The issue of immigration and asylum seekers ebbs and flows in its saliency and priority for both the British electorate and their Prime Ministers. Margaret Thatcher hoped the altering of British citizenship rules in 1981 would mollify public fears that ‘this country might be rather swamped by people with a different culture. New Labour’s Home Secretary David Blunkett believed children asylum seekers had ‘swamped’ English schools in 2002. The current Home Secretary, Suella Braverman, has, however, utilised incendiary and dangerous rhetoric to explicate the recent uptick in English Channel crossings incomparable to previous modern British governments. Dubbed an ‘invasion’ of potentially ‘one hundred million people around the world [who] could qualify for protection under our current laws,’ Braverman’s rhetoric incites dangerous dog-whistle politics akin to the political tactics wielded by the far-right.
The Home Secretary is not wrong to address the asylum issue. In 2018, just 299 migrants crossed the English Channel, rising sharply to over 45,000 in 2022. As political history illustrates, rising numbers can prove to be a highly emotive issue for voters. Visual propaganda in the 2016 Brexit referendum that depicted inexorable swathes of refugees and asylum seekers entering the UK if the country remained in the European Union proved indispensable in convincing the nation that withdrawal was necessary, with Vote Leave leaflets landing on millions of people’s doormats. This political tactic that warps reality has continued to be an effective and successful political strategy throughout modern British political history, often with the intention to incite fear and stoke a concocted culture war that may prove beneficial at a general election when immigration and asylum are often ranked high in the electorate’s priorities.
Is this time different? Rishi Sunak’s plans to ‘stop the boats’ - which includes deporting asylum seekers to Rwanda - is intertwined with an election strategy that hopes to entice both Red Wall voters that lent their support to Boris Johnson’s Conservatives in 2019, as well as Tory voters who, according to recent polling conducted by Public First for Universities UK, now rank the issue as their ‘second-biggest concern.’ Yet the wider electorate does not seem to hold the same opinion. Whilst throughout the New Labour years, the issue was consistently ranked among the electorate’s top two priorities, Braverman’s rhetoric is falling on deaf ears amid a cost-of-living crisis and the biggest drop in living standards since records began. Recent Ipsos polling illustrated that just seventeen percent of the wider electorate believed passing new laws to ‘stop the boats’ was an issue of paramountcy. The economy, rising prices, and the state of the National Health Service overwhelmingly dominated voter priorities. Moreover, the demography and attitudes of the British population continue to alter incrementally, leading to less hostile, more empathetic attitudes towards those fleeing war, famine, and persecution. This has only accelerated since the Russian invasion of Ukraine.
There is an additional element that may contribute to the disapproving stance the wider electorate is taking toward the government’s proposals on asylum seekers. Unlike previous attempts at stoking fear in British political history, this time, the government is attempting to implement a policy through the Illegal Migration Bill that would renege on the UK’s international obligations. The government characterises its ability to remove ‘anyone who enters the UK illegally and who has passed through a safe country’ as ‘ground-breaking.’ The United Nations has declared the plans would ‘extinguish the right to seek refugee protection in the UK’ as well as a breach of the Refugee Convention. Astoundingly, Braverman herself openly admitted in the Commons that the bill would break human rights laws. Law-abiding citizens do not take pride in a country that violates international law.
The Conservative Party are gambling with its reputation with its ‘stop the boats’ policy. Bolting the issue onto one of his five Key Pledges, Sunak hopes it will placate 2019 Tory voters and those in the Red Wall in time for the 2024 General Election. But they are also gambling with the country’s reputation, which is in dire need of restoration both domestically and internationally. More importantly, unlike previous political dabbles with the asylum issue, the government is out of kilter with the wider electorate’s lack of prioritisation of the issue. This will be a concern for Sunak, Braverman, and Conservative Party strategists. The Prime Minister and Home Secretary are attempting to replicate the wielding of an emotive, highly contentious issue that has proven effective throughout British political history. The issue is, this time, it’s different.
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