Letter from London: The Geopolitics of Cynicism

After eight hours of debate in the two chambers here in London at the beginning of last week, the Rwanda Act was finally passed — with French President Macron describing it as a ‘betrayal of values’ and the ‘geopolitics of cynicism’. He wasn’t alone with his concerns. ‘So the Rwanda bill becomes law,’ wrote Will Hutton, ‘with Britain an inspiration to the extreme right across Europe.’ As supporters of the Act celebrated into the night, five migrants, including a seven year-old girl, drowned in the English Channel, having paid good money to bad people for a new life. People say the Act is already working by sending asylum seekers from here the next day into neighbouring Ireland. This is not only according to Rishi Sunak but Irish deputy prime minister Micheál Martin.

No one says there isn’t huge strain on our asylum system — where in the West is there not huge strain? — but this kind of desperation ‘to stop the boats’ is far more gimmick than stomach. Even the flights to Rwanda are doomed. ‘Amnesty international has warned airline companies that many members of the public take an extremely negative view of the Rwanda policy,’ warned Baroness Bennett. ‘These were unnecessary words because no company of any repute whatsoever is going to take part in the Rwanda scheme.’ Assuming they do find an airline, the first flights won’t be for another 9 to 11 weeks, missing Sunak’s boasted spring target. Human rights and media lawyer Mark Stephens has even posted: ‘Any airline that carries refugees to #Rwanda will be breaching international law,’ adding that both the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights, as well as the OECD Principles for multinational businesses, ‘will render them susceptible to paying compensation to their passengers’. Not to mention the fact some of the houses set aside in Rwanda have already been sold off.

In 2015, on the burnished island of Lesbos, Greek boats plucked largely Syrians and Afghans from strangely idyllic blue waters. I know this because I was there. This followed often the sudden capsizing of cheap Chinese-made dinghies. Civilised conversations could be had with these rescued people wrapped in silver reflectors gifted by the EU. Their troubles were now over. They had made it. The sweat of perpetual night had been broken. I watched one worldly Brit reduced to tears by what he was seeing, calling it one of Europe’s finest hours. So where did it all go wrong? Is it not simply because the world is still in crisis and we must therefore keep stepping up to the plate? Anyone with any sense of humanity knows that most of the migrant or refugee families in this or any other have already faced huge heartbreak and loss. We can’t possibly justify adding to that. I know that almost 750 small boats arrived on these shores over one recent weekend. I know that this is considered unsustainable, not without unstitching the very fabric of the nations receiving people. I also know the effects of illegal migration on Italy from its recent whiplash in its politics. Images from Sweden, where both Islamism and right-wing extremism have been allowed to grow, I know are beyond upsetting. Last week, in Paris, three young Afghans were found dead in what appeared to be a murder-suicide, followed I know by hundreds of shocked young Afghans taking to the Parisian streets. But we make demons of ourselves when we demonise others.

Not that the right-wing in this country appear to be effectual. Last week, its so-called stooges were out in force on St George’s Day in Whitehall — some in full St George’s battle-dress, prompting comedian and writer Dom Joly to post alongside some footage of this: ‘Live scenes from the Crusades!’ Far-right activist Tommy Robinson and far-right actor Laurence Fox were there, hogging people’s phone cameras like a doomed double-act, as fellow supporters in full-body flags continued to push through a nearby police blockade. I found it impossible to take any of these protesters seriously. Theirs was more of a rowdy knees-up in the pub before a football match. One friend mentioned to me the empire-savvy historian Arnold Toynbee whose notion of ‘the internal proletariat’ was described as growing groups of people as an empire starts to fester and decline ultimately doing nothing. I don’t wish to be complacent but this could be the fate of the pantomime Georgists — apathy not empathy. I wonder how many know George is a Palestinian hero.

And yet, also last week, something quite extraordinary happened to me here in London. I was writing in the cafe of our local park. A group of young Germans entered and I soon struck up a conversation with the four who sat at the table next to me. They were all students,I learned. Two of them were Afghan-born. German citizens now, they had moved to Germany seven years ago, not long after I was on Lesbos. I told them I had been in Afghanistan and we talked briefly about the olives and dates in Nangarhar Province. They were polite, reflective, well-informed, their smiles infectious and winning. One of them wanted to talk about Englishman Harry Kane’s season with German football club Bayern Munich. ‘Your captain,’ he nodded: ‘England captain.’ The other didn’t want to forget Kane’s fellow English teammate Eric Dier. I told them their English was very good and they placed their hands on their hearts. What can be more important than young lives saved, I was thinking? They both said they wanted to be doctors. Famously, Steve Jobs’ father was a Syrian refugee. Everyone deserves our respect. Just as everyone needs assessed sensibly.

Now I want to flip this round completely. Imagine you are a stateless couple, more stateless than even some of those struggling every day to get north, and you need to travel in the opposite direction. You need to go south. Imagine you are from two different continents, neither of them the continent you are on, and you are compelled to do this. Well, there exists one such couple. I am talking about husband and wife team CC O’Hanlon and Given Rozell whose extraordinary lives I have written about here before. Right now, they are stuck in France desperate to head south to the Mediterranean on their loyal boat Wrack. (‘Another drear morning of wind and rain in Cherbourg,’ CC has just posted.) It had all been going to plan for them both, relatively plain sailing, so to speak. Only life got in the way when a beloved family member suddenly needed emergency help. Everything as a result has gone towards this. Now, they find they badly need food, medical supplies, fuel. To make this happen, tireless artist and writer Liz Cullinane — a successful champion of culture as well as other people — has organised a new fundraiser for them. ‘Shelterless ashore, they struggle to stay afloat with meagre finances and fend off the increasing pressures of age (Creed turns 70 this year) and chronic illness,’ writes Liz. As well as two of life’s most peripatetic people, CC O’Hanlon and Given Rozell are regular readers of CounterPunch.

Peter Bach lives in London.