The post-Brexit debate, often involving the performance of allegiance on Facebook or Twitter, does not much resemble the collective deliberation of the ancient agora. Other aspects of the ancient city are making an unwelcome return. The first is a more prescriptive ideal of citizenship, according to which those who fail to measure up to a patriotic standard – ‘Remoaners’ and immigrants – lose their moral claim to membership. The ancient punishments of ostracism and exile are reprised in the enthusiasm of the Home Office for deporting people to countries they’ve never seen. Meanwhile, productive work on farms and in factories is often delegated to rightless foreign metics.
The government’s focus, at least officially, is almost entirely economic. Migrants are welcome insofar as they benefit ‘us’. These human beings, some of whom are already sitting as ‘stock’ in our national store cupboard like tins of tuna for a rainy day, are there to boost production at UK plc. The new policy contains some pro forma references to the ills of exploitation, but imposes vulnerabilities on a whole new group of people who are currently able to walk away from a boss who skims their wages, extracts unpaid overtime, touches them up or worse. The message: you are here to do a job, a particular kind of job in a particular industry, and if you lose it then home you go; even if home, for all emotional and practical purposes, is here. Faced with such options, many will do what it takes to stay, and their managers will know that they will.
Three weeks ago I wrote about the deaths of the 39 people found in a container in Grays, Essex on 23 October. Initial speculation had been that the victims had come from countries in the Middle East, but the police quickly announced that they were Chinese nationals. Now we know that this too was incorrect, and that the dead all came from Vietnam. The parents of Pham Thi Tra My, a 26-year-old woman from Ha Tinh province, released her last text message, fearing she might be among the victims. Other families came forward. The police published a complete list of the dead on Friday.
In the early hours of yesterday morning, Essex police were called to a parked lorry container. Inside were the bodies of 39 people, one of them a teenager. Their identities and nationalities were initially unknown, but we have since learned that they are Chinese nationals. The driver, a young man from Northern Ireland, has been arrested. Normally, faced with such a body count and the appearance of mass murder, politicians and commentators would be circumspect, perhaps uttering routine expressions of horror and pledging their support to a police investigation. But they would not have already worked out who was to blame. Still less would they announce their theories in the House of Commons.
The home secretary, Sajid Javid, has revoked Shamima Begum’s British citizenship. Begum left the UK with two friends four years ago, at the age of 15, to join Daesh. She now finds herself stateless, with a newborn and possibly British baby in a Syrian refugee camp. Public sympathy in the UK has been limited. Begum has said she wasn’t ‘fazed’ by the sight of severed heads in bins, and suggested that the Manchester Arena bombing was payback for airstrikes against Daesh territory. She has regrets, but little remorse. Still, she was born and grew up in the UK, and when she left as a child she had been groomed online by a criminal organisation.
The use of an administrative process to strip Begum of her nationality sets a worrying precedent, if you value the rule of law and are concerned that citizens be protected from tyranny.