On Saturday evening, Rishi Sunak tweeted a picture of himself and his family off to see Barbie. Using the hashtag #Barbenheimer – a reference to the simultaneous release of Greta Gerwig’s cinematic tribute to the classic Mattel doll and of Christopher Nolan’s Oppenheimer – the prime minister wrote: “The family vote was only ever going one way… Barbie first it is.”
Though, to be fair, Gerwig’s film (starring Margot Robbie and Ryan Gosling) is nuanced, ironic and multi-layered in its message about gender and patriarchy, the global marketing campaign in which it has been wrapped is relentlessly pink, sunny and perma-smiley. Sunak wanted everyone to know that he was joining in the joy.
Meanwhile, back in the real world, his government has just passed into law the Illegal Migration Act 2023, one of the harshest and most inhumane statutes of the postwar political era. Under the new legislation, refugees and asylum seekers reaching these shores via “irregular routes” – notably, “small boats” – will be unable to claim asylum and will be liable for detention and removal to their country of origin or a “safe third country”.
This deplorable law is the legislative face of a barbaric new ethos championed by the home secretary, Suella Braverman. On Sunday night, the Guardian disclosed that she had personally intervened to prevent Siyabonga Twala from returning to the UK after a holiday in South Africa.
Twala, who is 34, has lived here since he was 15, when his family relocated from Durban to Chester. Though he has yet to apply for full UK citizenship, he enjoys rights of residency. But Braverman judged that his one-off conviction in 2018 for possession of cannabis with intent to supply meant that “your exclusion is conducive to the public good”.
Is it really? Even the Home Office’s own letter acknowledges that Twala is unlikely to reoffend. Such decisions appear arbitrary unless considered in the broader political context of a government resolutely committed to performative cruelty.
At last year’s Conservative Party conference in Birmingham, Braverman declared that she “would love to have a front page of the Telegraph with a plane taking off to Rwanda [carrying refugees]. That’s my dream, it’s my obsession”.
Her tawdry fantasy is doomed to failure. In June, the Court of Appeal ruled that the deportation of asylum seekers to Rwanda is unlawful. Even if the Supreme Court overturns this decision, the east African country has nothing like the capacity required by Braverman’s strategy.
In practice, thousands of those in line for deportation will be stuck indefinitely in makeshift accommodation, such as the grim Bibby Stockholm barge that berthed in Portland Port, Dorset last week; repurposed military locations; and former prisons.
The degradation in which Braverman is ready for these desperate people to live was made clear by the scandalous conditions revealed last year at the Manston processing centre in Ramsgate. Cases of diphtheria, norovirus, scabies and open sores were reported among the detainees, sleeping in hopelessly overcrowded tents, often without functioning sanitation or clean clothes.
What lies behind this appalling strategy? Electoral calculation, for a start. The PM knows that his plan for economic recovery will not be sufficiently advanced by the time he goes to the country. Hence what I have heard his allies call “Track B”: culture wars, attacks on so-called wokery and an uncompromising approach to migrants. It is important to remember that Sunak’s complaint about the Rwanda scheme has only ever been that it does not go far enough. In July, during the leadership contest to replace Boris Johnson, he revealed in the Sunday Telegraph that he had a 10-point plan to make the system even tougher.
All of which aligns with the firmly rightward ideological trajectory of the Conservative Party. This much was clear from Braverman’s star turn at the National Conservative conference in May – in effect, the founding of a MAGA chapter in the UK.
Earlier this month, a group of 25 Tory MPs, many of them representing so-called Red Wall seats, launched themselves as the “New Conservatives”; publishing their own 12-point blueprint to cut immigration by 400,000. Their concern, they said, was “cultural security”: a euphemism if ever there was one.
What puzzles many observers of this wretched trend is that, even on its own terms, the Conservative approach to migrants is neither administratively practical nor financially viable. But this is to misunderstand what truly lurks beneath it all.
To enlist the title of a fine book on Trump’s America, published in 2021, by the Atlantic journalist Adam Serwer: The Cruelty Is the Point. When Braverman withheld payments of £3 a week from pregnant asylum seekers and those with children under three – unlawfully, according to a High Court ruling on July 21 – she was positively flaunting her lack of compassion.
When Robert Jenrick, the immigration minister, decreed in April that murals depicting Disney characters be removed from the walls of the Kent intake unit, a reception centre for unaccompanied child asylum seekers, he was reflecting the authentic position of this government: that nothing, absolutely nothing, must be allowed to comfort or welcome the world’s most wretched people, not even children, when they arrive in the UK.
This is an approach based on nothing less than systematic dehumanisation: a truly dreadful development in mainstream British politics. When Braverman spoke in October of “the invasion on our southern coast”, she knew precisely what she was doing: encouraging a hateful sense of solidarity and shared purpose by caricaturing hundreds of desperate individuals as a hostile army of anti-British interlopers. She was nationalising cruelty.
It is the most debased form of politics imaginable. It plays with the most dangerous fire available to the powerful, and indicates – at best – an unforgivable ignorance of the 20th century and its most terrible lessons.
In her great essay, Regarding the Pain of Others (2003), Susan Sontag wrote that images of horror have a message: “This is what human beings are capable of doing — may volunteer to do, enthusiastically, self-righteously. Don’t forget.”
Indeed: we should not forget. And we should not be fooled by Sunak’s weekend trip to Barbie Land. The political world that he truly inhabits is a place devoid of mercy, compassion or shame. It should chill every decent Briton to the bone.