Theresa May learned an important lesson this week: words have meanings.
They also - especially when spoken by government ministers - have consequences. Real consequences for real people.
People like Dexter Bristol, who came to Britain at the age of eight from Grenada to join his mother, and who died suddenly last month at the age of 57 after being classified as an illegal immigrant and losing his job.
We’ll return to him in a moment. But first, for the benefit of Mrs May, a dictionary definition.
‘Hostile: showing or feeling opposition or dislike; unfriendly.’
Synonyms include antagonistic, aggressive, confrontational, belligerent, bellicose, pugnacious, truculent, combative, and warlike.
Let’s bear those synonyms in mind as we consider Mrs May’s now notorious promise in 2012 to ‘create here in Britain a really hostile environment for illegal migration.’ A really hostile environment? How about a really aggressive environment? Or even a really confrontational environment?
Words have meanings. They are conveyors of messages, both open and hidden. A hostile environment for illegal migration? What a neat, snappy phrase to aim at anti-immigration Tory voters defecting to Ukip. Not so much a dog whistle, more an obscenity yelled through a megaphone.
Look at the timing: on 3 May 2012, Ukip had scored an average 13% of the vote in local elections. The result was, according to one report at the time, ‘more than enough to ruffle Tory feathers and put pressure on an already creaking coalition.’ Just three weeks later, in an interview with the Daily Telegraph, Mrs May pulled her ‘really hostile environment’ rabbit out of her hat.
But when an incendiary phrase is translated into law (a law, by the way, which the Labour party leadership did not oppose, although Jeremy Corbyn, John McDonnell and Diane Abbott were among a handful of Labour backbenchers who did vote against it), civil servants are duty bound to do what it says on the tin.
Remember those words: ‘Create a really hostile environment.’
Which brings us back to Dexter Bristol, whose story was told by The Guardian’s brilliant Amelia Gentleman, whose meticulous and determined reporting over many months brought this whole sorry saga to light.
Mr Bristol was born in Grenada when it was still a British colony (it became independent in 1974). He was, therefore, a British subject when he arrived in the UK in 1968 to join his mother, who worked here first as a seamstress and then as a nurse. He believed, correctly, that he had every right to live here.
But then - ‘really hostile environment’ - things changed. At the end of 2016, his benefits were stopped, because he was unable to prove that he was in the UK legally. He managed to find a job as a cleaner ― but was sacked when his employers discovered that he had no passport. No other employers would take him on for the same reason.
In fact, his mother had tried to get a passport for him in the 1970s, but, according to The Guardian, ‘the Home Office rejected her request because, although her passport included his name, it had no photograph of him and was not signed by him.’
How old was he when he came to the UK? Eight years old.
And what documents did the Home Office demand from him, when, in his late 50s, he tried to satisfy them that he was in Britain legally? Among other things, school records - from schools, both primary and secondary, which had since closed.
Mrs May told Caribbean leaders this week that she is ‘genuinely sorry’ about the anxiety caused by her policy. After all, no one could have predicted that creating a ‘really hostile environment’ might cause so much anxiety.
Well, yes, they could. And they did. An 11-page internal Home Office impact assessment, first reported by the Daily Mail (a newspaper not exactly noted for its sympathetic reporting of immigration issues), warned: ‘Some non-UK born older people may have additional difficulties in providing original documentation. Some may have had their immigration records destroyed. Some will have originally come into the country under old legislation but may have difficulty in evidencing this.’
So she knew. She was warned. But she didn’t care. All that mattered was that she was seen to be creating a ‘really hostile environment.’ Because she and her party (and, let’s be honest, the Labour party as well) were running scared of Ukip and its xenophobic, rabble-rousing leader, Nigel Farage.
They could have confronted him. They could have pointed to the thousands of immigrants driving our buses and trains, staffing the NHS, providing care for the elderly and the vulnerable, picking and packing the food stacked high on supermarket shelves ― and paying their taxes.
Instead, they appeased him. To their everlasting shame, they adopted his rhetoric. They decided to create - what was the phrase? - a ‘really hostile environment’.
The treatment of the so-called Windrush generation was not, pace Amber Rudd, the ‘appalling’ result of an unfeeling Whitehall bureaucracy - it was precisely what the policy was designed for: to make immigrants feel unwelcome, to make it all but impossible for them to prove that they were entitled to be here, and to pander to the barely concealed racism that festers just beneath the surface of 21st century Britain.
Three weeks ago, Dexter Bristol, who had been suffering from depression, collapsed and died in the street outside his home. An inquest into his death has been opened and adjourned until July.
But we already know what the verdict should be. Dexter Bristol’s death was caused by a really hostile environment.