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Leader comment: UK opens a door, if you’re fleeing from the right country

18 March 2022

THERE is nothing like a war to focus attention on democracy: its strength, its fragility, and its importance. President Putin has used it as his chief smokescreen for the Russian people, claiming to have entered Ukrainian territory at the request of the “oppressed” Russian-speaking population. His contempt for the genuine will of the Ukrainian people extends to his own population, as he misleads them with false information to shore up his ruinous campaign. A key reason for the limited success of his onslaught is the unity of the Ukrainian people — until recently disaffected under a corrupt and partial government, but now resolute under the democratically elected Volodymyr Zelensky.

It is too much to hope that the Ukrainian resistance has given Putin a new respect for democracy. We might hope, however, for a better attitude within the British Government. There have been multiple examples under the present Prime Minister of policies and initiatives that suggest what is, at best, an ambivalence about democracy. Boris Johnson has no love of accountability. On the other hand, he owes his position as Conservative leader to his (to some, surprising) ability to appeal to the British electorate. But democracy is susceptible not only to the whims of political leaders. A careless electorate, too, is capable of undermining a system that gives them a measured say in their governance. The present Government calculated that it could strip back the UK’s overseas-aid budget, and withdraw the few rights of asylum-seekers and migrants through the Nationality and Borders Bill and the “updating” (translation: watering down) of the Human Rights Act. Ministers believe these policies to be vote-winners, and voter indifference looks to them the same as support. Yet the experience of the past three weeks, with daily criticism of the ministerial response to the thousands displaced by the war in Ukraine, has had the effect of embarrassing a Government that has hitherto proved immune to appeals of this kind.

The scheme announced on Monday is an example of pure democracy. The rubric states: “We will welcome as many arrivals as possible, based on the number of sponsors.” The logging of 100,000 interested hosts in the first 24 hours of the scheme bears out the statement at the start of the sponsorship form, which would have sounded hubristic before this demonstration of intent: “The UK is one of the most generous nations in the world and the British public are now being asked to go one step further and open their homes to those fleeing the war in Ukraine. We have a long history of helping others in their hour of need and the Homes for Ukraine Scheme offers a lifeline to those forced to flee their homes.” Can a Government that writes such sentences any longer pursue its callous policy towards those forced to flee their homes in other countries?

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