Kate Maltby is a historian, critic and columnist. She is an Associate Fellow at Bright Blue. Her personal website is www.katemaltby.com
In December 2011, Mohammed Bouazizi set himself on fire on the streets of Sidi Bouzid, a small regional capital in Tunisia. He died in hospital, 18 days later. You may remember that he was a street vendor, that he refused to pay a bribe to a local official to ‘smooth over paperwork’, that she consequently confiscated his scales, slapped him and smashed his produce stand (there’s a whole thesis to be written on the gender politics).
What you may not remember is that he was called ‘Basboosa’ to his family, that he helped support six siblings, and that he now rests in a grove of olive trees, scattered with almond blossom and cacti. To his family, Bouazazi’s death was every bit as senseless as the fate of three-year-old Alan Kurdi, drowned on a Turkish beach this week. Both were powerless in face of a world rigged against them, except perhaps, for their grim power in symbolic death.
If you are anything like me, your social media feeds will have exploded with goodwill for refugees in the wake of Alan Kurdi’s death (let’s call him by his name, people, in death at least.) Brits are organising, collecting, demonstrating though, until David Cameron makes good on his hurried promise to accept more refugees in Britain, some of the best ways you can help the destitute involve direct action on mainland Europe.
Even the Sun has changed its tune. Last Thursday’s leader: ‘urges David Cameron to help those in a life-and-death struggle not of their making’. It of course still isn’t backing ‘migrants’: as Dot Wordsworth notes in this week’s Spectator, everyone is now playing at ‘migrant’ vs ‘refugee’. To the paper, then, ‘Britain has rightly held back the thousands massed at Calais – many of them merely economic migrants’, we are told, but those who ‘have fled imminent danger in Syria… refugees’ deserve our pity.
Economic migrants bad, refugees good. It’s a common trope these days. No wonder the UKIP MP Peter Bucklitsch felt able to blame Kurdi’s ‘greedy, queue jumping’ parents for his death. UKIP’s galloping retreat from free-market principles is well-established but, privately, plenty of Tories agree with him. A Facebook account associated with the Conservative Friends of Turkey, for example, decried the use of ‘one poor Syrian child… to justify the thousands of perfectly invulnerable (sic) and opportunistic economic migrants arriving in Europe every day.
But if Mohammed Bouazizi’s death in Tunis taught us anything, it’s that the opportunity to make a living is indeed a matter of life and death. And it is the right that has most trumpeted this lesson. Bouazizi’s death kicked off the Arab Spring, but he didn’t ask for a handout. He just asked for the government to stop shaking down his street cart, long enough for him to make a small profit. As Fraser Nelson put it in the Daily Telegraph a couple of years back, Bouazizi’s cause was simply that “the poor should be able to buy and sell’. Hogra is the bane of North Africa: simply put, it refers to officialdom’s contempt for the poor, but too often it is a byword for the corruption that routinely strangles small-scale enterprise before it even starts.
The economist Hernando de Soto has tracked the copycat immolations that followed suit as the Arab Spring took flight: as many as 60 were inspired by similar runs in with anti-trade bureaucracy. De Soto has made a career of celebrating the profit motive as the impetus for local democracy, primarily in publications with a sympathetic ear to capitalist causes, and all power to him. Universally, the best way to support a family is to start a family business.
The Prime Minister was right on Thursday to point to Britain’s exceptional financial contribution to the countries most affected by the Syrian crisis. But the Tory Party needs to abandon this cherished distinction between economic migrant and refugee, in rhetoric and, where possible, in practice. On the borders of today’s civil wars, it’s now almost impossible to untangle the difference between imminent risk of death and economic collapse: if a passing militia has burned down your village, and with it your shop, you shouldn’t need to prove to a British border guard that they’re definitely coming back. We fought a Cold War on the basis that economic stagnation constituted persecution.
True, Britain’s welfare system can’t support every migrant in Europe. (Forget, for a moment, that economic migrants to this country contribute more than they take out, or that migrants, universally, work harder, and grow, rather than steal jobs.) Milton Friedman argued that you can’t have both a welfare state, and an open border policy and, like him, I’d rather have the latter.
Meanwhile, there are still no easy answers to the questions of culture and integration: at the very least, we need to make sure we can deport those who break our social contract. But the Right’s rhetoric needs to change. Thatcher’s children can no longer claim that access to free market capitalism is a human right, while condemning as selfish those who risk their lives to enjoy it.
That’s not to say that the Left hasn’t shown its fair share of hypocrisy on this. If you’ve spent the last two years visiting Syrian refugee camps, this week’s rash of demonstrative clicktivism feels pretty cheap. It sticks harder in the craw when bunched up against Facebook statuses supporting Jeremy Corbyn, a man whose response to Bashir al-Assad’s 2013 sarin gas atrocity was to give an interview to Russia Today, the propaganda channel of Assad’s ally, Vladimir Putin, backing up Moscow’s wholly disproven claims of Assad’s innocence. The Syrian dictator was framed by the West, natch.
But back in the land of real governance, for the Conservative Party hypocrisy is also an electoral liability, not just (perish the thought), a moral one. Tories are still at their strongest when proving how real lives are changed by economic freedom, at their weakest when they appear short on empathy and seem to limit that vaunted freedom to flourish to a privileged few. That’s as true in the global as the domestic sphere. Sooner, or later, they’re going to acknowledge that North African greed is good, too.