Wednesday, November 02, 2022

No, Tony Benn didn't say that about governments and refugees

There's a very good quotation that pops up on Twitter from time to time. It runs:

The way a government treats refugees is very instructive because it shows you how they would treat the rest of us if they thought they could get away with it.

Almost invariably, these words are attributed to Tony Benn, but he did not say them. Rather, they were written by the Scottish journalist (and sometime Lib Dem Holyrood candidate) Neal Ascherson.

The history of the quotation is as follows.

In 1996 Ascherson wrote an article on the al-Masari affair in the Independent, where he said:
The al-Masari affair overflows in all directions with moral relativism. My own view is that to expel a political asylum-seeker because his country threatens to cancel business contracts with Britain is absolutely wrong. 
And it is not only wrong but dangerous in the long term to us all. This is because of one of the Laws of Politics that I wrote long ago into my little black notebook: "The way a state treats its aliens is the way it would treat its own subjects if it dared".
And in 1999 Francis Wheen paraphrased Ascherson to produce more or less the quotation we know today:
We should always watch how politicians treat refugees, Neal Ascherson once wrote, because that's how they would treat the rest of us if they thought they could get away with it.
Neal Ascherson, incidentally, has passed 90 and is still going strong. You should be able to read some of his articles on the London Review of Books site before its paywall kicks in.

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