On 28 October, the day Britain announced it would not support search-and-rescue missions aimed at preventing migrants from drowning in the Mediterranean, Sir Nicholas Winton, who is 105, was honoured at a ceremony in Prague.
When a senior minister speaks of our towns and cities being “swamped” by immigrants you know two things: that the government is rattled and that an ill wind is blowing through the land. Nations turn inwards when people feel unhappy and insecure. The outsider, welcomed in good times, is perceived as a threat, an agent of change, even of chaos.
The remark made by Michael Fallon, the Defence Secretary, has since been withdrawn. Apparently, he did not mean what he said. Mr Fallon is not a bad man but he has the buffoonish manner of a small-town alderman who doubles up as captain of the local golf club. And he is meant to be one of David Cameron’s more sensible and reliable lieutenants.
What is clear is that our politics is becoming ever more fragmented, with no one party able to command the kind of support that would guarantee a strong majority government in next May’s general election. This fragmentation is testament to the collapsing authority of the political class and to the havoc being wrought by the forces of globalisation: the free flow of capital and people, open markets, the dominance of a deracinated plutocracy, instantaneous digital communication. Ed Miliband used to say, in the depths of the Great Recession, that the latest crisis of capitalism had provided a “social-democratic moment”. It had created the space in which to build a new society and political economy and he would lead that change.
That was then. Today, with Labour’s poll ratings so poor, Mr Miliband is fighting insurgencies on several fronts – against the Greens and the UK Independence Party in England, and the Scottish National Party and an assortment of leftist pro-independence groupings in Scotland. The age of two-party politics is over and that, at least, should be welcomed.
Mr Miliband is also reported to have instructed his MPs to address the issue of immigration and engage candidly with voters about their anxieties. But we would caution him and his party against making a right turn and of indulging the prejudices of Ukip and its supporters.
On Tuesday 28 October, the day that Britain announced that it would not support search-and-rescue missions aimed at preventing migrants from drowning in the Mediterranean Sea, Sir Nicholas Winton (pictured), who is 105, was honoured at a ceremony in Prague. As a young man, Sir Nicholas had arranged for hundreds of Jewish children from Czechoslovakia to escape Nazi terror and find safety with foster families in the UK. Some of those whose lives were saved and who travelled to Britain on the Kindertransport were at the Prague ceremony.
Today’s refugees, whether they are fleeing war in Syria and Iraq, the torment of life in Gaza or the poverty of the sub-Saharan African interior, want no less than what anyone would want for their families: security and stability. So forlorn are most of those seeking to make the perilous journey from North Africa to southern Europe that they are compelled to submit to the demands of nefarious traffickers and risk their lives on the high sea.
The challenges of immigration and the mass movement of peoples will not be solved by Britain seeking to leave the EU or by nations closing their borders to refugees from failed or crumbling states. Nor will the pledge by the EU to limit search-and-rescue missions deter the desperate. The people will come or attempt to come.
The world’s population is seven billion; it is forecast to reach 11 billion by 2100, by which time the pressures of overpopulation and resource scarcity will be even greater. In an interview with the NS in 2009, David Miliband, then foreign secretary, said: “Foreign policy is inseparable from domestic policy now.” The interconnectedness of the world today means that analysis was broadly correct – and, consequently, we must not retreat into fearful nationalism and protectionism, but engage with the world in and through multilateral organisations. And as politicians talk of immigrants “swamping” our island, we should heed the example of Nicholas Winton, a true and compassionate humanitarian.