Musa Okwonga on how the rule of law is being chipped away disguised as Boris Johnson’s populist pandering.
Deportation is one of the most effective political tools available to any government, and Britain has just been reminded of this.
Boris Johnson’s Conservative Party, in direct contravention of a court order, has just sent a plane of people to Jamaica, ending their residency in the UK. Each of these people had been convicted of offences, for which they had served their sentences. The court ruled that the flight should not go since some of these people had not received sufficient opportunities to seek legal advice, but the Government had other ideas and the flight took off with these passengers on board.
“We will always do what we can to protect the public,” said the Chancellor Sajid Javid. “These are all foreign national offenders – they have all received custodial sentences of 12 months or more. They are responsible for crimes like manslaughter, rape, dealing in class A drugs. And it is absolutely right, when they have served their sentence, that we send them out of the country because they are not British nationals, they are not members of the Windrush Generation, they are all foreign national offenders.”
For the aspiring populist politician, deportation has a multitude of benefits. For one thing, it’s cheap – a huge amount of publicity can be generated by simply organising a flight. Then there’s the fact that it provides a thrilling catharsis for those voters who have desperately wanted measures like this for so long. It provides a convenient distraction from a political failure to close all those global trade deals which the public was assured would be secured with such ease. Finally, and most importantly, it is a superb asset in a culture war.
In the context of such a war, deportation is a devastating weapon to use. It allows its supporters to frame the issue in simple terms: to ask its opponents whether they approve of having murderers and rapists roaming their streets.
The opponents may answer that this is a question of procedure and not of emotion, that each case must be assessed individually. But their calls for calm and reason will be lost beneath the cries for the country to be immediately purged of these dangers to society.
Why, ask the supporters of deportation, should we waste time with bothersome concepts such as the rule of law, when the runway is waiting right there, the plane’s tank is full of fuel and the pilots are sitting ready for take-off? Can’t we just get those thugs out of here and be done with it?
The problem is that defending the rule of law is boring work. It is not as thrilling as punching the air with your fist once those foreign nationals have been Sent Back.
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The rule of law requires, as the Government deliberately has not, the providing details of every person on board that deportation flight, giving them time to make use of their legal rights. It requires treating individuals who have served their time in prison as just that – people who have served their time and not as those who, in many cases, have been dragged from otherwise quiet lives into the spotlight and punished a second time for offences they have long ago paid the price. To sanction an offender years later, effectively creating a new punishment, just because the public happens to have a lust for it, is not rule by law – it is rule by mob.
The rule of law, unfortunately, is one of those pesky and seemingly abstract concepts that people don’t realise they need until it is gone. The rule of law protects those who fear they have been wrongly arrested and need to make a phone call to a lawyer because, if they can’t make that call, then they are on a plane to the other side of the world without warning; a plane which, in some alleged cases, may be a target from the moment they step on it.
The rule of law protects people from the accusations of those who say that if they don’t want to suffer the judgement of a brutal state, then they just shouldn’t get in trouble. The problem is that brutal states are often the source of that trouble; that they do get things wrong; and that, in the light of the Government’s latest actions, they are today even less likely to be held accountable for them.
Of course, the Conservative Party knows all this.
Given the amount of time that some of its senior figures have been spending in the company of far-right political strategist Steve Bannon, it is fitting that its approach on this issue has been Bannonite in its outlook: abrupt, disruptive, headline-grabbing, a gift to its base.
The playbook is a familiar one: we, the party of the people, defy the Establishment judges to give people the security which they need, desire, and deserve. More than that, it is one of the most Trumpian things that Boris Johnson has done yet: the strategic use of the immigration issue, whilst flouting the law, to Make Britain Safe Again.
Sadly, given the relish with which this tool was wielded, we are very far from seeing the last of its misuse.