Many of the excitable characters who impulsively phone talk radio stations without having thought through their contradictory positions are rightly horrified by footage of desperate people falling off planes into the chaotic inferno of hate of Biden and Johnson’s bodged British and American withdrawal from Afghanistan. Others, explaining that Brexit was about stopping refugees and immigration, want everyone there to be left to die, as sorting out the mess we have made is apparently not our business. Admittedly, I have the same attitude to the toilet bowl after an ill-advised lamb phaal, but I am just a 53-year-old “so-called” comedian, not an elected leader of the free world with blood on his hands.
On Wednesday, I drove distractedly across England listening to a baffling prime minister’s questions. Various politicians, trying to read the fickle electorate’s current position on the hate/compassion mood board, swinging again like it did after the death of little Alan Kurdi, explained how welcoming Britain has always been to refugees. I stopped to eat an artisanal steak pie at the Rollright Stones and wondered how our legendarily welcoming nature squared with the government’s new nationality and borders bill, which aims to criminalise anyone who attempts to seek asylum and anyone who attempts to help anyone seeking asylum. Even lifeboat men and women risking their lives to dredge dying children from the Channel could be criminals it seems, the horrible bastards. A fake Home Office website called Migrants on the Move, like the fake Conservative Campaign HQ factcheckUK site Dominic Raab defended during the last election, even purports to offer objective but deliberately discouraging advice to would-be Britons. Who even knew that the UK was full of venomous hamsters and that, in Kent, human hair is illegal?
Among those who voted last month for the second reading of the nationality and borders bill, which the UN says contravenes the refugee convention, were at least three straightforward ex-forces MPs who have all spoken compassionately and eloquently, despite being evil Tories, in the past few days, of our moral duty towards Afghans who assisted western forces in their homeland or who face renewed Taliban persecution. It appears there are good asylum seekers and bad asylum seekers. In that respect, they are like bacteria. Or cockroaches, as Katie Hopkins said in the Sun, when TV talking beard Stig Abell was its managing editor. Were the Afghans who clung to those aircraft undercarriages cockroaches or our brave Afghan partners? It’s so hard to know.
Perhaps a Daily Express version of the same long-awaited non-specific “technological solutions” promised by the Brexit Tories to sort out the flow of goods on the Irish border can categorise the human flotsam currently clogging the visa process. This would certainly help the heroic Afghanistan ambassador, Laurie Bristow, who held the bridge like Horatius and did the paperwork himself on the tarmac of Kabul airport while bullets rained overhead, as Boris Johnson and Dominic Raab sunned themselves on holiday beaches.
In 2016, for example, 65% of initial applications by Afghans for asylum in the UK were rejected and the now criminalised hopefuls were sent back. Perhaps they could try to flee again on the same plane they were flown back on if it’s still available. The country they are now trying to escape doesn’t seem to have the bright future the Home Office insisted it did five years ago, when their applications were deemed groundless.
Dominic Raab, the former Brexit negotiator who was uncertain of both the position of Calais and the commercial function of the Channel, said the speed of the Taliban’s advance took him by surprise. Why? It didn’t surprise me and everything I know about Afghanistan I learned from the first Iron Man film. If Raab had done even the basic research he would know the best way to defend Kabul is with a metal suit made by a selfish billionaire and a captured local scientist.
I disposed of my pie packaging and got back in the car. Some optimists were proposing that the Taliban had changed and would be more inclusive and tolerant once they had their homeland back. Can people change? David Cameron’s vaunted “compassionate conservatism”, for example, has led to a satanic incarnation of the party more cynical, cruel, dishonest and corrupt than any in living memory. Ben Wallace, the secretary of state for defence, and the defence select committee chair, Tobias Ellwood, both share the Taliban’s unease about the idea of gay marriage, so perhaps there is some common ground there. But as I put on my driving gloves I remembered an anecdote about the former secretary of state for international development Rory Stewart, told to me by an Etonian-educated actor I know, concerning his fabled 2002 walk across Afghanistan, in the footsteps of the Mughal emperor Babur.
Despite being a scion of privilege, Stewart does not bear the mark of Cain, his parents having fashioned him from gingerbread in a Hong Kong bakery in 1973. How tempting Gingerbread Rory seemed to the hungry Afghan warlord Gulbuddin Hekmatyar when he espied the biscuit diplomat preparing to cross the River Kabul near Goshta in the spring of 2002. “Oh, what shall I do?” cried Gingerbread Rory, “I cannot cross the river.” “Jump up on my pakol,” said the former mujahideen fighter, “and I will carry you across.” The gingerbread diplomat foolishly climbed on to the jihadist’s traditional hat, whereupon Hekmatyar tossed him into the air and down into his snapping jaws. From within the warlord’s stomach, a rapidly dissolving Rory, whose fabular visage still bears witness to his acidic ordeal, was able to use the debating skills he had learned at Eton and Oxford to persuade Hekmatyar to vomit him up to freedom, but the tale of the gingerbread diplomat stands as a warning to all those who would trust anyone’s word where this conflict is concerned.
Profits from the New Year No 1 single Comin’ Over Here by Asian Dub Foundation, featuring Stewart Lee, went to Kent Refugee Action Network; rescheduled 2022 dates of Stewart’s 2020 tour are on sale