Refugees and Britain’s failure of compassion, my vote for Labour leader and dancing with dentures

This week's First Thoughts from the New Statesman's former editor.

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When the Tory Douglas Hurd was foreign secretary in the early 1990s, he despaired at how a few TV images – of Bosnian refugees from Serbian atrocities, or Marsh Arab refugees from Saddam Hussein, for instance – could prompt a clamour that “something must be done”. Public opinion, it seemed, was overwhelmed with compassion. Before the advent of the lightweight video camera, Hurd argued, news of atrocities reached us weeks, even months, after the event and the details were often disputed. Now, the facts were brutally and instantly clear. But, he added, responding to what the evening TV news bulletins happened to show was no basis for a coherent foreign policy.

Today, we are faced with nightly film of refugees fleeing to Europe from war, terror, persecution, poverty, famine, drought and environmental degradation. Nobody can be in any doubt of the desperation of these people. But compassion has deserted us. We have learned the valuable lesson that foreign military intervention is not a zero-cost means of salving our consciences. We have not learned that the only practical answer is to offer refugees shelter and comfort, even if we risk acquiring a reputation for being “a soft touch”. There is still a clamour that “something must be done” but the “something”, it seems, is to “deal with” the people traffickers, as though the terrible conditions that drive refugees to seek a new life would then become more tolerable.

Politicians, not just in Britain but across Europe, have no coherent policies for the continent’s biggest challenge since the Second World War. They respond piecemeal to whatever TV images or tabloid newspaper headlines have most recently attracted public concern, whether they show refugees drowning in the Mediterranean, clinging to lorries in northern France, or clamouring to get into a Budapest railway station. They seem unable even to organise reception camps where such people can be given food, clothing, shelter and medicine. Even the most basic humanitarian assistance, politicians fear, will encourage further “swarms” of refugees, creating anger among voters.

It is a gross failure of leadership, to be sure, but we should understand that it is also a failure of collective compassion. So much for the richest continent on the planet and its long history of Christian civilisation.

 

And my vote goes to . . .

I have at last made my choices in the Labour leadership election. It follows more agonised deliberation than I have given to any voting decision in my life. Yvette Cooper is my first preference and Jeremy Corbyn my second, with Andy Burnham – so slippery a customer that he can’t even take a consistent line on whether anybody should listen to Tony Blair – a distant third. Stella Creasy, who first impressed me with her vigorous pursuit of the extortionate moneylender Wonga, gets my vote for deputy leader.

If Corbyn wins, I wish him luck, even if, with Tom Watson as deputy, he forms a distressingly dated partnership of straight, white, middle-aged men. He has brought traditional Labour policies back into the mainstream of debate and, perhaps paradoxically, increased young people’s engagement with parliamentary politics. But as Melissa Benn argues in the Guardian, the next Labour leader needs “to forge fresh alliances, take surprising positions and make unexpected compromises”. I cannot see Corbyn doing any of those things.

 

Wicket women

Now that I have voted for an all-female Labour leadership, I wonder if I can be excused my failure to watch even a few minutes of the battle for the women’s Ashes this summer. I have never followed women’s cricket or, for that matter, women’s football and rugby, though all are now televised extensively. My excuse is that I watch far too much sport as it is and, if I pay attention to the women, I shall have to cut the time I spend on men’s cricket, which is played to a higher standard. Is this an acceptable or even an accurate view? I am not sure it is, as Sarah Taylor, the wicketkeeper for the England women’s team, is, for one, probably as good as several of her equivalents in men’s county cricket. Moreover, if the men’s game is of a higher standard, that is largely attributable to brute force, enabling players to hit the ball harder and bowl faster, rather than to greater technical skill. And aren’t we socialists supposed to deplore brute force? Perhaps readers can advise on my dilemma.

 

Lopping the Lords

Are the Tories secretly planning to kill off the House of Lords in its present form? It is hard to reach any other conclusion from David Cameron’s extraordinary ennoblement of failed and discredited politicians alongside obscure Tory donors and former special advisers. Now the house has more than 800 members, it has become a joke, even to those who were previously among its firmest supporters. The obvious solution is to cut the membership to 200 with 40 seats reserved for crossbenchers and the rest distributed according to the parties’ respective voting strengths at the last election. The parties would still appoint time-servers and cronies but at least the Lords would have a veneer of democratic legitimacy and its members an expiry date. And we would get it all for a quarter of the present cost.

 

Gnashing Hill

We had not previously attended the Notting Hill Carnival and our plans to join a small family party at this year’s festivities were greeted with incredulity in Loughton, Essex, where we live quietly and unfashionably. But we went and, despite almost continuous rain, enjoyed it. Perhaps our Loughton friends would have been reassured by the sight of a large white van advertising treatment for malfunctioning dentures which I assumed, as it remained in the parade all the way down Ladbroke Grove, was part of the official event. Does the carnival, after something like 50 years (the exact date of foundation is disputed), now attract an audience in need of such services? 

Peter Wilby was editor of the Independent on Sunday from 1995 to 1996 and of the New Statesman from 1998 to 2005. He writes the weekly First Thoughts column for the NS.

This article appears in the 03 September 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Pope of the masses