Clegg and Cameron apologize – sort of

Yesterday morning I wrote that there has been no official recognition that the deaths of more than 900 migrants in the Mediterranean last week was in part, a consequence of the EU’s decision to replace Italy’s Mare Nostrum search-and-rescue operation last November.   Since then there has been some acknowledgement of this connection, from our own Prime Minister and his faithful deputy, who will hopefully be accompanying him to poltical oblivion.

But as is often the case when politicians appear to admit that ‘they got it wrong’ on something, these mea culpas leave out as much as they own up to.  Take Nick Clegg’s op ed in the Guardian yesterday.  Clegg begins with a great deal of handwringing rhetoric about the dehumanisation of migrants and the need to find solutions.   He then comes up with this:

‘The EU’s decision to end routine search-and-rescue operations in the Mediterranean last year was taken with good intentions. No one expected the number of deaths to fall to zero, but there was a view that the presence of rescue ships encouraged people to risk the crossing. That judgment now looks to have been wrong.

This is a textbook example of a dishonest political apology, carefully-phrased and designed to make even the most horrendous decisions seem worthy and well-meaning, and mistaken only with the benefit of hindsight.    First of all, the search-and-rescue operations that were closed down last year were not ‘routine’.   Mare Nostrum was an exceptional response by the Italian navy to the mass drowning of 350 migrants near Lampedusa  in October 2013, which saved more than 100,000 lives.

This operation was based on the belated recognition that the number of migrant crossings was rising and that these crossings were taking place outside the normal ‘migration season’.   So when Clegg says ‘ No one expected the number of deaths to fall to zero’  as a result of the new policy that he supported, he is deliberately ignoring all the warnings and predictions that the number of deaths would increase if search-and-rescue was cut back

Pretty much every refugee organization predicted at the time that this would happen.  Last October Michael Diedring, Secretary General of the European Council of Refugees and Exiles (ECRE) said this:

‘If Mare Nostrum ends without being replaced by a well-resourced operation whose priority is to save lives, more people will die in their attempt to reach our shores. A European effort is urgently needed, if the EU is really serious about putting an end to the deaths in the Mediterranean.’

And UNHCR said this:

‘Ending Mare Nostrum without a European search and rescue operation to replace it would place more people at risk. We need to maintain a strong capacity to rescue refugees and migrants who are trying to find safety in Europe. We also need to increase legal alternatives to these dangerous voyages, which puts people’s lives at risk in the hands of smugglers.’

And 20 of the largest refugee organizations in Italy also condemned the closing down of Mare Nostrum, last year, one of whom declared:

‘There are no doubts that without Mare Nostrum there would have been many more than the roughly 3,000 certified deaths of migrants at sea this year.’

Clegg and his government chose to ignore these warnings and argued against extending and maintaining search-and-rescue on the grounds that such operations would act as a ‘pull factor’ and encourage people to undertake unsafe journeys?  So how would saving migrants from drowning encourage them to do this? Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond gave a kind of explanation this week:

‘There was a risk that the way the Mare Nostrum operation was being conducted could have encouraged people to take risks that it was really not safe to take.  It’s anecdotal, of course, but when you talk to people who have been rescued at sea and they clearly have the impression that they can get on a vessel which is unseaworthy in the expectation that they will be immediately – within hours – picked up, that creates some really dangerous perverse incentives.’

Hammond did not say who he had ‘talked to’ in order to reach these conclusions.  But the fact that the number of crossings was already rising before Italy began its search-and-rescue operation makes a nonsense of these claims, and this increase suggests that for most migrants, the risks of remaining in the wrecked Libyan state or in the countries they had fled from were even greater than the risk of drowning.

The EU’s refusal to maintain and extend search-and-rescue not only ignored these ‘push factors’, without saying so overtly it accepted the possibility that more people would die as a result.   This is what deterrence means, and it has nothing to do with Clegg’s ‘good intentions’.  It is a policy aimed to prevent people from reaching European territory and claiming asylum that the EU knew perfectly well most of them would be entitled to.

None of this was mentioned in Cameron’s mea culpa on ITV, in which he declared:

‘It was a decision that was made by the EU and Italy as well. They found at some stage it did look like more people were taking to boats. So they, the EU, decided to end that policy and have a coastguard policy. That hasn’t worked either.’

In fact Italy asked repeatedly for the EU to provide additional funding for its search-and-rescue operations or replace them with operations of its own, and Cameron’s attempt to share responsibility ignores the fact that his government was one of the states that most forcefully refused to step up because of the ‘pull factor’ argument.

Even now some of his ministers still oppose the expanded search-and-rescue, which Cameron is now proposing.   And why is he doing this?  According to the Guardian: ‘Cameron is understood to have shifted his position this week as the extensive media coverage convinced Downing Street and Tory election strategists that voters see the tragedy in the Mediterranean as a humanitarian crisis rather than an immigration issue.’

So saving lives is now an electoral gambit designed by ‘Tory election strategists?’

What a guy.  What a government. What a contemptible bunch of hypocrites.


Hardworking People: Anatomy of a Political Cliché

What kind of people do our politicians most respect and admire?   It goes without saying that rich people are top of the list.  Like the Chinese ‘business leaders and rich tourists’ who George Osborne has just welcomed into the UK – less than a week after the government announced a new bill restricting the entry of less well-heeled visitors.

But even the rich don’t get the same lavish praise that is routinely showered on Britain’s ‘hardworking people’ – or at least not openly.   Regardless of their political persuasion, our politicians just love people who work hard.    Tony Blair and Gordon Brown were always talking about ‘hardworking people’, ‘ordinary hardworking people’ and ‘hardworking families’ or the more plaintive ‘hard-pressed hardworking people’ that Brown tended to use more often.

The Coalition loves hardworking people too, even more than Labour did, or so they keep insisting.  Back in 2011, Nick Clegg promised that the government would be fighting for ‘alarm clock Britain’ – a category that he defined as  ‘basic rate taxpayers who get up in the dark, get their kids ready for school and then go out to work.’

Clegg delivered a moving eulogy in The Sun newspaper ‘ the people of Alarm Clock Britain’ who ‘ drive our economy every single day of the year. Rain, wind or shine, they are busy making this country tick.’

No one loves hardworking people more than the Tory Party however.  Last month Downing Street media person Craig Oliver specifically instructed government advisers and other media people to insert the term into their speeches as often as possible during the party conference.

And boy, did they respond.   Cameron boasted of having cut taxes for ’25 million hardworking people.’ Osborne also defined the Conservative Party as ‘the party of hard working people’ .   And then last week the spectacularly inane Grant Schapps – a politician who continues to plumb previously undreamt-of depths of vacuity – described the latest Coalition reshuffle as a ‘reshuffle for hardworking people’ – something that he described as ‘a big contrast to the reshuffle that we’re seeing emerge on the Labour side.’

Huh? You might say.  But you shouldn’t.  Because the ostensible and graspable  meaning of such utterances is always secondary to their implicit subtext.   On the one hand, the admiration that politicians continually express towards our toilers is intended to praise work as an inherently virtuous activity in itself, regardless of the conditions in which people work, the kind of work they do, or the remuneration they get for it.

Stalin did the same thing, when he transformed the Soviet miner Alexei Stakhanov into an emblematic symbol of Soviet productivity.   In a new years address to the German people in 1939, Joseph Goebbels defined the war in the following terms:

They hate our people because it is decent, brave, industrious, hardworking and intelligent. They hate our views, our social policies, and our accomplishments. They hate us as a Reich and as a community. They have forced us into a struggle for life and death. We will defend ourselves accordingly. All is clear between us and our enemies.’

Our politicians probably don’t want to think of themselves as part of that tradition.  But for the millionaire Stakhanovites like Clegg and Osborne,  work really does make people free, or at least it stops them questioning why they’re not.  Making a virtue out of hard work is also useful for employers, enabling them to squeeze every last drop of surplus value from their workers by transforming their labour into a patriotic enterprise.

After all, as the Coalition never stops telling us, we are in a ‘global race’ and really ought to start working or preparing for work from preschool onwards.

Within this ironclad twenty first century version of the Protestant work ethic, there is no room for larger questions, such as the purpose and meaning of work and the distinction between dignified meaningful labour and mindless, soul-destroying mechanical grind.

Or who benefits and who profits from our work.  Or why it is that British wages have experienced one of the steepest declines in the EU since the Coalition came to power.  Or why fulltime male workers in Britain work longer hours than their counterparts anywhere else in Europe.

If hard work is so good for us why are 1 in 3 incidents of ‘major stress’ work-related?  Why do 1 in 4 fathers in Britain’s ‘hardworking families’ work more than 50 hours a week and rarely see their children?  Last year a former nurse working in palliative care recorded that one of the most common regrets expressed by male patients on their deathbeds was ‘ I wish I hadn’t worked so hard.’ How many people will die with the same thought?

In theory at least, anyone who works hard is good.   A gangster, for example.  Or a brothel owner.   Or the women who work for the brothel owner.  Or George Osborne’s former companion Miss Whiplash, who has even found time in her busy life to write a book about what he and some of his mates were up to in the days when they weren’t working so hard.

Can ‘ legal’ and ‘illegal’ migrants be considered ‘hardworking people’ too, since they often work a lot harder than many Brits, given the absence of any unions or organizations to protect them or limit their working hours?

Not really.   Because behind the endlessly-repeated political cliché about ‘hardworking people’ is a deeper subtext and political purpose, whose essential aim is to create the illusion of a virtuous majority threatened by less virtuous outsiders.   Whenever politicians celebrate these virtues, they invariably invoke, either directly or by suggestion,  another category of people that does not share them.

These are the ones who are still sleeping with their curtains drawn while Alarm Clock Britons are out there grafting,  or lying around on what the monstrous banality that is Eric Pickles calls the ‘sofa of despair’, without the gumption to get out there and look for work.

That’s right readers, we are talking once again about the undeserving poor, which in the Coalition’s eyes means anyone who is poor, because poverty is always due to an unwillingness to work hard.  After all, what other explanation can there be?  And if ‘hardworking people’ accept that explanation, then why would they not resent and even hate the feckless parasites who they support through their taxes?

Does all this sound simplistic?  Maybe so, but then, as Goebbels once pointed out, political lies don’t have to be complex.  They can even be quite stupid.  But if you keep telling them again and again, you might find that an awful lot of people just accept them without question.