No one does historical drama like the British Broadcasting Corporation, and right now, there is a remarkable new adaptation of Great Expectations underway. It stars Olivia Coleman as Lady Havisham, perhaps one of the most enduring characters ever created by Charles Dickens.
Without giving anything away in case you’re watching it, or are not familiar with the classic novel, the opening scenes are set in a foggy march, where Pip comes across an escapee from a prison ship.
These prison hulks were a cheap and convenient way of dealing with 19th Century convicts in the post-Napoleonic War era — before the Victorians with their penchant for social engineering came up with the concept of high-walled prisons with single cells, where those who committed crimes could consider their actions in penitence — hence the word ‘penitentiary’ as a synonym for a jail.
I note this because I can’t help but notice the corollary between the settings of Great Expectations and the events that continue to unfold about the Conservative party in the United Kingdom at the moment and how it deals with both refugees and those who are warehoused in its prison system.
UK's Prison hulk
Let’s deal with the latter first.
Britain’s prisons are vastly overcrowded, with three prisoners often occupying cells that were meant for a single convict. While there is a generally held belief in society that prisons are supposed to offer a chance of redemption, the reality is that the recidivism rate is high. In effect, once you’re caught up in the prison system, it’s hard to escape — not just physically, which it should be — but systematically too. Criminals tend to reoffend.
As an aside, Charles Bronson, considered to be Britain’s most notorious prisoner, has been denied bail. He’s been inside since the early 1990s having been sentenced initially to seven years. Since then, he has raged against the system, taken multiple prison staff on multiple occasions — all in protests at prison conditions — and picked up a life sentence along the way. He’s 72 now and will likely never see the outside again.
But what’s more significant is that a Dutch court recently refused to extradite a suspect back to the UK because he successfully argued that the conditions of UK prisons would constitute unusual punishment, and breached his human rights.
But the phrase ‘prison hulk’ also springs to my mind when I read of the misplaced plans of UK Home Secretary Suella Braverman, to house refugees on a floating barge in a port in Dorset.
The barge can hold some 500 refugees and is owned by a Dutch company, and has been used to temporarily house migrants in Stockholm and is in Genoa for refurbishment right now.
‘Stop the boats’
Over recent months, the home secretary has come up with various solutions to trying to stem the number of refugees crossing the English Channel in small boats. These include making it a crime to cross the Channel, meaning those who fled social and economic, climate and humanitarian turmoil in their homelands, would end up behind bars with the criminals, rapists and thieves who are currently jailed in overcrowded conditions.
Other plans included simply packing them all off to Rwanda. Incidentally, the UNHCR has expressed reservations to the UK Government’s plan to ship refugees off to Rwanda.
As with much of political debate nowadays, simple phrases replace reasoned arguments. Get Brexit done. Make America great again. Lock her up. Stop the boats.
Yes, Braverman and her officials are trying to focus public attention on a highly complex multinational problem that affects most European nations with the catchphrase ‘Stop the boats’. While that makes headlines and appeals to the basest of base Conservative voters, the reality is that most people have enough wisdom to see beyond the pithy phrase.
Conservative election plank
They have empathy for those who dare leave conflict and chaos and walk to France in the hope of making a fresh start in the UK. And given the number of low-paying positions that remain unfilled since the exodus of mainly east Europeans who were pushed out by Brexit, there’s certainly ample work available while asylum papers are processed.
Would you rather see refugees working and earning their way, or imprisoned and interned on barges? Would it be better for fruit and vegetables to be picked by refugees, or let them rot while there are shortages in stores? Or could the one-in-four care home jobs that are currently vacant not be filled by those who would be more than willing to care for the elderly as they waited for paperwork to be completed?
As embracing as ‘stop the boats’ might seem, and as appealing as putting refugees onto barges might seem, the plan is deeply flawed.
Portland, in Dorset, where the barge will be based, is run by a Conservative county. It has a Conservative MP. And the vast majority of the 14,000 residents don’t want it in their home port. There are local elections due in early May and the Conservatives expect a shellacking. In Dorset, that seems even more likely.