Braverman’s ‘Rivers of Blood’ Moment

Joe Mulhall - 27 09 23

The Home Secretary’s inflammatory speech about multiculturalism and refugees has been welcomed by radical right commentators and even neo-Nazis.

Yesterday, Suella Braverman, the Home Secretary, gave one of the most inflammatory speeches by a Conservative MP since Enoch Powell’s infamous “Rivers of Blood” speech in 1968. Speaking to a tiny audience in Washington D.C., her words have caused widespread controversy and discussion back in the UK.

While Braverman’s adoption of far-right language is nothing new – she has previously called the arrival of refugees an ‘invasion’ – her speech to the American Enterprise Institute has shocked many in its extremeness.

The parallels with Powell’s speech come in the apocalyptically pessimistic tone in relation to the effects of immigration. While he said, “It is like watching a nation busily engaged in heaping up its own funeral pyre,” Braverman talked of an “existential challenge”. “Just as it is a basic rule of history that nations which cannot defend their borders will not long survive,” she continued.

Braverman also took aim at the supposed failure of the “misguided dogma of multiculturalism.” She is not the first high-profile Tory to say this – David Cameron famously made a similar though softer point in 2011 – but Braverman offered a caricatured vision of modern multiculturalism, shorn of its many successes.

However, what really marks the speech out as a landmark moment is Braverman’s attack on the UN’s 1951 Refugee Convention, a touchstone of international law since its signing. This comes after increasing discussion by the current government about pulling out of the European Convention on Human Rights.

To ram home her point, she sought to scare people by quoting disputed research that claims 780 million people have the “notional right” to claim refugee status. This tactic was used successfully by the Vote Leave campaign during the Brexit campaign, with its widely criticised posters suggesting 76 million Turkish people could be on their way to the UK.

Braverman also made the demonstrably false assertion that “simply being gay, or a woman, and fearful of discrimination in your country of origin,” is sufficient to claim asylum. This of course is not the case in either British law or under the Refugee Convention, and it is worth noting that just 1.5% of asylum claims in the UK last year cited sexual orientation for their claim. This comes off the back of the governments increasingly hostile attitute towards the LGBQT+ community.

Clearly, Braverman is willing to exaggerate and distort information to advance her anti-asylum seeker agenda.A generous reading of Braverman’s speech is that she was merely trying to blame international law for her own government’s failure to manage a fair and effective asylum system. Whatever the driver though, this speech has shown that our Home Secretary and sections of the Conservative government are intent on undermining or destroying fundamental parts of the international postwar consensus and are willing to use demonstrably false and inflated scare tactics to do so.

The Response

It has since been confirmed by a No 10 spokesperson that Braverman’s speech was indeed signed off by Rishi Sunak. As such, it comes as little surprise that a range of Tory MPs have backed her speech.

The Culture Secretary Lucy Frazer declined to commit to keeping the UK in the UN Refugee Convention when questioned on Times Radio. Former minister Brendan Clarke-Smith told Sky News that Braverman is, “speaking the same language as my constituents. It’s what they wanted to hear.”

Deputy Chairman of the Party, Lee Anderson – who recently said that asylum seekers should “f*** off back to France” if they didn’t like being housed on the Bibby Stockholm barge – unsurprisingly agreed, stating: “She is speaking the language of our constituents. That language is British common sense.”

Radical right commentators have also welcomed the inflammatory speech. Douglas Murray enthusiastically took to The Sun, writing: “Finally a politician has told the truth about migration – for years we have been living with a defunct global system”.

Former UKIP MEP Patrick O’Flynn lauded Braverman in The Spectator for “taking her cast-iron conviction onto the world stage,” which he argues is an “anathema to the global liberal superclass who police the obsolete mid-20th century treaties.”

Richard Tice, leader of the radical-right Reform UK, writing for The Telegraph reiterated the point that “The refugee convention is an outdated relic.” While arguing that Braverman is “brave and no doubt many will be encouraged by her warm words in Washington on the need for change,” he feels she didn’t go far enough. “Much more is needed, urgently. […] We have to make it clear that unless there is a radical amendment to the Convention within a tight time-frame of six months, we are out. Shock and awe is needed to awake our complacent elites out of their cosy metropolitan slumber.”

While Braverman’s calls to reform or abandon postwar international legislation remains a marginal position, it has now become a debate in a way that would have been inconceivable just a few years ago.

The Far-Right Response

Whenever it is reported that a Tory politician is getting ‘tough’ on immigration, the traditional far right ordinarily greet the news with scepticism, seeing it as a cynical attempt to placate anger without actually taking action.

For some on the UK far right, Braverman’s speech was no different. An activist for the fascist Homeland Party summed up this position, writing: “This is red meat to win favour as their poll numbers are dwindling. Don’t be swindled. Sunak and Braverman are flooding our country with migrants like no government has before.”

Others, however, responded excitedly, a sign of how extreme her speech really was. Britain First tweeted that it “fully endorses Suella Braverman ‘multiculturalism’ remarks,” because “She is saying publicly what everyone at home is privately thinking.”

Perhaps most damning for Braverman is the enthusiastic support from the neo-Nazi leader of Patriotic Alternative, Mark Collett. His response is worth quoting at length:

Suella Braverman has basically admitted multiculturalism has failed and that mass immigration is a threat to the West. This is a good thing. Now I know that many nationalists will complain that this is just a pre-election stunt and that it is nothing more than a desperate attempt to win back voters. I don’t know whether that is entirely true. What I do know, is that what she said is a good thing for nationalism.

He argued that “she has legitimised the conversation around the failure of multiculturalism,” and that because she is the Home Secretary “it makes the BBC and other organisations look extremely stupid when they liken making statements such as ‘multiculturalism has failed’ to acts of terrorism.” He concludes by saying: “We shouldn’t lament Suella Braverman telling the truth, we should capitalise on this and do our best to take control of this situation and steer the national conversation in the correct direction.”

Meanwhile, the anti-Muslim extremist and serial criminal Stephen Lennon (AKA Tommy Robinson) opted for a most succinct reaction simply stating, “Yep, fit in or fuck off.”

An Important Moment

Suella Braverman is not the first Conservative politician to question multiculturalism or cherry pick, decontextualise or exaggerate data to push an anti-asylum seeker agenda. However, the extremeness of yesterday’s speech and its unquestionable parallels with Enoch Powell’s apocalyptic predictions in the 1960s marks it out as an important moment.

The difference is that Powell was sacked for his comments, whereas Braverman has been backed by the current Prime Minister.

Whether this is merely a cynical, last-ditch attempt to polarise society, blame external factors for government failing and create a sense of crisis to try and cling onto power come the next election, or a genuine desire to rip up a fundamental part of the post-war consensus, does not  matter.

Braverman has thrown open a debate that those desperate to destroy protections for vulnerable asylum seekers are already excitedly exploiting. It is a sign of how normalised far-right politics has become within the Conservative Party, and hopefully a wakeup call that if we do not actively defend existing legal protections for people fleeing persecution and champion the successes of multiculturalism, then the Conservative Party will tear them apart.

Suella Braverman doesn’t speak for any of us.

Suella Braverman has said that multiculturalism is ‘toxic’ and has failed. Not only is that wrong about this, it is also dangerous and fuels the far right. We cannot let Suella Braverman and the Conservative Government speak for us.

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