Talking to Andrew Mitchell about Syrian refugees is a curiously heartening experience. For the former Development Secretary conveys, with ebullient and impatient energy, the conviction not just that something must be done, but that something can be done.
On Monday, Mitchell called on the Today programme for the creation of UN-sanctioned safe zones for refugees inside Syria. But in conversation with him, it becomes clear that this proposal, though striking, by no means indicates the limits of his ambition.
During this interview he points out that Britain has spent more money looking after Syrian refugees than the rest of the European Union put together. But he also dismisses the policy of treating symptoms (the refugees) instead of causes (the Syrian civil war). As he says at one point, “The answer to this whole issue is not to recreate Syria in Europe. It is to recreate Syria.”
The war has got to be ended, which means that all those with leverage over the combatants have got to exercise it. He accuses the international community of being asleep, and says “the Anglo-American absolute bar on having anything to do with Assad is wrong”.
But on arriving in Mitchell’s office at Westminster, it is impossible to avoid being distracted by a recent photograph of him with Jeremy Corbyn, along with David Davis and Andy Slaughter.
For Mitchell, first elected to the Commons in 1987, is a less predictable figure than one might think. He explained how a quartet of two Tory and two Labour MPs came this summer to visit Washington DC.
Mitchell: “The four of us were there in America to try to persuade the American administration to release Shaker Aamer, who’s the last British detainee in Guantanamo.
“We were there in July and had stupendously good meetings with senior senators, including Pat Leahy and Dianne Feinstein. And we had a wonderful meeting with John McCain.
“We had an extremely good dinner in Washington, the four of us. So you’ve got the chap who’s standing for the leadership of the Labour Party and likely to be successful, you’ve got the chap who was thought likely to be successful but failed to get the leadership of the Tory Party, me a former Cabinet minister, and Andy Slaughter, a diligent and earnest Labour front-bench spokesman on justice.
“During the course of a great dinner we discover that we agree on absolutely nothing, apart from the fact that the Americans should free this British resident from Guantanamo, who’s been twice cleared for release, once under Bush and once under Obama, but who languishes in Guantanamo without justice.
“He needs to be returned to the UK. And the longer the Americans leave it, the more difficult it’s going to be, because there is a widespread belief that the reason he’s not being released is because of what he will say about the way he’s been treated.”
ConHome: “Obama should bloody well do it. He was so categorical on this before he was elected.”
Mitchell: “They need to resolve this. The Prime Minister has asked twice that this be done. And the fact that the Americans have not acceded to his request in my view is dreadful.
“Are they saying the British justice system is not up to dealing with our own residents? It’s terrible. It needs to be resolved, because it is a thorn in the side of the Anglo-American relationship.”
ConHome: “Yes, what’s the Royal Navy for?”
Mitchell [laughing, but in earnest about the principle]: “Oh for the days of Palmerston.”
ConHome: “Refugees are a subject you know a lot about, and on Monday you made the Rwanda comparison in the Chamber. Have you been asked to help on the Syria problem?”
Mitchell: “In what sense?”
ConHome: “In the sense of applying your expertise to what should be done.”
Mitchell: “No – not in a formal sense. The truth is the world is focused on the symptoms, and this heart-rending photograph of this little boy.
“But that’s a photograph which I’m afraid could have been replicated on any day, many times, over the last three years.
“And Britain can hold its head up high, Britain’s done a brilliant job. When I was Development Secretary we put an immense amount of taxpayers’ money into the Zaatari Refugee Camp just over the border with Jordan.
“It’s now one of the biggest refugee camps in the world and British planning, British money, British humanitarian relief is looking after hundreds of thousands of Syrians, feeding them, sheltering them, providing essential medicines and health support, and educating their children.
“Britain has stood firm and done the right thing. Many other countries have not done so. The UNHCR is woefully under-funded. In some of the camps round Syria now they’ve had to reduce the food rations by 50 per cent because there isn’t the money. This is obscene.
“In the end the international community is asleep at the wicket and is not getting together to solve the causes of this crisis. There are lots of things which could be done which are not being done.
“The first is that those with influence over the groups, and there are many, which are fighting in Syria, need to exert that influence over the protagonists to get them to negotiate. And it will be very difficult, there have been two false starts, but we need everybody including those with clients who are fighting in Syria to negotiate.
“The EU, certainly. The United Nations, absolutely essential, because when the United Nations confers legitimacy it has awesome power. The Russians, who are playing a pretty cynical game, but the Russians will be hard put to say an effort which is humanitarian and defensive should be shafted.
“The Iranians, who are now in a much better position. The Americans, who seem to me to be quite extraordinarily disengaged from the Middle East in terms of leadership, to the anxiety of their allies and the frustration of all of us.
“There’s the Arab League, there’s the Saudis, there’s the UAE. There’s an ability to do something about this.
“And what I have proposed is safe havens, at least two, there’s an argument for more, the two I’ve mentioned are up in the north on the Turkish border, and in the south, across the border from Jordan.
“They will of course need to be United-Nations-sanctioned, and under the aegis of the United Nations. They would need to be very heavily defended. It ought to be possible for Egyptian and Jordanian boots on the ground.
“These are defensive boots on the ground, they are not offensive boots, and they would only fire if they were fired on, or they were threatened.
“We need everybody to bend every sinew to get people to negotiate, because at the end of the day there will be a settlement.
“The answer to this whole issue is not to recreate Syria in Europe. It is to recreate Syria.
“The safe havens have another benefit, you see. Quite apart from protecting innocent civilians, they also get a political process moving. Assad’s got enough on his plate without attacking an enclave like this. It would start to get the political wheels moving, which is what is desperately needed.”
ConHome: “What do you think of German policy?”
Mitchell: “Well the Germans are in a very different position from Britain. First of all, demographically, they are immigrant-attracting. And they have a lot of empty houses in Germany.
“We are absolutely not in that position. We are one of the most densely populated countries in the world.
“We have spent more on looking after Syrian refugees and helping them, sheltering them, feeding them, providing them with medicine, than the whole of the rest of the European Union put together.
“And we were the first, miles ahead of the game on this. We saw what was coming. We put taxpayers’ money where our mouth was in order to protect innocent civilians who were going to be caught up in this fighting.
“David Cameron’s been absolutely right in taking the most vulnerable people from the camps rather than from Europe. If you take them from Europe you act as a magnet and you encourage people to try to embark on this incredibly dangerous journey with a sort of lottery ticket of hoping to be housed in Germany or Scandinavia or Britain.”
Mitchell wants to see greater flexibility in Britain’s attitude to Bashar al-Assad: “I have always believed that the Anglo-American absolute bar on having anything to do with Assad is wrong. Assad is part of the problem, and he will almost certainly, with or without him, that group will be part of the solution.”
ConHome: “So how do you see your role? You’d like to be back in government: you obviously want actually to be doing things.”
Mitchell: “If you’re saying do I wish to resume my political career and return to government, the answer is very much Yes. But [laughter] it’s of course not entirely a matter for me.”