In the autumn of 1972, I stood with my mother behind a trestle table in an open hangar at West Malling airfield in Kent. She was transformed by her WRVS uniform. We distributed shoes, raincoats, scarves and even umbrellas as cold weather necessities to the long line of Ugandan Asian refugees, just disembarked. The Government had first tried to resettle them in the UK’s overseas territories but met resistance from all but the Falklands. How graceless was Government then and how generous and organised the voluntary sector. Things do not seem to have changed much. The numbers are the same; there is the same “no way back” issue facing the migrants; there is the same bewildered but determined look on their faces. The supposedly toxic politics of all this is nothing like as toxic as the situations facing so many of them in Afghanistan, Syria, across Kurdistan and in the Horn of Africa. The core of policy towards refugees seems to be to treat them with minimal generosity, even hostility, “pour encourager les autres”. As we enter the New Year, perhaps it is time for this Global Britain to stop feeling quite so entitled, find its humanity and act with more confidence and compassion, embracing its historic responsibilities as it does so. Dorset has welcomed less than a hundred recent migrants. On a per capita basis the number should be nearer six hundred.
Together with many others, I went up to North Shropshire to help canvass. I saw familiar things: a hinterland of great beauty and heritage disguising rural isolation and farmers uncertain of the future. I saw towns standing still, gaps in services, a powerlessness everywhere and the same gulf between prices and wages that we see across the Vale. I saw, too, a hard-working team fuelled by a belief that anything was possible. The rewards are there for all to see. The federal structure of our party lends itself to such teamwork, working together toward a common goal rather than being told what to do by a remote hierarchy. We also try to take the long view through early selection of candidates for both local and parliamentary elections, a process we are starting now.
As we pass the winter solstice, last year’s deep midnight, we all remain concerned about the march of Omicron. There is a simple truth that we will get through this thing if we all carry on doing the right things: get vaccinated/boosted, mask up, get tested before events, closely socialise less. It will take good leadership, leadership by example not least, building on good science to overcome the anxiety, weariness and impatience so evident across our communities. What will not succeed is command, control and coercion.
The days are getting longer and the first bulbs are starting to show, adding to the other signs of change. Reasons to be cheerful.