If you are basking in the sun on the beach, sheltering from the rain by the seaside or strolling along by the side of a great river you can be confident of one thing, if you find yourself in difficulty the RNLI – Royal National Lifeboat Institution – will come and help. Whoever you are, wherever you are, if you are in trouble near, on or in the water, the RNLI will help without question or quibble. This is dangerous as well as important work. It is founded on the principle that every life is precious and worth saving. It is practical work too because it means every one of us has a guardian angel looking out for us anytime we go to the beach.

I must say from the start that I am a member of the RNLI. A membership that pre-dates the current bruhaha and it is important to confess from the start I am not a neutral observer. In recent days, this charity, crewed mainly by volunteers and supported mostly by donations and which has been saving lives around our coastline for nearly two hundred years, has found itself under attack for doing just this. If this attack on its work was not extraordinary enough, the RNLI suddenly, and predictably, finds itself on the wrong end of a tsunami of social media abuse and on at least one occasion a volunteer has been abused as they reported for duty.

The central issue is the number of people crossing the English Channel illegally in small and unsuitable boats who then find themselves in difficulty in the middle of the busiest shipping lane in the world. Those who successfully make the crossing are putting increasing pressure on hard-pressed local services in Kent. Numbers of those who are willing to risk making the crossing have been increasing for a long time but it’s only relatively recently that it’s caught the attention of the national media. Kent is a county used to being in the front-line in dealings with France but patience with an issue, where fiery political rhetoric has too often run far ahead of effective resolution, has helped cause local patience to begin to fray, with the inevitable political impact that follows. There are only so many people a government can put up in B&Bs, capture, deport and lock-up. What is needed is a fresh political and diplomatic agreement with France, which presently seems mysteriously elusive.

In the meantime, into this difficult and sensitive situation steps Nigel Farage. Always in need of a microphone to gabble into, ever in search of a headline, and a past master at winding up discontent, Farage has lighted on the illegal crossings as the next issue to take up. Having learned throughout his career that most institutions are too scared of what is thought to be popular opinion he took aim at the RNLI accusing them of, in effect, running a taxi service for the migrants and helping them to arrive on our shores in even greater numbers than they might otherwise do. He certainly made the headlines. 

Farage is more used to attacking political institutions with, it has to be said, some success but the RNLI doesn’t have key marginal seats to defend. Its business is not that of winning a majority in the House of Commons. Its sole business is to save lives and this is where Farage has miscalculated. For once, instead of bringing out the worst in us, he has managed to bring out the very best. He thought he could make an easy attack on the RNLI and win cheap support. Instead the institution mounted a robust defence, won swift and broad public support, and is now recording record levels of donations. There is a lesson here for those institutions and politicians who want to heed it.

You can find out more about the RNLI here.