Thoughts and prayers are what we offer when we have nothing else to give. Thoughts and prayers come when the damage is done and cannot be undone. When it is too late to offer anything but sympathy.
Which is why there are few more glib sounding words for a politician to utter. When four would-be asylum seekers, two of them children, drowned and died in the English Channel on Tuesday night, Priti Patel wasted no time at all in offering their loved ones her “thoughts and prayers.”
She managed a statement of five sentences in length, most of which was devoted to making clear the incident had happened “in French waters”, a term she used not once but twice.
Of course, no one will be shocked, not anymore, at the unimaginably crass politicisation of the deaths of two small children, for whom even meaningless thoughts and prayers can only be offered once the blame game has been dealt with.
Thoughts and prayers are for the helpless to offer, but Patel is not helpless. She has tremendous power to act. It is not hard to bring oneself to understand that people do not take such terrible risks with their own lives, and with their children’s lives, for no rational reason. The home secretary knows there are options open to her. It is her political choice to invest her department’s energy and imagination not in opening a safe route to asylum in the UK from Northern France, to people who are clearly too desperate to be dissuaded from seeking it in an unsafe way. But instead, in getting her civil servants to explore such things as chaining boats together to prevent crossings from occurring, and enormous wave machines. (She was, we understand, dissuaded from the latter for fear it might lead to preventable deaths. It would seem normal waves can do that on their own, with the added advantage of being easier to blame on France.)
Of course, it is not merely the French who are to blame, it’s the exploitative people traffickers who are to blame as well. Which they are, though the UN refugee agency takes a different view, which is dismayed at Patel’s plans to intercept boats when the numbers are “small and manageable.”
There is clear political strategy behind all this. As I’ve written previously, while door-knocking in Somerset with Jacob Rees-Mogg before the 2015 election (a week after Katie Hopkins’ notorious column, in which she described those seeking asylum from the horrors of the war in Syria as “cockroaches” and advocated setting gunboats upon them) as a man came up to us with The Sun tucked under his arm. The front page was devoted to the latest horrific news of migrant drownings.
“I probably shouldn’t say this,” the man said. “But I’m glad they’re dying. Better that than them coming here.”
Rees-Mogg told him, in no uncertain terms, that it was “an appalling thing to say.”
But there is no doubting that Patel seeks the vast electoral capital that has always been available for wanton cruelty towards desperate people.
Few mainstream politicians in this country in the last 100 years have been as ferociously right-wing. It is always worth remembering that, not so long ago, she was on BBC Question Time, advocating the return of the death penalty. (She has changed her mind on that since, to the considerable and somewhat ironic relief to the people she would have had executed, given the chance.)
In some ways, Boris Johnson is a lucky prime minister. Covid-19 has arrived to distract attention from his appalling handling of Brexit, and though his handling of coronavirus has been equally appalling, it may well be that people are inclined to forgive him. The pandemic, after all, is not directly his fault.
But these things, surely, will pass, in four long years. At some point, perhaps sooner rather than later, what might become more shockingly and distressingly clear, is just how mean-spirited and vicious a government this is.
Johnson once described himself as “basically a eurosceptic Heseltine.” This may or may not be true. At some point, he might find he has to get round to having some kind of reckoning with the fact that, perhaps almost by accident, he ever let things get quite this nasty.