When I got the email from Suella Braverman, the subject line surprised me. It said, “RE: Small Boats”. I hadn’t emailed the home secretary, so putting “RE:” in the strapline was just a classic marketing ruse to get my attention.
Of course, the email wasn’t about boats at all but people: refugees; men, women and children stumbling up the pebbled beaches of Kent, having parted with their savings for the privilege of being dumped in a hotel, and entering an asylum processing system that has been allowed to collapse.
Ms Braverman, she claimed, had “tried to stop the small boat crossings without changing the law”. That was the first lie. The Conservatives pushed through the Nationality and Borders Act in 2022 to limit the rights of people who had arrived by boat, and to allow “offshore processing centres”.
But the most shocking claim in the email, which Braverman has now repudiated, was that “an activist blob of left-wing lawyers, civil servants and the Labour Party blocked us”. For good measure, the “blob” claim was repeated twice.
Again, substantially, it’s baseless. Labour failed to block the Nationality and Borders Act. Lawyers representing those about to be deported to Rwanda convinced a British court to stop the flights, as they breached the European Convention. Throughout the process, judges have ruled that those lawyers were simply doing their jobs. Civil servants, meanwhile, are duty-bound to uphold the law.
The “blob” metaphor has been designed just as carefully as the “RE:” in the strapline: it is the classic language of dehumanisation. What the “activists” inside Labour, the civil service and the legal profession share, it is implied, are values that – as a Daily Express headline put it – “betray Britain”.
Some Labour politicians apparently think it is “ill-advised” to accept Gary Lineker’s comparison of this kind of language with the language of 1930s Germany.
So let’s remind ourselves of what the Nazis did to the German civil service. In 1933 they passed a law designed not just to expel Jews but also to “cleanse the civil service of all those elements that had crept into it in the last 14 years, mainly because of their party affiliations, but who lacked all competence and moral qualifications”.
One of the main reasons for dismissal – without pension rights or references – was “unbecoming conduct”. This could include buying goods in a Jewish shop, raising concerns over the closing of religious schools, and “failing to protest against insults to National Socialism in church services”.
The purge, in short, was not only aimed at Jews or Communists, but also at those who refused to go along with the politicisation of public administration. And here’s the tragedy: by 1937, according to contemporary accounts, 90% of German civil servants were still in post. They’d been absorbed without much protest into a politicised killing machine.
And that – not just the hurt feelings of civil service unions – is why we should be concerned. Of course, when we recall the events of the 1930s we have to recognise the uniqueness of the Nazis’ crimes. But one of the reasons we study them is in order to spot the dangers if they arise a second time.
What Braverman now proposes is the biggest and most racialised infraction of human rights in Britain since the 1930s.
She not only seeks the power to deport refugees without regard to their rights under British law. She seeks the power to detain tens of thousands of them without any recourse to a British court.
This is an attack on the very concept of “right” within civil society – and puts Braverman way outside the Tory mainstream.
This, of course, is why the cynics believe she is doing it for show. She knows it will be blocked by the European Court of Human Rights, forcing a showdown in which the UK becomes a judicial pariah state for the rest of Europe. Then she can, once again, flounce out of government and pitch for the Tory leadership, becoming the Enoch Powell of our time.
That’s why Braverman’s email designating civil servants as part of an “activist blob” including left-wing lawyers and Labour politicians should set our alarm bells ringing.
It is an attempt to politicise the state. It is a step towards the repudiation of universal human rights. And by stigmatising asylum seekers – at the very moment actual fascists are mobilising violent protest movements to harass and insult them in their hotel accommodations – it is yet another step towards the merger of Conservatism with far-right politics.
Plus, as anyone who has studied the Conservative-far right nexus knows, saying something inflammatory and then denying you ever said it is just another page out of the playbook. And that playbook was written in the 1930s.
What the Tories are displaying, as they stoke up resentment against refugees, human rights defenders and civil servants, is performative anger: anger at facts that are not true; anger over grievances that are manufactured; anger at saboteurs and traitors who can be otherised along with the refugees themselves.
But performative anger is dangerous. Directed from behind the darkened windows of a ministerial Mercedes, it can trigger actions directed at people who have no security guards, no lawyers, no power, nowhere to escape.
The Conservatives’ new asylum law won’t work, of course. But that’s not why we should oppose it.
We should oppose it because this is not who we are. We learned who we were when we stood up to fascism – despite our own history of racist colonialism.
“Don’t mention the 1930s” is not a viable strategy when you’re dealing with people blind to the danger of repeating them.