I might have been proud of Sunak and Braverman. Their stance on refugees makes me ashamed

We’ve all benefitted from the migrant family experience. They should know better than to threaten the Refugee Convention

October 11, 2023
Suella Braverman, home secretary, at the Conservative party conference in 2023
Suella Braverman, home secretary, at the Conservative party conference in 2023. Image: PA Images / Alamy

In times of dangerous populism all over the world, it is the bitterest irony, for me at least, that in Britain the attack on hard-won universal democratic values enshrined after the horrors of two world wars comes from the British children of outsiders. 

They, like me, have benefitted from both the migrant family experience and excellent educations. The first British Asian prime minister and his right-hand bad cop home secretary can no longer be accused of sounding mere dog whistles. Their far-right foghorn has denigrated a once decent Conservative tradition. 

Sunak and Braverman are both significantly younger than me. The former studied at Winchester, Oxford and Stanford before hedgefunds beckoned. Given his property and other ties to the US, a Californian financial future might well be an option, should Labour win next year’s general election. The latter is originally from north London and came to the law via Cambridge and the Sorbonne. Had either of them had an ounce more respect for the international bi-partisan postwar legacy, I might even have been secretly and grudgingly proud of their rise. Instead, I am just so very disappointed and even a little ashamed. 

It is one thing to weaponise the fear of migrants when you do not know better, perhaps genuinely fearing the other, from the isolation of an apparently homogenous and disadvantaged community. But these two beneficiaries of migration, who must even have experienced some racism while still benefiting from internationalism and “woke” Labour anti-discrimination laws, now seek not merely to pull up the drawbridge. They direct flamethrowers at all the roads, boats and high-speed rail links behind them. They turn their backs on the best of both Churchill and Roosevelt, and embrace Trumpism instead. 

We have clear evidence that Sunak knows better, or is prepared to signal differently when it suits him. In the wake of Black Lives Matter protests after George Floyd’s murder in 2020, and in clear contrast to his then boss Boris Johnson, he tweeted: “As a British Asian of course I know that racism exists in this country. And I know that people are angry and frustrated. They want to see, and feel, change.” Yet three years later, desperately flagging in the polls, the failing premier chooses the politics of hate and division over hope and unity. 

The Refugee Convention is a case in point. Signed in 1951 and brought into force three years later, this vital part of postwar international law gave some detail to the right to seek asylum that was set out in the Universal Declaration of 1948. Initially, it only granted protection to those fleeing events in Europe before 1951, but its 1967 protocol intentionally rendered it global and permanent for those outside their own country and unable to return, due to a well-founded fear of persecution relating to their race, religion, nationality, membership of a social group or political opinion. It explicitly embraces the three principles of non-discrimination (for example between nationalities, sexes or races of refugees), non-penalisation (not punishing those who escaped through clandestine means), and non-refoulement (not sending desperate people back to places where their lives or liberties would be in peril).  

How much history do you really need to know to understand why the generation that lived through both the Holocaust and descent of the Iron Curtain would enshrine such rules? How much humanity must you have to understand their enduring relevance in the troubled world of today? All three principles are now violated by UK legislation, policy and ministerial rhetoric, not least by the aptly titled Illegal Migration Act and the Sunak–Braverman plan to incarcerate asylum seekers arriving on small boats before transporting them to Rwanda. That Keir Starmer has promised to reverse this should be reason enough for the broadest popular front to vote against the current government. 

In 1985, on a famous visit to Germany, Ronald Reagan said: “I am an Afghan, I am a prisoner of the Gulag. I am a refugee in a crowded boat foundering off the coast of Vietnam.” A teenager at the time, I was certainly no fan of Reaganomics and its British copycats. I admired the then president’s solidarity with refugees nonetheless. By contrast, Braverman recently described “the wind of change” that carried her own parents to the UK as “a mere gust compared [with] the hurricane that is coming.” Of course, the “wind of change” was the key metaphor in Harold Macmillan’s Cape Town speech of 1960. Then the Conservative prime minister signalled both his acceptance of decolonisation and distaste of apartheid. Over 60 years later, what would Macmillan make of a British home secretary appropriating his words for a speech worthy of Enoch Powell? We won’t even ask what radical, republican, free love, atheist Percy Bysshe Shelley would have made of her “shamelessly taking back from Labour”, the “... ye are many, they are few” stanza from the “Masque of Anarchy”. Shameless indeed.