Is the Rwanda policy a vote winner? One High Street has its say

As the government unveils a new treaty to deliver its Rwanda plan, we sought the views of people along one High Street about the controversial policy to deter migrants from crossing the channel.

“If you look on there,” says Vince Ayris, lifting down a large artillery shell casing engraved with 400 names, “you can see the name of every British soldier killed in Afghanistan.”

Over the din of the shoe repair and key cutting machines, the 61-year-old recounts how he delicately etched one of these shiny casings for each of the bereaved families who saw their military relative come home in a coffin.

“I met the Queen for doing this,” he says, proudly polishing the one he keeps on display in his shop. “She shook my hand”.

Royal Wootton Bassett and the former RAF Lyneham, where hundreds of fallen servicemen and woman were repatriated, are just a few miles from Havelock Street, in Swindon, where Vince has had a shop for 40 years.

His support for his country, expressed via the monarchy and military, feeds into Vince’s backing for the UK government’s continued effort to send migrants to Rwanda where their asylum claims would be processed.

Earlier this year, the UK’s Supreme Court ruled the plan was unlawful. The UK says a new treaty, signed with the Rwandan government on Tuesday, deals with judges’ concerns. And while that hasn’t been tested in court yet, the government clearly thinks the policy is a vote winner.

Swindon on a cold, crisp morning certainly feels a long way from Rwanda, but the town is traditionally a good barometer of public opinion. Swindon usually votes the way the UK votes – Labour up to 2010, Conservative since. Support for leaving the European Union in the Swindon South constituency was 51.7%. Nationally it was 51.9%.

It’s a growing town too; the population rose by 11.6% between 2011 and 2021. A bigger proportion of people here now come from abroad – 23% of Swindon residents say they were born outside England. Ten years earlier, it was 16%.

“I think it’s come to the point where we have to sort this out,” says Vince, a former parish councillor and Conservative supporter.

“You can’t keep talking about something without acting on it. You have to go one way or the other and we’ve gone too far with it to go back. It would show a weakness now to go back.

“Rwanda’s not a bad place, we’re not sending them to a prison, they’re being looked after. It’s not a bad thing, it’s just distant.”

The Conservatives need to cling on to places like Swindon for any hope of holding power in the next election. The signs aren’t good – Labour took control of the borough council in May after 23 years in opposition.

Vince is the sort of shopkeeper who knows his customers well – everything from their shoe size and the name of their kids to their political leanings, shared over the counter while he cuts a key or engraves a trophy.

“People trust me”, he says, “that’s important, it’s rare.”

Vince cuts a spare key for a lady who’s just resigned, disgruntled, from nursing at the local hospital. She bemoans the state of Swindon and its High Street. M&S closed at the end of October.

She says she’s concerned about immigration, but she doesn’t blame that for the pressure on the NHS: “That’s not immigration. That’s governments not managing budgets.”

Waiting times at Swindon’s Great Western Hospital show how the NHS is struggling. At A&E in October, 71.5% of patients were seen within four hours, slightly better than the average across England. But look back 10 years and they were close to the national target of 90%.

Treatment referral across the NHS hospital trust tells an even more difficult story of patients waiting. In September, 52.4% were being treated within 18 weeks. That’s below the national average and way off the 92% target – a target the NHS in Swindon was meeting 10 years ago.

‘Who’s paying for all that?’

Vince’s customer, who didn’t want to be named, disagrees with him on Rwanda.

“How much does that cost?” she asks.

“That’s our government saying to taxpayers ,’you’re going to end up paying for all that.’ But they don’t give us the choice, they don’t ask us. That’s not right.”

Vince loves the debate, but he’s unmoved: “We’ve been putting them up in expensive hotels, all paid for. We’ve got to work out a way to process people.

“I don’t find the Rwanda plan offensive. They’ve come here illegally, they’re being treated fairly, and now we’re saying we’ve got nowhere to put you but while we’re dealing with you, Rwanda is the place to be.”

Some of Swindon’s hotels are currently housing asylum seekers. It tends to be older, cheaper hotels that get block-booked. There are about 50,000 in temporary accommodation across the country – the Home Office has pledged to reduce a national bill running at millions of pounds a day.

One hotel worker tells me many of the staff have been laid off because, he says, the cleaning and catering arrangements are less intensive.

He also says the deals, done through a company contracted by the Home Office, include the cost of refurbishing the hotel before it reopens to the general public.

He’s angered by the sense of companies profiting from the taxpayer, and the plight of traumatised asylum seekers.

Vince leads me out onto Havelock Street, where he is surrounded by a range of businesses from hugely diverse backgrounds – a Chinese supermarket, a Kurdish barber, a Portuguese café and a Brazilian jiu-jitsu club.

Caitlin Snider

Caitlin Snider: “It makes us cruel and unkind.”

Swindon’s growth has always been driven by people on the move – originally around the railways, then the Honda car manufacturing plant, which opened in 1985.

The locomotive works is now a museum and Honda left a derelict site in 2021, but people are still drawn here by cheaper housing within reach of London.

Cathal and Midge McCormack moved here 25 years ago. He’s originally from Ireland.

“They’re clueless, utterly clueless,” he says when I ask about government’s immigration policy.

“They don’t seem to have a plan, all they do is go around shouting ‘stop the boats’. They’ve paid Rwanda £140m so far for nothing.”

Cathal says the town needs immigrants.

“You walk around Swindon and despite all the closed shops there are loads of vacancy notices – we need people. It’s crazy, absolutely crazy,” he says.

Unemployment in Swindon is low – 3.2%. But it doesn’t take long to find suspicion on Havelock Street, even fear of outsiders and open racism.

A woman who was born in the UK but describes her origin as Irish Traveller/Norwegian complains that her doctor’s surgery is busy with immigrants.

‘Closed borders’

“Why is it like this? Why do we have to put up with it? I can’t get a doctor’s appointment, I’m an English citizen. Why do I have to have an Indian doctor? I should be able to choose to have a female, white doctor.”

She says she isn’t racist but makes some unfounded claims about immigrants being responsible for a disproportionate level of crime and says she’s worried about her daughter being “pestered” by foreign men. She interrupts herself as a woman passes wearing a headscarf and veil.

“That lady over there, that should not be allowed, absolutely not. She’s only showing her eyes. I can’t wear a balaclava around town so why can she wear that? There’s no difference is there?” When I suggest she is from an immigrant background she turns on me, tells me angrily to step away, and threatens to assault me.

At Havelock Street’s mobile phone shop, Lezgin Guzel is clear about his opinion.

“I don’t think it’s right. The court said no, how can you go against the court if you’re thinking about human rights? It’s wrong, completely wrong. How are we going to believe in the justice system, how are we going to believe in our country if we go against justice?”

Lezgin is an immigrant from Turkey who moved here after getting married. It’s not just the UK where he sees hostility.

“The racism in Turkey and the way they look at foreigners is worse than here, and in Turkey the majority of people are Muslim and there’s Muslim people coming to Turkey and they still complain, so this problem is not about saying the British people are racist or selfish.”

“It makes us cruel and unkind,” says Caitlin Snider, waiting for her boyfriend at the Kurdish barbers.

“The fact they’ve made the dangerous journey all the way here says something to me, that they’re willing to risk everything to give their children a better life.

“It’s not helping anybody by sending them back, it’s costing a lot of money to do so – it’s not helping them, it’s not helping us here”.

Caitlin, a 25-year-old coffee shop worker sums up the conflicted views immigration provokes: “My family are all navy, RAF, military, they feel more strongly than I do and I’m kind of the black sheep – they want closed borders, focus on our own.”

Lezgin Guzel

Lezgin Guzel: “I don’t think it’s right”

So many others refuse to talk about immigration – they fear the possible reaction if they share their view. Time and again I heard “not on camera” and “I can’t talk about that”.

A local driving instructor who offers lessons in different languages refuses to speak, saying “my tyres would be let down”.

Immigration is contentious and, to many in Swindon, the Rwanda plan is controversial. Many local businesses and organisations here were also reluctant to engage. Some people haven’t even heard of the plan, let alone formed strong opinions on it.

Vince is one who is happy to talk though.

He points at the bunting he strung across the street for the King’s Coronation. He’s glad he didn’t take it down because he says the council won’t put up any Christmas lights this year. He recalls an immigrant who once came in to request he remove the union flags hanging outside the shop.

“He said he found my flags offensive, but I said ‘sorry, you’ll have to get used to it’.”

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