Greek theatre mask

This essay, on immigration, free speech and double standards, was my Observer column this week. It was published on 17 October 2021, under the headline “Whether freedom of speech or fairness to migrants, some principles are sacred”.

“Why is hypocrisy so odious?” asked the political theorist Judith Shklar almost half a century ago. Hypocrisy, she argued, is a necessity, a recognition that we are human and imperfect and that we cannot but transgress. The calling out of hypocrisy, Shklar observed, can often be more socially corrosive than the hypocrisy being called out.

There is, however, a different, darker form of political hypocrisy, too: the embrace of ideals to camouflage or justify that which otherwise would be unjustifiable. It’s less a case of personal hypocrisy than of the institutionalisation of political double standards. And, as two issues last week illustrate, the flaunting of double standards is becoming a feature of our age. First is the Home Office attempt to provide immunity for Border Force officials who kill migrants; second, the controversy over philosopher Kathleen Stock’s “gender-critical” views about trans rights.

A long time ago, this summer in fact, the government’s story was that its policy of “pushback” against Channel migrants was intended to save their lives. “The people-smugglers don’t care about the lives they endanger, the Home Secretary, Priti Patel, tweeted. She warned social media companies to take down posts “glamourising” migrant crossings “before more men, women and children die in the Channel”.

Last week, the government announced that, among the revisions to the Nationality and Borders Bill, it will give Border Force officers immunity from prosecution if they kill migrants in the course of their work, so long as they were acting “in good faith”. The death of migrants, it seems, matters only if it happens at the hands of the wrong people.

However contemptible the new policy, it is nothing new. It is an approach common to virtually every rich nation today. From Greek border guards attempting to capsize dinghies full of people to Libyan coastguards, acting on behalf of the EU, shooting at migrants, “deterrence” at whatever the cost has long been the policy. It is what has led Western nations to close off almost all legal routes to migration and then blame migrants for adopting dangerous illegal ones. It is what has driven EU nations to abandon rescue operations in the Mediterranean while criminalising rescuers as “people traffickers”. It is what has led them to accept the 30,000 people who have drowned in the Med over the past 30 years as a price worth paying for Fortress Europe. By framing the problem as primarily one of evil smugglers, and their policies as necessary to bring down such people, politicians and policymakers can scrub their conscience clean and justify policies, such as providing immunity to immigration officials, that are actually responsible for the deaths.

The issue of free speech, as much as the immigration debate, is swaddled on all sides in hypocrisy and double standards. Last week, the universities minister, Michelle Donelan, wrote an op-ed bemoaning the state of British universities. Where once “we had debate and critical argument”, she argued, now there are “physical threats and often complete intolerance of all opposing ideas”.

Donelan was writing in defence of Kathleen Stock, a Sussex University philosopher, who has faced increasingly vocal protests and calls for her sacking by transgender activists denouncing her perceived “transphobia”. A leading “gender-critical” feminist, Stock argues that biological sex is immutable and that for most natal women, their female body is “central to their sense of self-identity”. She argues, too, that many same-sex spaces, from women’s refuges to sporting events, should be reserved for biological females and not open to all those who identify as women, irrespective of sex.

Trans people respond that the freedom to define themselves is vital. To question whether a trans woman is “really a woman”, as many gender-critical feminists do, is, activists insist, to threaten the individual’s identity. It does irreparable harm by subjecting trans people to mental trauma and giving succour to violent bigots. Trans people already face considerable discrimination, bigotry and violence, which is often not sufficiently recognised or acknowledged.

It’s a complex debate, with important arguments on both sides. For many trans activists, however, it’s not a debate that should be taking place. Anyone who believes that sex is more important than gender in defining what it is to be a woman – or who would exclude trans women from women-only spaces – is, they argue, “transphobic” by definition and their arguments bigoted. Yet, condemning figures such as Selina Todd, one of Britain’s most distinguished historians of working-class and women’s lives, or the Nigerian novelist Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, as if they were feminist versions of Tommy Robinson, strains credulity. Trying to strangle a debate, or mislabelling one’s opponents, is no response to complexity. It also makes harassment and intimidation more acceptable. After all, many argue, if they are bigots, who want to “eliminate” trans people, why shouldn’t they be harassed? The result is to leave female academics such as Stock needing police protection from those who identify as women.

The government has in recent months made great play about free speech. It is pushing a freedom of speech bill through parliament, making it mandatory for universities to protect and promote freedom of expression. The bill is a mess – Donelan and Boris Johnson clashed over the question of whether universities would be required to provide platforms for Holocaust deniers – and many rightly object to the idea that the state, never slow to censor ideas it finds unpalatable, should possess greater powers in the name of “freedom”.

Worse is the government’s two-faced attitude to free speech. Being exposed to unpopular ideas is good for students and academics but apparently not for government officials. Days after Donelan’s defence of Stock, the Home Office disinvited the Cambridge academic Priyamvada Gopal. She had been booked to speak to staff about the relationship between colonial history and the Windrush scandal. The reasons for the disinvitation remain unclear but, according to the rightwing Guido Fawkes website, the academic had been “no platformed” for her “racist views”. Gopal appealed to Donelan for support but received none. It’s a government for whom the pursuit of free speech, like the saving of migrant lives, is something to be wielded instrumentally, not as a good in itself but only as a weapon with which to target opponents.

Killing migrants is bad. Except when in pursuit of Home Office policy. Free speech is good. Except when it comes to government departments. Hypocrisy may be a necessity in an imperfect world, but it is also a necessity to call out such double standards.


  1. tony ward

    Criticism, the analysis of what is good and bad, should increase understanding to aid better appreciation and inform attempts to improve situations. Your article is an example of the hypocritical double standards you deplore. Your support for free speech in its complexity and nuance is commendable. But you offer no ideas to make things better. Demonising officials trying to enforce immigration policy in impossible circumstances is not helpful. They need protection from the consequences of desperate acts by those seeking a better economic future. Please turn your considerable analytical powers to offering some solutions.

    • Here’s a solution: If Border Force officials commit murder or manslaughter, let’s call it murder or manslaughter and treat it as such, just as we would if it was committed by a factory worker, civil servant or police officer, and not excuse it for ideological reasons because we don’t like undocumented migrants.

  2. Encouraging or rejecting illegal immigration is essentially a democratic matter, not a moral one.

    Government cultural policy is essentially a democratic matter, not a moral one.

    The issue of allowing self identifying trans women who have not undergone a sex change into single sex spaces is essentially a democratic matter, not a moral one.

    Encouraging pluralism and viewpoint diversity in universities is essentially a moral matter, not a democratic one.

    In other words, there is no hypocrisy or double standards unless you conflate what is considered to be the democratic with what is considered to the moral.

    The difference between the democratic and the moral is that the democratic is underpinned by the perception of an either/or zero sum game whereas the moral is underpinned by the perception of an and/both positive sum game.

    By seeking to turn the democratic into the moral, you are seeking to turn the democratic into the technocratic and in so doing, bypass the concerns of the many in order to favour the concerns of the few.

    • My apologies, I had not realized that to argue that murder is murder even if committed by Border Force personnel is undemocratic. I guess we must hold a referendum every time a murder is committed just to make sure that the authorities are not being “technocratic” in putting the suspect on trial. And I guess, too, that whether or not you murder someone depends one’s ideologically attitude to that person. If you are ideologically ill-disposed to undocumented migrants, then the murder of an undocumented migrant should not count as murder. Does this apply to everyone to whom one is ideologically ill-disposed?

      • Nothing ideological about acknowledging that population growth in the UK means a decreasing ecological capacity for the existing population and increasing import dependencies which inevitably leads to militia mediated land grabbing and resource grabbing in the name of corporate industrial agriculture which leads to forced displacement, rape and death for indigenous smallholders.

        What is ideological is denying the local and far away effects of illegal immigration into ecological deficit countries.

        Illegal migrants know the risks but do they know the socio-ecological effects on trying to illegally enter an ecological deficit country?

        • I see you’ve deliberately missed (or, more likely, deliberately ignored), my point about giving Border Force officers immunity from murder or manslaughter, and the double standards involved in the “deterrence” rhetoric, not to mention changed your argument from your first to your second reply. But, then, that’s what you do virtually every time, so I’ll just leave it there.

        • Kenan. You sought to reframe my argument as ideological in order to avoid responding to it directly and I responded to your argument regarding murder as “illegal immigrants know the risks”.

          However, as usual you ignore the socio-ecological impacts of population growth within an ecological deficit country since sustaining your anti-ecological ideological view is more important than ecological facts.

        • “Illegal immigrants know the risk of being murdered by Border Force officers who have received immunity from having to be accountable for committing murder or manslaughter, so it’s morally acceptable for the government to allow Border Force officials to face no consequences for committing murder or manslaughter.”


        • That’s certainly one way of framing it. Another is that they can show some socio-ecological responsibility and flee to an ecological credit country rather than increase the likelihood that their actions will inevitably lead to forced displacement, rape and murder in a faraway country so that they can be fed and clothed.

          This not only means ecological degradation at home and abroad but an increase in our trade deficit which means more governmental borrowing and a further strain on global supply chains.

        • they can show some socio-ecological responsibility and flee to an ecological credit country

          I do admire your sense of humour… (though not necessarily your understanding of how and why people may flee)

          I wonder, though, whether you should not “show some socio-ecological responsibility” yourself by turning your computer off, reducing your carbon footprint and not using up precious energy with posts such as this.

        • The vicious circle works in the following way. Overpopulation in a country leads to an ecological deficit which increases import dependencies which inevitably leads to militia mediated corporate land and resource grabbing which results in forced displacement, slum urbanisation, internecine conflicts and refugee migration to overpopulated ecologically deficit countries.

          The solution can only be to direct refugees to ecological credit countries.

          Politically disempowering myself by remoouncing my technological possessions is certainly one way of disengaging from complex debates!

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