We celebrate our ‘British Schindler’ Sir Nicholas Winton, but we’ve forgotten what he stood for

The word 'foreigner' has become so toxic that Britain is now prepared to let refugees drown.

The word ‘foreigner’ has become so toxic that Britain is now prepared to let refugees drown

Britain appears to be engaged in an immigration death spiral. For one politician’s ‘legitimate concerns’ another will raise you their ‘community tensions’. Britain is ‘swamped’ by immigrants and any sort of logic is the preserve of ‘liberal elites’ and can therefore go to the dogs.

So deep is the rot that even some on the left are now yearning for a politics steeped in populism and wild emotion, as was evident last week when Russell Brand was feted by people who should know better for saying that he “ain’t got no time for a bloody graph”.

Don’t like the gist of your opponent’s argument? Then dismiss them as part of the liberal elite/the establishment/the corporate lobby (delete as appropriate).

Nowhere is this form of anti-logic more aptly demonstrated than on immigration, where everyone from certain factions of the Labour Party to the loopiest fringe of UKIP are completely impervious to anything which fails to paint migrants as a bunch of good-for-nothing freeloaders.

Sticking to the facts would be just so ‘elitist’, after all.

And so this week we’ve reached the bottom. The word ‘foreigner’ has become so toxic that Britain, along with other European nations, is now prepared to let refugees drown.

According to a statement from Foreign Office minister Lady Anelay, the Government “do not support planned search and rescue operations in the Mediterranean”. Their reasoning is as follows: it believes there is “an unintended ‘pull factor’, encouraging more migrants to attempt the dangerous sea crossing and thereby leading to more tragic and unnecessary deaths”.

British policy toward asylum seekers is now set by the spluttering bore in the pub. Human catastrophes like the war in Syria and the Isis takeover of Iraq are just a sideshow; the real reason refugees want to come to Britain is the £50 a week they might claim in Jobseekers Allowance. Better that we don’t look like a ‘soft touch’ by saving them from drowning.

Outrage would likely have greeted this policy a few years ago. Yet because the drumbeat of anti-foreigner sentiment has been beaten for so long, all we can do is shrug. To do anything else would be to fail to understand the “genuine anger that’s out there about immigration”, or so the argument goes.

But British politicians (and the public that elects them) want to have it both ways. They wish to scapegoat immigrants and asylum seekers for electoral gain (and to distract from their own failures to regulate the banks), yet they also cling to the idea of Britain as a supposed ‘sanctuary’ for the needy and the dispossessed.

On Tuesday Czech authorities honoured Sir Nicholas Winton, sometimes endearingly known as the ‘British Schindler’. Sir Nicholas was 29 when he put his life in great danger to provide safe-passage to 669 children, most of them Jews, out of Nazi-controlled Czechoslovakia. Some of the people Sir Nicholas rescued looked on with tears in their eyes at this week’s ceremony. Hundreds of people owe their life to this man. Calling him a hero somehow doesn’t cut it.

Tuesday, then, should have been a great day to be British. Instead, on the same day the Czech authorities honoured our very own Schindler, the British Foreign Office decided that today’s victims of genocide were not worth a single search and rescue boat. From Tuesday, asylum seekers out at sea would, if it came to the pinch, be left to drown – lest they get the silly idea in their heads that Britain might be prepared to help them.

We may celebrate Sir Nicholas Winton, but it’s evident that we’ve completely forgotten what he stood for.

This is not to draw a false moral equivalence between Nazi Germany and the various conflicts currently burning parts of the globe. Rather it is to point out that principles must be more than abstractions if they are actually to mean something; they can’t simply be projected onto the past.

Sir Nicholas put his life on the line to rescue the asylum seekers of his generation. Today, while we puff ourselves up and pat ourselves on the back over our ‘British Schindler’, we’re not even willing to send a few boats out to sea to rescue them.

James Bloodworth is the editor of Left Foot Forward. Follow him on Twittter

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