I meet Alf Dubs the day after his 91st birthday. It seems to be a requirement for people interviewing him to say he seems much younger than his years; but there really is no getting around it. The effect is only amplified by the presence of a student on work experience – at one point, when I call the House of Lords ‘reactionary’, they share a glance like two schoolchildren at the back of a classroom.
Dubs is exceptionally nice – when I say I’ve never seen the House of Lords chamber, he insists that I visit at his invitation, and when I leave, he tells me to drop by soon: “you know where I am now!” and, in a rather fatherly way, makes sure I safely navigate the strange airlock-style compartments that shunt you back out onto Millbank. What he is not is polite – or perhaps just not obsequious in the way that politicians can be. It was apparent from his expression when he thought I was asking a silly question long before I finished it.
The story of Dubs’ life is well-trodden, but worth recounting. Born in Prague six years before Nazi Germany annexed the Sudetenland, the first step in its eventual occupation of the entirety of Czechoslovakia, he was one of 669 children saved by Nicholas Winton, a British stockbroker. As depicted in the new film One Life, which stars Anthony Hopkins, Winton helped these children – almost all, like Dubs, having Jewish heritage – escape to Britain via the Netherlands as part of the wider Kindertransport rescue effort.
Dubs is exceptionally nice – when I say I’ve never seen the House of Lords chamber, he insists that I visit at his invitation, and when I leave, he tells me to drop by soon: “you know where I am now!”
Living in a flat in Belsize Park with his father, who escaped the day the Germans invaded Prague, Alf did not see his mother for two months. Most of the Kindertransport children, of course, never saw their parents again.
The British government had originally intended the Kindertransport scheme to be a very temporary arrangement – much of Winton’s work involved securing the requisite £50 per child to fund their eventual return, which the British government insisted on. Yet, like many Jewish refugees, Alf stayed in Britain. Was there any question of returning to Czechoslovakia?
“Well, almost everybody we knew had either fled the country or ended up in the camps. At that point my mother already had a job here. We had nowhere to live [in Prague] – our flat had gone. The communists were about to take over the country.
“And, you know, most people didn’t go back, once the communists took over.”
He and his mother had very different experiences of life in Britain.
“My mum had quite a difficult time. She had a job – she was number two [at] the council. Her boss left and she acted up for six months, they advertised the job, she applied; they turned her down, appointed nobody, and she acted up for another six months, again applied. They again turned her down and didn’t appoint anybody.
“[And] she heard one of the interview panel say: ‘You’re not giving a job to that bloody foreigner’. I was not quite old enough to be supportive. You know, she was absolutely distraught.
“There wasn’t nearly as much antipathy that I was aware of; they thought I was odd, rather than someone to be hostile to.”
Dubs went on to a long career in politics: MP for Battersea from 1979 to 1987 and then in the House of Lords for 30 years, with a stint as Fabian Society chair too (he is now vice-president of the society). I ask him whether the hostile attitudes his mother experienced undermine the tendency of people in Britain to look back on the Kindertransport as a time when the UK stepped up to the plate. He doesn’t seem to think so; or at least, he thinks that such a programme would be hard to imagine today.
“If you read the Hansard [the record of parliamentary debates], there was opposition in 1938. But on the whole, [the UK] took 10,000 unaccompanied children in less than a year.”
Importantly, he says, “there weren’t government ministers attacking people who arrived here.” And he argues that this trend continued until very recently.
“After the Hungarian revolution in ’56, there was quite a welcome for [Hungarian refugees]. And then we had the East African Asians, and then we had Vietnamese ‘boat people’, and then we had Bosnians. So there wasn’t that hostility. There was no leading government minister who said: ‘These people should be kept out.’ I think it got bad in the years after Brexit.”
Given that anti-immigration campaigners tend to present themselves as the envoys of a ‘silent majority’ of Britons, this is in interesting point: is public opinion, at least in part, downstream from politicians?
“I think that’s right. I think when you get senior ministers expressing hostility, then that does have an effect on the willingness of local communities. And I would argue that at the moment, we’re in a battle for public opinion.
“When I moved my amendment in 2016 [the so-called Dubs Amendment, which called for unaccompanied child refugees in Europe to be able to join relatives in the UK], I think what tipped the balance was that public opinion woke up… stimulated by the pictures on television of a little Syrian boy called Alan Kurdi who drowned on a Mediterranean beach.”
“When the cameras are there, and people are told what’s going on, people tend to become more supportive, against those government ministers arguing the other way. So it’s a battle for public opinion.”
Of course, the UK is not the only country in the western world to have experienced a palpable shift in government rhetoric about immigrants in general, and asylum seekers in particular.
“I’m afraid we’re seeing all over continental Europe the extreme right-wing parties doing very well. Poland is an exception; they’ve gone the other way.
“It’s in Slovakia. Hungary was always like that. It’s in Austria, Italy, and France.
“What we’re seeing is this happening in many European countries: there is an extreme right wing, antiimmigrant, anti-asylum movement. And in a way, Suella Braverman may be a part of that.”
I point out that, in light of all this, Labour’s response might be thought to be a little muted, focusing on the practical problems with Tory policy rather than making a positive case for immigration and the right to asylum. Should they be doing more?
“I think it wouldn’t be very healthy for politics or for human rights if the next election [was] a shabby sort of squabble about the rights of asylum seekers or even about immigration. It would be very divisive, so I hope it won’t happen – but I think the Tories are pushing towards wanting that to happen.
“From our point of view, having a Labour government would be a lot better than the present one – probably not good enough for some of us, but a lot better. I think Yvette Cooper would do a good job.”
“What we’re seeing is this happening in many European countries: there is an extreme right wing, anti-immigrant, anti-asylum movement. And in a way, Suella Braverman may be a part of that.”
Now I embark on the first of the aforementioned silly questions. The risk, I say, is that you might end up like the last Labour government, to which many people trace back the negative attention given to asylum seekers specifically. David Blunkett, for example, coordinated the timing of asylum policy announcements with the Sun, which was running an anti-refugee campaign.
“It’s a long time ago. It’s 13 years ago since there was a Labour government, and what you’re talking about is [even longer] ago.
“It’s a long time ago and things have changed quite a bit since then. You can’t have 13 years of Tory government and then start harking back to things that [New] Labour did.”
I suspect he won’t be quite so conciliatory should Labour get into government, however. He’s prepared to talk about Britain’s responsibilities to refugees in a way that no frontbencher could ever get away with.
“We’re 17th out of 18 in relation to size in taking asylum seekers, so we’re actually not doing terribly well.”
“We can decide who we want in terms of our job market, but to asylum seekers, we really do have an obligation. And the government is trying to renege on that obligation.”
This touches on a broader point: Dubs is adamant that the right to asylum must be maintained as clearly distinct from migration in general.
“If people don’t have a right under the Geneva convention, then unless they qualify in another way, I think they have to go. You can’t protect the rights of the victims of persecution, war and torture unless you don’t allow to stay people who are not victims. It’s uncomfortable, but I think it’s the only way.”
Dubs’ willingness to talk about Britain’s failure to pull its weight highlights a counterintuitive feature of life under a Tory government: it’s often opposition politicians in the Lords, rather than the Commons, who have the most freedom to criticise the Conservatives’ slide into rightwing populism. This seems, on the face of it, at odds with the anachronistic veneer of the ermine-clad upper house.
“First of all, there is pomp in the Lords, but on a day-to-day basis it’s as much of a working place as the Commons,” Dubs says.
“I think it’s partly that the procedures and structures of the Lords lend themselves more to opposition to government legislation. There’s far more scope in the Lords procedure for even individual backbenchers to move amendments and generally get stuck in on an issue.
“So I think it’s partly that, and partly that the government doesn’t have a majority. If it keeps putting in more people it will soon have one, but…if we, and the Lib Dems, and some of the crossbenchers vote together, you can normally win the day.
“It’s very difficult. I mean it’s handy at the moment, that we can defeat the government, and we can challenge them much more than the Commons is able to challenge them. But I just think it’s very difficult in a democracy to justify an appointed [house] with no accountability.”
“When there was a byelection some years ago I spent the day tramping round South London and I was getting an earful about jobs, schools, housing, the health service, planning – you name it.
“And I came back, no one else had been down at this byelection, and they were all sheltered from it. I don’t think that slides. I think when people make decisions about other people’s lives, they have to justify themselves and be accountable.”
Is he disappointed, then, that Keir Starmer has rowed back on the policy of scrapping the House of Lords? This is, judging by his reaction, a second silly question.
“No, he hasn’t rowed back on it. I think he’s said it’s not a first-term issue. You can’t have it as a first-term issue because I don’t think voters would say after all the awfulness – the cost of living, inflation, all the things we’re going through – [you should now] spend the best part of two or three years [on] constitutional reform.”
The newest member of the House of Lords, of course, is one David Cameron, who seems to evoke just a glimmer of nostalgia in Dubs for a better class of Tory.
“If I was in the Commons I’d be very angry. Having said that, that sort of performance at questions [the day before] was so much better – he showed up the other ministers. I don’t agree with him, but he did pretty well.
“I think it’s time we had someone on the international stage who behaves like a grown-up politician.”
This sets Cameron in stark contrast, in Dubs’ eyes, with the current PM, who, the preceding weekend, had cancelled a meeting with the Greek prime minister, Kyriakos Mitsotakis, over the latter’s renewed calls for the repatriation of the Parthenon marbles.
“Our prime minister behaved like a spoilt child – I mean, what a thing, to refuse to meet the Greek prime minister, how insulting.
“It really demeaned this country.
“I do think we should consider giving them back to Greece…It matters so much to [them]. It’s part of their national soul.”
Throughout our interview, I get the sense that Dubs can’t or won’t drop the doctrine of collective responsibility that he would have had to live by when he was a junior minister – especially given that his role was in the Northern Ireland Office during the later stages of the Good Friday agreement negotiations. Even where he clearly disagrees with the leadership, he’s reluctant to bring those differences out into the open or contradict party policy. As we’re winding down, however, he asks: “do you want me to be outrageous?”
“I think health and social care is a such a crucial issue, and I’m not sure we can ever deal with it… until we find a way to put more money in.
“There’s an ageing population, and a growing population. And this is not Labour party policy, but I think that if we had an increase in income tax hypothecated for health and social care, and you said to people that every extra penny will go straight into health and care…most [people] might well accept that.”
It’s refreshing to hear a Labour grandee be so candid on the topic. For all the party talks about being upfront with the British public about the need to take difficult decisions, they’re very reluctant to admit that more money might be needed for public services. And Dubs is right; with an ageing population, and medical technology improving all the time – which is great news for patients, but is accompanied by an increase in costs rather than a reduction – it’s difficult to see any way around spending more money.
On our way out, Dubs tells me he reckons he can make it to the Lords chamber in four or five minutes, which is sounds to me like remarkably good going. And then, suddenly, I’m back out in the cold; looking at my watch, I’m surprised to see that what felt like 20 minutes has in fact been over an hour. I’m exhausted; Alf Dubs, I suspect, isn’t.
Image credit (main): Houses of the Oireachtas, CC BY 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons
Image credit (pinned News & Insight): Steve Eason via Flickr