Nationalism is always an unfinished project. It might promise to restore a nation’s sovereignty, or to win a people’s independence, or to preserve cherished traditions – but these are cast as goals to come. And rightwing populists, who define themselves against an anti-national elite, are constantly in need of enemies whom they can accuse of standing in the way of that project being fulfilled.
You can see these populist overtones in the way the government is spinning last week’s failed deportation flight to Rwanda. Over the weekend, Downing Street insiders briefed journalists that the row over the flight was a “dividing line par excellence” that would revive Boris Johnson’s flagging support. Rather than a sign of government incompetence, the flight – which was cancelled after court challenges – was part of a successful “wedge week”. In this telling, disputes over refugees, rail strikes and the Northern Ireland protocol would divert attention from such trivialities as spiralling poverty and government corruption, and remind voters who the real enemy was.
This was less a sober assessment of reality and more a nod to Tory-supporting media outlets about where to direct their readers’ anger. Not that they need much encouragement: the Mail has already obliged, enthusiastically reporting on government plans to “rip up Labour’s Human Rights Act” and thwart the European court of human rights. The Times has outed a “Corbynite” campaigner who challenged the Rwanda flight in court. On Monday, the Sun told readers that this week’s strikes were taking Britain back to – guess where – the 1970s.
These tactics may not be subtle, but they need to be taken seriously. Deportation flights have taken on great symbolic power in British politics. Successive governments have been routinely organising charter flights to deport people – foreign national offenders, visa overstayers, asylum seekers whom the British state rejects – since the days of Tony Blair. But Johnson’s government has given them ever-greater prominence, turning them into a symbol of how effectively the state can control its borders. (It’s worth remembering that the incident that precipitated the resignation of Johnson’s first ethics adviser was his refusal to sack the home secretary, Priti Patel, over bullying allegations after a row on the night of a charter flight to Jamaica in February 2020.)
There are already signs that the Rwanda row is having the effect the government would like. As the political sociologist Paula Surridge points out, polling by YouGov, carried out in April and again last week, suggests that support for the policy among Conservative voters has risen from 59% to 74%, with a majority now strongly in favour. Progressives, cautioned the Spectator’s Stephen Daisley, should not cheer on the manner in which the flight was blocked: court challenges on human rights grounds, accompanied by protests that held up Home Office vans leaving a detention centre near Heathrow. Making a success of flights to Rwanda “is effectively a war now,” one Conservative MP reportedly declared last week.
Yet the government’s position is less secure than it seems. The Rwanda policy, while ostentatiously brutal, is also an attempt to resolve a weakness on Johnson’s right flank. To succeed on the government’s terms it not only needs to upset the left, but actually deter asylum seekers from crossing the Channel in small boats – an issue that has long exercised rightwing talking heads such as Nigel Farage and Douglas Murray.
This is unlikely to happen, at least any time soon. The policy is founded on the erroneous assumption that asylum seekers crossing the Channel are, in the words of Patel, “economic migrants” who choose Britain as a destination as casually as one might pick a holiday. Rather, as reports from northern France repeatedly show, these are generally refugees who are set on reaching Britain because of family ties, language or a conviction that it’s the only place where they’ll really be safe. It should come as no surprise, given the history – and the snail’s pace of the official Afghanistan resettlement scheme – that the largest group by nationality are currently Afghans.
The fact that people are taking dangerous boat journeys is a genuine problem – but it’s a problem for the migrants themselves, as last November’s deadly sinking showed us. What the government won’t admit, however, is that the swiftest way to undermine the people-smugglers’ business model would be either to set up asylum processing facilities in France, or to give people visas so they can come to the UK directly. That would probably mean accommodating more refugees overall. But as the immigration barrister and author Colin Yeo points out, that would only bring the UK into line with countries such as France and Germany – and the relative successes of schemes for people fleeing Ukraine and Hong Kong suggest we have the capacity.
To some, arguing for this alternative may sound like a gift to Johnson’s Tories. Keir Starmer’s spokesperson notably refused to say whether a Labour government would scrap the Rwanda policy on taking office, while other senior Labour politicians have chosen to criticise the policy primarily on the grounds of efficiency. But public attitudes towards immigration are more complex than is often believed. Long-term polling by Ipsos and British Future, published in March, suggests that, overall, immigration is no longer the lightning-rod issue it was before the Brexit referendum.
On asylum, according to the polling, 75% of the population believes that refugees should be able to seek protection, including in Britain. Crucially, 46% would rather have a “fair” asylum system, even if it means more people given refuge in the UK – more than the 32% who would prefer a system that deters people from seeking asylum in the UK. The issue is far from settled, but there is potential for politicians and campaigners with the courage to take on Johnson’s culture war politics to build a broader coalition.
Campaigns like this take time, however – and they must not come at the expense of efforts to protect people whose lives are directly harmed by this government here and now. The protests and legal challenges that stopped the flight may well provoke a rightwing backlash. But, ultimately, this government’s culture war politics will only be defeated if enough people speak out. In the short term, these interventions have created vital breathing space for people whose rights are under threat. “I felt like I was going to die,” said Zoran, an Iranian Kurdish refugee scheduled for deportation to Rwanda last week, about his experience. Mohammed, who was also due to be on the flight, said: “It felt like I was going to be executed.” For now, they have won a reprieve.