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Cruel Britannia: A three-act tragedy about the death of democracy

After weeks of criticism over her department’s multiple failures, Priti Patel is brandishing her trademark smirk again after the passage of a series of laws that threaten basic freedoms at home and abroad

Former home secretary Priti Patel at a Covid briefing in January 2021. Photo: POOL/AFP via Getty Images

Don’t give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses for we will treat them as criminals. If you disagree and try to take to the streets, we will slap a ban on your noisy protest. And if you think you can vote us out, we’ve got that covered too because we’ve just made it potentially harder for millions of people to cast a ballot. 

If there was a Statue of Liberty on the cliffs of Dover, that is what it might say today after the passage of three draconian pieces of legislation, any one of which should have made headlines if only we weren’t all talking about how dangerous it is when women cross their legs in the workplace.

The passage of the Nationality and Borders Act, the Elections Act and the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Act (PCSC) – all granted Royal Assent this week – mark the start of a shameful new era of callous disregard for international humanitarian norms twinned with repressive measures against domestic dissent.

Filippo Grandi, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, said the Nationality and Borders Act undermined established international refugee protection law and could breach the Refugee Convention, adding that he was also concerned by the UK’s intention to outsource its obligations on refugees and asylum seekers to other countries. 

He was referring to Patel’s already-announced Faustian pact to deport asylum-seekers to that well-known haven of democracy, Rwanda, for processing. 

“The UK is a nation that rightly prides itself on its long history of welcoming and protecting refugees. It is disappointing that it would choose a course of action aimed at deterring the seeking of asylum by relegating most refugees to a new, lesser status with few rights and a constant threat of removal,” Grandi said. 

“This latest UK government decision risks dramatically weakening a system that has for decades provided protection and the chance of a new life to so many desperate people,” he added.

But Grandi’s “desperate people” are Priti’s “dangerous criminals” and the Home Secretary is unlikely to be too perturbed by the UN criticism. Like her boss, Boris Johnson, and most of his ministers, she seems impervious to shame. In a video posted on Twitter, she declared the new plan for immigration to be – all together now – “world-leading.”

She also wrote a triumphant piece for the Daily Mail where she said the Act would fix the “broken” asylum system and that this was what voters wanted. The article went on to deliver all our favourite Patelisms – “evil people smugglers”; “dangerous foreign criminals”; “meritless claims”; “fair and firm system”.

But if the words were as clichéd as ever, the new measures in the Act are anything but. The maximum sentence for entering the UK illegally has risen from six months to four years. It’s worth bearing in mind that the option of entering legally to seek asylum just doesn’t exist for most people. When Patel said in the past that the Act would create new safe and legal routes, she was accused of misleading parliament, because in fact it doesn’t. 

In her Twitter video this week, she limited herself to saying the Act will “strengthen our safe and legal routes”, neglecting to mention that if she really committed to that policy it would probably do more than anything else to deter men, women and children from risking their lives crossing the mercurial, dangerous Channel in the first place. 

But never mind all that. What matters is that “evil” people smugglers can now be sentenced to life in prison, despite the fact that it has been well documented that the people piloting the flimsy boats are sometimes just refugees who have been coerced into the role, or who take charge because they have some sailing experience and somewhat understandably don’t want everyone in the dinghy to die. 

The best way to truly understand the moral vacuum at the heart of this new legislation is to simply heed Patel’s own words.

“By tackling illegal migration, we will be able to focus our resources on people who genuinely need our help, such as those from Ukraine. The British people have welcomed them warmly, as they have with refugees throughout our history,” she writes.

The message is as subtle as a Mail on Sunday front page: Patel might at least have added a few other similarly war-torn countries – Syria, Yemen, Ethiopia etc – to at least offer the illusion of colour-blind empathy. She decided instead to just double-down. 

“For far too long, the public has been branded racist simply for wanting border controls. Yet only by controlling immigration can we do right by those who don’t have the money to pay people-smugglers.”

Or to put it another way, as the Refugee Council chose to do:“There are many ways in which these inhumane policies will devastate the lives of men, women and children who have already endured unimaginable pain and suffering.  Our analysis lays bare these brutal truths: that more than 19,000 people fleeing war, conflict and bloodshed could face years in prison in Britain at extortionate cost to the public purse – to the tune of a staggering £835m every year.”

Refugees and asylum seekers weren’t the only ones in the Tory government’s sights this week, proving that even this most work-shy of Cabinets can get things done if they just care enough about the issues. 

And so we come to the Elections Act. Sold as a way to offer greater protection against almost non-existent voter fraud, activists say the new requirement for people to show photo ID cards when voting could disenfranchise some of the poorest people in the country. The legislation also removes the 15-year limit on voting by British citizens living overseas and gives government ministers more control over the independent Electoral Commission.

Grassroots movement Open Britain tweeted: “Not a single headline. Following events in the Lords last night, the UK’s independent elections watchdog is no longer independent. It’s now subject to political control by a Minister in the govt of the day…right now, that means Michael Gove. And not a single headline.”

Meanwhile the new PCSC policing Act will, among other measures, “strengthen police powers to tackle non-violent protests that have a significant disruptive effect on the public or on access to parliament” and, “strengthen police powers to tackle unauthorised encampments that significant (sic) interfere with a person’s or community’s ability to make use of the land”. 

The Police Bill Alliance, an informal coalition of more than 350 organisations that opposed the legislation, said its passage marked a “dark day for democracy” . 

“Police will now have the unprecedented power to impose noise-based restrictions on protests, the power to impose large fines and jail sentences on anyone who strays from conditions imposed on a protest and criminalise Gypsy, Traveller and nomadic families who have no place to stop and rest. It’s cruel to use the full strength of the law to tell people where they can’t go, but offer nowhere they can go,” the Alliance said.

Stephanie Draper, CEO at Bond, a network of NGOs, said the right to protest was ever more important given crises such as climate change, rising food prices and the war in Ukraine.

“By abandoning these principles, the UK has lost its credibility as a country that champions human rights and democratic values and stands up for minorities around the world. At a time when democracy in Europe is under attack, we must lead by example and do all we can to protect our rights and freedoms here in the UK.”

Patel did get one thing right in her video: this is indeed a “landmark moment in our country’s history.”

Just for all the wrong reasons. 

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