24th March 2021
The office of home secretary is one that often does not bring the best out of its occupants.
Indeed, for a while the phrase ‘former Labour home secretary’ was one of the most illiberal phrases in the political lexicon.
Once could think of exceptions – Roy Jenkins, of course, and to a limited extent William Whitelaw and Douglas Hurd (though the latter two only seem more ‘liberal’ by comparison).
On the whole, however, just as certain experiences bring out the worst in human nature, being home secretary can bring out the worst in any politician.
At least former home secretaries had the grace to pretend otherwise.
Remember the grave sorrowful face of, say, Jack Straw as he solemnly warned of the need of some ‘tough new measures’ – enticing you to nod-along with his sense of national emergency.
And Theresa May as home secretary even once stunned the police federation with a full-on speech about police reform.
In essence: the home office was a tough-old job, but some politician had to do it.
But what home secretaries did not do – at least not in public – is revel in the capacity of the office to cause harm and upset.
And so we come to the current home secretary.
Today’s news is typical of their approach:
"Migrants who arrive in the UK by small boats or other illegal routes will be indefinitely liable for removal even if they are granted asylum, under punishing proposals to be announced by Priti Patel".https://t.co/Rw1Iw8cqfC— Shoaib M Khan (@ShoaibMKhan) March 23, 2021
Before May was home secretary there was a famous conference speech – framed in cautionary terms – about the Conservative Party becoming the ‘Nasty Party’.
For the current home secretary that speech has instead become a manifesto.
And as someone has averred on Twitter, this is not exceptional to the United Kingdom:
The Cruelty Is The Point.
What an unpleasant vista this is on our current politics.
The important thing to note, however, is not so much (yet) that the powers and objectives of the home office have profoundly changed.
These are just about the sort of policies that other home secretaries may have adopted – and not only Conservative politicians.
What seems novel (at least to me) is the sheer glee which accompanies the announcement and promotion of each policy announcement.
One shudders to think what the current home secretary would do publicly if the office still have the power to (not) commute a death penalty.
And rhetorical change can have substantial consequences: each great office of state is subject to and can shape public expectations – that the chancellor, for example, can and will do things in respect of the economy generally, and with taxation and spending in particular.
The more the home office is loudly deployed as a vehicle for nasty policies, presumably the more the demand for more such policies.
And so the approach of the current home secretary cannot be written-off as just vile verbiage: it may and perhaps will lead to more repressive policies.
All this is an example of a more general problem with the current political arrangements of the United Kingdom.
The lack of political and constitutional self-restraint – and the removal of the gate-keepers.
There has never really been anything before – other than custom and decency – that has prevented a home secretary exploiting their office in this way.
Just as there was nothing which stopped the prime minister from using the prerogative powers in various unfortunate and unwise ways.
What the home secretary and some other ministers are now doing is showing openly what the constitution of the United Kingdom has long been capable of permitting.
And so what is demonstrated by this exercise of performative politics is not just the politics of the current home secretary – but that there is nothing in place that can prevent such things.
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