The home secretary’s immigration bill, which claims ending free movement will open up Britain to the world, has rightly attracted derision, says STEVE ANGLESEY.
In these confusing lockdown times it’s all too easy to forget what day, even what month it is. So we must be grateful to home secretary Priti Patel for this week’s reminder of what year we’re in, even if the surprising answer has turned out to be 1984.
On Monday, Patel chose to launch the second reading of her immigration bill with the slogan, ‘We’re ending free movement to open Britain up to the world’. Catchphrases don’t come much more Orwellian; oxymorons don’t get much more moronic.
‘War is peace, freedom is slavery, ignorance is strength,’ Nineteen Eighty-Four’s three slogans of the Party, were picked out on the frontage of the Ministry of Truth, ‘an enormous pyramidal structure of glittering white concrete, soaring up, terrace after terrace, 300 metres into the air’.
Patel’s message appeared on social media under an image of a waving union flag. The intended effect of both is to add the ballast of gravitas to paradoxical propositions that might otherwise collapse under the weight of their own contradictions.
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But then Big Brother never had Twitter to contend with. While his messages were robotically repeated by the proles, Patel’s slogan was damned and derided. It might as well have been, ‘We’re ending our EU membership to open me up to ridicule’;
‘This is the point Britain has reached now. Triumphantly celebrating the end of freedom,’ wrote author Jonathan Coe, a Costa prizewinner earlier this year for his Brexit novel Middle England. ‘I’m boarding up my house to welcome my friends in,’ added humourist John Rain, of the excellent Smershpod podcasts.
Others pointed out that, not surprisingly, Patel’s slogan failed to mention how Britain was ending free movement to close itself off to Europe, by removing the right of 66 million Britons to live and work in 27 other countries. Or how it was ending free movement to open itself up to shortages of many of the ‘low-skilled’ frontline workers who have been vital in the pandemic.
There was also no mention of how we were ending free movement to open up the possibility of a Terminator franchise instalment in which Priti Patel travels back in time to stop herself becoming home secretary, since she admits her legislation might have disqualified her own parents from coming to Britain from Uganda.
When questioned about this by LBC’s Nick Ferrari back in February, she blustered ‘let’s not forget we are not changing our approach to refugees and asylum seekers, which is very different to a points-based system for employment and that particular route.’ If this was intended to suggest that Patel’s parents arrived in the UK as refugees it is deceptive; they came in the 1960s, years before the mass expulsion of Ugandan Asians by Idi Amin in 1972.
But will the slogan resonate with the general public? For Patel, it must. Even some Tory colleagues have hinted that her bill might need adjusting to ensure public services are able to attract and retain the kind of staff they need. And though she appears to have survived bullygate, her own personal popularity has plunged in the wake of the scandal and of her fumbling briefing appearances, during which she has praised a reduction in shoplifting during lockdown and hailed the ‘three hundred thousand, and thirty four, nine hundred and seventy four thousand’ tests for the virus.
While Rishi Sunak has a +35 rating in a YouGov poll carried out on March 14, with Boris Johnson on +7 and Matt Hancock on -1, Patel is underwater on -34. She needs a hit.
No wonder, then, she has approved a campaign which uses one of the oldest advertising tricks in the book. In Paradoxical Thinking: How to profit from your contradictions, published in 1997, management consultants Herry L Fletcher and Kelle Olwyler explain: ‘The advertising industry uses the oxymoron to capture human attention. They know that when the brain is ambling along reading something and it hits an oxymoron, it comes to a screeching halt: Something is not right here! In the seconds it takes your brain to readjust to the paradoxical image an oxymoron presents, your attention has been captured.’ Thus, something actually which might otherwise be perceived as weak, small or in some way inferior can be sold as a strength: the paper tablecloth, the plastic glass, the jumbo shrimp.
If Patel manages to get away with turning a negative into a positive, expect more of the same. We will end benefits to open up Britain to the joys of fruit picking. We will end our silly food laws to open up Britain to delicious new chloriney tastes from the USA. We will end expertise to open Britain up to blissful stupidity. And, any minute now, we will end the tyranny of lockdown to open Britain up to the freedom of coronavirus.