THE BLOG

Syria Has Exposed Britain's Cowardice

10/10/2016 15:58
Anton Chalakov via Getty Images

The blood-smeared faces of Syrian children are staring at the civilised and asking us through tear-shot eyes: are we brave or cowards? Can we deafen ourselves to the noise of our first-world fears and do that single act which human beings are hard-wired to perform: help?

It seems that Britain cannot. Britain will not offer sanctuary to the victims of the Syrian slaughter to the extent they could or should. We have muted the death-cries of a bombed-out nation, and have been rendered cowards because of it.

We shouldn't try and justify our cowardice with phrases such as 'it's not our war', or 'regional players should be involved' or even 'it will not solve the crisis'. However true all of these statements may be, they do nothing to dispel the reality that hundreds of thousands of innocent people are in danger of dying and need our help. The situation is not nearly as nuanced or complicated as some make it out to be. We have the means to help - we should help. It really is that binary. Thus far we've had our arm twisted to make only token gestures toward decency.

If there is public scepticism, then our prime minister should lead public opinion to where she knows it to be right. With good words and sound arguments, they will follow. It's sort of what leadership is all about; without it, leaders are just soundbites and sassy shoes. Merkel's brave, inspiring policy was done without Germany's understanding. Trudeau, in his approach to the crisis, has taught the world how to be humane and how to lead a nation to humanity, and to become a better nation because of it. National identity is not diminished by offering refuge to the needy, it's only enhanced.

I wonder our reaction if one million Norwegians found themselves homeless and persecuted. I imagine we would be plumping the cushions, making up the spare bed and Googling herring recipes before they had even asked for sanctuary. All worries that we didn't have the resources would soon find themselves answered. Agatha in her chunky sweater is a more comfortable prospect than Abdul in his robes. But suffering is suffering; torture is torture, irrespective of the outerwear and facial hair. It is terrifying to think that we will not help the Syrians because they maybe Muslims. Once this is accepted logic, where do we go from here? The 1930's shows us where the road could lead.

But we haven't always been cowardly. We are the nation who helped instigate the kindertransport, took in thousands of Vietnamese boat-people and sheltered the Ugandan Asians after Idi Amin's purge. We have always been the nation that has led the charge in the name of care; we are the country who others follow. What has happened to us? Aside from the many individual acts of kindness and generosity, we watch, night after night, the torture and tragedy, and our national reaction is nothing more than a tut and gasp before we switch over to see who has won Strictly Come Dancing.

If we forget or refuse to honour our history of tremendous humanity, we forget who we are. We ignore a vital part of ourselves. Our kindness has defined us: it is who we are and what we do. If we fail in our duty to our national character now, we become changed. Being scared is natural, even honourable, but we can't let fear make us cowards. Let us not forget what is happening: homes destroyed, lives ended and childhoods savaged.

We can sleepwalk to a darker place. Brexit has allowed isolationism to embed itself into the national character - suspicion could follow. Amber Rudd's silly policy suggestion about foreign workers was met with shock but not the horror that it would have sparked ten years ago. We are changing.

The rational-backstop to our cowardice is that If we take in the Syrians then who is next? If there is another tragedy on the scale of Syria, then we open our doors again, and again and again: humanity demands it.

Refugees only ever want to go back home when they can. And the Syrians will, once their homes are rebuilt and their streets aren't stalked by terror. But that isn't the point. We shouldn't need safeguards or assurances in return for our assistance. We never have in the past.

Britain is desperate to hang on to its global leadership role, its relevance is hanging in the balance. But it's not just GDP and growth forecasts. Something else makes a great nation: its ability to care without question and help without condition. We should be the first nation to dab the tear, wipe clean the blood and offer a sanctuary away from fear. It's what we do.

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