It is 50 years since the most principled decision about refugees in postwar Britain was taken. The then prime minister Ted Heath’s insistence on upholding Britain’s duty to protect the 28,000 Ugandan Asians expelled by Idi Amin showed political courage. Doing the right thing by them was broadly unpopular in 1972. Indeed, Whitehall panic in the face of Enoch Powell’s pressure saw the Foreign Office ask Bermuda and then the Falklands if they might provide an “island asylum” to limit the numbers who may come to Britain.
Ugandan Asian migrants have contributed much to Britain. Their British-born children have enjoyed opportunities in professional life beyond their parents’ hopes. It could even be an indicator of integration that it is Priti Patel, the first British Asian woman to occupy a great office of state, who leads this government’s search for an asylum island for our times. On Thursday, the home secretary proudly unveiled her plan to send asylum seekers who reach Britain to Africa instead.
The first snap poll, by YouGov, misunderstood the government policy, so asked respondents about a more moderate version. One in three people supports asylum seekers being sent to Rwanda while their claims are processed. But that “offshoring” idea has been ditched. The plan now is for Britain to just declare asylum claims inadmissible and deport people to Africa, letting them try their luck in Rwanda’s asylum system if they wish.
It may take months to discover how far this plan is legal or practicable but it cannot claim to be popular. The politicians cannot blame the public for this policy.
The “progressive” mind can find it hard to accept that people may be becoming more pro-immigration or can struggle to devise the strategies to reinforce that in politically polarising times. Brexit reflected a loss of public confidence in how governments managed immigration, so the post-2016 softening of attitudes seems counterintuitive. If the government is deliberately reheating and repolarising the asylum debate, might that untap something deep in the British psyche?
Instead, to reheat and repolarise may bring diminishing returns. Support for reducing migration has not been lower for decades. The Conservatives now trail Labour on immigration, due to the corrosive impact of 10 years of making promises they could not keep on net migration. But Labour needs to speak to the pro-refugee mobilisation of liberal opinion and broader audiences too. It would help if the left did not caricature engageable “red wall” swing voters, largely drawn from the “balancer” middle of the spectrum of attitudes, as core Nigel Farage supporters.
Though warmer, then, attitudes remain somewhat polarised. A quarter of people want large reductions in immigration, while one in five says they want numbers to go up. But beyond the fierce asylum arguments, there is quiet policy and public consensus on most other immigration questions: a broadly positive approach to managed migration. Labour accepts the points-based system for work visas now that Brexit has ended free movement. By ditching Theresa May’s impossible net migration target, Boris Johnson chose more open policies for students and post-study visas, lower salary thresholds for non-EU migrants and a new offer to bring hundreds of thousands of Hongkongers to Britain.
So the mantra of the migration sceptics, that governments always foist immigration on an unwilling public, has never been less true. This mantra can make no sense of the Homes for Ukraine phenomenon, as Daily Mail and Observer readers share frustration at the Home Office red tape that prevents the public from bringing refugees to Britain.
Attitudes to asylum are more complex. Dangerous journeys across the Channel are nobody’s idea of a safe or effective system for claiming asylum. Sympathy for those making perilous crossings is combined with concern at the visible lack of control. A third of the public are attracted by tough messages to deter people from claiming asylum in Britain, while another third think it unconscionable to consider any such thing. The general view is that a competent government would be able to combine compassion with control.
Which means that critics of the Rwanda plan need solutions as well as critiques. An orderly, effective and humane system, which makes fair decisions within six months, may be more boring than the headline political stunts, but that is the task at hand.
How Britain protects refugees has been contested in every era. We respond to the emotive story of the lives saved by the Kindertransport without always noticing that Britain did not want to take the adults too. That is why the rights of the postwar Refugee convention, ratified by Winston Churchill’s government, mattered. On its 70th anniversary last year, I heard people given sanctuary over those decades – from Hungary to Vietnam, Uganda to Syria – talk about what it had meant to them and why they want to “pay forward” that debt.
The Homes for Ukraine surge offers an opportunity to extend the spirit animating it across groups. British Future’s research finds that those stepping forward to offer a roof are just the tip of the iceberg, with millions more keen to help in other ways. Spreading long-term contact with refugees across geographic and political divides would make the biggest long-term difference in entrenching the liberal shift in attitudes.
So these are curious times, in which the biggest surge of pro-refugee public sentiment in living memory has ended with our government proposing to deport asylum seekers to Africa. Britain can be better than this. We can take pride in what is good in our mixed history of refugee protection, but only if we choose to act again in that spirit today.
• Sunder Katwala is the director of British Future