Our elective dictatorship and the threat it poses

Robert Wilcox

Before mass leaders seize the power to fit reality to their lies, their propaganda is marked by its extreme contempt for facts as such, for in their opinion fact depends entirely on the power of man who can fabricate it”.

Hannah Arendt, On the Origins of Totalitarianism 

It seems to me that we find ourselves on a very slippery slope, and are further along that slope than we are perhaps willing to admit to ourselves. Arendt’s words have an uncomfortable resonance almost seventy years on from their publication. It is no coincidence that Oxford Dictionaries declared “post-truth” to be their international word of the year back in 2016. The adjective is defined as “relating to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief”. It aptly describes 2016’s EU referendum and US presidential election. But what was so different about those events and the campaigns leading up to them? Why did the usage of “post-truth” increase by 2,000% when compared to 2015? The answer lies in the sheer number of patently false claims advanced by the politicians involved. Political discourse, rather than being a debate over particular values in relation to a largely agreed set of facts, was now a stand-off between fact versus fiction; ideological differences alone determined whether a person would acknowledge a statement as true or false, not the evidence underlying it.

What has become clear in the years since is that, rather than being “one-offs”, we have indeed entered a post-truth era. The implications should be extremely concerning to anyone who regards themselves as a proponent of democracy. What certain politicians took from the referendum result was that they could sidestep responsibility, spread misinformation with impunity and, when confronted with evidence which contradicts their position, simply invoke the phrase “fake news” so as to close off inconvenient lines of inquiry completely. All too frequently these days legitimate questions are dodged and criticism treated with an almost traitorous suspicion; politicians seem to react with incredulity that they should be challenged at all.  

The worrying truth is that our current government displays all of these characteristics. This is, perhaps, unsurprising given that its genesis can be traced to the outcome of the 2016 EU referendum. Although it was not until July 2019 that Boris Johnson took over the role of Prime Minister, this was simply the watershed moment of growing pressure from hard-line Brexiteers in the intervening years. Johnson, who has long had a reputation for being a serial liar (he has been sacked twice for doing so), undertook an extensive Cabinet reshuffle. 

Among those Johnson appointed to Government posts were Dominic Raab and Priti Patel, neither of whom are strangers to falsehood and dishonesty. For example, Raab lied when he claimed that he had warned of a no-deal Brexit during the EU referendum campaign. He also dismissed the claim that he supported privatisation of the NHS as “a ludicrous assertion” when interviewed on BBC Radio 4, despite having co-authored a pamphlet which specifically set out plans for selling off hospitals to the private sector. As for Patel, she was forced to quit her role as international development secretary in Theresa May’s government when it was discovered she had undisclosed meetings with top Israeli officials. Occupying the Great Offices of State are people who cannot face the facts and are uncomfortable with being open and transparent, even with their colleagues.

Faced with the problem of Parliamentary opposition to a no-deal Brexit, Johnson took the decision to prorogue Parliament, preventing it from sitting for almost five weeks. He suggested that this was normal practice due to the work required in the run-up to a Queen’s Speech. On the contrary, Parliament is usually prorogued for less than a week. It took the intervention of the Supreme Court to put a stop to this constitutional coup. In R (on the application of Miller) v The Prime Minister [2019] UKSC 41, it was held that prorogation “had the effect of frustrating or preventing the constitutional role of Parliament in holding the Government to account”. Crucially, Johnson had failed to disclose any reasons at all to justify the unprecedented length of the prorogation. For the purpose of determining whether his actions were unlawful, it was unnecessary for the Court to speculate as to what reasons Johnson may have had. To the fair-minded observer, however, his reasons were obvious; he wanted to avoid Parliamentary scrutiny and get Brexit done his way. He went so far as to fracture the constitution in order to achieve this and did not even feel obliged to give a reason to justify his actions. 

Unable to legally bypass Parliament, Johnson instead called for a General Election. One could say that what followed was only too predictable given what we’d already seen from this government. 88% of Tory electoral ads on Facebook were found to be misleading. An ITV interview with Sir Keir Starmer was edited so that it appeared he had no answers to give on the question of Labour’s Brexit position. The Conservative Campaign Headquarters press office changed the name of its Twitter account from “CCHQPress” to “factcheckUK”. This forced Twitter itself to intervene, issuing a statement saying that the change was an attempt to mislead the public. When Raab was interviewed on the matter, his response was “no one gives a toss about the social media cut and thrust”. Why should we give a toss? Because of the simple fact we are being lied to by our government. 

The people leading this country are content then to not only peddle misinformation but to knowingly do so. They also regard it as entirely acceptable to without information from the public that is essential to our functioning as a democracy. In the run-up to the General Election, Johnson refused to release the Parliamentary report into alleged Russian interference in the UK. This report might tell us about the possible influence Moscow exerted on the outcome of the EU referendum. It might also tell us who benefits from political funding from Russian oligarchs. It is obviously a document which the public should have had sight of before heading to the ballot box. As yet, the report still hasn’t seen the light of day. 

Its response to the COVID-19 pandemic represents the height of this government’s refusal to accept the facts before it. The Dominic Cummings scandal was a case in point. The government attempted to dismiss the story altogether, but even this proverbial pill was too much for the public to swallow.  What was particularly interesting about the scandal was the attempt by the government and some, but not all, Tory MPs to frame Cummings’ actions in such a way that whether he broke the lockdown rules or not was a matter of opinion rather than a question of fact. It was, they said, simply an exercise of judgement, something about which people could naturally and legitimately disagree, while simultaneously pushing the emotionally-infused rhetoric that it is what any responsible father would have done having regard to his family’s interests. 

Even if one accepts Cummings’ own version of events, and the guidance that he himself quoted (which, interestingly, only appeared on the government’s website and was not included in the leaflets distributed to every UK household), it is clear that he breached the lockdown rules. Neither his return to work a few hours after being at home with his ill wife nor driving to Barnard Castle to test his eyesight could be explained by reference to his family’s welfare. In the course of giving his unprecedented public statement, Cummings also claimed that he had written about the “possible threat of coronaviruses and the urgent need for planning” in March 2019. It turned out that the blog post to which he had been referring had been edited to include mention of coronaviruses in April of this year. 

When Johnson appeared before the Liaison Committee the following day, his first time attending since becoming PM (it normally meets three times a year), Johnson dismissed the entire scandal as “fake news”. This was despite Cummings himself having corroborated much of what was reported. Johnson, however, would not be drawn into a discussion; his decision was made. This is deeply troubling for two reasons: firstly, the government’s confidence in its ability to calm the public mood by attempting to justify the unjustifiable; and secondly, when that failed, the government’s confidence that it could weather the refusal to accept the unacceptable – Cummings, an unelected official, has kept his job.

Fast forward to this week’s PMQs, where Johnson was asked about the spike in COVID-19 infections in Leicester. It was put to Johnson that there was a delay in Leicester City Council receiving all of the necessary data concerning the number of infections; for a week the available data showed that there had been only 80 positive tests when in fact 944 people had tested positively. Johnson claimed that all local authorities had been provided with all the necessary data. The Mayor of Leicester himself, however, had confirmed that this was simply not the case. The government’s unwillingness to accept the facts carries consequences. How can a government be expected to take action to correct delays in providing local authorities with the necessary data when they do not accept there is any such delay? 

It is worth saying that this is not a politically-motivated article. It does not deny that people may have had their reasons for voting for Brexit, for example; reasons which were not based on objectively false claims. Nor does it seek to suggest that ministers in previous Tory governments or, indeed, politicians in other political parties have never been guilty of making false claims themselves. But when faced with a dishonest Person A, the fact that a dishonest Person B comes along does not make that Person A any less dishonest. 

Why then take issue with Boris Johnson’s government specifically? Firstly, and quite simply, they are the ones currently in power. Secondly, this government has demonstrated an unabashed willingness to continually peddle fictitious narratives at the expense of the facts. This should concern us no matter who we voted for. If the facts are distorted or, as is so often the case now, swept aside entirely, holding people to account becomes a Sisyphean task. Seventy years ago, Arendt spoke of the public having “reached the point where they would, at the same time, believe everything and nothing, think that everything was possible and that nothing was true”. One has to wonder: are we so very far away from that being the case today? 

We find ourselves in the midst of an elective dictatorship. Wherever you find yourself on the political spectrum, we deserve better. Not only is our democracy at stake but, given present circumstances, our lives are on the line too.

Why human rights must stay universal, even in the face of terrorism

Tomos Owen

Terrorism is understandably marked as one of the biggest threats to the safety of the UK. It is callously used as a way to convey the message of abhorrent organisations and to spread fear in the wider public. In the UK the level of this threat has always varied, but since the turn of the century there has been a marked change, both in terms of motives and techniques. The terrorist incident in Reading last weekend was just the latest example of this; committed by a ‘lone-wolf’ attacker in a relatively low-tech manner. This must be condemned in the strongest possible way and every support given to those affected and their families. However, attention must now be given to the revived debate surrounding the relationship between human rights and terrorism, and why, in the face of terrorism, human rights must stay universal. 

Where are our human rights derived from and why are we afforded them?

To understand the relationship between human rights and terrorism it is best to first establish where our human rights come from. In the UK, our human rights are mainly derived from the European Convention on Human Rights 1953 (ECHR) which was drafted by the Council of Europe. The rights conferred on individuals through the ECHR have to be upheld by the State and a State can be held to account at the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR) if they have failed to do so. In 1998, human rights were further protected in the UK when the rights contained in the ECHR were incorporated into our own domestic legislation in the form of the Human Rights Act (HRA). This allowed individuals in the UK to hold the State to account in our own courts; a move which meant a long and costly trip to the ECtHR could be avoided.

We are afforded human rights as guarantees, enabling us to meet our basic needs and ensuring that we are protected from those that are more powerful. The human rights we hold because of the ECHR and HRA are numerous and include the right to life, liberty and security, and freedom of religion, expression and association. Fundamentally, all of our human rights share two characteristics: they are conferred on the individual and must be upheld by the State, and they are universal and apply regardless of an individual’s choices and circumstances. The former is essential to ensure a just society and acts as a check on power for States whose legislation may contravene human rights. In a similar light, the latter characteristic of universality prevents abuses of power by ensuring a State does not have the power to confer or withhold human rights arbitrarily. Winston Churchill knew all too well what could happen when these checks were not imposed on States, hence his support for a Charter of Rights and his involvement in drafting the ECHR. Nonetheless, some continue to question whether human rights law hinders our fight against terrorism. 

Human rights and terrorism

When it comes to counter-terrorism there is a common misconception that human rights law limits the governments ability to act effectively. As I have mentioned, human rights are universal and apply to everyone which can sometimes be interpreted as providing protection to terrorists. The reality is that human rights invariably contain derogations, essentially situations whereby a State can act without breaching human rights. These prevent catch-22 situations where a State would otherwise have to choose between whose human rights to breach and make counter-terrorism measures impossible. Far from limiting governments, human rights law actually ensures that a government is obliged to do all in their power to protect us from terrorism. The ECHR was drafted on the basis that it would protect individuals from abuses by the State, but also ensures that the State is obliged to protect their own citizens from the unlawful action of others as far as is possible. 

This point is demonstrated when considering the basis for counter-terrorism measures. In the UK, the extent of measures taken by the government are a direct result of their human rights obligation to proactively protect the lives of those in their nation. We are afforded the right to life through Article 2 of the ECHR and this includes taking necessary steps to foil any terrorist attacks. In addition, Article 2 contains a derogation which ensures the right to life is not absolute as this would prevent effective counter-terrorism measures. Article 2(2)(a) of the ECHR ensures that deprivation of life is not considered to have happened in contravention of Article 2(1) in the event of protecting individuals from unlawful violence when absolutely necessary. This was seen in 2019 when armed police legally killed a terrorist attacker on London Bridge in the interest of protecting the lives of bystanders. By both conferring the right to life and allowing derogations when absolutely necessary human rights provides protection by allowing a State to take necessary steps in preventing terrorism. 

This is a pattern that is seen throughout human rights legislation as humanity underpins all of its provisions. Article 8 of the ECHR, the right to respect for private and family life, further exemplifies this. The right to private life is broad and ecompasses a range of activities, including privacy for social, cultural and economic aspects of life. The right to privacy is essential to ensure that the government cannot interfere in our lives and provides the autonomy that makes us individual. However, like the right to life, this right is not absolute and counter-terrorism measures may lead to derogation. The ECtHR has accepted that counter-terrorism measures will invariably include techniques such as phone tapping, the use of undercover agents and numerous other surveillance tactics. This means in the interest of national security a State can conduct many of these measures whilst continuing to respect the right to private life. The statistics suggest that this balance is effective as by the end of last year 24 terrorist attacks had been foiled in the UK since April 2017. 

Whilst the derogations above outline the flexibility of human rights law, it is true that this does not extend to all rights. Article 3 of the ECHR, the freedom from torture, is absolute because there is no legitimate circumstance where it is justifiable to torture someone. It has been argued that this protects terrorists because it prevents the deportation of non-national criminals if there is a material risk that they would be tortured in their home nation. However, this is because of a key protection mechanism of human rights whereby a State is not arbiter of who deserves rights. There would be significant scope for abuse if this were the case and we would have far greater problems than terrorism. In a scenario where a State could legitimise bypassing human rights in the name of terrorism there is nothing to avoid them using this power to surveil political opponents, silence those who speak out against them and imprison dissenters, simply by invoking terrorist suspicions. It is essential that we deal with terrorism but this should be done with robust domestic anti-terror legislation. We have these laws, they apply equally to national and non-national terrorists, and we should continue to ensure we use them to punish terrorists for their crimes. If these measures are insufficient there remains scope for tougher sentences, but providing the State with carte blanche powers to decide who deserves rights would create more harm than good. 

Despite the clear role of human rights law in fighting terrorism there are still some that believe the UK should exit the ECHR. I believe this move would be counterintuitive. There is definitely a balance which needs to be struck between upholding human rights and counter-terrorism measures, but the ECHR demonstrates that this is possible. The rights we are conferred through the ECHR form the basis of the governments fight against terrorism and the freedom of derogation enables them to do this efficiently. By removing the protection of the ECHR we would only be leaving ourselves more vulnerable to abuses from terrorists and State alike. We must equally avoid the temptation to allow governments to remove the human rights of terrorists. Whilst this notion may gain support it would place too much arbitrary power in the hands of those which human rights aims to provide protection from. This would lead to a situation where anyone could be labelled a terrorist simply to remove their human rights, powers which could even be used to silence political opponents. The universality of human rights works to keep the door closed to tyranny and we should not open it in on the pretence of fighting terrorism. 

UK arms sales and the humanitarian crisis in Yemen

Robert Wilcox

The civil war in Yemen has led to the world’s “largest humanitarian crisis”, according to the United Nations. Despite this sobering statement, western media coverage of the civil war, and the resulting humanitarian crisis, has been fleeting. The figures, however, warrant being emblazoned on every newspaper’s front page. Civilian casualties are in excess of 18,000. Around four million people have been forced to leave their homes. Approximately 24 million people (80% of the population) are in need of humanitarian assistance, of whom approximately 12 million are children. Many are unaware of the UK’s role in this crisis. But the time to confront the unpalatable truth that UK arms sales have helped to make this all possible is long overdue. 

Hostilities in Yemen broke out in 2014, when the Houthi rebel movement, comprised largely of Shia Muslims, succeeded in overthrowing President Abdrabbuh Mansour Hadi’s government. Saudi Arabia, where Sunni Muslims constitute the vast majority of the population, was concerned that this would enable Iran, its regional rival and a country predominantly populated by Shia Muslims, to establish a presence in Yemen. In 2015, it formed a coalition with other Sunni-majority states, ostensibly to reinstate the government. This Saudi-led coalition has since launched over 21,000 air strikes against Yemen and imposed a blockade on the country, resulting in a huge shortage of food, water and medical supplies. 

From the very beginning, the Saudi-led coalition has received the backing of the UK. This went far beyond an endorsement of the coalition’s objectives; the UK granted export licences for the sale of arms to the coalition’s members, provided them with military personnel and supplied them with the aircraft to be used in bombing campaigns. It is difficult to ascertain the true value of arms sales under UK export licences since 2015; while official figures show that £6.4 billion worth of arms have been sold to the coalition, this does not account for arms sold under “open licences”. This type of licence does not require the cost to be logged. The actual cost of arms sales could, therefore, be much greater and, indeed, it would certainly appear to be so given that BAE Systems, the UK’s largest arms manufacturer, has sold £15 billion worth of arms to Saudi Arabia since 2015. 

The Saudi-led coalition has committed flagrant breaches of international humanitarian law (IHL), the body of law which, amongst other aims, seeks to safeguard non-combatants in an armed conflict. A 2016 UN Panel Report found that “the coalition had conducted air strikes targeting civilians and civilian objects … including camps for internally displaced persons and refugees; civilian gatherings, including weddings; civilian vehicles, including buses; civilian residential areas; medical facilities; schools; mosques; markets, factories and food storage warehouses; and other essential civilian infrastructure, such as the airport in Sana’a, the port in Hudaydah and domestic transit routes”. This could not have been made possible without UK military assistance. According to a BAE Systems employee, speaking to Channel 4’s Dispatches, “[i]f we weren’t there, in seven to 14 days there wouldn’t be a jet in the sky”. 

In the case of R (on the application of Campaign Against the Arms Trade) v Secretary of State for International Trade [2019] EWCA Civ 1020, the Court of Appeal declared that the UK government’s grant of export licences for arms sales to Saudi Arabia was “irrational and therefore unlawful”. This ruling was underpinned by the finding that the UK government had decided, or implemented a policy change to the effect, “that there would be no assessment of past violation of IHL” in determining whether the licences should be granted. One would think this is a particularly important piece of information to take into account. The fact that the UK government did not is, frankly, nothing short of disgraceful and demonstrates outright contempt for human suffering. Apparently, it is the considered view of the UK government that we should not concern ourselves with the deliberate targeting of civilians, or civilian infrastructure, when we are exporting weaponry to other states. 

Rather than accept the Court of Appeal’s ruling, however, the UK government sought, and was granted, permission to appeal to the Supreme Court. It also requested that judgment be stayed so that it could continue to sell arms in the meantime. This utterly shameless move beggars belief. The stay on the judgment was not granted, but the case is shortly due to be heard by the Supreme Court. It would be complacent to think that the Supreme Court will make the same ruling. Not because there is any doubt surrounding the evidence but because of the limited circumstances in which the courts can intervene in UK foreign policy. The ground for judicial review that is being advanced is rationality; i.e. no rational decision-maker would have made this decision without obtaining and considering certain information. This is not a straightforward question because, although it is one in which morality can factor, courts are constitutionally required to give substantial deference to the UK government when it comes to matters of domestic and foreign policy. Indeed, it is possible, under the law, for a minister to continue to sell arms to the Saudi-led coalition so long as they can merely show that they did consider past violations of IHL. Nothing we have seen from the UK government so far suggests that doing so would cause them to rethink its decision to grant export licences for arms sales. 

The UK has blood on its hands. Please write to your MP now, asking them to: (1) oppose the waste of taxpayer’s money on a morally abhorrent legal challenge; and (2) condemn a policy which has helped to bring about the deaths of thousands of civilians, widespread starvation and the worst cholera epidemic in modern history.

Why saying ‘All Lives Matter’ denies the Black Lives Matter message

Tomos Owen

Following the death of George Floyd, the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement has been reignited, arguably reaching a greater number of people worldwide than when the movement was first initiated. It has led countries across the world to reflect on their own issues of systemic racism, police brutality, and in the case of the UK, their colonial past. What has been particularly harrowing is the response of many people in power that have dismissed the protests as having nothing to do with racism in the UK or denying altogether that the UK is a racist country. The rhetoric that has been associated with these sentiments is nothing less than dangerous.

‘All Lives Matter’, whether said naively or with a more sinister intention, consistently causes harm to the BLM movement and has rightly been met with cynicism. I recently witnessed this myself when attending a socially-distanced Black Lives Matter protest in Cardiff. Standing on the outskirts, it was particularly hard to distinguish every word of the numerous speakers, but they were invariably met with admiration and applause. However, one speaker, who had up to that point been met with applause, ended his speech by shouting ‘All Lives Matter’. I can only assume that this was said naively, but it attracted a unanimous groan followed by chants of, ‘off, off, off!’ Even if he had wanted to take back his words, he wasn’t going to be given a chance.

The question is, why does ‘All Lives Matter’ garner such a negative response? The phrase suggests that all lives matter equally, which at face value seems sincere, but when you actually consider the phrase it is both careless and false. It is beyond doubt that all lives should matter equally, but to suggest all lives do matter equally is frankly naive. When looking at the statistics for the UK on ethnicity across education, employment, crime, living standards and healthcare, this is laid bare. These are just a few from the Equality and Human Rights Commission’s 2018 Race Report Statistics:

  • 6% of Black school leavers went to Russell Group universities in comparison to 11% of White school leavers;
  • Black people who leave school with A-Levels get paid 14.3% less than White people in the same situation;
  • 26.8% of Black people live in overcrowded accommodation in comparison to 8.3% of White people;
  • The mortality rate for Black African women in the UK was four times higher than White women; and,
  • Black African women were seven times more likely to be detained than White British women.

Unfortunately, these statistics go on and on and point clearly towards why the Black Lives Matter protests are warranted. They also highlight that all lives do not matter equally and that there are stark differences in the way people are treated in the UK based on ethnicity, invariably seeing White people fare better. The response of ‘All Lives Matter’ therefore works to deny the issues facing Black communities and attempts to devalue the message of BLM. This is best summed up using the burning house analogy which surfaced when the BLM movement began and was turned into a comic strip by Kris Straub. Imagine that there is a house on fire in my street and people have gathered to help put it out. A passerby asks what everyone is looking at to which I explain that there is a house on fire. The passerby responds by asking, “What about my house? Doesn’t it matter?”. I ask whether their house is on fire when they respond, “No. But, it still matters”. I explain that no one said that their house didn’t matter, but this one is on fire and we need to put it out. Their response? “All houses matter!”. 

The analogy is outlandish, but it does sum up the issue with the ‘All Lives Matter’ rhetoric perfectly. The BLM movement is not out to suggest that certain people’s lives do not matter; they are simply bringing attention to racial injustices in our society and how we can seek to address them. The BLM movement is about equality and hopefully in future we can say that all lives matter equally. Equality is fundamental to our society and no one should be automatically disadvantaged due to the colour of their skin. We must all get behind this movement and push for change. On an equal footing we can then collectively address other problems that affect everyone. 

As I have said, I do believe that in most cases ‘All Lives Matter’ is used naively and is not intended to cause harm. I admit that even having studied human rights, I was shocked by the level of inequality that still exists in the UK. However, by educating ourselves on the issues and assessing the true meaning of our words we can better assist the BLM movement towards equality. This understanding will allow us to focus solely on the mission to eradicate racism in the UK and avoid further distractions. Racism is the fire burning in our society and we all must work to put it out. 

Why UK schools should be teaching Black history and British colonialism

Robert Wilcox

The video footage of the killing of George Floyd was horrific to witness. The image of a white police officer placing his knee on the neck of a black man in order to pin him to the ground was itself symbolic of centuries of oppression, and acted as the catalyst for anti-racism protests across the globe on a hitherto unprecedented scale. Police officers resorting to disproportionate violence to detain black suspects with lethal consequences is an all-too-frequent occurrence, but it is just one symptom of the global pandemic that is racism. What became clear in the aftermath of Floyd’s death was just how much we still have to learn when it comes to racism in modern society. Most children are brought up thinking that racism simply means using certain words to describe a black person. Therefore, they fail to appreciate the scale of the injustice done to black people. This is unsurprising given that Black history is largely absent from the curriculum.

Black history should be taught in schools. Why? Because, quite simply, black history is our history. It is the history of how one group of human beings has systematically oppressed another group of human beings simply because of the colour of their skin. This history has as much to tell us about white people as it does about black people. It explains certain facets of our current, shared reality – a reality in which black people are not only faced with racial abuse but also lower life expectancy, lower incomes, worse health, educational inequalities and longer sentences for committing the same crime as a white person. It is a history which we ignore to our shame.

This disregard for history extends to the history of our own country. There is this notion that the UK is a country with no equal, that the “great” in Great Britain has been rightfully earned and that our country and its people are, and always have been, somehow inherently superior to other nations and their peoples. This is an extremely dangerous fallacy and one which is frequently invoked by demagogues to stoke, and appeal to, nationalistic tendencies. When viewing the world through this lens, it is little wonder that there are people in the UK who think only in terms of “them” and “us”. It is not difficult to see the temptation; simply by possessing a British passport, they are, by association, better than those who don’t possess one. Denying them the comfort of that myth means that they have to face their own insecurities about their place in the world and, perhaps more significantly to them, in British society. Our curriculum fails to provide the antidote to the ignorance surrounding our own history. The upshot is that we are left with the idea that the UK is the sole occupant of the world’s moral high ground.

The truth, however, is very different. The UK has many dark chapters in its history. For around 250 years, it played a leading role in the transatlantic slave trade and, even after the Abolition of the Slave Trade Act was passed in 1807, it continued to import sugar from plantations which made use of slave labour. Approximately one million people died in the Irish Potato Famine of the late 1840s; it is still fiercely debated whether sheer incompetence or deliberate policy on the part of the British government contributed to the deaths of one-eighth of the Irish population. During the Second Boer War, fought between Britain and the Boer Republics from 1899 to 1902, the British forcibly detained civilians in concentration camps. Such were the conditions in these camps that over 26,000 Boers died, the vast majority being women and children. Separate camps were set up for black Africans. It is estimated, according to official figures, that around 15,000 died but questions over the completeness of British records mean that the actual death toll is likely to have been much higher. There were no less than 12 famines during the British Occupation of India. When, in 1919, civilians gathered to peacefully protest British colonial rule, they were sealed within the walls of the Jallianwala Bagh and gunned down by the British Indian Army; as many as 1,000 were killed and many more were injured. During the Mau Mau Uprising, which took place between 1952 and 1960, the British placed tens of thousands of Kenyans in concentration camps in which they were routinely subjected to torture and the most horrific forms of sexual assault.

The fact is that British colonialism has a long and bloody history. Unfortunately, the direction that public discourse has taken means that one feels bound to point out that acknowledging this fact does not make one a traitor to their country. Nor does it somehow involve dismissing the significant contributions that the UK has made to defending human rights, such as standing against the evil of Nazism and the role the UK played in the creation of the European Convention on Human Rights. What is being advocated here is a curriculum which encourages balanced and critical reflection on our history, and which does not shirk from posing difficult questions to students about the reality in which we find ourselves.

Without understanding the injustices of our past, we cannot hope to confront the injustices of our present. Please write to your MP and/or sign a petition, advocating that Black history and British colonialism be made compulsory parts of the national curriculum.

Unaccompanied child refugees and the decline in opportunities to access the UK

Tomos Owen

It is difficult to truly understand the plight of unaccompanied child refugees. If you are like me it is likely that you did not begin to have a semblance of independence from your parents until your mid-teens and that can be considered commonplace in many Western nations. It does, however, form a disconnect from the truth that others have a far more difficult upbringing. 

The impact of war leads to situations where the lives of innocent children can be changed beyond repair within a matter of hours. In places like Syria, children can leave for school in the morning and return later to find their neighbourhood reduced to rubble. In scenes of chaos, where they may have no idea if their own family has survived, these children can easily be sucked into a procession of people fleeing the city as they fear more attacks. It is difficult to truly imagine the fear and confusion that a child would feel in this situation and in most cases this only marks the beginning of a harrowing ordeal in their search for safety. 

This situation is not uncommon and demonstrates just one of a number of circumstances where a child could become an unaccompanied refugee. The reality is that EU countries received over 17,000 applications from unaccompanied children seeking refuge in 2019 (Eurostat). This number is representative of possibly the most vulnerable group of people in the world and every one of those children deserves protection from this situation.  

The position of the UK

Over the past several years, the position of the UK in assisting unaccompanied child refugees has come under increased scrutiny. It could be hoped that with one of the largest economies in the world we would be in a position to take in and support a large number of these children, although the reality is that we appear to be becoming more resistant. 

The first indication of this resistance came in 2016 in the midst of the refugee crisis. Parliament were debating what became the Immigration Act 2016, during which opposition MPs and various stakeholders called for the government to include provisions for taking in around 3,000 unaccompanied child refugees. This position was also championed by Lord Alf Dubs, a Member of the House of Lords and himself a child refugee who travelled from Czechoslovakia to England in 1939. Given the scale of the crisis at the time, this would have been a timely intervention and removed many from the poor conditions in refugee camps around Europe. Lord Dubs introduced an amendment to the Bill which would have legislated for this number, however the government were openly opposed and rejected the amendment. 

A new Dubs Amendment was eventually introduced and accepted. Unfortunately, this only committed the government to protecting ‘a specified number’ of unaccompanied child refugees. Hopes that this number would be significant were quickly dashed when the government settled on the number 350, almost 10 times fewer than proposed by Lord Dubs. The Home Office later increased this number to 480, although admitted this was due to an administrative error rather than driven by a motivation to protect more children. It has now been confirmed that these places have been filled and that the scheme will be ending. There are also no plans to introduce a new scheme to take its place. It is increasingly difficult to understand the reasoning behind this position particularly as Safe Passage, a charity that assists refugees, has suggested that councils would provide 1,400 spaces if a new scheme was devised.

Nevertheless, the approach of the government has continued and Brexit has created even more uncertainty for those hoping the UK will assist unaccompanied child refugees. In the many years prior to Brexit, the UK was subject to numerous EU laws which sought to ensure that the rights of refugees, and particularly the most vulnerable refugees, were protected. Notably, the Dublin III Regulation aimed to identify which EU country should process an asylum application and ensure that a Member State will review the application of an unaccompanied child if a relative of theirs is resident in that state. The application of this Regulation, or the introduction of something similar, is now in doubt.

Earlier this year, Lord Dubs again attempted to address this issue, this time introducing an amendment to the EU (Withdrawal Agreement) Bill. This amendment sought to include a commitment that the government would seek an agreement with the EU to allow unaccompanied child refugees to come to the UK if they had a relative there. This would have simply ensured a continuation of the process the UK were already undertaking through the Dublin III Regulation. However, on this occasion, the government was resolute and voted decidedly against the amendment, perhaps callously citing that this was in the interest of bolstering their negotiating position moving forward. This should never have been seen as something to be negotiated and the UK now appears to be devoid of any obligations to protect unaccompanied child refugees. 

The question is, are we really going to say that we are happy with this? We only have to look back to our position in WWII to see that this is not right. During WWII, the UK provided refuge to between 70,000 and 80,000 Jewish refugees, but since then it seems our position has become more focused on restricting measures. We must revert back to viewing this as a moral issue of helping those in need rather than accepting refugee flows as inevitable and avoiding any responsibility for it. Lord Dubs is testament to the fact that by providing refuge to those in need we are not only helping them, but we are also exposing ourselves to people of different backgrounds and cultures who can help improve the UK. It is now imperative that the UK moves swiftly to ensure schemes protecting the most vulnerable of these people, unaccompanied child refugees, are restored or new measures are introduced to compensate. I fear that if this is not done we will look back in several years with considerable regret.

Call for an end to the UK’s indefinite detention of immigrants

Robert Wilcox

People fleeing war and persecution, torture survivors, and victims of rape and human trafficking, are just some of those being held in immigration detention centres across the UK for months and, in some cases, even years, without knowing when they will be released. 

The UK detains tens of thousands of people in immigration detention centres each year. The authority to detain a person for reasons of immigration control is found in sections 3 to 5, and schedules 2 and 3, of the Immigration Act 1971. A very small list of exceptions notwithstanding, there is currently no statutory time limit on the detention of immigrants in the UK; paragraph 55.1.3 of the Home Office’s Enforcement Instructions and Guidance merely states that detention should be for “the shortest period necessary”. Without a clearly defined time limit in place, individuals are being detained, even though they are not accused of committing a crime, for time periods which can outstrip the length of certain prison sentences. Some of those are individuals who have legally resided in the UK for many years. 

The right not to be arbitrarily detained by the state is fundamental, and enshrined in both Article 9 of the Universal Declaration on Human Rights and Article 9(1) of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. It is also found in Article 5(1) of the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR). The reasons underlying it are obvious; it cannot be right in a fair and civilised society to detain people for unspecified periods of time and simply for the sake of administrative expediency. This is especially so when one considers that the authority to detain a person is discretionary. 

The effects of indefinite detention on a person cannot be overstated. It can have serious consequences for a person’s physical and mental health. Between 2010 and 2017, there were 13 cases of suicide and nearly 2,000 incidents of other forms of self-harm reported at immigration detention centres. In the case of R (on the application of MD) v Secretary of State for the Home Department [2014] EWHC 2249 (Admin), the High Court found that the mental health of a 24-year-old woman, who had no pre-existing mental health conditions, had deteriorated to such an extent, as a result of her detention, that her detention “amounted to inhuman and degrading treatment in breach of Article 3 of the ECHR”. She had come to the UK to join her husband under a refugee family reunion visa and had been detained for 17 months. It is clear that the system is not only failing already vulnerable people (or, perhaps more accurately, people who have been through terrible ordeals), but is itself responsible for the onset of mental disorders in those who are detained. Just being detained without knowing when you will be released is likely to do significant psychological harm.   

Independent research by Matrix Evidence has found that £75m is wasted every year because individuals, who ultimately are released into the community, are detained for unreasonably long periods. Then there is also the question of compensation for unlawful detention. Between 2015 and 2017, the Home Office was required to pay out £7.4m in compensation to people who had been unlawfully detained. These figures are, perhaps, less shocking in their demonstration of the extent to which tax-payers’ money is wasted than in their indication of the scale of the injustice caused by immigration policy in this country. Not only are people being arbitrarily detained for longer than necessary, but some people have been detained in immigration detention centres who should never have been there at all.

Apparently, this practice is justified on the basis of immigration control. But it fails even according to its own rationale. Over half of the people held in immigration detention centres are eventually released into the community. This means that they have a legal entitlement to reside in the UK but have, nevertheless, been held in detention without knowing when they would be released. It is nothing short of shameful that we are the only country in Europe that has failed to establish a time limit for detaining immigrants. 

This cruel practice has no place in a fair and civilised society. We must stop punishing immigrants simply for wanting to build a better life. MPs are expected to be given a vote on this issue in July. Please write to your MP now, urging them to oppose the indefinite detention of immigrants.