It’s been a tough 10 days for Elton John. First, it was revealed that our Rocket Man is having to part ways with his beloved condo in Atlanta (on the market for a cool $5 million). Then, as if that weren’t stressful enough, Elton was forced to take on the entire British Government, leading the charge against the alleged homophobia unleashed by its Home Secretary.
Was Suella Braverman’s speech on Tuesday so outrageous? Was her suggestion that “many” asylum seekers pretend to be gay “homophobic”, or “dog-whistling”, or an “insult to refugees”? Did it have echoes of Enoch Powell?
Not really. For anyone who’s been paying attention to Europe’s immigration crisis, the only surprising thing about her speech was that it has taken so long for a politician to air the unsavoury truth about the mess in which we now find ourselves, and how we can possibly fix it.
Braverman wasn’t making a political point when she observed how Britain’s broken asylum system creates huge incentives for uncontrolled illegal migration, which, inevitably, has a serious “impact on social cohesion”. She was merely stating the truth. Once upon a time, this was an argument acknowledged by the Left. I’m old enough to remember when the Joseph Rowntree Foundation argued that “both our immigration and asylum systems make people destitute by design and need urgent reform”. It was this July.
What might that reform look like? Braverman made two recommendations that, seen in the clear light of day, don’t seem particularly radical. The first was that Britain should consider removing itself from the jurisdiction of the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR), an unaccountable legal factory housed in Strasbourg which issues more than 4,000 judgements a year. Given Britain’s recent and historical aversion to being ruled by unelected European institutions, withdrawing from the ECHR would hardly be out of character. The same can be said of Braverman’s suggestion that the United Nations’ Refugee Convention, which came into force in 1951, might merit a rethink.
And yet, after the speech, the deluge. Sir Elton issued a stern statement that he was “very concerned” by what she said about gay migrants, believing it would legitimise “hate and violence against them”. Many on the Left denounced what they saw as Braverman’s betrayal of her background as the daughter of immigrants. Even a number of her fellow Conservative MPs criticised her “alarmist” rhetoric.
Yet perhaps more surprising is the support she received. Many in her party concede that Braverman has a point. Even The Times, not known for its xenophobic bigotry, admitted in its leader column that “she is right to ask the questions that need asking”. For many, this is simply a matter of history. The world, after all, has changed since the Cold War era in which the Convention was conceived. Mass immigration is no longer defined by those fleeing from the wrong side of the Iron Curtain, but those fleeing from less stable countries whose cultural norms clash with modern Western values. Trust me: I would know.
It is hard to exaggerate the intensity of despair felt by those who reside in failed and failing states ravaged by conflict, poverty, natural disasters and the disorder that accompanies political corruption. Consider the tragedies that unfolded this month in Morocco and Libya; the never-ending civil strife in the Congo and Eritrea; the breakdown of Syria; the regression of Afghanistan into Taliban rule. Every man, woman and child who risks their lives to escape the place they call home deserves all the support and sanctuary they can get. It is pointless to wrangle about whether the despair driving people out of their homes is, as stated in the Convention, caused by political persecution or social discrimination or even a bleak economic outlook. There is nothing progressive about that.
Yet none of this is an excuse for ignoring the very concrete problems raised by mass immigration. The most obvious is one of scale: the sheer volume of people determined to flee their homelands and relocate permanently to Europe and America. The figure of 780 million people mentioned by Braverman may even be on the small side: surely reason enough to doubt the usefulness of the Convention.
The net effect has been to increase human suffering by empowering networks of people smugglers who con vulnerable populations into paying them thousands of pounds. Far from being empowered by reaching the promised land, too many migrants find themselves dehumanised even further. Consider the scenes in Lampedusa this month, where more than 2,000 migrants arrived by dinghy in a single day; or the streets of southern Europe, where starving migrants beg for food. If this is the utopia built by the ECHR and the Convention, is it one worth maintaining?
This is the question Britain and Europe face. And in answering it, perhaps surprisingly, it becomes clear how, far from being an extremist, Braverman isn’t extreme enough. For if we accept the reality she describes, the solution isn’t “reform” of the Convention — but “withdrawal”.
Just as with the ECHR, the Convention is evidently unfit for purpose. And just as with the ECHR, the Convention cannot be fixed by elected politicians. Yes, British representatives can make suggestions and seek to work with other signatories on changes favourable to all. But they don’t have the power to revise, review or reform those treaties. What they do have, though, is the option to leave if it doesn’t work for them, to shift power away from supranational institutions to the British state.
As Lord Sumption wrote this week, Britain faces a simple question: “How we should make law for our society? And does this particular way of making law have any democratic legitimacy?” The answer, I suspect, depends on where one falls on the political divide of our time: do you favour the inhumane reality of our fractured world — or the power of democratic rule to change it?