The performative nastiness of the Home Secretary

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.

But.

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:

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.

(See here.)

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.

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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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29 thoughts on “The performative nastiness of the Home Secretary”

  1. DAG are you perhaps, just for once, hinting that there may be some merit in a written constitution?

    1. Alas, no – a written constitution could well entrench executive power instead of limiting it.

      1. I feel that you were suggesting something formal *could* be done? I’d be really interested to hear your thought. Perhaps it’s another blog post David.

  2. Last time I looked at the bookies’ odds, Patel was something like 5th favourite to be the next Tory leader, which will mean the next PM if Johnson doesn’t last to 2024. The thought of someone with Patel’s political instincts having the PM’s perogative powers is somewhat scary.

    People often assume she’s stupid, particularly if they first became aware of her due to the monumental error of judgement which led to her being sacked by May. But that’s not accurate. She’s a smart politician who knows how to play the populist game and how to win favour with the unrepresentative and radicalised membership of the Tory party. Being a hate figure among liberals is no drawback in a world where few such people vote Tory anyway.

    1. Depends what you mean by a “smart politician” Mr Sketch. If you mean someone whose worldview aligns with Dacre and suchlike, well maybe. Her performance on simply reading out some numbers indicates she doesn’t meet any normal definition of “smart”. But she is Her Master’s Voice for sure, yet another of the rejects, failures, inadequates and sycophants that the Prime Minister has surrounded himself with, who can be trusted to follow to the letter their WhatsApp commands from the bunker, while he lolls around clearing up the dog poop in the refurbished apartment, dreaming up the next 400 word salvo in the culture wars. Latest instruction – find a way to grab the headlines being mean about immigrants. Words start, actions follow.

      1. Couldn’t agree more. Patel is arrogant, self-entitled and ambitious to the point that the furtherance of her career knows no boundaries; her working holiday to Israel being a case in point. Unless the word smart has come to mean unprincipled sycophant then it should never be used to describe Patel.

        1. Imagine if a successor used the same powers wielded unjustly by home secretaries to strip predecessors of their British citizenship and deport them. The next one could claim, for example, that Priti Patel is entitled to Ugandan citizenship and deport her to Uganda. It doesn’t seem to matter if it’s true – only that the current Home Secretary can say it with a straight face in a press conference.

    2. Good comment. I fear that reform is indeed coming, just not in the direction that us liberals are yearning for.
      Democracy rules. For the moment.

    3. Patel really isn’t the brightest spark as she demonstrated on BBC Question Time some years ago when confronted by Ian Hislop over her support for the death penalty. She serves a purpose for Johnson and his backers & like the DUP, will be under a bus as soon as deemed necessary.

      The Home Office has a track record of appalling, divisive and unworkable policies but most home secretaries have understood their limitations. Patel has shown in previous roles she has no such qualms so whatever goal she’s given or espoused is all that matters, not unlike Trump’s “philosophy” in his maga policies.

      The problem here is that there is a maga-like mentality in government around their brexit project which looks doomed to founder in the real world.

      In the meantime, they’re making hay for themselves and their mates and providing a multitude of distractions for the electorate & commentators to get steamed up about. It’s a slow moving train wreck from which we can only begin to recover when they’re roundly defeated & thrown out of office.

    4. People often assume she’s stupid, particularly if they first became aware of her due to the monumental error of judgement which led to her being sacked by May. But that’s not accurate. She’s a smart politician who knows how to play the populist game and how to win favour with the unrepresentative and radicalised membership of the Tory party.

      That doesn’t preclude stupidity – it’s simply a demonstration of an innate blackness of heart.

      What gets me most of all is her sheer hypocrisy: “Priti Patel” is hardly a typical White Anglo Saxon Protestant name, after all…

    5. I think I should clarify: I didn’t intend “smart politician” as a compliment. Patel is good at playing the political system. That isn’t a point in her favour, from my perspective, but it’s the reason I think her odds on being next PM are rather shorter than the bookies make them.

  3. How to deal with a governing party that flouts established conventions and behaves badly is a very hard problem. It no longer seems enough to rely on the obvious point that no party stays in power for ever, and that at some point it may find itself on the receiving end. I don’t pretend to have the answer, but have a sense that reform of the voting system, to end First Past the Post, is a key step, and this will only happen if there is a pre-Election agreement between the Opposition parties.

  4. Ms Patel is a thoroughly loathesome person, but she fits well into Johnson’s morally bankrupt cabinet – which explains why her breach of the ministerial code re bullying, was not fatal to her career.

    Unfortunately, she is exactly the type of Home Secretary that the more extreme and malevolent strand of (Tory?) Brexiteers want. For some, a big part of the appeal of Brexit was to “send them home” (even if born here), close borders to immigrants and take an even less compassionate stance on refugees. It does not bode well for any trade deal with India (or just about anywhere outside the Western world) that requires easier migration to the UK as a condition. It is ironic indeed that her parents are just the sort of people she would now seek to exclude. I wonder how that strand of Brexiteer views the Home Sec?

  5. James Callaghan was openly contemptuous of liberal approaches. He was the author of the Kenyan Asians Act which was slammed by William Rees Mogg as Editor of the Times as disgraceful and racist. Not sentiments that one has heard from his son on the current Home Secretary’s disgraceful antics.

    You should have included as a liberal Robert Carr who stood up to the baying mob at the 1972 Conservative Party Conference over the Ugandan Asians.

    I suspect that when enough time has gone by for history to be written Theresa May will come out of this a bit better than other Home Secretaries. Apart from seeking to reform the Police, she was also sensitive to ways in which racial tension could be reduced – e.g. by limiting stop and search. She was of course responsible for operating a hostile environment policy, but the charge is not that she invented it but that she continued something that she inherited.

    While David Cameron will be castigated as the worst Prime Minister since Lords Aberdeen and North for the EU disaster, he should also be execrated for another less well known example of inserting his tongue so far up Farag’s rear orifice that he could tell us what Farage had for breakfast. I refer to the way in which he encouraged Sir Julian Brazier and other unspeakable creatures on the hard right – MPs Sir John Major rightly said should be in UKIP – to organise a campaign against Theresa because, said Cameron, she was not hard-line enough on immigration.

  6. Another excellent post, thank you. Whenever I think of the current Home Secretary, for some reason the image of a foul tempered monarch shouting “off with their heads” springs to mind. I can’t think why.

    1. Whenever I think of UK Home Secretaries, I increasingly picture hard-faced ‘Minister of the Interior’ types in authoritarian regimes. Since ‘Justice’ is now a separate department, all the Home Office has is internal/external ‘security – and the repressive mindset that goes with it.

  7. Yes, we mustn’t forget who put Patel into the most powerful position after PM. Her ‘credentials’ were well known and I can only think were viewed as qualifications rather than disqualifications.

    She clearly is someone with no respect for the law except insofar as she can use it for her personal advantage.

    This morning I watched her being interviewed on SKY news. Very difficult to stomach her tone of an exasperated teacher being forced to explain things to a dim and disobedient 12-year-old. Worse were the lies, misinformation and lack of empathy.

    What also struck me was her complete disregard for other nations. France or any other country (or Gibraltar, IoM) MUST take the refugees. One is left with the impression she’d be happy to drown them if another ‘mug’ does not step up.

    Patel totally trashes the image of our ‘Global Britain’ in the eyes of RoW. I’m afraid and ashamed for my country. True patriotism would be to oppose this toxic creature and all her schemes. Not in our name.

  8. We are exploring what happens when (a) you have a constitution that expects people with power to be mostly Good Chaps who mostly do the Right Thing – including respecting accepted conventions, or only bending them a bit – but (b) the people with power consider themselves free of the network of obligations that binds everyone else. The results seems to be a Hobbesian war of all against all, where greed is good, and the devil take the hindmost.

    It takes quite a lot of confidence for a person accused of bullying her own staff, and indeed willing to pay very substantial damages as a result, to imply that the Red Cross and the UNHCR are immoral supporters of people trafficking. https://www.theguardian.com/uk-news/2021/mar/24/priti-patel-defends-inhumane-overhaul-of-uk-asylum-system

    What exactly does Article 31 of the UN Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees mean when it says states “shall not impose penalties, on account of their illegal entry or presence, on refugees who, coming directly from a territory where their life or freedom was threatened … , enter or are present in [a state’s] territory without authorization”?

  9. A woman in line with Regan in King Lear who relishes her husband jabbing out Gloucester’s eyes, then says, “Go thrust him out at gates, and let him smell/ His way to Dover”.

  10. What has been missed in the whole asylum/immigration debate is that the Home Office has been packed with civil servants who have a less than sympathetic to any immigrants. This was largely done under David Cameron and mirrors the DWP, where the default appears to be that benefit claimants are work-shy dole bludgers. The groundwork of making Britain a less liberal place is being done in the background without any public scrutiny.

  11. Leaving aside the train wreck which is the current Conservative government, consider for a moment that “nasty’ Patel is correct in this instance and in tune with the vast majority of the British public. Self-described liberals, progressives, The Guardian readers, and woke embracers take delight in casting disagreement on social issues as ignorant, deplorable and hurtful populism. No wonder Johnson chalked-up a huge majority; Brexit was not the only contributing factor.
    Control of one’s borders, and the right to chose who may enter and remain, is the essence of the nation state which defines most people. Open borders, unrestrained migration, is a woke ideological fantasy lacking any broad public support. It is a position guaranteed to unite the sensible right, centre, and left; and in what are essentially two party systems, where can any social-democrat with brains and a sense of the realistic go but to the right? We see this both in the UK and the US.
    As a self-described liberal myself I would like to suggest Patel’s approach here is logically and politically correct.

    Migrants who enter the country illegally have broken the law. Those economic migrants along with those falsely claiming UNHCR refugee status granted asylum should be considered here on a temporary basis with conditions imposed including good behaviour and the obligation and expectation they will return to their own countries as soon as it can be arranged safely.

    We chose and welcome who we want to live among us; migrants do not get to choose for us..

    1. “Open Borders” and “unrestrained migration” are straw men here (and the word ‘woke’ is a telltale sign of a straw man). This blog post doesn’t call for them, nor by my reading do any of the replies (except perhaps one, by implication), nor does the UN Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees – it’s hard to imagine the member states of the UN agreeing to any such proposal. Many asylum-seekers have no choice but to make their journey illegally, as the legal routes have been closed, and I believe the UN Convention recognises this.

      Brexit has made matters worse for the Home Office, because asylum seekers who travel to the UK via EU ‘third countries’ can no longer be sent back to them under the terms of the Dublin Regulation. Priti Patel apparently thinks that EU states have a ‘moral duty’ to take them back. But who’s going to take lessons in morality from the wicked fairy Carabosse, who relishes the audience booing at her, and from her boss who won’t honour an international treaty that he has signed?

  12. The Home Office is where hypocrisy, underfunding and plain dishonesty hits the road – visibly. A nasty job that only the terminally ambitious or desperate will take – May and Patel.

    With great power must come great responsibility and great punishment for matters like Windrush and anything like it. So far the HO does not meet anything like the standards needed for such powers. Patel (and May) need to be kept in handcuffs until the HO comes up to standard. Scrutiny scrutiny scrutiny.

    I suffer under the illusion of being fairly liberal – but I do want to see proper criminals chucked out with no time wasting. Those who arrive on boats should certainly have claimed asylum at the first opportunity. Realistically, they speak English not French or German and we are a more attractive target. We should cut the hypocrisy and welcome the young, fit and educated that make it and put them to work. The Channel in a rubber boat is test enough I think. If an aged person makes it then good luck. Equally we should take our proper share.

    The snag I see is ‘proper criminals’. I am not that bothered by the politically noisy but those who rob, steal, falsify benefits, peddle drugs, conduct scams etc must leave on the first plane at the first offence. Regardless of wives, children, pussy cats or death on arrival. Can’t do the time – don’t do the crime. New arrivals must keep a clean nose for say three years. However, we must remember the Home Office is a hot bed of nasty political and faux security types and we must remember that anything the HO claims could very well be a lie.

  13. Can someone unpack the phrase “…indefinitely liable for immediate removal, even if they have been granted asylum”?

    If the power exists to do that, surely anyone can be deported or exiled, or any reason or none.

    If no such power exists, but the Home Secretary does it anyway, successfully and with impunity, is there any act which she cannot commit?

    The word ‘immediate’ is a bit worrying, too: it suggests that the Home Secretary and the agents of the state can act without any prior hearing by a court, and without any opportunity for review or appeal before the deportation is completed.

    What’s to stop her dropping any of us in a war zone, or some disputed desert backwater North of Mogadishu, shoeless and phoneless and without money or documentation, and no-one the wiser?

    You are, of course, free to appeal from there – all deported persons are, under current legislation – but I suspect that the shape of the Home Secretary’s new procedure is that any of her minions can say that you belong there, and that’s the whole of the process until you ‘exercise your right’ to apply for a visa by the proper channels, or demonstrate a pre-existing right to reside in the United Kingdom, from wherever you’re deported to.

    And this will be wildly popular with suburban voters: illiberal Home Secretaries do not exist in a vacuum.

    And, sooner or later, one of them will succeed in enacting and implementing such a policy. If you ask a Windrush deportee, it is arguably the case that this has already happened.

  14. Patel was International Development Secretary under Theresa May when she resigned (under orders) because of a serious breach of the ministerial code. Johnson then appointed her to one of the great offices of state. (And has since then ignored another breach). Patel is loathsome and also, it would seem, ignorant of the responsibilities and limitations of her office. But Johnson is the villain who put her there.

  15. Priti Patel represents the tone and direction of the government. The country has got what it voted for under this system and until a majority change their loyalties it will continue. Bleating will not change it, campaigning for a new system of representation might.

  16. The role of Home Secretary in a government seems to be to give vent to the worst of our authoritarian and xenophobic impulses under the guise of “legitimate concerns”, very rarely based on empirical evidence. It’s probably too much to expect a political party to resist the opportunity to pursue cheap cheers but my god it would be something to see.

    Roy Jenkins really does stand out in the rogues gallery. It helped that he had written his own reform-minded pamphlet “Is Britain Civilised?” before taking office, I suspect it helped him resist falling into step with the Home Office culture faute de mieux (as Jenkins himself was fond of saying).

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