In recent weeks, there has been a lot of talk in Britain about asylum seekers coming to our shores in small boats. There can be no doubt that the Conservative government has in desperation been trying to weaponise the issue to try and turn it into a major crisis in order to try and show that they can solve crises, while of course abjectly failing to solve any of the real problems we face in Britain today. Much of the rhetoric used by the government has been dehumanising and inflammatory, but the question remains; how best to challenge it?
I don’t think the answer is to be found in identity politics, which suits the divisive agenda of those who wish to divide us and will not be helpful at a time like now, when we need to rebuild our communities and sow cohesion, not division. It is important to point out that the human rights of all people are important and valid, from whatever background they come from. Otherwise, those who wish to divide us will claim that those advocating for human rights only care about the rights of a few minority groups and are somehow campaigning against the interests of the large white British majority in Britain today. It matters little that this is untrue; it is how it is perceived by many and this false way of framing arguments about human rights must be challenged. Human rights are universal and belong to us all, whatever our background.
So what is the best way to advocate for the rights of groups such as asylum seekers or the Roma, in such a way that wide swathes of the general public will agree? While not an easy task, the answer I think is relatively straightforward and that is to return to the 30 articles of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, signed in San Francisco on 10 December 1948. In this way, we can point out to all people, just how important these rights are to them and that the argument that more human rights for one group means less for others is a false premise that is not to be trusted. We can argue that what we want to see is a decent society, where all people’s rights are respected.
I remember one particular incident from when I was teaching in a prison just over ten years ago. I was teaching a course about Human Rights and in the classroom next to me was a cover lecturer, who covered the lessons of lecturers who were on holiday or on the sick. Before the lesson started, he came into my classroom and asked me what I was teaching about that morning. When I replied that it was a course on human rights, he in turn replied, without any trace of irony, that the inmates had more human rights than we did. This bizarre comment brought it home to me very powerfully, just how successful the right-wing media had been in turning ordinary, decent people against the idea of human rights and making it out that they weren’t meant for people like them. It is important not to reinforce such ideas and to make it clear that what is needed is a decent society where the human rights of all people are respected.
Indeed, I think that it is fair to say that most people want to be treated with decency and humanity and that they feel that it is fair to do the same to others. Yet, sadly, it seems that far too often in our country today, that simply isn’t happening and we are not the country we could and really should be. We can argue in many ways how people are being let down by a right-wing Tory government and how the Tories are not respecting many of the basic human rights of the British people as a whole.
Healthcare is a human right
We have seen the NHS deliberately run down in the last 13 years to the extent that very sick people are left in corridors on trolleys, while others die waiting for ambulances. Indeed it was reported in inews on 10 April that one in three people were being forced to make their own way to hospital due to ambulance delays with some people having to drive or even take public transport and taxis to the hospital due to long ambulance waiting times. The right to decent healthcare is a basic human right and respect of that right is in turn a basic building block of a decent society.
Education is a human right
Similarly, we have seen the education system destroyed and with it the life chances of many of our children. The destructive ways of Ofsted have been well documented, while the problems around the retention of teachers has become a major crisis. It was reported in FE News in March 2023 that:
“the number of teacher vacancies posted by schools, an indicator of staff turnover, was 93% higher in the academic year up to February 2023, than at the same point in the year before the pandemic. The TeachVac data also shows that vacancies were up 37% compared to 2021/22.”
Meanwhile the ever narrowing curriculum means that more and more students are being given an education, which is inappropriate to their needs and fails to help them thrive. They become square pegs in round holes. Again the huge crisis in education can be framed as a human rights issue, which as a decent society we cannot ignore any longer.
Housing is a human right
The right to decent housing is another basic human right that should be available to all in a wealthy nation like Britain. Yet in the last 13 years we have seen homelessness relentlessly rising, those who have homes and are renting having their rights and housing conditions downgraded, while only a few years ago Tory MPs voted to block a Labour amendment to a Housing Bill, which would have at least required landlords to ensure that their homes were fit for human habitation.
We have seen public transport, especially in the North run down simply for profit, with the number of delays and cancellations on the TransPennine Express and Aviva West Coast becoming a national scandal. It has become so bad that it was reported in March that the number of cancellations made by TransPennine Express trains during the October half-term holiday week in 2022 had been as high as 30%, no doubt spoiling many a family day out, as well being extremely awkward for thousands of commuters trying to get to work and knocking millions off the regional economy in the North of England. Yet our government refuses to do anything constructive to solve our public transport problems, forcing millions back into their cars as the climate crisis deepens and another pillar of a decent society goes missing.
There should be no need for food banks
Meanwhile decent, working people are forced to use food banks and find it hard to heat their homes. We need to argue that there should be neither any need for food banks, nor any need for people to have to choose between heating their homes and feeding their children. It should be shouted from the rooftops that it is a callous government that is causing our problems in health, education, housing, transport, and in other respects and that their callous treatment of asylum seekers is part of a cynical and uncaring attitude towards all people, who are not directly connected to the Tories.
This could be the framing by which we discuss people coming to our shores and the way they are demonised in ways that should concern us all. We should be arguing for a decent society in many respects and that fair and humane treatment of asylum seekers is part of a bigger movement towards the kind of society I am sure the vast majority of people want to live in. In this way we can link all of the struggles for dignity together and bring people together rather than dividing them.
Most people want a decent, humane country
I think most people in Britain want to live in a decent, humane country, where people are treated with respect and dignity, no matter where they come from or what their background is. I know I certainly do. While there were, of course, a number of high-profile examples of selfish and ignorant behaviour during the Covid-19 pandemic, the actions of the vast majority of people would seem to suggest an underlying decency is still there in our society. To build a decent, humane society means the promotion of human rights for all and I do think that if framed this way, most people can accept this.
As part of this it is also important to help people to remember just how the human rights that they may take for granted came about, that they didn’t fall like manna from Heaven and nor were they imposed on an unwilling British population from Brussels, but that they had to be fought for. British people died at places like St Peter’s Field in Manchester, during the Peterloo Massacre, for the rights we take for granted today. Our rights had to be won and consequently can one day be lost. Again, it can be argued that human rights are universal and protecting human rights of all people is key to ensuring the human rights of themselves. In so doing we can defeat the false argument that greater respect for the human rights of one group means less respect for the human rights of another.
We should also remind people of the uplifting, positive human rights stories in their own areas. These can be used as both inspiration and as instructive examples to give people practical ideas. This tactic also has the advantage of doing something that can encourage people to listen to human rights-related stories. There are many positive human rights stories about people and their communities in the North East that can be told, going back to opposition to the slave trade in the late 18th century, and which can help people to both appreciate the importance of human rights for all and rightly take pride in the history of their region.
Another important tactic is the building of networks in support of human rights for all. This would involve building mutually supportive networks of organisations involved in human rights work, which are working in practical ways in our towns and cities for the furtherance of human rights. These networks would involve many of the organisations which might be seen as ‘traditional’ human rights organisations, such as the local Amnesty International group, but crucially would also include organisations working for the human rights of local people, such as housing organisations and local community groups. In this way, we can help to bring people together around the issue of human rights, rather than divide them and promote the idea that human rights are for all and that defending human rights is something we all have a stake in.
On 7 April, Ben Ferencz, the last of the prosecutors at Nuremberg still living and a truly great defender of human rights, died at the age of 103. It was noted in The Guardian that Ferencz was “keen to leave behind multiple lessons for young people, including the importance of following dreams, cherishing love and speaking your truth even when no one’s listening. “It’s only by understanding another person’s way of thinking that you’ll be able to reason with them and change their mind”, he told (the author of the piece in the Guardian). “The powerful will always be afraid of anyone trying to curb their power”; “everything is impossible until it’s done””.
Ferencz is right I think on both counts; it is important to listen to others, but also to speak our own truth. In this way, it is important to listen to all those who are struggling, from whatever background they come and ensure that we speak our truth, that all humans have rights and that the rights of all humans must be protected.
When Gary Lineker spoke out in March about the inflammatory and dehumanising language Suella Braverman was using towards asylum seekers, I think in many ways it was a cry from the heart for a decent country and for an England he had represented so well as a striker in the 1980s and 90s to reflect his values of tolerance and decency. We must also strive for a decent country, where the rights of all people are protected, whatever the background or circumstances of those people might be. In doing so, we can win support for the humane and reasonable treatment of those who come to our shores fleeing persecution, war and the growing damage caused by the climate crisis, while also defending the rights of people born and bred in our region. The right to live a dignified life is a precious thing and something that should be afforded to all people.