This is what it looks like when we’ve gone through the bottom of the barrel

Posted on November 3, 2022

Parliamentary questions? Is that really the best we have to offer as a model of democratic debate? The stage-managed, predictable questions; the rehearsed responses and loyal head wobbling from those preening on the front benches? All cringeworthy, but for the pinnacle of awfulness, nothing beats the crowing, hawing and braying of the representatives of the people as they childishly taunt their opposite numbers. What a despicable, noisome circus.

And yet this week, this juvenile cacophony from the green benches produced something more nerve-shredding than usual. That harsh screeching making our ears bleed wasn’t the scraping of the barrel – that particular low passed ages ago. This was the scratching of a blade that had gone through the wooden surface and was grinding away at bare stone below.

We now live in a country where millions ration their food and are frantic about the prospect of putting the heating on. Whether you rent or have a mortgage, your housing costs have just rocketed because an ardent sixth-former did work experience as Prime Minister for a few days. The trains don’t run, there’s no one around to fill thousands of job vacancies and the health service has been reduced to a poorly administered call centre. You can’t tell a cop from a robber and, in a horrible metaphor for it all, our rivers are full of shit.

How’s a desperate minister to buy some time to deflect public attention from the fact that the government has been asleep at the wheel for years? Find a culprit, of course. And make sure you find a weak one. Cue the attack on the most vulnerable, desperate and defenceless. Immigrants.

Let’s deal with numbers first and people second. Figures from the Office for National Statistics (ONS), Border Force and the Home Office reveal the following –  none of what follow pertain to arrangements for people fleeing the war in Ukraine.

In the year ending June 2022, the UK approved the asylum cases of just over 15,000 people. Some 55,000 claims were undealt with during the year, suggesting that, with claims that had built up before that time, up to 99,000 people (as opposed to cases) await attention. In general, over 85% of claims are found to be valid. During that same year, some 40,000 people entered the UK via small boats. At present, there are 26,000 people housed in hotels – the destination for most of them once they’ve eventually been removed from hell holes like Napier (currently escaping scrutiny) and Manston.

We’re talking about tens of thousands. According to the ONS, there are some 1.25 million job vacancies in the UK at present. So, let’s match numbers with people – starting with some of the 26,000 languishing in hotels, day after day with nothing to do and desperate, genuinely desperate, to get out into the world and do something.

I know a bit about this because, for the last two years, I’ve been providing voluntary support for them. The IT technicians, architects, dentists, osteopaths, mechanics, carpenters, nurses, builders, students and, my quirky favourite, the tree surgeon – all of whom are desperate to get out and do some work. In a few cases, they told me of the shocking circumstances they have fled: it is the stuff of sweat-soaked nightmares. Still worse, the briefest communication with those left at home is fraught and dangerous as their actions are monitored by the stooges and spies of various tyrants. If their asylum application is seen within six months, they can count themselves lucky.

‘An invasion,’ wails the Home Secretary. Really? 15,000 people a year? Not enough to even register on the main list of hosting countries posted by the United Nation High Commission for Refugees?  More than three million fewer than Turkey? Two million fewer than Germany and half a million fewer than France? In what is still, just about, the fifth largest economy in the world, where some of us still cling fancifully to the diminishing notion that such wealth might allow for some principled leadership and moral fortitude? (Yes. I know I’ll have completely baffled the current political class with that last sentence.)

We’ll go after the smuggling gangs to deter them, we’re told. No you won’t; not if what you’ve been doing for years is anything to go by. You’ll vilify and persecute their victims instead. Victims who are so scared and desperate that they will abandon homes and risk life and livelihood before parting with huge sums to jump into a cheap dinghy with a fake life vest.

Easy, of course, to blame – entirely properly – the current government for this age-old political trick. It’s been going on for decades and we expect it from them. Shortages in basic public services such as the provision of housing, education and medical facilities are not, of course, because of their abject failure to use our great wealth to provide them. It is because there are too many people – outsiders and others – taking these limited resources from their rightful owners.

We might well anticipate this wretchedness from the current collection of last-chance no-marks, but those who aim to replace them need to offer a braver, better, more humane alternative.  In a metaphor for Labour’s whole approach as it waits quietly – and possibly mistakenly – for their opponents to implode, merely promising to manage crises slightly more efficiently won’t cut it. Its own history is riven with timidity when skirting round immigration and, in the current circumstances, that’s an opportunity missed.

Here’s a chance to show compassion and humanity. There are jobs to do and future tax-payers who can do them. There are injustices in the world, often perpetrated by those to whom we cosy up, that have driven people to our shores and we will call these out these crimes. We’ll use our wealth to address need, not encourage greed. We’ll go for culprits, not victims.

Not holding your breath? Me neither. But to quote the Home Secretary, we can all dream.

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