JUST after Christmas, Nigel Farage poked another needle into the hide of the Conservative Party.
Refugees from utter horror? "There is a responsibility on all of us in the free West," said the man whose party doesn't care much for migrants, "to try and help some of those people fleeing Syria, literally in fear of their lives."
Ukip's leader retraced his steps soon enough, of course. He had failed to put a number to human desperation. Then, conscious of the xenophobes who keep him in business, he clarified his position a little. Hours before the new year began, Farage said Britain should offer a refuge, but it should be a refuge offered first and foremost to the suffering Christians of Syria.
Loading article content
You could make that argument. You could pick and choose from 9.3 million people in need, according to the United Nations, of "urgent aid" and rescue. You would have to be a Farage, however, to refine your choices in a manner that would prefer a Christian child or a Christian rape victim above all others just to satisfy a bunch of easily indignant voters in the Home Counties.
Farage got his moment before the cameras for a simple reason. A politician who has made his career from the claim that people need to be kept out of these islands had seemed more generous, more improbably human, than Her Majesty's Government. In answer to the shrieking need of more than nine million people, David Cameron's administration had said only that "up to" 500 souls would be acceptable.
The Coalition Government has done a little better since then. By the latest count offered, 1000 have been allowed within the gates of our little fortress. Meanwhile, those who speak on Cameron's behalf have said that it is better to match public donations pound for pound - a total figure of £504 million was given on January 15 - than to allow the Syrian crisis to overflow too many borders.
Better to have them there, in short, than to allow too many claims muddling up the claimant figures here. Better to bottle and bury the horrors elsewhere than force people to understand why contempt for foreigners has moral consequences in their daily existence. Better to sit snug in your safe European home. Turn up your TV, you'll barely hear the screaming.
You could do a bit of bombing, of course. Since Blair is not yet in custody, that tactic remains in fashion. Those who make their money from munitions will almost guarantee not to kill the wrong sort of children. Those who pad around the international diplomacy circuit will, meanwhile, promise to talk, sincerely, for long years to come, about the Assad regime's 11,000 emaciated torture victims, and why this requires "action", explosive or judicial, when it suits other regimes.
That's not quite the point. My wife's sister is a nurse with Save the Children. Right now she is somewhere - we don't know exactly where - on the Turkey-Syria border. She has vast experience in the worst hellholes the species can devise. It's her job, what she does, from Haiti to Lebanon to Uganda. I don't for an instant understand the ability to do that sort of work, but I'm very glad she does it. We wonder, though, if even she is ready for this one.
David Cameron's government would rather solve Syria's problems with money while unrepresentative Syrian factions squabble in Swiss resort hotels. That makes a kind of sense. Money - the kind that isn't supposed to solve problems at home - can make all the difference in a war zone. Dictators like Bashar al-Assad are delighted if the detritus of their failures becomes a problem for their critics. The West, therefore, strives to solve the problem with cash.
It is another version of a human shield. How many million people can be dumped into our care while we dither over compassion and action? Assad knows these things. He knows the West won't take up arms again, and he knows that the politicians of the West have built careers out of racism towards those with brown skins. So he channels a wave of need in our direction. Then comes the charity money. It keeps many a conscience clean.
Cameron isn't bright. Painted into a tiny corner by his own rhetoric, the best he can say is that he is "open-minded" towards the idea of more Syrian refugees coming to the UK. His Liberal Democrat deputy, Nick Clegg, presents himself as the conscience of a government that otherwise harasses asylum-seekers
at every turn, on each and every day. These are not honest men.
Those who stand on the borders do jobs that I do not properly understand. I grasp the concept of triage. I have a fair understanding of non-governmental organisation politics. I know that £500m of British money is put to political ends just to keep a prime minister away from the moral responsibilities he wants to avoid when Ukip snaps at his heels. But that's not the job at hand.
The British Government has been forced to a House of Commons vote by Labour just to assert the fact that we might have some - some - responsibility for victims. This is the United Kingdom that once took pride in being a refuge for the dissentient poor of Europe. We took every victim, even a character named Karl Marx, and gave them our iron-clad protection. Now Dave competes with Nigel to prove that Britain cares a bit, but not too much. After all, the Daily Mail might object.
Those who give succour stand on cold hillsides and watch them come. They do not judge a child's right to be terrified, or explain British policy to those maimed by torture. They take responsibility for millions, even when there is no chance of coping, even while the government of one bastion of democracy keeps "an open mind" over a few lucky hundreds.
No, of course we can't take them all. We can't take nine million, or the most desperate six million, or even our geographically-weighted European Union-apportioned share of whatever number is counted deserving. But we can at least get to the point of grasping that our money is a currency less potent than our deeds, that spending £500m just to keep terrified children elsewhere is nothing to be proud of. It has become a shameful thing.
Should you need to take stock of the UK and its governments, watch the parties quibble as Cameron is forced to a vote over the concept of "moral responsibility". The United Kingdom diminishes itself each time it panders to racists, little islanders and stupidity. The world won't go away. It presses in on them. It tells a story.
My wife's sister and her colleagues stand on the hillsides and in the fields in border lands and watch them come. Then, as best they can, they do what needs to be done. That's their only rule. You do what has to be done. Why would the sense of that reality escape anyone with a government at his back and history on his heels?
Nothing very complicated. If Cameron fails in his duty, human beings die.