Don’t blame the bureaucrats. Blame the boss

Published by The i paper (23rd April, 2018)

Theresa May presents herself as a decent person. She talks of fairness and trust, justice and opportunity. The daughter of a vicar, she embodies a spirit of suburban endeavour and subdued respectfulness. She remains a strangely enigmatic figure after 16 years in front-rank politics, with few close friends at Westminster and no identifiable creed. But if there is anything that defines her, beyond slogging away remorselessly and batting away difficult balls like her cricketing hero Geoffrey Boycott, it is the sense that she acts correctly even in difficult circumstances.

Today the Prime Minister is exposed in harshest possible light over the Windrush scandal. This will be causing her pain – and not just because it displays again poor political skills, as in last year’s election catastrophe. One of the few certainties about May, beyond driving ambition, is that she deplores disparities on the basis of race, gender or background. It was anger at seeing women excluded from politics that inspired her ‘nasty party’ intervention in 2002. Disgust over racism lay behind her bold speech in 2014 as Home Secretary to the Police Federation conference and her brave stance on stop and search.

Veteran campaigners on issues such as deaths in custody, mental health and modern slavery have told me May was the most engaged Home Secretary for decades. There are few votes in these areas. Her interest was fuelled by an unfashionable sense of duty, instilled growing up in a vicarage, and fostered by a desire to tackle unfairness. I once attended a lunch with her that was mind-numbingly dull, in which she said nothing of note, then at the end she sparked into life when discussing race.

As she said last year when launching her Race Disparity Audit, there should be ‘nowhere to hide’ for transgressors. Now she has nowhere to hide over this scandal. It is the most appalling government failure for years, one that has caused terrible pain for thousands of people. They are decent people too. Their families were invited to this country to work in our public services, in hospitals, schools and even the House of Commons. Yet we have heard a series of hideous stories of how bureaucratic callousness led to these families being ripped apart and individuals thrown out of jobs, evicted from homes, denied medical treatment and even deprived of freedom.

The distressing tales finally provoked apologies and talk of compensation – funded by tax-payers, of course, not those responsible for the mess. This is not enough, given the scale of the scandal. Someone should be held accountable – and for once Jeremy Corbyn is right to point the finger at the Prime Minister. She may not be a bigot. But this disturbing situation is the direct result of her obsessive desire to curb immigration, seen most notoriously with the disgusting ‘Go Home’ vans stunt, which encouraged officials to act inhumanely. Don’t blame the bureaucrats. Blame the boss.

It is strange someone who prides herself on decency became so hooked by ambition that she ended up promoting such hurtful policies for people less fortunate than herself. Yes, she is far from alone in Westminster where a populist fringe group provoked both main parties to pander to fear and attack migrants for their own failings rather than display leadership. But it was May who led the policy assault, first as a hardline home secretary and then as a prime minister pushing through her interpretation of Brexit as a revolt against immigrants.

It was May who unleashed the ‘hostile environment’ policies that serve as backdrop to this scandal. She drove immigration laws designed to make up for deficiencies of border controls by ensuring undocumented migrants live in fear and forcing banks, doctors, landlords and teachers to serve as agents of state security. It was May who imposed minimum income requirements that break up thousands of poorer British families, ensuring four in 10 citizens cannot not bring in their foreign spouse if they fall in love (like Prince Harry) across borders.

And it was May who relied on a dodgy dossier to stem the flow of Eritrean refugees fleeing one of the world’s most repressive regimes by rebranding them economic migrants. These and other heartless reforms show a weird concept of fairness, while her blinkered focus on numbers threatens both the economy and public services.

Certainly others must share blame. Her cowardly successor as home secretary needs to search her soul, pretending to be a liberal Tory while privately promising to beef up deportations. Her party must ponder how it ended up in this dark place, its nasty image reinforced and its appeal to younger or metropolitan voters corroded still further. And how sordid to see people who flirted with bigotry to win Brexit suddenly pose as moderates on migration. The so-called ‘liberal leavers’ claim to be globalists, yet they deliberately stoked fires of nationalism and populism that have burned so many innocent people.

This situation has been building for years. It is one more sign of inept border controls, an incompetent Home Office and inadequate political system. But this scandal exposes state cruelty – and it was inflamed by the deliberate actions of the Prime Minister. She might protest she was only doing her job, serving sections of the electorate concerned about rapid changes to their country, and had no intention of causing distress. No doubt she is genuinely apologetic and upset by the consequences of her actions. But surely there must be accountability in public life. If May really is a decent person, regardless of the delicacy of Brexit discussions, she should depart Downing Street.

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