We reported recently on a public meeting in Skegness, where local townspeople held their MP Matt Warman to account for the Home Office policy of housing those crossing the channel in small boats in local hotels while their claims for refugee status were assessed.
Since that meeting, the number of people crossing the Channel has, if anything, increased. So too has public anger. In Knowsley, a demonstration outside a hotel turned violent with the burning of a police van and some threatening behaviour directed at a counter-protest organised by Hope Not Hate.
The Skegness march
The Skegness march, which took place on 25 February, was filmed. Media reports claimed hundreds were there. It’s impossible to see clearly from the video whether this was so, but most were middle-aged to elderly men. Not all of those attending appeared to come from the town. The mood was subdued but not intimidating.
The march gathered near the railway station and made its way through the town to the Clock Tower, which is close to the sea front, a distance of about half a mile. Before it set off, two people made speeches. Both were full of platitudes such as ‘enough is enough.’ If they were designed to inspire, they didn’t seem to. Locals watched on but that’s all. The police were there in numbers but were not needed.
Once the march reached its destination, more speeches were made. More than one speaker praised the crowd for turning out and standing up for their concerns. One told the crowd they “represent the bravest among us, those that stand while others kneel. The politicians are scared and looking at the numbers here, I can see why.” However, judging by the size of the audience listening, that overstated the case.
Other speakers railed at what they clearly thought was the threat posed to innocent people by migrants, without providing a shred of evidence to support their claims. One declared, “We are empathetic people, we are patient, but we look out for our own people first,” seemingly unaware that by using language to demonise migrants and whip up the crowd, he was demonstrating the opposite.
There were repeated references to ‘illegals’. If any of those present had attended the town meeting where the local MP Matt Warman explained that the UK had lost its ability to remove people under the Dublin Convention because of Brexit – a point recently emphasised by writer Sunder Katwala – they gave no sign of it. There was no recognition of the many valid reasons why migrants come to the UK. The word ‘invasion’ was used repeatedly.
Many criticisms were made of the state of the country but it was a point never developed because there were far easier targets to attack. Politicians were described as traitors, as parasites that “are bleeding you dry.” Matt Warman has spoken in Parliament of the dangers of inflammatory language. Some of the rhetoric being uttered against MPs of all parties vindicated his concerns.
Sound and fury signifying… what?
It’s tempting to dismiss this event as a lot of sound and fury signifying nothing. However there was quite a bit of local media interest in the march, especially coming so soon after the trouble at Knowsley.
If they were looking for a repeat they were disappointed, which would have reassured the organisers and police if nothing else. Two media outlets did pick up on the fact that one of the speakers was a man who styled himself to look like Adolf Hitler and explicitly linked the marches to the far right.
It’s also an example of the culture war language that will define politics in the coming months. We’re told that Tory deputy chairman Lee Anderson believes it’s the way to attract and mobilise support for Conservatives, especially in the Red Wall constituencies. The Government is now doubling down on its position, announcing a new law that will allow the removal of those arriving by boat.
But to what effect? It’s certainly going to face substantial opposition in Parliament and the courts because it’s against international law, as the BBC report acknowledges: “Currently, asylum seekers coming to the UK have the right to seek protection under the UN’s Refugee Convention and the European Convention on Human Rights.” Even if it’s passed it will take ages to have any impact; currently the legislation allowing arrivals to be sent to Rwanda, agreed in 2022, hasn’t resulted in a single removal and “any plans to do so are currently on hold.”
Commentators are agreed; these announcements are aimed not at practical results so much as the Government tossing some scraps to its dwindling band of supporters to try and persuade them they’re doing something.
Professor Paul Bernal reminded people the announcement was all about messaging: “If he (Sunak) wanted to stop the boats, he knows the only way, which is to establish safe, legal, accessible routes to claim asylum, in cooperation with the French”, while The Secret Barrister was scornful: “Any politician who tells you that the solution to a problem is to make it ‘more illegal’ is usually a fraud, an imbecile or both.”
Where are we now?
What can we conclude from all this? The political consequences will be significant. The Home Office calls their policy a temporary measure but Boston and Skegness are core Tory constituencies, and its clear people there are genuinely concerned about the migrant issue and the impact it will have on the summer holiday trade the town depends on. They want something to be done but there’s no sign this is going to happen.
SERCO runs the hotels on behalf of the Home Office. On March 6, BBC Radio Lincs reported that their contract to provide accommodation for migrants was extended into next year. This will only exacerbate the issue. The local District Council is now planning to launch a legal challenge against the Home Office for breaches of planning rules but admits this will take time. This will not only run into the middle of the holiday season but it takes us through the local elections in May and much closer to the general election.
It begins to look as though the Conservative Government may be in deeper trouble than the polls indicate. Expect there to be consequences as a result.