Thursday, 3 September 2015

David Cameron Can Save Lives - Will he Choose to?

Everyday Europe's refugee crisis deepens. As the number of people reaching Europe this year - 62% of whom are from Syria, Eritrea and Afghanistan - heads towards one million, most European governments seem either dumbstruck by events unfolding around them or are making positively reactionary moves.

Certainly the British government under David Cameron has emerged as one of Europe's most hawkish. In an announcement yesterday Cameron saw no contradiction in refusing to allow more refugees into Britain because we should "stabilise"  and "bring peace" to their countries and his repeated past efforts to expand British military strikes across the Middle East. This is the sort of stuff the liberal right would once have face-palmed at George Bush or Tony Blair for spouting.

However, as perhaps Britain's most popular politician Cameron is - despite himself - uniquely placed to do something about the growing number of avoidable deaths across Europe. Britain could, it has been argued, house up to two hundred thousand refugees with no great infrastructural strain. This would need to be combined with measures to alleviate the social tensions that may arise from such a process.

Why is Cameron so afraid to increase the number of refugees safely allowed into the country? At the present time fifteen EU countries have accepted more refugees per head of population than Britain this year. There are at least five reasons for the government's weakness. These five reasons progress through a sort of right wing ideological prism from the abstract to the concrete. Add your own as you please:

1) The perspective of "rational expectations theory" assumes that if tolerant signals are sent to the migrant "swarms" they will, pursuing their self-interest, follow the signals to their source. This underlying assumption - letting some in will risk encouraging others - is why it suits the likes of Home Secretary Theresa May to say that most of those arriving in Europe are just here to make money. Cameron has said much the same. This assumption is an economic metaphor for real human behaviour, not a plausible theory. At the most general level then the Tory model for understanding human behaviour is woefully ill-suited to deal with a problem like mass population movement. It is myopic and fails to capture the real dynamics that drive people to seek asylum.

2) At the level of society and social cohesion, Cameron believes that the job of the wealthy is to encourage the poor to better themselves. This includes charity and, failing that, the occasional bombing campaign. He sees no necessary connection between British military campaigns or economic exploitation and population movements. If Britain is better off, it's because we've built a "fantastic place to live" under our own steam. No wonder the "swarm" wants to "swamp" us.

3) Cameron sees risks and vulnerabilities for the long-term popularity of the Conservatives in entering into a protracted refugee housing program: as they cut social expenditure to British citizens, he expects to find it difficult to justify spending anything extra on foreigners. This is rationalised as "protecting our living standards" from African "marauders" (in Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond's words). 

2) More immediately, Cameron fears that if any British government alters position in the face of international pressure, it will be accused of cow-towing to the Brussels bully boys or whichever other phantom bureaucracy troubles British sovereignty that week. Cameron wants to stay in the EU by doggedly opposing everything it stands for. This is done in a bid to convince people he's tough. Instead he's just being held hostage by a bullish Eurosceptic right. Migration and Europe are increasingly conflated among potential Tory voters in exactly the way Nigel Farage would like.

1) Finally, Cameron's social and political base relies very heavily on Middle England and its aggressive Rightist press - Murdoch, the Mail and beyond. In this sense he is hostage to their expectation that the British government will control the demands of the poor. Cameron fears his own personal popularity rests on not acceding to any humane demands which might set threatening precedents. 

All politicians operate with institutional, political and ideological constraints. As prime minister in an increasingly proto-presidential system Cameron has unusual freedom to override his own. In the end, what will really happen if he changes tack and starts accepting more refugees? There will be rolled eyes across Middle England. The right-wing press, even calling for "action" today to solve the crisis, will hardly switch allegiance to a (possibly Jeremy Corbyn-led) Labour. Some skinheads will show up in Dover and Folkestone to widespread public derision. His perceived strength may take a bit of a knock; Ukip and the Tory right may seize the initiative over Europe. These are small costs.

The prime minister has the leeway required to save lives. Will he have the courage to use it?

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