‘It could never happen here’: the normalisation of the unthinkable

For many years, Alastair Stewart was an ever-present on ITV news. He always had a likeable demeanour, a pleasant voice, and a professionalism that made sure he never betrayed his political allegiances. He was everything a news presenter should be.

But at last week’s Tory leadership hustings in Manchester, we saw a different Stewart. Freed from the shackles of neutrality and now a lynchpin of the presumptuously named GB News, we saw him in full flow. “Isn’t it time”, he asked Rishi Sunak, “to instruct Border Force and the Royal Navy to push those floating dinghies back?”

It’s a troubling word, “instruct”, with historical resonance; especially when you’re talking about the possibility of state-backed manslaughter.

But it wasn’t just what Stewart said, it was how he said it. For those few seconds, he was more than mere interviewer. He was the star of the show, the performer, the rabble-rouser-in-chief. And didn’t he just know it! One, two, three jabs of the finger. Four, five, six. A seventh for good measure. Not asking a question so much as playing to his audience. His voice full of righteous anger, his delivery immaculate, all building to that moment where the crowd, like a dam bursting, broke out in tumultuous applause.

Is this really Britain? How have we come so quickly to the point where people will think and then say out loud the previously unthinkable, goading each other into ever more extreme positions? A political landscape where, competing on their interminable summer face-off to be the more extreme, Liz Truss promised to strike similar deals to Rwanda with other African countries (because ‘Africa’ is the kind of place we can send these people), while Rishi Sunak declared his intention to place a cap on refugee numbers (as if compassion were something you have, like public borrowing, to limit).

But look back over the last few years, and you realise it’s not so surprising that this is happening in today’s Britain. Because the politicians have shown how easily some people will follow the crowd, even in a country where we’ve always liked to tell ourselves these sorts of things could never happen.

It’s worth thinking about the counterfactual here. If you know people who think it’s fine to “push back” boats in the Channel, or send asylum seekers to Rwanda to be processed with no prospect of return, ask them if they’d have been prepared to parade these views had politicians not made them current. Some might give you a bit of guff about fighting wokery or asserting their freedom of speech. But most would never have come up with such ideas because they are so plainly immoral and inhumane that they needed to be led there by others.

Photo by Lucy-Ann Pope

This is what happens when you normalise the unthinkable. First it becomes thinkable. Then sayable. Then – rapidly for some – ‘desirable’, ‘the only option’, ‘common sense’. Once out there, it cannot be unthought, unsaid, unnormalised. It’s what we do in this country now, isn’t it? And, bit by bit, it gnaws away at our souls.

When you normalise the unthinkable, Rishi Sunak can tell you “no option is off the table” when another way of putting that is “there’s nothing we wouldn’t do”.

When you normalise the unthinkable, the first instinct of a decent but weak Keir Starmer when asked about a Rwanda policy so screamingly wrong, so utterly offensive to anything a progressive, internationalist party should stand for, is to focus with those perpetually nervous eyes on its impracticality, as if that were the main objection to the forced transportation, for a price, of innocent people. And there’s a reason for such an answer: because to label something immoral when so many people seem to favour it is to label those people immoral too.

When you normalise the unthinkable, some people express their disgust but tell you they believe that everything goes in cycles. And you wonder if people also said that in 1930s Germany.

When you normalise the unthinkable, some people start to forget that our humanity towards others must always come first, wherever they may be from. Because if it doesn’t, honestly, we might as well all give up now.

To justify the previously unthinkable, we get the lies that provide the script for its disciples, followed by more of the unthinkable. And so the lie spreads that the UK government offers safe routes to asylum seekers; that we already take more than our share; that there is such a thing as a ‘European’ definition of asylum that is more lenient than others. Because of that lie, the grotesque idea takes hold that we must leave the European Convention on Human Rights, which our own forebears did so much to set up, so as to ensure tyranny could never again take hold in Europe.

More lies ensue, designed to dehumanise people: that those in small boats are all economic migrants; that they’re all young men, and therefore terrorists or rapists in waiting. Throw in a leadership contest and it escalates further. In the language of the ‘party of law and order’, there are no longer human rights lawyers; just ‘lefty’ ones, who thwart the will of the people, and whom our leaders merrily put at risk through their repeated dog-whistling. And besides, others – Australia, Israel – are doing similar things too, so it must be OK, mustn’t it? After all, the greater the numbers practising something, the more morally acceptable it gets – as history emphatically doesn’t teach us. By now we are in a world where objective truth no longer matters, and where the greatest lie of all is that any of this is remotely normal.

In this political landscape, cruelty and gloating, encouraged by a cruel, gloating, government, are worn by some as a badge of honour. If you object, it’s you who is being unreasonable. You don’t care about people in your own country. It’s you who is siding with the people smugglers. It’s you who wants these people to risk being drowned at sea, all for the sake of your highfalutin liberal values. It’s you who should be ashamed.

What can you do if you see all this and feel that constant, ever-present sense of dread? You are stuck between the rock of your own sanity and the hard place of acquiescence. You want to scream “Stop!” at the top of your voice. But if you do it all the time, people will start to look askance at you. You want to tell them it’s not you whose values have changed, it’s them. But that sounds a bit unhinged too. So you ease off a bit, suppress the anger, remind yourself that we all have to get on with our lives. And, because you’re right, and you do, the normalisation continues.

It’s hard to write about morality. You know that some will dismiss you as hopelessly idealistic, stuck in a world that no longer exists. And besides, what you call morality, some call sanctimony. You can sound grandiose, pompous even. And talking about morality is tricky, because it exposes you to that ultimate weapon of political discourse – the charge of hypocrisy,; a sin some would have you believe outweighs all others.

But where would we be without idealism? What will happen if we all keep quiet? Over the next few years, we will lose the last of that generation born long enough ago to remember living through the Second World War, to remember learning about the horrors of the Holocaust, to remember Hiroshima, to remember the post-war idealism that led to the creation of so many imperfect but vital global institutions which aimed to make the world a better place.

That generation’s departure will leave a void that scares me. We will no longer have them to remind us. But rather than accept with resignation that our old ideals are outdated, surely it’s those very lessons learned and ideas formed with the horrors of war and genocide fresh in the mind that we need to nurture, to hold close, to fight for. Isn’t it?

Because history teaches us that, when you normalise the unthinkable, anything is possible.

Unthinkable: a poem

The unthinkable is thought.

The thought becomes a possibility.

The possibility becomes reality.

The witnesses gloat, shrug or despair;

But what is done is done

And from that new foundation

More terrible things will be thought,

Made possible,

And done.

Thus we creep closer to #fascism

Anthea Simmons