The hard-faced audacity of the government’s plan to send refugees to Rwanda shocked many, and this headline-grabbing gall led many commentators to believe it was a dead cat: an attempt to divert attention away from the party-gate fines in Downing Street. While it no doubt helped, the party-gate plan was always to brazen it out and shrug it off. The Rwanda plan is something else.
Watching Patel’s announcement what struck us was not just the chilling way in which detention and deportation of refugees more than 4,000 miles to a landlocked African country, only last year criticized by this same government for its human rights abuses, was described in terms of fairness and decency, but the way in which Patel, brazen faced, used people trafficking as the excuse. What other term but people trafficking are we supposed to use for a deal – or partnership as the government calls it – to detain and deport people to a country they mostly had not come from, and secured not just with an initial £120m as part of an economic transformation and integration fund but the operational costs too?
This plan, which even if it does not go ahead works for the government, did two things. It played to that section of the population that the government has long courted, believing it to be significant in them winning swing seats. Whether Johnson holds racist views or not is not really the point. What is significant is the way he is prepared to use them in order to cultivate a certain world view. He was deliberately doing that when he famously said of Obama, the “part-Kenyan president [has an] ancestral dislike of the British empire – of which Churchill had been such a fervent defender”, or of Africa that “the problem is not that we were once in charge, but that we are not in charge anymore,” continuing “The best fate for Africa would be if the old colonial powers, or their citizens, scrambled once again in her direction; on the understanding that this time they will not be asked to feel guilty.”
His aim was to create a story of the United Kingdom that harked back to a “greatness” that was now lost (Churchillian virtues and Empire), to try to build pride and loyalty in nation above class, to set himself and the Tory Party up as the answer to the supposed degeneration affecting the nation under what he seeks to portray as namby-pamby liberalism, and to promise a revival in British social, political, and cultural life. This is what their culture war is all about: appealing to a cross-class reactionary alliance. Pleading for people to shake off wokeness and finally say enough is enough to the so-called flood of immigrants thought to be diluting British culture. That’s what the attack on Channel 4 is about. Yes, it’s a chance to asset-strip and give the capitalist class another opportunity to gorge itself on public assets, but it is also a chance to whip up the cross-class reactionary alliance against wokeness. And if woke lawyers and judges overturn the Rwanda deal, that works the for government’s purposes too.
The interesting timing was not that the Rwanda deportation announcement coincided with party-gate fines, but that is being offered as a sop to reactionary currents in British society as part of the governments supposed exit plan from the pandemic, just as the cost-of-living crisis is hitting hard. Cross-channel refugees are being offered up as scapegoats for our economic ills, even as the British sense of fair play and decency was being stirred up with Homes for (white) Ukrainians.
The Tory government does not have a high opinion of the population, it displays an ambivalence towards them, playing to what it thinks is our credulity when it talks of Johnson being ambushed by a cake, not realising he was breaking the rules, or when Dominic Cummins famously drove to Barnard Castle to test his eyesight, and at the same time praising the public’s supposed national pride and patriotic qualities.
At the same time, dissent is being quashed. The Policing Bill is a monumental attack on assembly, freedom of expression and protest. These measures to clamp down on all forms of protest are making government less accountable by the public, but it is being sold to us as being in our interests.
We are all tired. These last two years have sapped our energy. We are under attack in our pockets. We are being ripped off by energy companies. Union-busting companies are grinding us down. Companies like P&O are sacking people over zoom because they think they can get away with it. People on zero hours wages are frightened to talk back. But that is exactly when we have to pay closer attention to what is going on, to rebuild working-class solidarity, revitalise community and workplace resistance, and start to say louder: we will not allow you to get away with it.