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How liberals can reclaim Utopia

In the face of populist fantasists and authoritarians, we must draw inspiration from Cicero and Jefferson and reaffirm the wonders of democracy.

Politics at its best is founded on extraordinary hope. The utopian impulse is the hope that things can get better. Politics today, however, doesn’t exactly feel enchanted. As populism surges, the inspiring words seem to have gone missing, and so has utopian hope. It is vital for the good health of liberal democracies that their politicians do not descend into drab, technocratic language. Democracy is itself a utopian idea, and it needs to be argued for in words that come alive.

In 1516, Thomas More published his strange and remarkable Utopia. Oddly for a lifelong wearer of a hair shirt, More was fond of jokes, and the title of his best-known book is a tease. Does More mean eutopia, “the good place”, or does he mean outopia, “no place at all”? He adds to the sense of play by giving his narrator the name Raphael Hythloday, which translates as “speaker of nonsense”. The clue to the riddle of Utopia is found in the subtitle, “De optimo rei publicae”, which means “Concerning the Best State of the Commonwealth”. If we describe this as the perfect state of the union, we also begin to see the connection between More’s Utopia and the American republic.

The connecting tissue is supplied by Cicero. In 14 philippics directed at Mark Antony in 44 BC, Cicero set out a defence of the Roman republic that, via More, has been passed down to us. Cicero argued that peace can only be guaranteed with justice if citizens live at liberty. There can be no freedom except in a republic, and the citizen of the free republic is the man engaged in politics. This is the society dramatised in More’s Utopia, and it is the vision of a free society that influenced the classically educated founders of the American republic.

Thomas Jefferson’s 1801 inaugural address – which called for “equal and exact justice to all men” – is a litany of republican virtues. Jefferson balanced minority rights against the will of the majority and introduced a phrase that has had many presidential echoes: “We are all Republicans, we are all Federalists.” On 19 November 1863, Jefferson’s pithy account of the republic was bettered by Abraham Lincoln. “Government of the people, by the people, for the people” is a simple phrase that it can take whole books to make complicated. As the son of a Kentucky frontiersman, Lincoln was the embodiment of the Roman idea that virtue derived not from noble birth but from public service. Lincoln’s plain description of “a new nation, conceived in liberty” repeats Cicero’s argument that the only constitution in which a citizen can flourish is a republic.

John F Kennedy picked up the theme in his 1961 inaugural address (“Ask not what your country can do for you…”). The “ask not” construction was an echo of Jefferson’s belief, taken from Cicero, that taking part defines American citizenship. In his 2012 victory speech in Chicago, Barack Obama echoed Cicero, Jefferson and Kennedy with his demand for an active citizen body. Democracy is more a culture and a pattern of behaviour than a framework of constitutional laws.

Politics today does not appear to owe much to this noble tradition. Democracy is gripped by three concurrent crises: of prosperity, fear and confidence. Larry Summers, the former US treasury secretary, has noted that, when America was growing at its fastest, living standards were doubling every 30 years. China has doubled its living standards three times in the past 30 years. The growth of China threatens to break the monopoly that the democracies have enjoyed over capitalist prosperity. Just as this lesson was sinking in, developed capitalism suffered the self-inflicted wound of the financial crisis. For two decades in the US and one in Britain, real wages have stagnated.

As economic confidence has declined, liberal democracies have confronted an even more basic threat. The wars in Afghanistan and Iraq collapsed into military disaster. Successive problems in Ukraine and in Syria appear to have passed power from the hands of democrats to those of eager tyrants. Russia and China are devising their own rules for the world diplomatic order. Most potent of all is the fear of terror. In the 1907 novel The Secret Agent, Joseph Conrad described the invisible but palpable fear that governs a society under the threat of terrorist attack.

After a century of progress, democracy appears to be in retreat. Turkey, which once seemed to meld moderate Islam with democracy, is descending into corruption under a leader, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who has begun to tear up secular liberalism. In Bangladesh, Thailand and Cambodia, opposition parties have boycotted recent elections or refused to accept their results. In Hungary, Viktor Orbán has openly declared that national needs trump liberal values. In Poland, the Law and Justice Party is accused of trampling on the country’s constitution to establish an “illiberal democracy”. In Russia, Vladimir Putin, a former KGB operative, has been both prime minister and president twice. He has muzzled the press and imprisoned political opponents.


Populism is present in the established democracies, too. Syriza in Greece, Podemos in Spain, Britain’s vote to leave the European Union and the election of Donald Trump are connected by their claim to represent the people. They all pretend that politics is easy and that there is no need for complicating procedures. It is no accident that populists such as Hugo Chávez in Venezuela, Alexis Tsipras in Greece and Trump have proved hopeless in office. The failure is baked into their arrogance.

Populism is Utopia’s dark shadow. The pretence that politics is easy is a common move in literary Utopias that erase all conflict. In Utopia, all desires have been satisfied. All the virtues miraculously consort in a land of no scarcity and abundant happiness. In William Morris’s News from Nowhere, the House of Commons has been transformed into a storehouse for manure. Politics has been cancelled because of the fantasy that all good things can be had at once. Robert Nozick put this point colourfully in his 1974 book, Anarchy, State and Utopia, when he suggested that no society can be imagined in which Hugh Hefner, the Buddha and Ludwig Wittgenstein would all be equally happy. To live in Utopia is to be amid perfection already achieved and it is never long before the leader tires of the constraints that are built into the constitutional apparatus. He is therefore bound to attack the free press, minority rights and judicial oversight as institutions that are seeking to defy the will of the people.

This is why the utopian account of how change will come about is so fatuous. In More’s Utopia, a traveller, a speaker of nonsense, finds the perfect society in functioning order in the ocean. In the place of where an account of change should be, the utopian populist substitutes the supreme leader. Albert Camus once said that democracy is the system for people who know that they don’t know everything. The populist utopian has all the answers. The omniscient figures have been, variously, priests, philosophers, intellectuals, scientists, or the party. Plato believed in the rule of the sages, the Stoics in the power of reason, the 17th-century rationalists in metaphysical insight and the 18th-century empiricists in science. The populist believes in himself.

What the populist knows, above all, is that the people have been cheated of their birthright by the elite. In the utopian literature, the safest refuge from the corrupt present is the blessed past. Populism is a promise to return to popular wisdom before it was corroded, if not by the elite then by the immigrants. President Trump has proposed the deportation of undocumented immigrants and wants a wall to keep out the Mexicans. In the Netherlands, Geert Wilders wants to repeal hate speech legislation. In Poland, Jaroslaw Kaczynski has sought to make the use of the term “Polish death camps” illegal.

There was an egregious example of this during the 2016 US presidential campaign. It has become a tradition of American politics that every president goes to the civil war battlefield at Gettysburg to pay tribute to the American republic. The most notable address after Lincoln’s was in 1963. President John F Kennedy asked his predecessor Dwight D Eisenhower, a resident of the town, to stand in for him. Kennedy had to go down to Dallas, from where he never returned. Eisenhower’s address, three days before Kennedy was assassinated, was a hymn to the American republic, as all the Gettysburg speeches are.

Or, rather, were. On 22 October 2016, weeks before his election as president, Donald Trump delivered his own Gettysburg address. After opening in the conventional fashion, by associating himself with Lincoln’s battle against division (“hallowed ground… amazing place”), Trump decried Washington and Wall Street for rigging the game against “everyday Americans”. He called Hillary Clinton a criminal, claimed massive voter fraud without any evidence and denounced unspecified corruption. Trump chose the site of the greatest speech about the virtues of the republic to ask citizens not to trust their own government: “We will drain the swamp in Washington, DC, and replace it with a new government of, by and for the people. Believe me.”

Confronted with this nonsense, we must summon defiance and reassert that democracy is the great philosophical success of modern times. There were no full democracies anywhere in 1799. Throughout the 19th century, more than a third of the world’s population lived in countries ruled by imperial powers and almost everyone was governed by despots. The first wave of modern democracy was crushed by the malignant populists of the 1930s. The great flourishing came in the second half of the 20th century. Today, every second person lives in a democracy.

We need to make again Cicero’s utopian case for liberty and justice in the republic. We need Jefferson’s uplifting words about the capacity of politics to restrain men from injuring one another and its protection of the rights of minorities. We need Lincoln’s imperishable formula of a government of the people, for the people and by the people, and to take heed of Kennedy’s warning that good government is done with the people, rather than to the people. And we have a reminder from Obama that hope must connect to power. These are all unforgettable cadences that commend the political virtue of granting power to the people. They are the voices of Utopia.

Philip Collins writes for the Times and is the author of “When They Go Low, We Go High: Speeches That Shape the World – and Why We Need Them” (Fourth Estate)

This article first appeared in the 26 October 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Poor Britannia

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The gay Syrian refugees still living in limbo two years after making it to the UK

They still have no right to live and work in the UK, no permanent accommodation or means of financially supporting themselves. 

31-year-old Ahmed and his boyfriend Said* fled Syria in 2013, after the civil war intensified. They both headed to Turkey – where they first met – then moved on through Greece, Croatia and Western Europe. In December 2015, they completed their 4,500km, two-year journey and arrived in the UK.

When Ahmed and Said shared their story with the New Statesman two months later, the Home Office was still deliberating on whether to accept responsibility for their asylum claim. At the time, their lawyer feared plans were being made to deport the couple back to Croatia, where they’d previously been registered while incarcerated in a refugee camp. 

Eventually though, in November 2016, the Home Office officially agreed to process their claim. The decision to do so is one of the few positive developments in their situation since they arrived in the UK more than two years ago. Little else has changed.

They still have no right to live and work in the UK, no permanent accommodation or means of financially supporting themselves. They’re unable to engage in basic day-to-day functions, from owning a bank account to booking a cab through an app. They still have to keep their identity and status as a gay couple anonymous – a precaution in case they are made to return to Syria, or outed to intolerant family members. They continue to live in fear that they could be summoned and deported at any moment. It’s been two years in limbo.

“For everything here you need documents or a bank account,” says Ahmed. “We don't have an address because you need income. So the minimum of life requirements we cannot get. We're not asking for much. We're not asking for financial support, we're not asking for accommodation. Just give us the right and we will depend on ourselves. We will work. We will study. We will find accommodation. We will pay tax.”

Shortly after the couple arrived, they were given temporary accommodation in Rochdale and a weekly allowance of £35. With no right to legally work in the UK, this was all they had to survive on. And while the flat in Rochdale was the first place they had space to themselves, they were isolated from the reason they came to the UK in the first place: to be with the only friends they knew in Europe.  

“We couldn't stay there, we tried really hard,” says Ahmed. “At that time we were alone, completely alone, in Rochdale. We were living separately there was no one around us… we got depressed. We got stressed there. So we decided to move to come to London because we have a friend here who can support us, who can be with us.”

In May 2016 the couple moved in to the spare room of their friend’s Mayfair apartment. She had arrived from Syria six years ago on a student visa. In the time they’ve been in London they’ve tried, in vain, to prepare for work, readying themselves in case they are actually granted asylum. After another friend loaned them some money, Ahmed, a trained architect, took an animation course, while Said, a chef, took a course to improve his English. Said finished the first level, but wasn’t allowed back to complete the next module without a passport. Ahmed stopped the animation course after running out of money from their friend’s loan.

Moving in with their friend may have bettered their living conditions, but it proved detrimental to their financial situation. The small sum they received from the Home Office stopped when they moved out of the accommodation in Rochdale. The Home Office claims this was due to the fact they were no longer classed as destitute.  The few friends they do now have in London have often had to loan them money or lend them essentials, like clothes. With no money and little to keep them occupied during the day, the limbo they’ve found themselves in has taken its toll on their mental health.

“Most of the time we get depressed because we don't have money to do anything,” says Ahmed. “You can't work, you can't study…you can't imagine how you feel when you spend your days doing nothing. Just nothing. Nothing useful in your life. Nothing. Can you imagine the depression you get?”

Though their friend has helped over the last year or so – giving them the place rent-free and providing them with food – she is now selling the apartment. They have four weeks to find new accommodation. If they don’t they’ll be homeless. The stress has caused Said’s hair to start falling out and he now has a plum-sized bald patch on the back of his head.

“If any country can accept us we would go back,” says Said. “But Turkey can't accept us. Syria can't accept us. Croatia can't accept us. So no one needs us. Where we can go? What are the options we have?”

The Home Office officially began processing the couple’s asylum claim in November 2016, and stated it aimed to make a decision by 27th May 2017. According to its own guidelines, claims should be processed within six months. Ahmed and Said have been waiting more than a year.

On 11 September 2017 they received a letter from the Home Office via their legal representatives at the Greater Manchester Immigration Aid Unit, an organisation which provides free advice and representation predominantly through the legal aid scheme. The letter apologised for the fact their asylum claim had taken longer than six months to process. It went on to say that they would be invited for a “substantive asylum interview within 14-18 weeks with a decision to follow 8 to 12 weeks after.” More than 22 weeks later, the couple are still waiting an invitation.

“When they didn't [invite them to an asylum interview], we threatened them with a judicial review again,” says Ryan Bestford, an immigration lawyer at the unit, who has been working with the couple. In Ahmad’s case, the judicial review – an application to a higher court which seeks a review of a government decision - would look for an order forcing the Home Office to interview him. “In response to our [judicial review] threat, they then claimed that they will interview Ahmed within 10 weeks.”

The letter to their lawyers also states that there are many reasons why a claim may take longer than six months. According to the Home Office “further internal enquiries in relation to your client’s asylum claim were being made,” hence the delay in Ahmed and Said’s case. No additional information for the delay was provided.

According to a recent report in the Guardian, claims are often classified as complicated or non-standard by the Home Office to excuse the UK Visa and Immigration Unit from processing claims within six months. Ahmed and Said’s lawyer scoffs at the notion their case is complex.

"This case is not complicated," says Bestford. "They are from Syria and even the UK government accepts that the situation in that country is so bad that all Syrians are entitled to refugee status. In addition they are gay. This case is straightforward."

Bestford has been working with the couple since January 2016, when the Home Office wanted to return them to Croatia, despite the fact the Croatian government had made it clear that they did not want them. As LGBT asylum seekers, Ahmed and Said are an especially vulnerable group. Said is also HIV positive, and when the Home Office consider his application to asylum they’ll need to consider his ability to access treatment.

Such vulnerabilities are no guarantee of asylum. According to a Home Office report published in November 2017, 3,535 asylum applications were made on the basis of sexual orientation, 2,379 of which were rejected. Just 838 were approved.

"They should have been granted refugee status a long time ago," says Bestford. "I have no idea what the reason for the delay is. But it certainly cannot be the complexity of the case. If the Home office are saying that it is because of the complexity of the case – they are not fit for purpose."

As well as support from the few friends they have in the UK, they’ve also found an ally in Lord Paul Scriven, the Lords spokesperson for international LGBT rights. He highlighted the plight of the couple in July last year, in a speech which raised concerns about the detention of LGBT asylum seekers and the systemic delays in processing asylum claims.

“I am both bewildered and surprised that [Ahmed] and [Said]* are still waiting for their case to be dealt with and them been granted right to stay,” says Scriven. “I have written to the Home Office and made it clear it is totally unacceptable and needs now to be dealt with as a matter of urgency.

“As in many cases the reason for this delay lies at the door of the Home Office and the way in which they deal with cases of asylum for people claiming on the grounds of their sexuality or gender identity.  In many cases this slow and cold approach is all too common by the Home Office.”

Ahmed has contacted the UK Visa and Immigration Unit helpline to try and seek temporary accommodation. He is still waiting to hear back from them. For now the couple’s situation is no clearer; but with impending homelessness it’s certainly more desperate.

They arrived in the UK eager to work and excited about the possibility of living openly as two gay men. They arrived brimming with ideas for what a new start could look like. The last two years have taught them to abandon any forward planning and to avoid imagining a life where they have been granted asylum.

“I can't plan anymore,” says Ahmed. “All our plans have disappeared…we thought we escaped from the war…we thought we're gonna start again. We thought there's justice here. We thought there are human rights. But nothing exists. There's no justice. There's no fair. There are no human rights. They treat us like animals. The dogs live better than us here.”

Close to defeat, Ahmed and Said have discussed one final alternative. “Or I go back to Syria,” says Ahmed. He swiftly disregards any concerns about the conflict and his identity as a gay man. “I prefer to die there at least with my family in my country. Better than dying here alone. “

In a statement provided to the New Statesman, a Home Office spokesperson said:

“The UK has a proud history of granting asylum to those who need our protection.

“An asylum case that does not get decided within 6 months is usually one classed as a non-straightforward asylum case. These cases are usually not possible to decide within 6 months for reasons outside of our control.

“Asylum seekers who would otherwise be destitute are supported with free accommodation and a weekly cash allowance for each person in the household. This is available until their asylum claims and  any appeals are finally determined or they decide they do not require Government support.”

*names have been changed

This article first appeared in the 26 October 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Poor Britannia