As I watched the appointment of the new Home Secretary this week, I could not help remembering little Irma during the Bosnian war. The five year old girl was being brought to the UK for medical treatment from Bosnia where she was wounded during the fighting there and the Prime Minister of the day, John Major was uncharacteristically emotional about her case.
I had just arrived in the UK from another part of the former Yugoslavia, and had been watching in bewilderment the government’s reaction to that war.
Listening to the then Prime Minister and looking at the daily coverage full of affection for little Irma, I remember wondering if she was simply being used as a cover for the government’s stand-by attitude during the Bosnia war.
The two situations, of course for obvious reasons, could not be more different. But the appointment of the first non- white Home Secretary in the wake of the Windrush scandal has all the elements of being drawn up as a result of the same way of thinking. A product of a formula which puts all the emphases into dealing with the symptoms while leaving the causes of the problem untouched.
Whatever the government would like us to think, the Windrush scandal is not the cause of the problem. It is rather the symptom of a much wider problem that it has inadvertently exposed; the hostile environment that has become a trademark within the Home Office. Indeed, the more we learn about the treatment of the Windrush generation, the clearer becomes the extent to which the hostile environment is affecting and demoralising not only that department but the wider society. As such, the Windrush scandal cannot be solved with apologies and nice words in Parliament. Nor can it be solved with formula-based appointments that tend to search for quick fixes and superficial solutions.
This is by no means to say that the new Home Secretary has no personal merits for the job he was appointed to. Nor that he should not be given a chance to fix the problems that brought down his predecessor. The issue here is that we know and hear little about his personal merits for this particular job and much more about his ethnic background.
Let ss not forget that the now former Home Secretary, Amber Rudd did not resign because of the Windrush scandal alone. Nor did she resign because of the removal targets set as a part of that hostile environment pioneered by her predecessor, now her boss in Downing Street, the Prime Minister May herself. Amber Rudd resigned on a technical matter of misleading Parliament After her resignation, The Prime Minister confirmed the existence of those targets while her ministers were busy explaining the government’s commitment to them albeit for “illegal immigrants”. No one tried to explain how these targets are set bearing in mind that the whole nature of “illegal immigration” is that it is difficult if not impossible to poses clear data and credible information that allow you to work out realistic targets. And more importantly what do you do if it proves difficult or impossible to reach those targets. How do you stop your civil servants searching for anyone who could on the face of it fall within that target area?
The government is right to point to the public mood on immigration and stress how they acted under pressure from the public. But blaming the public for measures like these is an easy way out. The public reacts to the what they see and hear in the media where the political parties were often competing on who is going to sound more anti-immigrant. What makes a good leader is the ability to keep cool under pressure and lead opinion rather follow it.
Sajid Javid has an enormous task ahead. But his powers are limited. He will act under the guidelines of the Prime Minister who as Home Secretary oversaw the implementation of that hostile environment and positively promoted it to Parliament.
Unless and until she herself explains and withdraws that policy, it is hard to see how any Home Secretary can fix the confusion that it has created within that Department and society as a whole.