A mere seven hours after being handed the job, Sajid Javid took to the dispatch box yesterday for his first appearance as Home Secretary. His task was monumental. He had to draw a line under the mess of Amber Rudd’s resignation, as well as break free from Theresa May’s time at the Home Office, without undermining her legacy. It was a difficult line to tread.
While much of his appearance understandably consisted of telling MPs he’d “look into” their myriad queries about Windrush, he made sure to firmly distance himself from a key piece of Home Office rhetoric. And he did so with one word: compliant.
“Let me say that hostile is not a term that I am going to use. It is a compliant environment,” Javid told MPs. “I don’t like the phrase ‘hostile’ so I think the terminology is incorrect. I think it is a phrase that is unhelpful and it does not represent our values as a country”.
So the “hostile environment” is un-British, according to the new Home Secretary. But a compliant one is as British as queueing, tea and James Bond, apparently.
It’s not clear what this distinction means. Turning up at a hospital and being asked to produce your passport – whether you like the phrasing or not – is a hostile experience. Having to prove your Britishness isn’t a question of compliance, but of a default position of hostility by the government. The attitude towards the Windrush generation is undeniably and fundamentally hostile, and a natural consequence of such rhetoric. Removing the word “hostile” does not change the lived experience of people in this country.
“Compliant” is definitely less catchy, but if you wanted to detract attention from the terminology that is coming back to ravage your department, killing it with dullness isn’t a bad move. While he’s at it, moving on from other the anti-immigration buzzwords might help stem the accusations of dog-whistle racism in the Tory’s immigration rhetoric.
The departure from “hostile” shouldn’t be that surprising – the Home Office quietly ditched the phrase a while back – but the timing was strategic. While in office, Rudd wasn’t keen to promote the change for fear of appearing divided with May, but Javid’s conspicuous debut of the phrase yesterday attempted to draw a line under the hostile era – and his predecessors’ actions.
The biggest image problem the Home Office faces during the Windrush scandal is to appear like it has even a semblance of humanity about it (tough gig, I know). But ‘compliance’ doesn’t exactly scream compassion. It sounds like the sort of phrase where, in the not too distant future, some emotionless supercomputer will scan your brain and decide “You are not compliant” before beaming you out of the country. (Except of course that emotionless supercomputer is the Home Office, and it’s happening now.)
While ‘compliance’ isn’t a magic fix to Home Office’s bureaucratic, soulless, cruel, nightmarish, computer-says-no (I could go on) facade, Javid did successfully abandon the “hostile” rhetoric, without throwing anyone under the bus. Killing the phrase will be crucial to moving on from the poisoned rhetoric of the past. The problem is, without action, words will change nothing.