What a dismal week this has been for British politics. And it is still only Wednesday. The distinguishing feature of this political moment is its shabbiness. The two stories dominating the news this week, Windrush and Syria, each demonstrate as much.
The Windrush scandal – it ceased being a saga some time ago – is shameful. But it is not simply a question of Home Office incompetence (some of which is only, when dealing with matters of significant complexity, to be expected) but, worse, one of Home Office vindictiveness. It is a feature of the system, not a bug within it. A system which, quite deliberately, excises humanity and common sense from its calculations and concentrates, instead, on box-ticking and raw numbers.
Ironically, the children of Windrush are the lucky ones. Like the Gurkhas before them their story is one with which the public instinctively sympathise. They are the “deserving” immigrants – now, of course, not immigrants at all but British citizens – who may be contrasted with others who, in various inchoate but understood ways, may be considered less deserving. But many of these other people – some claiming asylum; others wanting nothing more than the chance to live in this country with the person they love – are also deserving; it’s just that you are less likely to hear their stories.
The system, some parts of which were built or encouraged by Theresa May, assumes you are more likely to be guilty than not. Hence the need for a “hostile environment”. Hence the attempts, some more successful than others, to make landlords and teachers and doctors and bank tellers auxiliary immigration officers. Because you can never be too careful and only a full-court press will do. It is, in the end, a question of culture and the culture created was one of suspicion and malevolence. And we are discovering that while you may remove the Prime Minister from the Home Office you cannot so easily remove the Home Office from the Prime Minister.
It also requires stressing that these assumptions and instincts are not confined to the Home Office. The capriciousness of the Department for Work and Pensions rivals anything the Home Office has to offer. In each instance, there appears to be a presumption of guilt and, above all, a near total lack of sympathy for those unfortunate enough to find themselves entangled in the immigration or benefits process. Benefits fraud, like illegal immigration, is a real issue demanding a real response. But that response must be proportional. Official estimates suggest benefit fraud is much lower than the public imagines. That may reflect the zealousness with which it is policed but, even so, the tales of indignity and suffering and sheer-bloody-minded-vindictiveness that routinely emerge from deep inside the benefits assessment system are shameful. The lack of empathy for citizens in often broken or near intolerable situations is as appalling as it is widespread. There is a place for sanctions; it is also evident that sanctions are used as a kind of punishment the better to distinguish, again, between the “deserving” and “undeserving” poor. Worse still, it is hard to avoid the thought that the system takes a vindictive pleasure in cruelty. Empathy, like common sense, is for wimps.
The victims of this “hostile environment” are, again, the poor and the weak and the troubled. Some have doubtless played a part in creating their own troubles; others are the victims of circumstances beyond their control. Never forget the role that dumb, cruel, luck can play. It probably hasn’t happened to you; it’s likely that it has happened to someone who knows someone you know. But, again, a sense of balance appears to have been lost. This is not something confined to the right or the left. Some aspects of this culture of suspicion have got worse since 2010; others were in place well before then.
If, by virtue of being in office, this is a greater problem for the right, the left continues to distinguish itself – though not in a good way – on Syria. A dreadful amount of guff has been heard since British forces played a (small) part in the American-led punishment raid on Syria. And that is all this missile strike was; a police action, not a declaration of war. An explosive statement declaring that if Bashar al-Assad wants to use chemical weapons he should expect some international retribution.
Admittedly, the scale of that chastisement is also an admission of helplessness. No-one in Washington or Paris or London wishes to become any more embroiled in Syria’s charnel house than is necessary. And if the Syrian regime were not using chemical weapons of a sort that have been outlawed for a century it would – for better or worse – be left to its own devices.
Five years ago, parliament did not so much reject military action against Assad as decide it could not bear to have any kind of view or policy at all. That, in effect, is what Jeremy Corbyn and the Labour party’s leadership proposes again. Fetishising the United Nations is all very well and good until such point as that fetish becomes a shield for inaction.
Corbyn is entitled to his view that independent western action is worse than Russia’s connivance in, and cover for, Assad’s use of chemical weapons but he might – as a famously plain-speaking fellow – have the honesty, and even the courage, to say so. He is entitled to his view that this western action risks destabilising international norms more than the use of chemical weapons that, while doubtless regrettable, is a matter of less weighty importance. But, again, he should say so plainly.
But to listen to Corbyn – and other opposition parties – you could be forgiven for thinking there is no difference between a police action and a declaration of war. Plainly, there is and, equally plainly, the strike on Syria amounted to the former not the latter. It may prove an ineffective police action and questions about long-term policy goals remain valid but it was not – categorically, obviously not – a ‘rush to war’ of the sort that required prior parliamentary approval (itself a dubious convention of recent construction). In this Jacob Rees-Mogg was, for once, correct. Parliament has rights but so does the executive and if parliament disapproves of the executive it has ample opportunity of demonstrating that censure.
A “War Powers Act” of the sort Corbyn (and the SNP) call for is, ultimately, not much more than a pose. It might be a well-intentioned pose (though it is also, for some, a cynical one) but no government could accept it. There are times when it would neither be possible nor sensible to hold a parliamentary vote before the deployment of a single RAF jet or Royal Navy patrol boat or Royal Marines platoon could be authorised. But, again, there is a difference between modest or emergency military missions and the mass mobilisation of British forces.
Of course the ghost of past misadventures still haunts Westminster. But Syria is not Iraq and no-one is proposing it should be and there is something cheap and miserable about pretending it is. But then there is something cheap and miserable about so much of our politics these days.