Opinion

The curious tale of how RNLI lifeboat crews became a target for right-wing hate

When right-wingers attack a bunch of volunteers for being heroes, you know there's something deeply wrong with the discourse

RNLI boat at Teignmouth. Image: Ray Harrington on Unsplash

The first six weeks of the Suevic’s voyage from Australia to Liverpool were uneventful – but on 17 March 1907, the ship sailed into a fog and ran aground on a reef off the Cornish coast. For 16 stormy hours, 60 crew members from the Royal National Lifeboat Institution (RNLI) battled to bring all 456 of the people on board safely back to land. Every one of the rescuers was a volunteer. Not a single life was lost. 

The Suevic rescue was unusual in its scale – no other single RNLI operation has saved so many lives – but not its type. In its two hundred year history, the charity’s lifeboats and lifeguards have saved over 144,000 people. Its crews rescued sailors whose ships were torpedoed in the First World War; they crossed the Channel to help evacuate Dunkirk during the second. By 2021, the RNLI was on average saving more than one person a day. Its volunteers are, by any objective standard, heroes.

All of which raises the question of how large chunks of the British right came to decide they’re the baddies.

Nigel Farage’s description of the RNLI as a “migrant taxi service”, really just meant it stops vulnerable people drowning in the Channel. The Mail on Sunday raged against its operations outside British waters, under the headline “RNLI buys burkinis for Africans as it axes 100 UK jobs”. In response, the charity was attacked by Tory MPs Nigel Evans, Andrew Bridgen and Lee Anderson, only one of whom has not since been thrown out of the party.

When the Tories came to office in 2010, David Cameron promised the “little platoons” of the “Big Society” would remake the state. Today, his successors attack volunteers who not only put themselves in harm’s way to save lives, but do so under a royal charter. It’s all very odd.

The RNLI is not the only faintly conservative charity the right has turned against, of course. The National Trust, too, has faced attacks from Tory MPs for its willingness to admit that bits of British history were not entirely brilliant, even though it’s a heritage charity associated with stately homes and suits or armour whose core market consists of retired people who like a nice cream tea.

Both charities remain insanely popular. YouGov polling puts the NT’s popularity at +70%; the RNLI’s at +67%. A Tory politician would be delighted just to make it into positive numbers. 

All this is an example of what is sometimes termed “vice-signalling”. It’s no longer enough for the right to accuse the left of “virtue-signalling”, only pretending to care about injustice for social cachet: they have to ostentatiously show that they’re on the other side.

That, though, just raises the question of how vice-signalling became such a popular political strategy. And the explanation for that, I fear, is the same as that for so many other things which have gone wrong these last few years: it’s all the fault of the internet. 

Politicians, like the journalists who write about them, spend too much time online, where there’s a cachet to be had by aggressively going after the other side. Most Tories no doubt have questions about the NT’s approach to British history, or the share of the RNLI budget spent abroad; but nonetheless they would probably say they are broadly decent organisations doing important things.

These, though, are not the opinions likely to get you shares or retweets, support in The Telegraph, or denounced in The Guardian. An MP with an eye on promotion or a slot on GB News has an incentive to go to extremes.

The dynamic that gives us attacks on charities is the same one that gave us Donald Trump. In the age of social media, when every newspaper is scrambling for traffic, the politicians who most quickly rise to prominence will be those who take the angriest, most batshit line. But Twitter, as is often said, is not the real world, and noisily having terrible views is not enough to make you Donald Trump, as the rest of the US Republican Party could currently tell you.

At some point soon, the British right will face the public once again. They might just find the voters don’t think the lifeboat crews saving lives in the Channel are the bad guys, after all. 

A History of the World in 47 Borders by Jonn Elledge is out 25 April (Wildfire, £25) @JonnElledge.

You can buy it from The Big Issue shop on Bookshop.org, which helps to support The Big Issue and independent bookshops.

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