“The Irish,” wrote Queen Victoria in the midst of a famine that would kill two million of her Irish subjects, “really are a terrible people.” The more the British government seemed to do for them, “the more unruly and ungrateful they seem to be.”
Among the numerous solutions the British elite came up with was deporting Irish refugees who arrived in Liverpool and Glasgow. Between 1847 and 1852 more than 100,000 were forcibly dumped back on to the quaysides at Cork and Dublin, even as others clamoured to escape.
So Lee Anderson, the Conservative Party deputy chair, is in good company. Last week he told migrants facing forced relocation from hotels to the Bibby Stockholm barge, in Portland Harbour: “If they don’t like barges then they should fuck off back to France.”
Challenged by Nigel Farage, on GB News, over the vehemence of the language, Anderson doubled down. “It’s born out of frustration. It’s born out of me being absolutely furious… at the fact that these, and I hate the word asylum seekers because they’re not – they’re illegal economic migrants that are coming over here in their thousands and being enabled by these charities…”
The justice secretary, Alex Chalk, defended his comments, saying: “Lee Anderson expresses the righteous indignation of the British people. Yes, he does it in salty terms, that’s his style, but his indignation is well placed.”
So this is not just about profanity and offensive language. It is about stirring up the politics of racist anger. And the Conservatives have adopted the strategy consciously. It is designed to legitimise hatred, to encourage ignorance about the rights of asylum seekers and indeed ignorance of the British legal system.
But it is not the place of an MP to decide whether asylum applicants are genuine or not: only the Home Office can do that; and it can only do so within the law – making its decisions subject to legal action.
Also, it is simply not possible for most people in the asylum system to “fuck off back to France”. If someone did, taking Anderson’s advice, withdraw their asylum application, they would be obliged to leave the UK: but any journey from Britain to France would be just as irregular as the one they made to get here. Since they would almost certainly end up in a tent camp, it is unlikely they would do so.
In addition, there are strict rules, imposed by the Home Office, on what happens if a refugee withdraws their asylum application. If someone simply failed to turn up for an interview, having “fucked off back to France”, and if they were mentally ill, a victim of trafficking, a vulnerable adult or a child, the Home Office would be obliged to launch an investigation into their whereabouts. In fact, it would be unlawful for an adult refugee with children to “fuck off back to France” and take the children with them.
Our asylum system, governed as it is by international human rights law, makes it possible to deport failed claimants to their country of origin. Soon it may be legal to deport them to Rwanda or Ascension Island. But “fucking off back to France”, while the Home Office holds your identity documents, is not an option.
I’m dwelling on these prosaic facts not out of pedantry but to get to the heart of the politics: what Anderson is up to is not just racism, but the legitimisation of ignorance.
Since winning his red wall seat in Nottinghamshire, he has made himself an avatar of ignorance. He claimed poor people could make wholesome meals for 30p a day. He deliberately misgendered would-be Labour candidate Eddie Izzard, warning he would not share a toilet with her if she became an MP. He ostentatiously refused to watch the England men’s football team in the Euro 2020 games because they took the knee.
Elevating him to deputy chairman of the party and giving him carte blanche to stir up racism is a huge mistake by Rishi Sunak. Because ignorance and anger are a dangerous mixture. And for more than two centuries the Conservative Party has understood this.
If you read Hansard – the official report of all parliamentary debates – during the Irish famine, most senior Tory MPs took pains to moderate their language, and express sympathy for the victims – even though they operated a brutal policy of deportation. More recently, Ted Heath sacked Enoch Powell within 24 hours of making his “rivers of blood” speech about immigrants in 1968.
Anderson, with his bizarre performance on GB News and his gutter language, is not being seen as an irrelevant joke by our European and US allies: his words are being read, correctly, as a significant lurch by Sunak’s government towards the politics of active hate. This is not compatible with remaining a mainstream Conservative party, and many of his colleagues know it.
And here’s the danger. The racism, the attacks on lawyers and climate protesters, will not work. With the economy tanking, with real wages falling for the longest period since the Napoleonic wars, it is not possible for Sunak to establish a poll lead using hate alone.
So come the winter, he’ll face a choice. Escalate the politics of anger, or think of something else. The problem is, there is nothing else. Conservatism has reduced itself to a monotonous condition of outrage. But with 18 months’ parliamentary time left to play with, this performative mixture of anger and ignorance can do a lot of damage to our democracy.