A well-polished jackboot from a fash...ionable store: Matthew Parris' column on immigration is his latest whispered cruelty
Read his record and the columnist's latest article doesn't come as a surprise.
Correction: A previous version of this newsletter said an Afghan soldier was among those who died in the Channel. This was incorrectly reported in an Express story which was rewriting a Times story. I’m sorry for repeating that error. Thanks to Sian Ushka for flagging this up.
A tendency towards tactical amnesia — a convenient and targeted forgetfulness — is professionally useful for a columnist. It allows you to forget what you wrote last week, let alone last month or last year, and, when confronted with your old columns, you can pretend that some now dead version of you penned them. ]
Matthew Parris has been a fixture in The Times since 1988 when, two years after he had stepped down as a Conservative MP to become the presenter of LWT’s Weekend World1, he became its parliamentary sketchwriter at the request of the then-editor Charles Wilson.
Across those 33 years and helped in part by the Conservative Party’s frequently refreshed supply of obviously odious shits, Parris developed a reputation among the more easily gulled as one of those mythical beasts: “the good Tories”. But if you pick through his back catalogue, you’ll find that’s an undeserved accolade sprung from Parris’ ability to (generally) wrap his cruellest thoughts in a layer of politeness; the jackboot is well polished and purchased from a fine shoemaker.
The last time Parris appeared in this newsletter was on the occasion of his piece asking for sympathy for Prince Andrew on account of the top Yelp! reviewer for Jeffrey Epstein’s amoral Airbnb empire allegedly having saved a dog. The time before that he was penning an ever-so-polite call for GRT people to be stripped of their ethnic minority status because their way of life is “a doomed mindset”.
Sathnam Sanghera @SathnamThis, from Matthew Parris, who I admire hugely, is disappointing. I'm forever being told, as a second generation immigrant, that I should be "more grateful", when I'm just doing the same job as him, being critical of aspects of Britain. That is racism. https://t.co/asODJOGmXP https://t.co/4STtUMQqwL
Head back into 2019 and you’ll find his fellow Times columnist Sathnam Sangera expressing his “disappointment” — a politic understatement — at a Notebook column segment in which Parris wrote:
It’s just futile to suppose that arrivals from another country and their children immediately and automatically assume an identity as citizens that is indistinguisable from that of the population already there. They have all the same rights but will be seen, for a generation or two, as neither better nor worse but different.
We do still speak of ‘second-generation immigrants’ and the expression has meaning. And yes, there is such a thing as courtesy to a host country, even if it’s now theirs too. If in earlier centuries the many Irish and Italian (white) immigrants to the US had seemed to attack too fiercely and too early the beliefs and the values of the country that had taken them or their parents in, they would have attracted irritation.
Sangera commented beneath Parris’ piece on The Times website:
Hi Matthew. There are few journalists I admire more on our newspaper and in Britain than you, but I'm very disappointed to read your remarks about Trump. We both do a version of the same job, and we were both born here, but, unlike you, when I am critical of aspects of Britain, I am regularly told to shut up and "be more grateful" for being able to live here. The difference between us? I am a second generation immigrant and brown. That is racism.
Parris’ response was glib…
Hello Sathnam. I was not in fact born here! I was born in Africa2 and am regularly told in readers' posts to go back there. I take it as a useful indication of the way people think. They are wrong, but I would not brand them all "racists".
… and drew a reply from another Times columnist, Hugo Rifkind:
Matt, the fact Sathnam is told this more than you are, even though he was born in Britain and you were not, literally is racism. The instinct to infer people's views about their country on the basis of where their parents were born might not always be racism, because it extends beyond race, but it's pretty grim anyway. In Trump's case, anyway, he HIMSELF is a second generation immigrant, because his mother was from Scotland. Yet he assumes that being a second generation immigrant means something different for these three congresswoman than it does for him, on the basis of them looking like it. That, too, literally is racism.
Parris’ line (“…I would not brand them all ‘racists’.”) is a familiar trope of parts of the British media where to say racist things is less of a problem than saying someone is racist.
In today’s Times, Parris dedicates his column to a call for the UK to discard the 1951 Geneva Convention because it “sets up a false moral framework” and says “it’s time we re-examined our obligation to refugees”. It’s s a line he’s been pushing in print for almost 20 years; in 2002, he wrote a Times column3 headlined This foolish convention on refugees must be scrapped, which argued the UK should “unilaterally withdraw”.
He repeated the same arguments in pieces in 2015 (“This can’t go on, we need tough new rules”, August 15 2015 and “Stop crying if you’re serious about migrants”, September 5, 2015). You can say many things about Parris — and I intend to — but he’s certainly consistent.
Parris writes his latest column with the polite ‘reasonableness’ of a vicar who really enjoys the Bible’s line on smiting and the “eye for an eye” stuff, and was once caught spiking a football that sailed over the vicarage fence. He begins:
I call myself a liberal. So a word first to fellow liberals. Friends, there is no point in railing against the illiberalism of the British people on the issue of immigration we’re powerless to control. It is palpable, and politicians who must govern by consent cannot ignore it. Voters on an island will never soften towards settlers arriving uninvited in boats.
This is a expensive wrapping for a cheap sentiment. It’s “we’re all a little bit racist, aren’t we?” and “Yes, it’s all very well but would you want one of them living next to you?” packaged up and presented as a statement of ‘rational’ straight talking. Parris continues:
… to defend territory against intruders is an animal impulse which may be mitigated but cannot be ignored. That foreigners in significant numbers try to settle here without permission absolutely infuriates British people: a rock-solid truth that cannot be wished out of existence. In a democracy our politicians have to respond, and though you and I have the luxury of sermonising, they don’t. It is not disreputable to negotiate with powerful national sentiment.
There are so many red flags and dog whistles in that passage it’s like the paragraph has been chosen as the new venue for Crufts. I believe Parris chooses his words carefully and the ones he opts for are “settlers”, “intruders” and “foreigners” arriving “univited”. There is a pretence here that he is just reflecting the “illiberalism of the British people” rather than agreeing with it.
While Parris nods to “special obligations to our former servants in Afghanistan, or threatened citizens in our old empire”, his arguments skates quickly over why we might feel those obligations and how the actions of Britain and the US have directly contributed to the conditions that lead people to flee countries like Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya, Syria, and Yemen. He writes:
The 1951 Geneva Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees (we’re a signatory) had a transparent purpose: to enable and facilitate, after the Second World War, the resettlement in friendly countries of displaced peoples fleeing serious persecution at home.
In the world of 2021 such a tidying-up is impossibly open-ended. Billions are oppressed by both poverty and persecution, potentially billions would take the chance to move, and with modern means of transportation potentially billions could. So, with an irritated nod towards our international treaty obligations, we put every possible obstacle in their way.
This is an argument so disingenuous it couldn’t even find a job as an estate agent. Imagine describing offering asylum and aid as “tidying up” or pretending that such need has ever been anything other than “impossibly open-ended”. Though if the UK exported fewer weapons and hadn’t vastly reduced its aid programmes that need might be lessened a little.
Parris’ central argument is that “the convention sets up a false moral framework to which we do not in our hearts — or lives — adhere. It posits an equal duty on the part of all to care for all: a duty blindfolded against our particular relationship with individuals who seek our help.” He neglects to mention that among those who crossed Channel this week was an Afghan soldier who helped the British but had received none in return after the withdrawal.
In August, the UK government said it would relocate 20,000 people but the so-called Afghan Citizens’ Resettlement Scheme hasn’t been launched yet and the Home Office cannot confirm if it will be ready by March 2022.
When Parris writes about “levels of obligation: first to family, then in declining order to friends, neighbours, community, country and mankind in general,” he is pretending that the government of Boris Johnson and Priti Patel would offer aid to anyone beyond people it considered politically expedient (it was very quick to offer assistance to residents of Hong Kong).
The universal provisions of the 1951 Geneva Convention are so vital because the inclination of governments is to pick and choose just as Parris suggests. It is to create the deserving and the undeserving, both at home and abroad, and the notion of human rights, available and applied to all stands against that.
Parris cannot imagine a reality in which he would need the kind of protection that the Geneva Convention seeks to provide. He carries the protection of age, profession, and nationality. He is a 72-year-old white man who sits at the top of society, a Times columnist who was once an MP, and that is all the protection he needs. He will never have to contemplate the freezing waves of the Channel or the uncertain gamble of a flimsy boat.
Someone4 said to me yesterday that Parris is “a long way from the Pearsonish view” — referring to the odious Allison Pearson whose “free pizza” column I wrote about in the last edition — but I disagree. The difference between them is in style rather than substance. Parris strains to appear “reasonable” and arguing from a place of rational realpolitik; the sad-faced vicar saying he wishes the world was different but alas it is not.
When Parris wrote about the assisted dying debate for The Spectator in 2015, the headline read Soon we will accept that useless lives should end (“At root the reason is Darwinian. Tribes that handicap themselves will not prosper.”) On the subject of the British Empire, he wrote for The Times in April 2021 that “I believe it was good for mankind that Britain spread its power, influence and standards in the way we did; and that the world would be a poorer place today without the part we played.”
Put together the puzzle pieces of Parris’ past columns and a worldview forms. It is not the one of the mythical “good Tory” that so many people seem desperate to see in him. Instead, it brings to mind a word that he would find as equally impolite as “racist” — it’s fascism with a respectable byline, a polite accent, and lots of ‘rational’ arguments for why this is just the way things have to be.
In They Thought They Were Free: The Germans, 1933 - 455, Milton Mayer writes of a colleague — a philologist6 — telling him:
Most of us did not want to think about fundamental things and never had. There was no need to. Nazism gave us some dreadful, fundamental things to think about—we were decent people—and kept us so busy with continuous changes and ‘crises’ and so fascinated, yes, fascinated, by the machinations of the ‘national enemies,’ without and within, that we had no time to think about these dreadful things that were growing, little by little, all around us. Unconsciously, I suppose, we were grateful. Who wants to think?
Read this part from Parris’ column again…
Friends, there is no point in railing against the illiberalism of the British people on the issue of immigration we’re powerless to control. It is palpable, and politicians who must govern by consent cannot ignore it. Voters on an island will never soften towards settlers arriving uninvited in boats.
… and tell me that doesn’t sound familiar.
A programme which Parris said, writing in his autobiography Chance Witness, he “drove into an early grave”.
Parris was born in South Africa to British parents.
I’m not naming them because the conversation was off-the-record.
An academic who studies the history of languages.