Are we really a “big-hearted country”? Foreign secretary Dominic Raab made this claim while addressing the Afghan refugee crisis.
Rumour has it he’d just been hauled back from Greece, to where he’d fled days before Afghanistan was about to fall to the Taliban.
No one saw that coming, apart from everyone not called Raab. And apart from the civil servants who told him to unpack the swimming trunks and stay at home.
Anyway, the papers are divided on the size of our heart. The loyal, never less than slobbering Daily Express has the front-page headline: “Big-hearted Britain to take 20,000 refugees.”
More sceptical, the Daily Mirror says this isn’t enough as only 5,000 will be admitted this year – “SAVE THEM” its headline pleads.
I’m with the Mirror on this one, but let’s rewind a moment.
Yesterday, Raab said that he and home secretary Priti Patel know from experience that Britain is a “big-hearted country”.
In his case, this refers to his Jewish father who came to Britain from Czechoslovakia in 1938, aged, six. For Patel, this dates to 1972, when Idi Amin expelled all Ugandan Asians, and Britain accepted 28,000 refugees displaced in this cruel fashion, including her parents.
Raab and Patel, then, both have family reasons to admire Britain’s openness, although only when it suits them.
Patel’s family background has, for whatever reason, made her mean-spirited towards refugees. She has been happy to out-Farage Farage by exaggerating the problem and following his nasty pointing.
Now the unrolling mess of Afghanistan has forced Patel, Raab and Johnson to don the T-shirt of quick compassion. Much like that time the clown who isn’t really called Boris dragged an England top over his shirt and tie when football was fleetingly his thing.
Pretending to care about football, pretending to care about refugees – it’s hard to keep up.
In interviews, Priti Patel has said “we cannot accommodate 20,000 people all in one go”.
Funny, that – perhaps she should check in with 1972.
Patel also declined to say when the first refugees would be rescued: “I’m not going to give a date, to pluck one out of thin air.”
Funny, that – as thin air is what she relies on for most of her opinions on refugees.
Not all Tories agree with the government’s approach. Former Cabinet minister David Davis, always the maverick’s maverick, said we should accept “north of 50,000” Afghan refugees. Tobias Ellwood, a former Army captain, told the Daily Mirror: “This is a woefully inadequate response given the scale of the refugee crisis we are about to face as a direct response to our withdrawal from Afghanistan.”
Those of us who celebrated Joe Biden not being Donald Trump are now left scratching our heads. Was the sound of banging doors in Afghanistan as the US scrambled out and the Taliban rushed in what we’d hoped to see? All right, it was Trump’s plan, but did Biden have to adopt it so wholeheartedly?
Parliament has been recalled as I write, so that the size of Britain’s heart can be examined. Johnson & Co are left in a bind by this situation, as the number of Afghan refugees we are prepared to accept is determined not so much by compassion as by what Tory backbenchers will tolerate.
Still, let’s end on a positive view of Britain, taken from Bill Bryson’s Notes From A Small Island. A lovely, hilarious, grumpy and wise book which I have just read again.
This comes towards the end…
“Suddenly, in the space of a moment, I realised what it was that I loved about Britain – which is to say, all of it. Every last bit of it, good and bad – Marmite, village fetes, country lanes, people saying ‘mustn’t grumble’ and ‘I’m terribly sorry but’, people apologising to me when I conk them with a nameless elbow, milk in bottles, beans on toast, haymaking in June, stinging nettles, seaside piers, Ordnance Survey maps, crumpets, hot-water bottles as a necessity, drizzly Sundays – every bit of it.”
Those of us fortunate enough to have been born here should remember that our presence on this small island was a matter of luck. Never forget that when thinking of those in trouble who need shelter here, stinging nettles, Marmite and all.