Britain's refusal to play its part in the Mediterranean migrant crisis will be a stain on our history

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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 is a freelance journalist, formerly assistant editor of the New Statesman and editor of its sister site, CityMetric. You can find him on Twitter or Facebook.

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