There is a smear on the colour spectrum where blue shades into black and conservatism turns into something darker. The reasonable desire of states to control their borders can slip into the stab-in-the-back myths and paranoid self-pity of the demagogue who can raise a mob but can’t run a country.
To give the worst of many examples, here is Priti Patel implying that critics of her plans to limit the arrival of asylum seekers, including all-too-genuine refugees, are in league with criminals. What am I saying - “implying”? Patel is from an administration that can campaign but can’t govern. She doesn’t imply, she spits it out. “Those defending the broken system – the traffickers, the do-gooders, the leftie lawyers, the Labour party – they are defending the indefensible,” she boomed into cyberspace at the virtual Conservative party conference.
“Do-gooders” was a revealing insult. I haven’t heard it since the 1990s and even then it sounded archaic. Does Patel mean she and Johnson, who echoed her phrasing, are “do-badders”? They certainly do bad, as they inflict needless suffering. And whatever task they attempt, from containing Covid-19 to managing the immigration system, they do it badly. If they wish to raise do-gooders from the linguistic graveyard, we should coin do-badders as an accurate description of the Johnson cabinet.
Do-badders are good for nothing except manufacturing propaganda. Take your average Conservative voter or, and more enticingly from the point of view of the ambitious Patel, the average Conservative party member, who will help choose Johnson’s successor. Patel is offering a hitlist of everyone they fear. She is confirming their suspicion that opposition to conservatism is not wrong but criminal. Leftie lawyers, the Labour party and those do-gooders are in alliance with people smugglers, who “defend a broken system”. I have searched the archives and can find no record of gang leaders appearing on the Today programme to defend it. Why would they do anything other than applaud Patel’s plans, when she boosts their business by making it ever harder for asylum seekers to enter Britain legally? Meanwhile, immigration lawyers, left or right, and anyone who has felt the lash of the immigration system, will greet her pose as a plucky underdog with a bitter laugh.
The home secretary is the closest Britain has to a dictator. She has the power to rewrite the immigration rules with only minimal parliamentary and judicial oversight. From 2010, Theresa May used that power to target authorised migrants in Britain, insisting they must earn above a Whitehall-approved threshold before they could bring their husband, wife or partner into the country. She began the hostile environment that produced the national disgrace of the Windrush scandal. Patel has not ended it. Colin Yeo remarks in Welcome to Britain, his cool dissection of a system that fails even on its own harsh terms, that Conservatives still think England is freer than mainland Europe with its Napoleonic insistence that you must “produce your papers” and prove who you are, even if you are breaking no law.
Only comfortable white people who speak English without a foreign accent can believe it now. If you are a migrant, or look or speak as if you might be a migrant, you must demonstrate your right to be in the country to employers, landlords and banks. If you have the wrong skin colour or accent, the overbearing gendarme demanding proof of your identity is, to use the smug cliche, as “quintessentially English” as cricket on a village green. The Windrush scandal and countless smaller and unreported scandals happen because the home secretary in her pomp and power equates absence of papers with absence of the right to live in the country.
In other words, Patel isn’t a fighter against the odds. She is a figure of terror. Because of her, wives are torn from their husbands and children from their parents. Because of her, asylum seekers drown in the Channel, or are stuffed into detention centre cells, or are living on £5.39 a day without the right to work, while her bungling department delays hearing their cases for months without end.
The result is an immigration law that is close to nonsense. Home secretaries are determined to prove their toughness to their core vote, backbenchers and the rightwing press. They throw out regulations with bewildering frequency. Lord Justice Jackson said immigration law had reached a degree of complexity that “even the Byzantine emperors would have envied”. Lord Justice Beatson compared it to the street plan of a “shanty town”. Lord Justice Underhill said that the web of rules and guidance had become so tangled “even the spider has difficulty controlling it”.
Last week, Patel was panicking again, because Nigel Farage had tried to get back into politics by highlighting asylum seekers crossing the channel, and TV companies had obliged him, because his scare story had good pictures. She might have said that even her cold-eyed immigration system found a majority of asylum claims were genuine. Or that Britain takes far fewer refugees than Germany, Spain or France. Instead, she demanded another change to the rules and damned all who might oppose her as the accomplices of gangsters.
You should wonder where she is going. Patel’s complaints about lawyers fit with Conservative plans to limit judicial oversight and appoint politicised judges, Trump style. Perhaps she wants to take Britain out of the UN refugee convention, which would certainly win her applause from the basest members of the Tory “base”. It wouldn’t help Patel deport asylum seekers, as she would have to find safe countries willing to take them and Brexit is about to make that enterprise far harder. Surely, she wouldn’t send them back to an African or Middle Eastern hellhole to be shot? Would she?
I’m as sure as I can be that she doesn’t think about the future. The more power autocrats hoard, the more they concentrate on fighting what few constraints bind them. Once they are free, they neither know nor care what darkness engulfs them and their countries.
• Nick Cohen is an Observer columnist