When the epitaph is written of this Conservative government, one moment must be held iconic. Last week, live on the BBC, Suella Braverman was asked about the time in February 2018 when Rwandan police opened fire on a protest by refugees, leaving 12 dead. She said, unblinkingly: “I’m not familiar with that particular case.”
She is home secretary. Her flagship policy is to send refugees to Rwanda. She had just visited Rwanda and stood with an ecstatic smile in front of the camp where they are going to be held. And yet she could not recall the most serious incident highlighted in her department’s own Country Policy and Information Note on Rwanda, dated May 2022?
The CPIN runs to 6,200 words, but Braverman, who employs civil servants and special advisers to yellow-marker the relevant words in documents of this sort, had missed the crucial phrase: “a number of refugees were arrested and killed”. She will also have a communications adviser whose job it is to throw her likely interview questions. So, on the face of it, there are two possible explanations: stupidity or lying.
In fact, it’s neither. What we’re being subjected to in the Tory refugee policy is a deliberate theatre of cruelty.
They lie. We know they are lying. They know we know they are lying. They persist in lying to rub our collective faces into the realisation that evidence – even when it is the government’s own evidence – no longer matters. All that matters is their own vindictive joy.
John Stuart Mill described cruelty in politics as more than simple hard-
heartedness, or the absence of pity and remorse: “It is a positive thing; a
particular kind of voluptuous excitement.” Cruel people, in short, get off on cruelty.
The graphic artist Scott McCloud makes the same case in his drawing
manual Making Comics. When you draw the face of someone expressing cruelty, he says, you are basically working with a palate containing two raw emotions: anger and joy.
The faces of Tory ministers, of course, express zero emotion. When confronted with a video of migrants fleeing through the streets of Kigali
during a massacre, Braverman remained deadpan and simply trotted out her lines.
But this, itself, is part of the theatre of cruelty. The Tories are playing to an audience of voters who despise refugees and who will take vicarious pleasure from seeing ministers dead-bat all facts and evidence that the Rwanda policy, or crowding refugees four to a room on barges, is racist.
And no TV interviewer ever lets their own face express empathy: “Don’t you feel for these people, home secretary? Don’t you see them as humans with the same rights as yourself?” We are way beyond the moment when empathy for refugees was acceptable on public service broadcasting.
Mill, writing in the mid-19th century, could confidently describe cruelty for pleasure as alien to British politics. It is, he wrote, more prevalent in Asia and southern Europe, implying that the warm climate was to blame.
So how did British politics, which used to pride itself on equanimity, become a spectacle of anger aimed at carefully chosen, powerless targets – from the small boat refugees to, now, the British Pakistani community, who are collectively slandered as hosting paedophiles?
The answer is the dead end Conservatism has created for itself. It purged its liberal wing during the Brexit crisis. Having achieved hard Brexit, it deprived itself of the capacity to blame Brussels for every ill. It presides over economic stagnation and a debt-to-GDP ratio of 100%.
After the disaster of the Liz Truss experiment, it knows there is no way out. All it has left are enemies – Braverman’s alleged “activist blob” of human rights lawyers and civil servants, who stand in the way of deporting refugees; the European Court of Human Rights; climate protesters and any academic who insists on telling the truth about Britain’s legacy of colonial mass murder.
The horrible truth about this cocktail of joyous anger is that it can work for a time, mobilising a minority of voters, but it cannot lead Conservatism into the future.
Margaret Thatcher succeeded because she had a clear economic model to pursue; and imposed it ruthlessly by taking on and defeating the unions. There were powerful business interests behind her, and almost none against her. Above all, history was flowing her way – tilting from a collectivist vision of society to an individualist one.
Today it’s obvious to most people that we’re heading for climate chaos. The
only actions possible are collective – pooling the risks, maximising the returns on investment, promoting the kind of entrepreneurship that removes carbon from our system.
And Sunak’s government can’t beat the teachers, nurses, train drivers and junior doctors, because the economics are flowing in the opposite direction.
So it’s not going to wash, this blatant resort to weaponising hate. And as it fails to revive the Tories in the polls, Braverman, its chief proponent will – I
predict – be sacrificed, if not in a reshuffle then in yet another, inevitable scandal.
But the theatre of cruelty, once introduced into British politics, will leave its stain.
Long into the future, far right dads will say to their far right sons: “Once we had a home secretary prepared to have the foreigners dragged in handcuffs on to jumbo jets, and herded into floating prisons.
“Next time, we do it right.”