Don’t Blame Amber Rudd for Britain’s Racist Immigration System

The ousted home secretary was trying to clean up the mess her boss created. Theresa May alone is responsible for the “hostile environment” policy’s heinous abuses.

Home Secretary Amber Rudd and Britain's Prime Minister Theresa May (R) on May 23, 2017 in Manchester, England, following a suicide attack at Manchester Arena.
Home Secretary Amber Rudd and Britain's Prime Minister Theresa May (R) on May 23, 2017 in Manchester, England, following a suicide attack at Manchester Arena. (Leon Neal/Getty Images)

Britain’s home secretary, Amber Rudd, was forced to resign earlier this week for doing a job she didn’t believe in for a prime minister she had lost respect for. She inherited her boss’s self-described “hostile environment” immigration policy, under which elderly people who’d lived in Britain for decades were deported to countries where they knew no one and that they hadn’t seen since they were children.

The Windrush scandal was named for a boat that carried Afro-Caribbean immigrants to rebuild Britain after World War II. The Home Office had begun targeting people in their sixties who had come at around the same time. On this occasion, it wasn’t asylum seekers or foreign students who were affected, but people who had been part of the British national community for decades. The public suddenly began to realize that repressive immigration measures wouldn’t be applied only to foreigners they didn’t like, but could catch in their net anyone whom the Home Office suspected of being in the country illegally — including pensioners who’d lived in Britain for 50 years, war veterans, and the son of the British high commissioner to Trinidad and Tobago.

Rudd was known as a “modernizing” Conservative — socially liberal, relaxed about immigration, and more at home in big cities than the countryside. Asked what was so great about her constituency, the run-down port of Hastings, she said it was “two hours from London” and she might win it. Famous for her pugilistic approach to the European Union referendum, in which she opposed Brexit, Rudd is a serious and intelligent woman who doesn’t gladly suffer the innumerable fools she encounters on a daily basis. Barbed wit is not her strong point: When she said in a televised debate that Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson was great fun but not “the man you want driving you home at the end of the evening,” she probably intended it as a reference to drunk driving and didn’t realize that the joke might be darker when cracked by a woman.

But at that point, Johnson was the man to be stopped. In the early morning of June 24, 2016, as the referendum result became clear and Prime Minister David Cameron prepared his resignation speech, I saw Rudd huddled with a group of other Tory pro-Europeans in Westminster’s Blue Boar restaurant — modernizers all of them. It was decided that Theresa May, who said she wanted to remain in the EU but did her best to avoid getting involved in the Brexit campaign, would be their candidate. May had once been a modernizer too, but the question her band of disillusioned supporters needed to ask was: After five years presiding over immigration restrictions, was she still?

When May appointed her Cabinet in July 2016, she won plaudits for giving key posts to her main pro-Brexit rivals. She gave them jobs that were either impossible (David Davis as Brexit secretary), kept them out of the country (Boris Johnson as foreign secretary), or both (Liam Fox, fated to be secretary of state for international trade for a country that can’t possibly have a coherent trade policy until it actually leaves the EU). Few noticed how she’d also neutralized her main challenger to her left by sending Rudd to the Home Office.

The Home Office is not just a “giant mess,” as it was once memorably described. It is also responsible for immigration policy. Ever since then-Prime Minister Gordon Brown purloined the far-right slogan “British jobs for British workers” in 2007, immigration has become central to British politics.

In Britain’s class-based political system, the biggest group of swing voters were lower-middle-class people with left-wing economic interests and right-wing views about immigration. Their prejudices were constantly reinforced by mass circulation tabloids the Daily Mail and Daily Express, both of which enthusiastically promoted the mutually contradictory myths that immigrants were stretching the National Health Service and scrounging unemployment benefits while also taking low-paying jobs that reduced the wages of British workers, and that they were occupying new houses, many of them built by immigrant construction workers, faster than the government could build them for the native population.

The only debate was what to do about it. For the far-right leader of the UK Independence Party at the time, Nigel Farage, the answer to this (and every other political question) was to leave the EU. For most others, it was to appear as tough as possible on immigrants by passing regular immigration bills that granted the Home Office powers to detain, deport, and investigate. These powers were used, of course, but that wasn’t their main point. Their purpose was to generate headlines — and the interpreters who’d risked their lives to aid the British Army and were then sent back to a war zone in Afghanistan, or the hardworking students kicked off their courses, were merely collateral damage.

Then, in 2010, Cameron made what would become a catastrophic mistake. On forming his first government, he appointed Theresa May his home secretary. He probably hoped the job would overwhelm his rival, like it had overwhelmed everyone else who’d held it, but she held on through ruthless control freakery (forcing the border agency chief Brodie Clark to resign for relaxing immigration checks to deal with long airport queues). In time, this once-liberal Tory came to believe in the necessity of the Home Office’s perennial anti-immigration mission. Inevitably, she tightened already harsh laws even further. The aim, she said, was deterrence: to create a “hostile environment” for immigrants living in or entering the country illegally, so they wouldn’t come to Britain or would leave on their own without the authorities having to go to the expense of deporting them.

Employers were forced to sack workers the Home Office suspected of being in Britain illegally. Suspects were also denied access to Britain’s National Health Service and prevented from renting a place to live. May didn’t stop at persecuting (presumed) illegal immigrants but conscripted everyone else to help her do it. University officials had to monitor their students’ immigration status (and were inspected to ensure they carried out their monitoring). Landlords faced fines if they rented property to people who couldn’t prove their right to be in Britain. Today, more than 10,000 people are imprisoned in detention facilities without trial. As the investigative journalist Natalie Bloomer has shown, even doctors and nongovernmental organizations were forced to cooperate with this immigration surveillance state: Funding for homeless and health care charities became conditional on their sharing the immigration status of people they were supposed to be helping.

May has also activated dormant powers introduced in Labour legislation from 2003 to deport asylum-seekers and have them appeal from the countries to which they have been deported. May would have gone further if she could have. Her 2016 proposal to put the children of suspected undocumented immigrants in the worst state schools was blocked by then-Education Secretary Nicky Morgan. During May’s crusade against “citizens of nowhere,” she even floated replacing the 1951 refugee convention with something much less generous.

That autumn, after the shock of Brexit, it seemed that May’s draconian immigration policies had become the settled will of the British people who had voted to leave the EU for that purpose. Rudd saw no alternative but to join her boss (she announced that companies would have to keep a list of their foreign employees), and it is in that spirit that she ran the home office until June 2017. She had gotten in too deep and found the price of power was implementing measures she hated (and that led to her being attacked in print by her own brother).

The letter that finally did Rudd in was in some ways extraordinarily blunt. In it, she described the Home Office’s anti-immigration measures with brutal clarity, opening with a discussion of “the work that is happening to reduce the overall illegal population.” Instead of hiding behind euphemisms (the Home Office refers to one kind of deportation, with its Soviet way with words, as “voluntary departures”) she deliberately spelled out the harshness of the policy she was told to implement so that there could be no doubt as to the content of the orders she was required to follow.

It’s one thing to accept force majeure: an understanding that her political career was dependent on fulfilling this policy. It’s quite another to realize that you sold your soul for a doomed project. After May’s ultranationalist government foundered in the 2017 election, Rudd began trying to undo the damage. Playing a long game, she set the basis for policy change by asking the Migration Advisory Committee to conduct a truly evidence-based inquiry into the effects of immigration, timing its report for after the conclusion of Brexit negotiations.

It’s hard to turn a supertanker around without your boss noticing. It’s harder still when your own underlings are still determined to stay the course and refuse to change tack. It is these underlings, committed to May’s harsh policy and resistant to Rudd’s reform agenda, who seem to have leaked the letters that led to Rudd’s resignation.

Amber Rudd’s successor, Sajid Javid, is the son of a bus driver from Pakistan. But Javid is not the first son of an immigrant to be Home Secretary. Michael Howard (who served from 1993 to 1997 and whose father was smuggled into Britain under the pretense that he was a desperately needed synagogue cantor) was in many a tough-minded forerunner to May.

The early signs are that Javid will be different: “It could have been me, my mum or dad,” he said of the enforcement system his boss had designed. But the question remains: Will he also fall victim to the hostile environment constructed by Theresa May and the Home Office bureaucrats who continue to defend it?

Garvan Walshe is a former national and international security policy advisor to the British Conservative Party and the Executive Director of TRD Policy.

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