If you have more than a passing acquaintance with history, you will often hear its echoes in current affairs. Sometimes it will be a heartening, familiar chime, as seen early in the pandemic when the Queen channelled Vera Lynn in promising a locked-down Britain that “we’ll meet again.” Sometimes, however, history’s echoes will come as a hideous siren, bellowing its warning to those that will hear. When the Johnson government unveiled its plans to deport refugees to Rwanda, that siren was deafening.
In June 1940, senior Nazi official Franz Rademacher recommended a different African nation as a venue for forced deportations – Madagascar. Rademacher’s plan was developed by Adolf Eichmann, who in August 1940 called for a million Jews per year to be deported to the African island nation. This plan was ultimately shelved as unworkable due to the British naval blockade of Germany, but the malignant intentions behind it provide a bleak foreshadowing of what was to come.
Johnson’s Rwanda wheeze may too be revealed as unworkable in due course, but impracticality should never be the last line of defence when it comes to human rights.
There are, of course, key distinctions between the regimes. The Nazi project was genocidal in its very core; its worldview was a poisonous stew of hatreds, exacerbated by the eugenicism in vogue at the time. The Johnson project has no ideological core; when Johnson’s government engages in bigotry, it does so out of cynical opportunism.
The Nazi project was a bacteria that grew in the petri-dish of Europe post-WWI; violence carried no taboo, certainly not among a population that had seen the fields of Europe turned into a charnel house. The Johnson project, by contrast, is an exercise in adventure tourism, made possible by seven decades of peace and relative prosperity. Johnson’s government is in his own mould; a sophomoric vandal accustomed to the real grown-ups clearing up after it.
Fascism and Nazism
For a nation whose founding myth was born beneath the bombs of Hitler’s Germany, it is obscene that we are entertaining policy ideas that once held sway there. Modern Britain’s origin story, in all its imperfection and selective telling, is that of a nation that made immense sacrifices to defeat the cruelty and tyranny of the Axis powers. In victory, our greatest generation created space for participatory democracy, respect for law and truth, respect for human rights, and – often forgotten – for the slaying of Beveridge’s five giants (Want, Disease, Ignorance, Squalor and Idleness).
They may seem dusty now, but these values still represent the standard against which modern Britain should measure its success. Everything our governments do should be conducted in the noble and virtuous tradition which vanquished Nazism. It is not enough to see just a cigarette paper’s distance between British government policy and that of the 20th century autocracies; a vast, yawning chasm should exist between the two, as exists between good and evil.
Whenever a British prime minister sees fascism’s ugly seeds being planted, they should tear them from the soil and cast them into the fire.
Defending British values
Those endless rows of white marble crosses in the fields of Normandy are not theatrical props; every single one of them carries an obligation to subsequent generations of British leaders, to preserve the security and decency of the world that the men beneath them helped to create.
This should be done not with a wry smile or a smirk, but with a solemn understanding that Britain understands the horrors that await when human rights, the rule of law or democracy are discarded. It should be done with the understanding that, at its core, Britain will defend these values to the death.
In flirting with the kind of deportation plans that once filled the memoranda of the Third Reich, Johnson isn’t just trolling the left, or throwing red meat to the base. He is lending undeserved dignity to the kind of ideas Britain endured so much to extinguish. In doing so, he disgraces the nation which he claims to serve.