If any organisation embodies the best of British values it is the Royal National Lifeboat Institution (RNLI). It is funded by donations and almost entirely staffed by volunteers. It is a charity independent of government, wholly dedicated to saving lives at sea. Its volunteers are ready to risk their own life to help others, 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. It’s about as noble a cause as you could get.
I was appalled therefore to read that these brave men and women have been the subject of abuse when going about their duty. There have even been reports of attempts to prevent them setting out to rescue those in distress. How on earth have we come to this?
The context of course is migration. Those protesting about the RNLI saving life are concerned that they are saving the lives of refugees and asylum seekers. But again; this is a country that has welcomed refugees for centuries, and only benefitted. We have a proud tradition of accepting those fleeing persecution, from the Huguenots to the Kindertransport, from East African Asians in the 1970s to Hong Kong democrats today. What has happened that has made some people forget their history as well as their humanity?
The answer surely lies in the sustained and cynical campaign to demonise migration mounted by a large section of the popular press. Headline after headline has spread the fear that Britain is being ‘overwhelmed’ by migrants. They are described as ‘swarming’ ‘invading’, burdening the NHS. They are blamed for living on benefits at the same time as ‘grabbing our jobs’. It is perhaps understandable that some of those who rely on the more poisonous parts of our press for information should lose their moral compass.
It is not surprising either that the more gullible readers of the gutter press should turn against the RNLI. Here is an open invitation to do so from the Mail – ‘Woke’ RNLI ‘is turning down calls from stricken boaters because it is too busy carrying migrants ashore’. Here is the Express similarly stoking the anger with ‘taxi service for traffickers’
Elements of the press are not the only villains, however. Many politicians have been happy to go along with an anti-migrant agenda because it suited their Brexit ambitions and others have been too weak to mount a strong rebuttal. Even worse, some have sought to amplify concerns with exaggeration or scare stories of their own. Lies about Turkish accession to the EU is one of the more high-profile examples. This tweet from Michael Fabricant in 2015 is one of the grubbier being retweeted now.
Even more telling than the lies of fringe parties and the fantasies of fringe politicians has been the complicity of leading members of the government. Rather than calm fears and seek a civilised solution to a humanitarian tragedy they have helped to amplify the crisis. Alongside daft ideas to use ‘wave machines’ to force back boats and to set up a barrier in the middle of the world’s busiest shipping lane Priti Patel has put forward legislation that risks criminalising the RNLI for saving people from drowning.
There comes a time, surely, when even the most loyal tory MP must stop and think about what we have come to. That the RNLI should have to put out a video, defending its volunteers for the ‘crime’ of saving lives, is beyond belief. Just how low are the xenophobes prepared to sink?
Many of our local MPs have lifeboat stations in their constituencies. They will know the good work that they do. When will they stand up and clearly condemn those fools attacking the RNLI and those who should know better who are egging them on?