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Leader comment: Unprincipled Act

21 July 2023

THERE are two approaches habitually used by politicians: one that impresses the voters, and one that can inspire them. The first is problem-solving. You identify a problem, probably real, but possibly less serious than you make it out to be, and probably part of a complex web of cause and effect, but capable of a simplistic presentation — for example, small boats of immigrants arriving on the South Coast. Next, you come up with a solution, the more grandiose the better: eye-catching, outrageous to your political opponents, and, with any luck, challenged in the courts so that its efficacy can never be tested this side of the next General Election — for example, transportation to Rwanda. You have a parliamentary majority. You can ignore any Opposition moves. The Illegal Migration Bill is enacted.

The other approach is to identify a principle. A confident political party would articulate a principle, believing it to be right and worthy to be tested by the electorate in a General Election. You explain the principle, secure the people’s agreement, and then propose policies that accord with the principle — for example, the belief that, as relatively wealthy nation, the UK has a duty to contribute to the welfare of poorer nations, and will benefit from a general global improvement. There would be no question of cutting overseas aid, to take one outcome, since its purpose, value, and morality had already been acknowledged by the electorate.

The Archbishops of Canterbury and York, the bishops in the Lords, and many other peers have been criticised in recent weeks — largely on the grounds of being impractical — for their opposition to the Illegal Migration Bill. Their stand was moral and principled — as if that were a bad thing — but unrealistic. But, as we said at the start, a practical solution was never the present Government’s objective. As Baroness Chakrabarti put it in the Lords on Monday night: “This Bill was not a manifesto commitment at the last election; it is, rather, the extended version of a populist slogan for the upcoming one.” Everyone apart from the hapless junior ministers wheeled out to defend the Rwanda project knows it to be ridiculous — and, judging by their performance, perhaps they know it, too. The deterrent effect of the proposed legislation, offered as the main justification for its expense, cruelty, and illegality, involves deliberately broadcasting the news that the UK is an unfriendly and inhospitable destination — for anyone. Unintended consequences pile up when actions are taken without a moral framework.

In the Lords, Archbishop Welby spoke of the failure to provide “a common, united vision for this nation” and its consequence: leaving many communities “divided, depressed, and anxious”. In these emotional states, people are susceptible to populist politics. The Government’s actions this week prompt the question how much more damage it is prepared to inflict on this country’s reputation, and on democracy, to stave off political defeat.

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