Brad Blitz looks at the storm of controversy over Gary Lineker’s comments on the Illegal Migration Bill, and while he finds no evidence of Nazi policy, does hear echoes of fascist rhetoric
Gary Lineker’s comments on the ‘Illegal Migration Bill’ have attracted much controversy, with the BBC issuing him with a warning following statements that he was simply expressing compassion and would not be silenced. The charge against Lineker was that by condemning the government’s policy as cruel, before drawing analogies to Nazi Germany, he had breached the BBC’s code on impartiality.
On social media, others went further suggesting that the Home Secretary, Suella Braverman, had taken a leaf out of Goebbels’ playbook. These analogies, while indicative of public outrage at legislation that would ban asylum and violate international law, warrant further scrutiny.
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First, there’s the policy itself. The Government is seeking to prevent anyone reaching the UK through irregular channels from seeking asylum, a basic human right. In her own words, the Home Secretary claims that she is prepared to ‘push the boundaries’ of international law by introducing legislation that permits detention for up to 28 days, with no legal recourse.
Second, there’s the choice of language, the nationalist hyperbole voiced by the Home Secretary, and specifically the Prime Minister’s claim that this policy was motivated by the ‘people’s priority’.
In terms of policy, Lineker, however well-intentioned, is off base. The parallels he wishes to draw are in fact closer to 20th Century Britain, a point made by historian Simon Schama on twitter.
In many ways, this legislation echoes the 1905 Aliens Act, which pulled up the drawbridge after the mass emigration of Jews from Russian-controlled lands, and other parts of Eastern Europe, and closed off the UK as a country of sanctuary. Yet, we do not need to reach into the annals of history to see how the right to asylum has been undermined, and equally, how it has inspired anti-immigrant movements in other countries, including influencing the current government.
Australia famously introduced the Pacific model, which saw boat migrants detained in Papua New Guinea and Nauru for processing, the aim being to ensure that they would not enter Australia. Never mind that many were from refugee-producing states including Afghanistan, Iran and Myanmar. Today, the Biden administration is looking to reintroduce Title 42, a public health law which gives the US federal government the power to take emergency action, including by detaining irregular migrants and refusing entry. The USA and Australia are far from alone. Restrictive immigration and tight border management is the norm. Over 40 states have erected walls and fences to deter individuals from entering, including enjoying the right to seek asylum.
The above examples are also distinct from the experience Lineker references. Nazi Germany was a refugee-producing state, not a host or destination state, though its borders remained open until 1939. What singles out the UK now is that we have a Government saying it will still welcome refugees, alluding to a tradition of hospitality, and yet is loudly shutting the doors to some of the world’s most vulnerable people.
As the UNHCR notes, there are currently no safe and legal routes to reach Britain, and no resettlement schemes operating, an as a result the Government’s plans amount to a ban on asylum. The upsurge in the arrival of small boats packed with refugees is evidence that the UK does not currently offer a viable alternative. In this respect, the UK is notably different from the USA and Australia, countries that introduced cruel policies alongside functioning resettlement programmes, and in the case of the USA, aid packages offered to neighbouring transit states.
The choice of words used to introduce the UK Government’s legislation raises several questions, not least because the latest evidence suggests that controlling small boats is not the ‘people’s priority’.
In a January 2023 report by Policy Exchange titled, The People’s Priorities: What must the Government deliver in 2023? the author Iain Mansfield concluded following a poll conducted by PeoplePolling that immigration issues were in third place in terms of priorities for the government, after the cost of living crisis (26%), reducing NHS waiting lists and building more energy infrastructure (both at 15%). Reducing immigration by stopping small boats crossing the Channel was prioritised by just 12% of respondents.
Populism and Xenophobia
Not surprisingly, the focus on small boats has raised the charge of populism, and prompted some to apply labels such as fascism and Nazism. Yet fascism is an ideology, with a core set of characteristics, and Nazism is a totalitarian experiment in genocide. At its root, the ‘Illegal Migration Bill’ exposes the absence of protection, and the use of nationalist rhetoric to justify policies of exclusion, contrary to international law and human rights norms – and from what it would appear, the views of the British public too.
There are many tragic antecedents which inform this debate. If Lineker and others want to draw upon the Jewish experience, then they might more accurately consider the plight of refugees fleeing Nazi-occupied Europe, desperate to reach safe havens, only to be pushed back. Some of the most famous examples include the St Louis, a ship carrying 937 refugees, which was denied permission to dock in Cuba, the USA, and Canada; and, the Exodus, which was prevented from landing in British Mandate Palestine. However, this is not an exact comparison.
Not only were many of the passengers of the St Louis eventually sent to their deaths, but we should acknowledge the role that agency plays in the current flows. The passengers on small boats today will have transited through both hostile regions, as well as via safe European countries. Some are victims of trafficking and exploitation. Others are taking their chances in electing to reach the UK. Yet, that is their right. As the UNHCR records, international law does not require that refugees claim asylum in the first country they reach, or indeed other countries of transit.
The idea that the UK Government is responding to the ‘people’ of Britain by introducing these harsh policies, when such claims cannot be substantiated, further evokes a tension between nation and state, which has energised the extreme right.
As Hannah Arendt describes in the Origins of Totalitarianism, the privileging of the nation, that is the people understood as a collective, over the state, an entity bound by laws and customs, set the scene for the unravelling of the previous political order eventually leading to genocide. With the Prime Minister and Home Secretary’s recent speeches to parliament, we get a clear indication that those laws and customs, including adherence to international law, are now hanging by a thread. This is not a good omen.
Is it time to invoke the charge of fascism and draw parallels with Nazi Germany, as others have done? I am appalled by the new legislation but the circumstances today are different. Refugees have considerably more agency and enjoy more rights now, even though many are also victims of trafficking and their rights are in peril by this government’s design. The imperative now must be to ensure that their rights are preserved. The nationalist rhetoric we have heard is undeniably incendiary, which is why it brings up the spectre of fascism in a country that still clings to its reputation from Second World War as a defender of liberalism.
Arguably, the use of such language is more a precursor than a product of fascism, but as we saw in the attacks on hotels housing asylum-seekers, and protests organised by Britain First, it is nonetheless a dangerous source of incitement, and must be taken seriously.
Brad Blitz is Professor of International Politics and Policy at UCL
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