Winner of the New Statesman SPERI Prize in Political Economy 2016

Wednesday, 20 April 2022

Is sending UK asylum seekers to Rwanda an example of Brexit overreach?


Boris Johnson is the first UK Prime Minister to be convicted of lawbreaking while in office. Not any old law, but a law he himself imposed on UK citizens, and a law which caused many of those citizens great hardship to uphold at some of the most stressful times in their life. Yet his MPs have collectively decided not to remove him from office on this account, and one minister has described his lawbreaking as ‘fluff’. In these circumstances it is totally understandable that many will wonder how the UK government got itself in such an unprincipled position. [1]

This despair is not helped when the same MPs claim we should overlook his partying during lockdowns because of the great things their leader has done, at a time when household incomes are being squeezed like never before because of government decisions, when more than a thousand die a week as a result of Covid in a NHS on its knees from a pandemic, a pandemic Johnson has declared at an end and over which he says he made all the right calls, where his signature policy has left this country poorer through trade and labour shortages, under an agreement that he previously signed which he now says is unworkable. Just this last week the government announced its answer to people traffickers sending asylum seekers across the channel in small boats is to traffic some of them by force to Rwanda. With all this, it is inevitable that many will wonder what planet our rulers are on.

In 2017 I wrote a post about what I called neoliberal overreach. The idea in that post was as follows. Neoliberalism, the ideological framework introduced by Thatcher and Reagan, has dominated the thinking parts of the political right ever since. A belief set that includes an aversion to state intervention in economic affairs, a desire for ever lower taxes, a ‘flexible’ labour force that isn’t unionised and so on. To the ideology’s devotees it appeared to bring mostly benefits in Thatcher and Reagan’s time, and they wanted to emulate and move forward that political project when their time to rule came.

Yet to do so was overreach, because neoliberalism as a project was only sustainable if it limited itself to a few well defined goals, like reducing union power and opening up markets. The truth was that a successful economy, with ongoing innovation and economic growth, was only possible with significant cooperation between the state and the private sector. (That is the message of Mariana Mazzucato’s The Entrepreneurial State.) In addition neoliberalism would only remain popular if citizens were adequately protected from the ups and downs of their health, of individual firms and the economy as a whole. This is Blair’s third way, or neoliberalism with a human face. To instead insist that neither state intervention or protection was required was overreach in the first instance because it would cause considerable harm, and in the second instance because it could end the dominance of neoliberalism.

While Conservative politicians in the 1950s were reconciled to running an economy with much more state intervention than this, the devotees of neoliberalism were not. They wanted more or what Thatcher had started, which meant a smaller state, less regulation and so on. So when the Global Financial Crisis (GFC) showed why deregulation could be disastrous, and a depression was only avoided by massive state intervention, one of neoliberalism’s devotees in the UK, George Osborne, only saw a chance to shrink the state. What I call deficit deceit was born in 2008, and implemented in 2010.

Other devotees, including crucially the owners of the right wing press, had another project in mind. They believed that their ideologically nirvana, which included not just deregulation but their ability to influence governments, was threatened by the European Union. They took their inspiration from Thatcher’s Bruges speech, and started to work towards bringing about Brexit. This group faced two problems. First, EU membership was not a salient issue for most voters, and second, MPs would never collectively choose to leave the EU because to do so would be harmful in both political and economic terms. As a result, their strategy was to link the EU in voters’ minds to uncontrolled immigration, and to bypass parliament using a referendum. The 2010 and 2015 Cameron governments through its actions gave this group their chance to implement their strategy: through the threat of UKIP, through failed immigration targets and through an economy depressed by austerity generating (as it generally does) resentment about immigration.

There was also a more indirect route through which austerity helped Brexit. Austerity was justified by two big lies: first that Labour profligacy rather than the GFC had led to record government deficits and second that these deficits had to be reduced quickly to avoid another financial crisis. Cameron and Osborne, with crucially the help of the right wing press, their coalition partners and a tame broadcast media, were able to convince enough of the population that these lies were true, such that more people blamed the last Labour government than the Coalition for austerity. That lesson was not lost on the Brexiters, who in the 2016 referendum lied about almost everything, and continued to do so when they took over the leadership of the ruling Conservative party in 2019. It helped that doing this came naturally to Boris Johnson.

Of course not all Brexiters were neoliberal devotees, including Johnson himself. For a fuller list just read the exquisite penultimate paragraph of this post from Chris Grey. In addition, and unlike austerity, Brexit has sacrificed some policies generally associated with neoliberalism in order to (maybe) achieve others. It is a policy of hedge fund managers or business owners disgruntled by EU regulations or billionaires fearful about EU tax rules, and was definitely not a policy favoured by a majority of UK business involved in overseas trade. It was overreach not just because it brought great harm to the country, but because it ended neoliberal hegemony in the UK. The neoliberal overreach of first Cameron/Osborne and then Johnson has changed the UK from a country dominated by Thatcher’s neoliberalism to a country governed by an authoritarian populist leading a selective plutocracy. As this regime shares some characteristics with a dictatorship, it soon takes on the character of its leader, which is why politics in the UK currently appears unprincipled.

Many of the ingredients of what made Brexit possible are involved in the Rwanda policy. It was announced while MPs were on holiday in a memorandum of understanding (bypassing parliament), it aims to shore up the anti-immigration vote, and it involved big lies. The first lie was that asylum seekers were just being sent to Rwanda for ‘processing’, rather than the reality that they will be applying for asylum in Rwanda. The second lie is that the policy would deter people trafficking, whereas not only does it involve the UK government administering forced trafficking, but also experience from Israel suggests it will open up a new trafficking route from Rwanda to Europe. A third big lie is that there is no alternative.

Ministers and MPs like to call asylum seekers who cross the Channel on small boats illegal, and disgracefully BBC News has sometimes parroted that language. Asylum seekers from most countries to the UK face a catch 22. There is no way they can apply for asylum unless they are in the UK, and the government has ensured asylum seekers cannot use official routes into the country, so they are forced to risk their lives travelling on small boats. The obvious solution, which the French government has suggested, is for the UK to set up its asylum processing in France, but the government refuses to do this because its ideal policy is to prevent entry for all asylum seekers.

It is also a very Brexit policy in another sense. Ministers and MPs often imply that because asylum seekers have come from another safe European country (most obviously France) they should have claimed asylum in that country. There is nothing in international law that says asylum seekers have to claim asylum in the first safe country they arrive at, let alone the one they were last in. There used to be the EU’s Dublin convention, but that just applied to EU countries, so it’s a classic case of Brexiters wanting their EU cake after leaving. It is also a classic case of English exceptionalism, in the sense that Bexiters believe other countries should be taking asylum seekers but not us.

The Rwanda deportation policy is in part designed to show that the government rather than the opposition are still on their side of the self-pitying “suburban curtain-twitchers who ‘aren’t allowed to say what we think’” and the “blue-blazered golf club bores who can’t forget the war they don’t actually remember”, to quote from the Chris Grey paragraph referenced above. The more ‘lefty-liberals’ like the Pope or the Archbishop protest the better from this point of view. [2]

Will these old tricks still work? The policy might lead some liberal well-off Tories to vote LibDem in by-elections, but how many will revert back to voting Tory in a general election? More critical is how salient immigration will be as an issue in the next general election. From the Conservatives' point of view it needs to be much more salient than it is right now. While migrants can always be blamed for putting pressure on scarce public services, after Brexit most voters are aware that our NHS and many other essential occupations depend in good part on migrants to keep them going. In addition the war in Ukraine has shown many the human face of asylum seekers. Overall it is possible that the obvious inhumanity of the scheme may galvanise more liberals to effectively oppose the government (by voting tactically in particular) than it does to turn out the xenophobic vote for the Tories.

What do I mean by Brexit overreach? After all, Brexit is hardly an ideology like neoliberalism. Here Brexit is UK-limited shorthand for a plutocratic regime headed by a populist leader that sustains itself in power within a democracy through authoritarian policies that appeal to social conservatives. Hungary's Orban is one example of this type of regime, and Johnson is another. Overreach is where that leader goes too far, and thereby brings about their own downfall in or outside of an election. Going too far can involve pursuing policies that are too authoritarian or inhumane for some social conservatives (as the Rwanda policy might be), actions that expose the regime’s plutocratic nature (corruption), or behaviour that robs the populist of their popularity (lockdown parties).

Which, if any, of these forms of Brexit overreach will bring about the downfall of Boris Johnson? Conservative MPs may have decided to sit on their letters for now, hoping that in time Johnson’s old magic can wipe away memories of overreach. Many MPs think that if the magic no longer works they still retain the option of changing leader before the General Election. However there are two big dangers in the option of waiting. The first is that, with good reason, the failings of Johnson and his government start being associated in voters’ minds with all Conservative MPs including Johnson’s successor. The more time various MPs spend defending the unprincipled actions of their leader the more that will happen. The second is that Johnson preempts MPs by disposing of potential rivals before MPs can act, as they have already done with Sunak. A problem with having a Prime Minister whose only loyalty is to himself is that when his ship finally sinks he will think nothing of taking down all his crew with him.

[1] Johnson either intentionally misled parliament, which even one of his ministers agrees requires his resignation, or he is so incompetent that he had forgotten the law he had himself imposed, and announced to the public, that gatherings of more than two people inside were not allowed unless that was necessary for work. If the latter he is hardly fit to be Prime Minister. If he still claims he was advised the parties that he went to were within the rules, he should tell us who advised him of this, because they too are clearly not fit to be at the top of government. Of course the ‘didn’t think it was against the rules’ defence is too incredible to believe, and the more obvious explanation is that he assumed no one would find out.

[2] Of course neither are lefty-liberals, but for some in the groups the policy appeals to, and increasingly government MPs and supporters, anyone who questions what the government is doing is a lefty liberal. Thus when the BBC in particular occasionally does its job in holding the government to account it is so described by this group. This is classic populism, where 'the people' are just those who agree with the government, and anyone else does not count or, to use another favourite phrase, 'hates Britain'. 

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