Britology Watch: Deconstructing \’British Values\’

26 November 2011

The meaning of the English riots and the meaninglessness of ‘England’

The riots that erupted in several English cities in August of this year seem to have become very much yesterday’s news, particularly as all eyes are now focused on the unfolding nightmare of the euro meltdown. Every now and then, the riots make it back on to the headlines as reports come out, such as when it was revealed a couple of weeks ago that shopkeepers who’d put in requests for the promised financial assistance from the state to make good the damage caused by looters had hardly received a penny – indicative of how the whole thing has slipped into oblivion.

If you do a Google search on ‘English riots’, you might be surprised how little variety and quantity of articles come up: quite a lot concentrated around the actual time of the riots, towards the beginning of August; but then, after that, you get little more than the occasional opinion article attempting to single out the ultimate cause or meaning of the riots – e.g. the pope linking them to ‘moral relativism’ in September; the Campaign for Social Justice deliberating in October on what ‘sparked off’ the riots; or the ‘Scottish violence reduction unit co-director’, no less, linking them to greed rather than anger in the pages of the Guardian this month.

You get a greater range of results if you search instead under ‘UK riots’ or ‘British riots’: more on the implications for policy, the courts and the law, the economy and business, and Britain’s international reputation and the Olympics. This in itself would tend to suggest that the political and media establishment is more concerned about the riots as a potential challenge to the effective management of the British state, to law and order, and to business as usual than as a symptom of serious problems within English society that the state has a duty to engage with. There is a disconnect between the terms of reference and spheres of activity of the UK state and those sections of English society that did erupt into violence in August. And perhaps one of the main reasons for that explosion was the existence of that disconnect in the first place.

This week, David Lammy, MP for Tottenham, where the riots started and were probably more violent than anywhere else, has been publicising his new book: ‘Out Of the Ashes: Britain After the Riots’. This seeks to analyse the causes of the riots and propose some policy changes that might help address them. As the name suggests, Mr Lammy shares the Labour Party’s reluctance to say the word ‘England’: substituting ‘Britain’ for England, even though the riots were restricted to England and so should properly be regarded as an English issue. I’ve just been listening to Mr Lammy on BBC Radio 4′s ‘This Week’ programme, and he again erroneously referred to the riots as having taken place in cities across ‘Britain’.

Mr Lammy also believes that there is a limit to what the state can do to directly address the sorts of social problem that manifested themselves in the rioting. The MP points to the ineffectiveness of the Blair governments’ obsession with trying to legislate social problems out of existence; and he points to how Gordon Brown’s response to the break-down of inner city communities was his Tax Credits scheme, which would have looked like irrelevant “madness” to many of his constituencies. Mr Lammy’s view is that the ‘root causes’ of the riots are greed and selfishness. These result from economic and social liberalism and individualism, the latter developing from the 1980s onwards, the former going back to the social and moral revolution of the 60s. One major issue, for Lammy, is fatherless families, with many young men from all ethnic backgrounds lacking the moral example and personal discipline that the presence of a caring and responsible father can provide. So Lammy proposes remedies such as personal mentors to try to give such rootless youngsters more direction and self-belief.

I in fact agree with much of what David Lammy says. But does it go far enough? Can radical change towards a greater policy focus on family, community values and personal responsibility really take effect without political will, and without a wholesale realignment of the British state’s engagement – or lack of it – in English social policy? The break-down in families, communities and morality in many parts of English society may not be something that the state is best equipped to deal with, but it is a matter for the nation: specifically, the English nation. The problem is that the British state is unwilling and unable to take up its responsibilities as a government for the English nation, and confines itself to ‘British’ policy areas for which it has a more genuine democratic remit: law and order, economics, social security and international affairs.

By contrast, the British state has become increasingly both uninterested and disinterested in – disengaged from – social policy areas where its responsibilities are limited to England: education, health care, social services, families and communities, housing, economic development, and even policing. However, these are precisely the areas where an integrated policy response – co-ordinated with UK-level policy areas such as employment and benefits – is required to address the problems that manifested themselves in the riots: the poor educational experiences and employment prospects of many of those involved; the social and personal break-down that Lammy is focused on; the absence of decent, affordable housing, resulting in sink estates where youngsters are exposed to drug abuse, gangs and petty crime; and policing being often more about victimising and containing certain social groups rather than working as part of an integrated approach to taking youngsters away from crime and back into sustainable education, employment and communities.

Instead of regarding and responding to the riots as a national [English] phenomenon that requires a concerted and co-ordinated national policy response, the British state is in fact intent on transferring all of these policy areas and the social problems that pertain to them to the private realm: increasingly privatised, individualised, personalised and localised management, focus and provision of education, health care, social and community services, housing and policing; no national-level co-ordination around minimum-acceptable standards for shared, national public services and amenities based around a vision for what kind of country we want [England] to be. The attempt to isolate the locus and causes of the English riots, and of their possible solution, down to the individual and community level is another symptom of this inability and unwillingness to embrace a broader, national vision: it’s left to individuals in isolation and ‘society’ in the abstract to heal themselves of the ills of selfish individualism and materialistic greed, rather than the nation as a whole trying to work together to create a better society where young people have something to offer and a stake in a future.

So the English riots arose in large measure from a vacuum: the absence of a nation – England – which English youngsters believe will offer them a future, an identity and a purpose in life. And any attempt to pinpoint the causes of the riot will itself be vacuous if they do not acknowledge, and thereby perpetuate, this absence of a meaningful England. Instead, all such prescriptions will embody the same vacuity of policy vision, understanding and discourse whereby the state transfers English social problems to a private realm beyond its direct sphere of action.

Sure, the riots reveal deep social, psychological, moral and indeed spiritual disorder and chaos within English society. They show that, for many English people – most of them young – life has little meaning, beauty or value. But we won’t get close to understanding the meaning of that meaninglessness until we retrieve its specifically English character from the meaninglessness and intractability to which we have confined it by expelling ‘England’ from the realm of British politics, discourse and collective responsibility.

Many of our English youngsters experience their lives as meaningless. Giving them faith in their own country – England – is a critical part of the meaning we must help them find.

English parliament

26 February 2008

Who does this country belong to, anyway?

Whatever the whys and wherefores of the Michael Martin expenses row (the Speaker of the House of Commons, who has been accused of abusing the code of conduct on MPs’ expenses at the same time as he is leading an enquiry into expenses abuses), I thought the vociferous “hear, hear” of support he obtained from MPs as he cried “Order, order” at the start of yesterday’s proceedings – coupled with one MP saying they weren’t going allow journalists to dictate Commons appointments – smacked of arrogance. What were they actually defending, at the end of the day: their own privileges, including a cushy expenses regime that would never be tolerated in business; or the interests of democracy – parliament and its elected members as representing the will of the people, not to be overridden by a bunch of reckless, cynical journalists? It came across strongly as the former.

The trouble is that MPs do appear to think that parliament’s debates, decisions and procedures represent a forum through which the nation as such is authentically represented and its will is expressed: that parliament’s view of the legitimacy and moral authority of its proceedings still carries the assent and the trust of the people. Clearly, parliamentarians – like many others – are well aware that there is a serious problem of mistrust towards politicians and disengagement from the political process. But they seem to want to pass a lot of the blame for this onto others, such as the media, rather than re-examining the process itself and putting their own house in order.

We like to think we have the world’s greatest parliamentary democracy; but the truth of the matter is that our government isn’t very democratic, in the sense of representing people power. Parliament generally seems more like a rubber stamp setting a seal of approval on policies and laws driven by the executive, for which often little understanding or assent on the part of the public either exists or is sought. In this way, the scrutiny of parliament is a poor substitute for genuine public consultation, in the sense of a concerted effort to inform people of the details of proposed legislation and to win their support. There is no need for the executive to do this when it can simply rely on the Commons majority of a compliant government party commanding an ever smaller minority of the popular vote.

Not only does the government not need to strive to achieve popular assent for its decisions, it is also not answerable to anything such as a nation. It is no wonder that the people are disengaging from Westminster politics when they no longer identify with, and as, the nation the Westminster parliament supposedly represents. Not only are the people – reasserting their various identities as English, Scottish, Welsh and Irish – different from the one that parliament sees itself as representing (the British people); but also parliament no longer represents the people of Britain in a uniform, unitary way. Scottish, Welsh and Northern Irish MPs defend the interests of their constituents and nations insofar as these are affected by the Union government; and they also vote on English matters in certain policy areas where they cannot influence policy for their own constituencies and countries (because these have been devolved to separate national bodies). By contrast, all the parliamentary votes cast by English MPs do relate to their own constituencies; but no distinction in kind is made between what are truly England-only decisions and which matters relate to the UK as a whole, so as to legitimise the participation of non-English MPs in the same decisions.

In other words, although the responsibilities of all MPs are the same (Union-wide and England-specific policy and laws), the non-English MPs are not accountable to any electorate on the England-only matters. Instead, they are elected by non-English people who select them on the basis of the parties’ policies for the Union as a whole, i.e. on which set of policies will be better for them, their local areas and their countries. So legislation and policies for England are supported by MPs elected by non-English voters whose voting decisions are influenced by non-English priorities. Meanwhile, English voters have only one vote for both Union-wide matters and England-specific issues; in contrast to their Scottish, Welsh and Northern Irish counterparts, who can choose between two distinct parties and programmes for their own country and for the Union as a whole. This inequality and distortion of representative democracy is covered up by a pretence common to all the parties, whereby, in manifestoes, policy statements and parliamentary debate, everything is treated and referred to as a generic British matter, even if it is English only.

This means that England is governed by a British parliament that is not accountable to it: it includes Scots, Welsh and Northern Irish MPs not elected in England; and the English MPs are not elected on the basis of English manifestoes, as half the policies are UK-wide, and the half that are England-specific are not represented as such – not differentiated from the UK even though in reality they are.

So the Union does not exist any more – if the Union is defined as a unitary parliamentary democracy in which every person’s vote is equal and brings the same degree of representation, and in which parliament is accountable to all to the same extent. The will of the English people is not represented by this parliament – even less, that is, than is the will of the other more fairly represented nations of the UK. Instead, we have a growing divide between the will of the people and government power: British power is exercised over the people of England by parliament; rather than English power being exercised for and by the people of England through parliament. And parliament and the executive are indeed enamoured of this British power: the idea of being in charge of Britain as a major ‘world power’ – militarily, economically and culturally – boosted by the magnificence, traditions and privileges of Westminster and Whitehall that hark back to, and appear to prolong, the glories of Empire. Who can participate in such rituals and bask in such splendour, and not be carried along by the glamour of real power and the myths of British parliamentary democracy, especially as parliament is so unaccountable to the electorate and divorced from their real priorities?

In this way, MPs persuade themselves that the bills and policies they support express the will of the nation: swept along by the democratic process, they unwittingly or deliberately ignore the fact that that process is no longer in alignment with the people’s needs and choices. England is, in perhaps three senses, ‘over-ruled’ by Britain. Or another way of putting this is that the British parliament and state mis-represent England: represent England insufficiently democratically, and misrepresent England and the governance of England as if it were a unitary process of British governance for which they had a transparent mandate, which they do not. As I have described this elsewhere, this is an appropriation (a mis-appropriation) of England and English democracy to Britain: England should belong to the people of England; but instead, it’s been made the property and, as it were, the province of the British state – no longer a country in its own right and rights, but governed by a state and by representatives of other UK countries that are not answerable to it.

What are the ramifications beyond the Westminster village of this dispossession of England as a democratic nation? Are we English secure in the knowledge that our country is in the safe hands of leaders who care about England and its rights, and do not wish to exercise unrepresentative and disproportionate power over it? Well, no. Do we feel, more fundamentally, that the government and the political process belong to us – well, not exactly: we’ve become accustomed to putting up with a British government that very often looks after the interests of national and sectarian minorities (whether the working class, traditionally, under Old Labour, middle-class England under the Tories, and Wales and Scotland under New Labour) rather than seeking the backing of a clear majority of the English population for policies relating to England.

More pervasively, do we feel the nation and even the local areas we live in really belong to us; that we actually live in England rather than in some parallel universe of Britain where major decisions are taken by central, and also local, government that we haven’t elected, and all the signs and symbols of the state are those of one that is not fully ours? Do the streets belong to us; do communities, media, official / PC language, social administration and the public sector – indeed, all public facets of our lives? Are they English?

Is the much-famed obsession of the English with privacy and domesticity in one respect a reflection that we do not feel that the public domain belongs to us; that our country doesn’t belong to us? How much of the alienation of many young people can be traced to their not feeling that their education, upbringing and experiences have given them a sense of belonging where they live or that they have a stake in society? And how much of this is to do with that society being shaped by the British values of personal aspiration and success, rather than cherishing individuals as they are: often flawed and damaged but capable of re-building community and healing the hurts caused by the relentless pursuit of competitiveness and economic growth? And how much is the lack of pride and care we so often show towards our surroundings and neighbours to do with no sense of mutual belonging and dependency?

Such things cannot be restored by a British government alienated from, and unaccountable to, England; that does not even call it by its name. But England can recover its pride – if first it empowers its people.

30 January 2008

Campaign for Plain England (No. 3): Stop and Search, and Social Care

Just a couple of quickies from the media over the past few days. First, the ‘stop and search’ row that broke out at PMQs this morning. Haven’t followed the coverage as systematically as usual, but I didn’t hear either GB [Gordon Brown] or David Cameron referring to the fact that they were talking about relaxing the rules regarding stopping and searching (young) people in the streets in England and Wales only. The reports on the Radio Four lunchtime and evening news similarly didn’t mention the fact that the debate was relevant to England and Wales only – or at least, I didn’t hear any mention of it.

The BBC News website is – as on many occasions – the worthy exception. Its report does mention in two places that the discussion involves England and Wales: the Tories’ claim that scrapping the bureaucratic forms the police have to fill in every time they stop someone “would save 900,000 police hours per year in England and Wales”; and a reference to Sir Ronnie Flanagan, the chief inspector of constabulary in England and Wales, who’s produced a report on it. However, the first six paragraphs of the BBC News website report fail to mention ‘England and Wales’ at all; and the way the alleged statistic of 900,000 police hours per year is thrown in out of any context could give the impression that this is being referred to only because statistics for England and Wales are gathered and published separately, not because the whole story refers to England and Wales alone.

Why does this matter? How would the issue be debated differently if the proposals for England and Wales were contrasted with the approach taken in Scotland? It’s known that stop and search makes only a negligible contribution to reducing youth crime and gang violence, which is the alleged reason for relaxing the rules. Equally, statistics (and damn statistics) show that ethnic and religious minorities are more likely than their white [English] counterparts to be stopped and searched, leading to resentment at supposed racism and Islamophobia on the part of the [English] police – despite DC’s bland assurances that the [English] police are “no longer racist”. [Really - not even a little bit, in parts?] In addition, playing on the [English] public’s fear that stop and search is necessary to reduce gang violence (even though it’s pretty ineffectual) contributes to the demonisation of [English] youth, while increased stop and search is likely to increase the disaffection of young [English] people towards the [English] police.

OK, so how are the preventive approach, the thinking, the attitudes towards young people, the extent of gang violence, and the whole problem of youth crime different in Scotland? What lessons can we learn, if any, from our northern neighbours? Is English youth really as bad as it’s (only implicitly) being made out to be, and is it that much worse than Scottish youth? Only goes to show what a violent, uncouth and racist lot we English are then, doesn’t it?

Verdict: GB and DC – 0 out of 5 for opportunistic, let’s-play-on-the-fear-of-crime-on-English-streets stop and search politics; BBC Radio Four: 0 out of 5 (no mention of England and Wales); BBC News website (2 out of 5: if you’re wised up, man, you can read between da lines about dem English lies).

Quickly on to the social care issue. BBC Radio Four, again [you can tell I'm a devotee, if only in the Victor Meldrew 'I don't believe it' school] have been running an excellent, informative and campaigning ‘Care in the UK’ month of programmes. Except, you’ve guessed it, it’s about social care in England: about 90% of it, that is. Look at their Care Calculator and their Care Questionnaire: all England only. The resumés of the month’s programmes – virtually all England. You become aware of this exclusively English content only when you click through to the detailed information; the introductory pages make no mention of England – but in this case, what you get is definitely not what it says on the tin.

Why does it matter? Because it blunts the whole campaigning thrust of the programme. The situation of personal and social care in England is desperate. But if you make out that you’re talking about the UK, not England, then you can avoid referring to the infinitely better deal the Scots are currently getting: free personal care for all who need it. The question the programme asks is why isn’t the UK getting better social care provision? What it should be asking is ‘why isn’t England getting better social care provision, like that available in Scotland?’ Instead, you get a sentence like this: “Social care is means tested in most of the UK“: no, it’s means-tested in England, not in Scotland.

The You and Yours programme has sent a set of listeners’ questions to the Care Minister, who’s a junior minister in the Department of Health: the English Department of Health, that is, whose remit is social care in England not in the UK. Do you really think he’ll address the English dimension of the question? Does he really care about England? They may make a few improvements around the edges, and then the government can say that it’s listened to the British people; and the programme will say that it’s helped to improve care in the UK – avoiding those embarrassing comparisons with Scotland, where the situation will still be – to coin a phrase -miles better.

Verdict: 3 out of 5 for the BBC; very worthy exercise but deceitful in pretending that there’s some kind of uniform UK-wide governmental responsibility for these issues; whereas England’s plight in this area is because it’s ‘cared for’ by a UK government that thinks England needs to carry the financial burden of the Union.

24 October 2007

Immigration As Onshoring

Immigration, from an economic point of view, could be described as a form of ‘onshoring’. What is this? People are more familiar with the term ‘offshoring’, which is used to describe large enterprises’ practice of contracting out certain business functions to third-party providers in ‘offshore’ destinations: places like India, Singapore, Malaysia, Eastern Europe and, increasingly, China. I.e. when the phone call you make to your bank or insurance company is routed to a call centre in Bangalore or wherever, this means the bank or insurer in question has generally outsourced that particular customer-service function to an offshore provider.

‘Onshore’ is in fact a term that is used by offshoring providers (which include major household-name consulting and IT-services firms such as Accenture, Cap Gemini, IBM and many others) to refer to the siting of such outsourced facilities in the client’s own country, for reasons such as the practical need to be physically close to the client or because the client’s own customers (e.g. you and me as bank account holders) aren’t happy chatting about our intimate details to people located half the way round the globe (although that can make it easier for some people). ‘Nearshore’ is when the outsourcing provider is located in the same ‘region’ as the client; although the way some multinationals segment the globe into different regions, for a UK customer, that could just as easily mean Moscow or Dubrovnik as Dublin or Amsterdam.

What’s the purpose of offshoring? It’s fundamentally a means for businesses to cut costs. It’s cheaper to use the services of third-party specialists in developing economies because their labour costs are so much lower and because they can produce economies of scale in delivering the required function that an individual business would be unable to achieve if it maintained the function in house.

What kind of ‘onshoring’ is enabled by immigration? It’s basically the mirror image of offshoring: instead of sending work out to parts of the world where staff are cheap, hard-working but also well qualified, immigration / onshoring functions by importing the same types of staff from similar parts of the world to work in the UK. The reason why there is a need to import workers (rather than export the work) is that the jobs they are needed to do are physical in nature and can only be done in the UK; e.g. agricultural work, low-grade industrial jobs, cleaning, plumbing, building, waiting table – but also highly skilled jobs such as nursing, medical practice, teaching, etc.

The economic rationale for meeting this labour requirement through migrant workers / onshoring is essentially the same as that for offshoring: staff of this sort are cheaper, more hard-working and often more skilled than their British alternatives. So it’s easier for UK plc to simply access a ready-made pool of affordable, qualified staff from abroad rather than go to the trouble of training and maintaining a sufficient number and quality of personnel ‘in house’. The extra costs on the economy that would be required to train up British people to do all the jobs that are needed and to pay them acceptable wages are not merely analogous to the extra costs faced by businesses in maintaining certain functions in house rather than offshoring: in many instances, it would of course be businesses themselves that would be carrying out the training and paying the salaries of these additional British workers.

The fact that immigration serves the purposes of onshoring as described above dawned on me last week when the Home Office published details of a report it has produced for the House of Lords Select Committee on Economic Affairs on the economic ‘benefits’ of immigration. It was striking how these benefits were described in almost starkly economic terms. Not surprising, I suppose, given the economic remit for the report. All the same, though, no consideration was given (at least in the media reports on the Home Office’s paper) to how the social impact of mass migration might counteract some of the advantages measured in purely macro-economic terms.

For instance, the report said migration had had no significant impact on the unemployment rates of British citizens. In other words, it hasn’t increased unemployment; but had it not been for the migration, would there not have been a need to employ more British people instead? The counter-argument then goes that a) there is a shortage of the skills involved, and b) British people are often unwilling to do some of the more menial jobs concerned. But this of course comes down mostly to . . . economics again. There’s a skill shortage because we haven’t been prepared to invest in training up our own population to a sufficient standard (this would require higher taxes but would then lead to more well-paid British people in work paying tax). And British people are often not prepared to do certain types of physical work because it’s undervalued – in both an economic sense (humiliatingly and impractically low-paid) and a cultural sense: we look down on menial work of this sort rather than showing respect to the people who do it on our behalf. And because we undervalue this ‘low-grade’ work and the people who do it, we feel it’s fitting to outsource it (or should that be ‘insource’ it?) to immigrants for whom we needn’t have so much of a sense of responsibility.

Again, the Home Office report said that immigration has had a slightly positive effect on wage levels overall and only “very modest negative effects” on the lowest-paid unskilled workers, which has in turn been mitigated by the minimum wage (i.e. immigration ensures that more people get paid only the minimum wage and not more). Well, forgive me, but a ‘modest’ deterioration in the pay of an already low-paid worker is equivalent to a substantial pay cut for better-paid workers – and they’re already at the bottom of the food chain. And this is not even taking account of the impact of the black economy of illegal migrants who are paid well below the minimum wage and therefore limit the number of jobs in the legal economy that would be available at minimum-wage levels. But this, too, is economically ‘beneficial’ up to a certain point, in that it drives down costs in the economy as a whole, resulting in cheaper goods and services, and more personal wealth for those who exploit illegal immigrants in this way, and thereby promote illegal immigration.

One of the implications of all this is that it seems that government is now prepared to accept the existence of a permanent stratum of British society (sometimes derogatorily referred to as the ‘underclass’) consisting of under-qualified people who are either unable or unwilling to find employment, partly because wages have been driven down to the lowest legal level, and partly because they share society’s attitude that certain types of work are demeaning. Does this signify that we’ve abandoned altogether the aim of creating ‘full employment’ for all our citizens: a phrase belonging to the political vocabulary of the 1970s and 1980s?

Economists talk of the inevitability of a certain level of ‘structural unemployment’ in modern economies. What this means is that there will always be a proportion of the population of working age for whom ‘suitable’ employment will not be available as economies develop and the needs of business evolve. These people in theory then need to be re-trained and incentivised to seek and take up whatever work is on offer. Logically, however, if the needs of business are increasingly being met by migrant workers and the number of unemployed British citizens is remaining pretty much constant over time, this must mean there is a fairly substantial number of long-term unemployed and people for whom the creation of personally and financially rewarding employment has become a low priority, politically and economically.

These trends must be linked to the high levels of crime and social problems such as family break-downs, drug abuse and anti-social behaviour. This is not to say that the lack of opportunities in education, training and employment are simply the cause of social disintegration. It works both ways: people don’t take up the opportunities that are there because they can’t be bothered to work and would rather live on whatever benefits are available plus illicit sources of income, including the black economy and crime. But it seems obvious to me that many of these social ills result from people not feeling they have a stake in mainstream society and its much-vaunted prosperity. This is particularly clear in the case of young people, many of whom grow up in dysfunctional families without a responsible father figure (and often, what father figure there is will not be a model of a disciplined approach to working life), are inadequately educated and are exposed to all sorts of malign social influences that foster an antagonistic, aggressive attitude towards authority figures and social institutions – including providers of training and employment. In a sense, it’s no wonder that so many of these youngsters drift into a life of crime and delinquency. Even less surprising given that society and business seem to have abandoned the aim of creating opportunity and legitimate economic activity for them and take the easy option of filling the job vacancies with migrants.

Those same economists and politicians would argue that this sort of analysis is simplistic and that in a global economy, business must be free to access the best ‘human resources’ at the most affordable price on a truly global scale – whether that means offshoring or onshoring in my sense. And it is true that immigration can’t be viewed in isolation from globalisation, and Britain can’t sit on the beach head – Canute-like – and command the tide of ‘necessary’ migrant workers to turn away from our shores. Equally, however, this issue forces us to think about the social purpose of economic activity and growth. Ultimately, business and economic activity should be about meeting the basic needs of the society in which they take place: the need for employment, and the need for both essential and (where possible) luxury goods and services. Business and economic growth are not aims in themselves but are only of any real value if they contribute to meeting the needs of all, or as many as possible, in our society in a sustainable manner. But under Thatcher, Blair and now Brown, we’ve abandoned an economic model that puts the needs of society first in favour of one that prioritises the needs of the market.

I’m not saying we should revert to a discredited socialist socio-economic model, and I’m not a socialist. But there does need to be some re-balancing of our idolatry of the market: the market does not intrinsically meet, and is not in practice meeting, the needs of British society if we’re having to transform the country into a microcosm of the global economy by importing foreign workers to do the jobs that should preferably be intended for British people who could benefit from them.

And it is not just ‘British society’, and ‘the country’ as Britain or the UK, that I’m concerned about. As someone who cares passionately about England and would like to see England reaffirm itself officially as a distinct nation (not necessarily through complete independence), the impact of immigration is profoundly worrying. This issue was thrown into a disturbing light yesterday when the UK government’s Office for National Statistics released new forecasts for ‘the country’s’ population growth. These revise previous forecasts upwards and predict that the UK population (and that’s just the official number) will grow by 4.4 million to 65 million by 2016; and then to 70 million by 2028, reaching 71 million by 2031.

According to the ONS, just under half of the 4.4 million increase to 2016 will be accounted for by ‘net inward migration’: the difference between immigrants and emigrants. But as the number of people escaping the UK to live abroad last year was put in the region of around 200,000, I believe, potentially the number of immigrants settling in the UK by 2016 could be around four million. (And incidentally, how much of the ‘skills shortage’ adduced in support of immigration results from the fact that it is mainly skilled professionals and people with a trade that are emigrating?) In addition, the remaining portion of the population growth that is accounted for by increased fertility and longer life expectancy also includes a substantial contribution from the immigrant population. Immigrants tend to be younger and, accordingly, of child-rearing age; and they often come from cultures where families tend to be bigger than in the UK. The correspondent discussing the ONS report on the BBC One news last night suggested therefore that immigration, directly or indirectly, would account for around 70% of the overall projected population growth.

Of course, these are just forecasts, and all manner of environmental, economic, political or security events or crises could intervene to derail the UK’s economic growth that is fuelling the immigration. But one of the most disturbing aspects of the forecasts was the fact that most of the population growth will be concentrated in England. You could miss this fact from one of the ways in which the numbers are set out: population rise to 2016 of 8% for England, 7% for Northern Ireland, 5% for Wales and only 3% for Scotland – lower fertility and life expectancy being the reasons mentioned for that last statistic; but it also obviously means lower immigration.

But an 8% population rise for England (which accounts for around 85% of the UK population currently) is clearly massively more in absolute terms than 7% for Northern Ireland, 5% for Wales and 3% for Scotland. A graph on the BBC News web page discussing the ONS report makes this clearer (see above link). From this, you can tell that – should the predictions prove accurate – the population of England will rise from around 51.5 million now to over 60 million by 2031. In my estimation, that’s well over 80% of the overall population growth.

OK, you could say that this is proportionately less of a burden, relative to the current population, than will be shouldered by the rest of the UK. But England is already far more densely populated than the other countries of the UK; indeed (I think this is correct), England is the country with the highest population density in the world. In this context, to be reckoning with a population increase of such magnitude (8% by 2016 and over double that by 2031) seems total madness. There are all manner of huge implications in all of this in terms of environmental and economic impact and sustainability, town planning and housing, and the effect on English social cohesion and culture.

Apart from any of these broader complex issues, one has to ask whether we really need and want such a massive population growth. I think most English people would give a resounding ‘no’ to such a question. And that doesn’t mean their objections or fears can simply be written off as the expression of ignorance or nationalistic xenophobia. Clearly, some of the population growth is unavoidable and even desirable: we need more babies to be born, grow up and prosper in order to offset and maintain a population that is ageing owing to longer life expectancy. Equally, for the time being at least, there is not much that can be done to limit migration from other EU countries. But most immigration experts accept that EU immigration is not the main problem, as citizens of other EU countries come and go (just as UK citizens go to live and work in other EU countries, and then often return). The real issue is non-EU migrants whose aim is to stay permanently.

Personally speaking, I don’t object at all on principle to people coming to England from non-EU or non-European backgrounds, or indeed non-British-cultural backgrounds, in the broad sense of coming from non-Commonwealth / non-former-British-imperial countries. Other people sympathetic to the aim of greater autonomy and independence for England would be more opposed to such immigration on principle. But where I share common ground with those people is in the view that immigration needs to be set at a realistic, reasonable and sustainable level that puts the needs of the people who are already here – the needs of English people – first: those needs (indeed, rights) I talked about above. For employment, training, personal fulfilment and quality of life, the necessities of life and a bit of luxury, and a stake in the future of their own country.

What nation wouldn’t seek to look after its own people first before seeing what assistance it could offer to people from other countries who are seeking to make a life for themselves and can make a valuable contribution to the society and economy of the country into which they immigrate? Well, England, apparently. But no, it’s not a case of England not putting the needs of its own people first, but rather of the UK not serving and caring about England. Strategy and policy in these matters are decided and implemented by politicians and business people who are not properly accountable to the English people. Indeed, they often regard the very notion of England and the idea that England should weigh in the balance in considerations about immigration into the UK as irrelevant, even embarrassing. Business and the economy are going to need this extra population in order to sustain their current growth trajectory, so they reason; but do the people exist to feed the greed of growth-obsessed global markets, or are markets there to feed the people? Is UK plc just a growing pool of human resources drawn from all over the world that businesses operating here should be able to access at will (just as they can access human resources from all over the world for other purposes, via offshoring)? Or is the UK, rather, just a formerly convenient, but now increasingly oppressive, grouping of individual nations that wish to regain their freedom to decide for themselves about the demographic, economic and environmental changes that will be in the best interests of their people in the 21st century?

One thing’s for sure: if the kind of massive population growth that is projected, concentrated in England, is allowed to go ahead, this will crack to breaking point the current political system that allows Scottish and Welsh MPs to exercise a disproportionate influence on English social and economic policy; and which ensures that Scottish and Welsh people enjoy a greater per-capita share of the UK’s wealth than English people. If the English population is going to increase to such an extent, and that of other UK countries by so little by comparison, surely the system will crack.

But let’s hope it cracks sooner rather than later, before it’s too late, so that English people can start to decide for themselves how much immigration and population growth is acceptable and feasible for such a small, overcrowded but proud, independent-spirited and dynamic nation.

27 August 2007

Youth Crime and British Values

Whenever a terrorist outrage takes place, followed by the ritual response that it represents an assault on ‘our values’ that must be resisted, it’s not just the assumption that such acts of murder are primarily an attack on our values (as opposed to, say, a crime against humanity) that I find questionable. (See previous discussion on this point.) I also find it bemusing that there’s a presupposition that ‘our values’ are something wholly positive.

Of course, ‘our values’ should be defended, simply because they are our values. It’s our right to determine what those values should be, and we mustn’t be deterred from that by the men of violence. And it’s a natural reaction to want to rally round and reaffirm what we stand by. But implicit in this is also an idea that ‘our values’ are the right values: not just our right but the right – morally and philosophically superior to any other set of values.

These values of ours – which are also said to be intrinsically ‘British values’ – are usually defined in the most general of terms: liberty, democracy, tolerance, equality, progress, the rule of law, etc. Difficult to object against those on principle, although in practice, they often don’t mean what they say on the tin. But then do these somewhat abstract concepts truly encapsulate everything that we might mean by ‘our values’? You could say that they’re only the conceptual superstructure by which we justify and attempt to give a philosophical account of what is termed our ‘way of life’ – also said to be under threat from the terrorists. These values are as it were the ‘form’, or formal definition; while how we actually live, and what we live for and by, is the ‘content’ of British culture and society. And how should that content be described?

Another type of shocking event that puts ‘our values’ into question is apparently random acts of youth violence, such as that which claimed the life of young Rhys Jones last week. Incidents such as this do not easily fit the idea we’d like to hold of our society as living by the values of tolerance and the rule of law. That’s not to say that gang crime and youth violence are somehow the ‘truth’ of life in Britain today and fine-sounding generalities are a ‘lie’. One of the paradoxes of the whole thing is that while murders of this sort understandably lead to agonising discussions about ‘gun culture’, youth violence and anti-social behaviour, the crime statistics (or some of them) indicate that gun crime is decreasing.

Apart from our natural horror and outrage at the needless wasting of such a young life, society’s hand wringing stems from a fear that the violence this exemplifies represents another assault – like that of terrorism – on the tolerant, law-abiding society we like to think we are. This is not so much something that could realistically overwhelm society, bringing lawlessness and anarchy; rather, it is something that undermines society symbolically – impairing our self-image and the linkage we like to make between our liberties and social progress.

The vicar of the church situated behind the pub in whose car park poor Rhys was gunned down was interviewed on the BBC Radio Four Today programme on Friday morning. He stated his opinion that gang culture arises in part out of society’s ‘commoditisation’ of human life: that what you have is seen as more important than what and who you are. Whether that fits the motivation of the boy who killed Rhys Jones we may never know. But this does highlight an important issue. Our society has become more selfish and materialistic, and does set much more store by individual possessions and material assets than it did in the past. What’s involved in this is a sort of displacement of value: monetary value (wealth) comes to be seen as an intrinsic value; ‘our value’ to ourselves and others is seen in terms of ‘our value’ at the bank. Our values, as a society, are then inextricably linked with economic success.

These are not just philosophical or theological abstractions: they relate to the way politicians talk and ordinary people really think about British society and their own aspirations. One of the things that politicians like to point to as demonstrating the validity of our values and the ‘greatness’ of Britain is our economic success: the fact that we’re the ‘fourth-largest economy in the world’, or wherever we stand in the GDP rankings nowadays. And the conventional measures of individual success involve things like: getting a good education; progressing up whichever career ladder you’ve chosen; achieving a good standard of living; amassing possessions and properties; raising a family to enjoy even better material conditions and personal opportunities than you benefited from yourself, etc.

On one level, there’s nothing wrong about having such aspirations: better to have some goals in life, especially if they’re family-centred, than none. Equally, Britain does have an economic record over the last 20 years or so that we can feel proud about to some extent. But if these things are what truly define ‘our values’ – if there’s nothing beyond them – this does mean that terms that more adequately describe our way of life (what we live for and by) are things like individualism and materialism, rather than flattering abstractions such as liberty and progress, which could be viewed as referring to the underlying economic and social structures that enable our individual and material self-improvement. And if we define our worth in terms of our net worth – in a financial sense – this does mean that people who feel unable to enter into the path of personal progression described above feel worthless: devoid of respect from society and lacking in self-respect.

I find it ironic that Tony Blair chose the term ‘respect’ on which to hang his drive to reduce anti-social behaviour: the so-called ‘respect agenda’. ‘Respect’ is, of course, a concept central to the gang culture and has become almost a cliché in youth jargon as an expression of appreciation for a person or thing – one thinks of the Ali G parody of rapper language. People who’ve been members of gangs talk about how their membership, and the fact they were able to walk about carrying firearms or knives, made them feel empowered to demand respect from others; and that the one thing you absolutely couldn’t do was ‘disrespect’ / ‘dis’ gang members – another key term in the argot. I wouldn’t be surprised if the youngster who killed Rhys Jones hadn’t been put up to it by members of a gang as a means to show he was worthy of their respect and inclusion within their group.

The point of all this is to suggest that gang culture and the young people that get caught up in it are from being without any notion of respect for others; but their attraction for gangs is built on a sense of not being respected and regarded as having any worth by mainstream society. The formation of gangs is a way for such people to create an alternative society, in opposition to the mainstream culture, which they turn against violently in order to reinforce the cohesion and importance of their own group, to which they transfer their loyalty and sense of belonging – and from which they seek and obtain respect.

This then raises the question: to what extent does our society genuinely not show sufficient respect to some young people, so that they then reject its norms and notions of acceptable behaviour? I think it is true that British society does fail many of its young people in quite significant ways: inadequate education; family break up; the decline in the provision of constructive outlets for young people’s energies, for instance through membership of other types of youth organisation (sports and social clubs, Scouts, etc.) that offer that essential sense of belonging, the opportunity for energetic activities and the chance to develop feelings of self-worth from doing things for the community in which they live; and a false set of values that sets a higher store by career and financial success than by just being who you are and caring about others.

I think David Cameron is right when he says that the break down of family structures is key to all this. But I’m not convinced the Tories or any other political party have the ‘answers’. You can’t reinforce marriage, for instance, simply by a few tax incentives. The problem is not limited to particular deprived inner city areas or social classes but is common to society as a whole. One of the main reasons why marriages break down is because there is no social consensus about what marriage is and what purpose it should serve, resulting in a weakening of the commitment to marriage as an intrinsically good thing. And this is as much a phenomenon of the middle-to-upper classes as of the lower classes, although the social effects can be mitigated to some extent through the educational and financial opportunities that are still open to children in more well-off families affected by divorce.

Elsewhere, I’ve attempted to set out some new principles for civil marriage, which would require precisely such a new social consensus if they were ever to be implemented. In the present circumstances, it’s not really an option for us to try to go back to Christian concepts of marriage – even though I personally believe in them – because the majority of people (and, arguably, many Christians) no longer accept or live by Christian or any religion-based ethics, and there are sizeable portions of society that adhere to other faiths. But the main reason why we need to drastically improve our performance in the marriage area is children. Even if we adults find it difficult to agree about what marriage should mean, it’s unmistakably clear that children need stable parental relationships, and benefit from the sign and example of their parents commitment to them as children and to each other that marriage provides.

This is something that the faiths of our ethnic and religious minorities seem to have managed to hold on to better than the Christian or former-Christian majority. I was reminded of this last week by one of those fly-on-the-wall documentaries where two mothers change places with each other and go to live with each other’s families for a couple of weeks. One of the mothers in last week’s programme was a devout headscarf-wearing Muslim; while the other mother was a liberal-minded atheist who worked in a radical theatre company and whose daughter had recently come out as a Lesbian. One of the things that struck me most powerfully was the way in which her marriage, and duties to her husband and children, were so central to the Muslim woman. While this was linked with some social attitudes that we would find problematic in the West (prejudice towards homosexuals, ‘excessive’ deference towards the husband, limited freedom in lifestyle choices for the daughters), the Muslim family nonetheless provided an impressive example of family cohesion and togetherness of precisely the kind that is necessary to give children the best start in life and a sense of self-worth.

The importance of marriage and children are absolutely central to the ethics of Islam and of other minority faiths. And they need to become central to our own thinking about bringing about social cohesion and dealing with the problems of disaffected youth. The solution is in our own hands. We have to begin by reforming our own lives and relationships – otherwise, talk of reforming something as general and abstract as ‘society’ is meaningless. Adapting the aphorism, charity towards our children begins at home.

Of course, it’s not just about children and marriage; it’s about the principles and values that shape our whole lives. Are we fundamentally self-centred – focused on satisfying our own desires and aspirations, and on amassing ever more possessions and wealth? Or are we people-centred: concerned about the needs of those around us – our ‘neighbours’ in the traditional Christian sense – and doing what we can to help them? Most of us are probably a mixture of the two; but have we got the mix right – are our values truly the right values?

A society that is self-centred – individualistic and materialistic – is one that creates winners and losers. If we’re indifferent to the losers and they feel excluded from society’s rewards, we shouldn’t be too surprised if they band together and lash out against ‘our values’. A society that is people-centred, on the other hand, is one which by definition seeks to include and involve everyone, and which builds community and a system of mutual support and care based on true respect for others.

But it’s not really ‘our values’ that are impaired by the gun-wielding gang member or the terrorist suicide bomber; it’s our lives – those of the victims and those of the perpetrators. To what extent are the actions of the murderers in each case governed by the fact that ‘our values’ leave no place for them: for their lives, their values and their right to our respect? Which is not to justify their deeds but might help to explain them.

There must be something wrong with a society and world order that creates people who feel so alienated and hostile that they are driven to apparently indiscriminate acts of violence against it. Those people are not separate from our society and motivated by forces of which we can have no conception. Except, of course, we have separated them and factored them out of our values and our lives – which is the very source of the problem.

Next time a terrorist outrage reinforces our hostility towards Islam as a value system that radically challenges our own, perhaps we should remember the ways in which true Islam – not that of the terrorists – embodies good values that we no longer seem able to live by, such as those of permanent marriage and dedication to others. Perhaps our fear of Islam rests to some extent on our own lack of faith or even bad faith: a projection of our guilty consciences about the sacred values our lives no longer reflect.

And the next time a child is gunned down by another child, let’s not turn the child killer, in both senses, into a monster – the selfishness and indifference of our society and our values has already done that.

The Rubric Theme Blog at WordPress.com.

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 253 other followers