double or triple, more burglaries, they’ll be hanging round the school asking for sexual stuff.” David Sunderland, on site for just over a month, says the experience has been great. “There’s camaraderie, we get donations off British people for heating. We do manage.”

While not opposed to all immigration, he claims, men arriving without women and children is unacceptable. “We’re only here for one reason and that is justice for our children. There have been rapes committed by migrants in Skegness, Lincoln and London.” Reading a Hope not Hate report later, I discover that Sunderland is the assumed name of David Smaller, who has links to the far-right English Defence League.

Inside Scampton’s green tent, supplies can be found on an industrial scale. Rows of ham and tuna rolls line a long table that stands next to gas burners, a fridge and a Christmas tree. It’s here, as the wind picks up and the fabric of the tent above us slaps and strains, that the conversation begins to descend into paranoia. People crossing the English Channel on small boats are not really asylum seekers, I am told by Natalie, a sweet woman with pigtails snaking from her beanie. “They’re an army, these are militants,” she says. “The elite want to take over, during the next lockdown they’ll roll out 15-minute cities and use a kill switch to get rid of all white people. It’s similar to the Holocaust, the same people are in charge. These boys will be deployed on the streets.” Turning to her comrades she adds winkingly, “I’m deep down the rabbit hole, me.”

At the next protest camp along the perimeter I speak to Nigel Marchant, a peripatetic anti-refugee campaigner known as Little Veteran. He tells me the government wants to implement the “Kalergi plan to get rid of the white race”, in reference to an interwar conspiracy theory. He is scared of social collapse and civil war coming to Britain, he says, because of the horrors he witnessed as a young squaddie deployed to Bosnia.

For the most part, the protesters I meet are contemptuous of attempts by the organised far right to lead them. Patriotic Alternative had come as individuals, Simon says, not as an organisation. Others laugh at the idea of another far-right campaigner, routinely mocked in local papers for dressing as Hitler, as a 21st-century führer. He is too short, they say, to lead anyone. We let him run the fundraiser to give him something to do and to stop him from bothering anyone else, people at the main gate tell me.

There is no fascist insurgency preparing to seize power and racially cleanse Britain, no Scampton putsch to defenestrate Rishi Sunak. But across the UK, isolated protests against the government’s failed management of migration are slowly knitting together. Sarah, determined to save RAF Scampton at any cost, has been talking to a local policeman about how she can copy Just Stop Oil’s guerilla tactics without being arrested. Paul is taking Tuesdays off work so he can care for her granddaughter if she is arrested.

Many of those drawn to demonstrate are alienated and angry, steeped in conspiracy theories. Others say they have more coherent plans. “We’ve got action planned for when the first asylum seekers arrive,” Sunderland says, but refuses to elaborate any further.

“How long until everyone realises that ‘peaceful protest’ and ‘petitions’ get us no where [sic]?” asks a member of the protesters’ Facebook group. “When the s**t officially hits the fan… I’m going rogue.”

Waiting for their chance to take action, they are perhaps echoing the heraldic motto of RAF Scampton: “An armed man is not attacked.”

[See also: Rishi Sunak is pleasing no one on immigration]

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