Britology Watch: Deconstructing \’British Values\’

5 May 2010

Cameron’s Big Society is the next phase of the Thatcher revolution: privatising government and England itself

One of the things Margaret Thatcher was famous for saying was that there was “no such thing as society”. David Cameron’s Conservatives’ manifesto for the May 2010 election – entitled ‘Invitation To Join the Government Of Britain’ – has now self-consciously reversed this dictum, prefacing its section on changing society with the graphically illustrated words, “There is such a thing as society – it’s just not the same thing as the state”.

Margaret Thatcher recognised only the core building blocks of ‘society’ as such: the individual and the family. In his turn, David Cameron is big on the family but downplays the individual, as he wishes to dissociate his ‘modern compassionate Conservatives’ from the selfish individualism that was fostered by Thatcher’s ideological obsession with private enterprise and the profit motive. However, those of us with long memories still attribute much of the break-down of communities up and down the land – particularly, working-class communities that had built up around particular industries – with the ideological, social and economic changes that Thatcher introduced, often with callous indifference to the misery and hopelessness they caused.

Cameron’s ‘Big Society’ is on one level an attempt to redress the social injustices and deprivations the Thatcher revolution left in its wake by placing communities back at the centre of his model for society. But at the same time, this is opening up communities and society (communities as society) as the new front for privatisation and the unfolding of market principles: what Thatcher did for the individual, Cameron would like to do for society – privatise it and turn it into a market society.

A full-scale critique of the Conservatives’ Big Society concept is beyond the scope of the present article. However, in essence, I would like to urge those who are tempted to vote for the Conservatives and potentially give them an overall majority in the new parliament to think carefully about what the Big Society means in social, economic and political terms. The core idea, in my view, is that small groups of interested persons should be empowered to take over the ownership and / or management control of public-sector bodies responsible for providing public services and amenities as diverse as schools, hospitals, community facilities, social care and social services.

In theory, this form of ‘social enterprise’ (community enterprise as opposed to Thatcher’s private enterprise) is supposed to be carried out by groups forming themselves into, or already belonging to, co-operatives, mutual societies, charities, voluntary organisations and non-profit-making / socially responsible enterprises. This is doing for ownership of public services what Thatcher did for ownership of publicly owned assets such as council houses and nationalised industries: privatising them. The only difference is that the ‘private’ sphere is extended beyond the individual – as in Thatcherism – to the level of the community. This is, then, a form of privatising the public sector itself: moving from government ownership and responsibility for public services to ownership and responsibility on the part of private groups of individuals (communities), as opposed to private individuals alone under Thatcher.

This all sounds great in theory. In practice, however, these private- / community-owned public services will be competing against each other in an aggressive, competitive market place. In economic terms, these reforms are intended to make the ‘public’ sector run on private-enterprise principles as a means, in theory, to provide services much more cost-effectively in the way that commercial businesses are generally run in a more cost-conscious, efficient way than the public sector.

In short, the flip side to the privatisation of the public sector that the Big Society represents is public-spending cuts. The two go hand in hand: in order to provide public services more economically while minimising the social impact of cuts, the Conservatives believe it is necessary for those services to be run both on market principles and by those who are dedicated to that particular public service, such as the teachers, doctors, social workers, volunteers and communities themselves. These people will then have both an economic interest, indeed imperative, to run those services on as small a budget as possible while at the same time focusing on maximising the quality and positive social impact of the services they deliver.

All this is predicated on the assumption that it is possible to combine the virtues and driving forces of private enterprise and public service. There are indeed many examples of social enterprises, charities and mutual societies that already do superb work in the community on a self-financing, voluntary or partially publicly funded basis. So the model can work as part of the mix of public services. But Cameron’s sights seem set on re-modelling the whole of the public sector along these lines. Hence the ‘Big Society’: a concept that implies that the ‘little people’, or what Cameron referred to at the start of the election campaign as the ‘great ignored’, take on the functions and powers of ‘big government’, with the huge apparatus of the state replaced by tens of thousands of community enterprises and initiatives across the country – England, that is.

Before I elaborate on the England point, I just want to reiterate: this sounds great in principle, but in practice all of these little companies and mutual societies founded to run schools, hospitals and social services are going to be competing for government funding in an environment of brutal public-spending cuts; and they’ll also be set in competition against each other and against other businesses – private businesses from outside the communities concerned – that will be able to bid more price-competitively for contracts and licences to take over failing schools or improve hospital facilities. In order to compete for funding and deliver the statutory level of service they are required to provide, the co-operatives and social enterprises are going to have to make use of management expertise and operating techniques from commercial businesses, and it’s easy to imagine how all the little community groups will eventually get swallowed up into larger enterprises that can pool talent and costs, and provide services at a lower cost for the real customer: government.

What we could easily end up with is not the little people empowered to form the Big Society, but big business effectively doing the government’s job (or community enterprises joining together to form big businesses) at a fraction of the cost that the former public sector would have been either capable or willing to achieve. And this will inevitably involve reinforcing social inequalities and disadvantage, in that commercially minded businesses – albeit ones with an ostensibly socially responsible remit – will clearly be less willing to take over failing schools filled with problem children from dysfunctional homes, or under-performing hospitals requiring substantial investments to turn them around.

The money will be attracted to where the money is: wealthier, middle-class areas with parents who are willing to invest time and money in their children’s education, enabling ‘education providers’ to attract more funding because of the good academic results they have achieved. Or hospitals that have succeeded in delivering a greater ‘through-put’ of patients in particular areas of specialisation – resulting in a concentration of the best health-care facilities and personnel around specialist centres of excellence, and more ‘cost-effective’ health conditions and therapies. A less commercially orientated health system, on the other hand, might seek to provide an excellent level of medical care for the full range of health problems available in the areas where people actually live, including the ‘unglamorous’ conditions such as smoking-related illnesses and obesity, associated with the lifestyles of poorer people who, in addition, are less able to travel to the specialist centres where treatment might still be available on the NHS.

The English NHS, that is. Because let’s not forget that the tough medicine of the Tories’ Big Society is a prescription for England alone. Though they don’t say so in their manifesto, we should hardly need reminding that education, health care, social services, local government and communities, and policing are all devolved areas of government; and therefore, the UK government’s policies in these areas relate almost exclusively to England only. So it’s not really or mainly the British state that would be superseded by the Big Society but the public-sector assets and services of the English nation.

There’s another word for ‘privatisation’ that is particularly apt in this context: ‘de-nationalisation’. It’s the English nation whose systems and organisations for delivering public services would effectively be asset-stripped by the Tories: in theory made over to community-based co-operatives and social enterprises but in fact transformed into a free market in which the involvement of more ruthless profit-minded enterprises would increasingly become unavoidable.

This could potentially be another example of what happens in the absence of an authentic social vision for England on the part of the British political class: a vision based on the idea that the government and people of England can and should work together to improve the lives and opportunities of the English people; one that does see the government and public sector as having a real role in serving the people alongside a vibrant, enterprising private sector.

The British political establishment has, however, disowned the view that it has an authentic, valuable role to play in the life of the English people. This is precisely because it refuses to be a government for England (just as Cameron once famously indicated he did not want to be a prime minister for England) and refuses to allow the English people to have a government of its own. Instead, the establishment – whether New Labour or Cameron Conservative – have attempted to re-model English society along purely market-economy lines, and will continue to do so if we let them: the Big Society being one where English civic society is transformed into just another competitive market place, with the inevitable winners and losers.

Ultimately, then, it’s not the government of Britain that English people are being invited to participate in; but it’s a case that any idea and possibility that the British government is capable or willing to act as a government for England is being abandoned. Instead, the government, public sector and indeed nation of England will be privatised under the Tories: sold off to the most cost-effective bidder and dismembered perhaps even more effectively than through Gordon Brown’s unaccountable, regionally planned (English) economy.

Well, I for one won’t buy it. And I won’t vote for a party that seeks to absolve itself from the governance of England and wishes to permanently abandon any idea of an English government. And I urge all my readers not to vote Conservative for that reason, too. Even, if it is necessary (and only if it’s necessary) to do so in order to defeat your Tory candidate, vote Labour!
And believe you me, it really hurts and runs against the grain for me to say that.

At least, if there is a Labour-LibDem coalition of some sort, there’ll be a chance of some fundamental constitutional reforms, including consideration of the English Question, as stated in the Lib Dem manifesto. Under the Tories, there’s no chance – and England risks being for ever Little England, not a big nation, as it is privatised through the Big Society.

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17 August 2009

The debate on the National Health Service is a proxy for a debate on nation-specific ideologies and policies

I’ve been particularly struck in the past few days by the extent to which the debate on the two main parties’ commitment to the principles and funding of the NHS has been completely blind to its English dimension. I suppose this should not come as any surprise, as it’s totally normal for Labour and the Tories to discuss England-specific matters as if they related to the whole of the UK. But this time, the blanket ignoring of the fact that the debate is relevant to England alone has been total, not only on the part of the politicians involved but also the media and bloggers. What is it about the National Health Service that makes us blind to its national specificities?

I suppose part of it is that the NHS is one of those national British institutions we like to think of as being present and valued to an equal degree in all parts of the UK, like the BBC, the Royal Family (for some, at least) and Parliament itself. But like Parliament and, to some extent, even the BBC, the national character of the NHS has been fundamentally changed by devolution. There are now four NHS’s (one in each of the UK’s constituent countries), with four government departments looking after them, four separate organisational structures, and separate funding arrangements. As with all legislation and social policy for England, the NHS in England is looked after by the UK government and the UK Department of Health. So although the government and Westminster politicians discuss policy for the NHS in the British terms relating to the level at which policy is made for it (at the UK level), the NHS in question is the English one, not a British one as such, which does not exist any more after devolution.

Given the apparent total unwillingness of the parties and the media to engage with the fact that the NHS whose future is being discussed is the English one, it is necessary to ask what they have to gain in ignoring this fact. In essence, the parties are trying to avoid framing an ideological polarity in national terms: ‘English’ political philosophy and social policy = support for privatisation, market principles and a reduced-size public sector; ‘British’ ideology and policy = support for nationalisation, state control of essential services and a generously funded public sector.

The truth of the matter is that, in England, the New Labour government has carried out major reforms to the NHS that have introduced more elements of privatisation than the previous Conservative governments were ever able to get away with; e.g. Foundation Trusts; autonomous GP surgeries competing for funding based on ‘performance’; public-private partnerships to build and run hospitals; outsourcing essential and ‘inessential’ services to private contractors; the introduction of patient ‘choice’, causing treatment centres to compete against each other to deliver the most lucrative and ‘popular’ treatments; more ‘consumer-friendly’ polyclinics being forced through despite the objections of practitioners fearing it would result in the break-down of individual doctor-patient relationships; etc. etc.

Not to put too fine a point on it, the Tories’ actual policies as outlined in policy documents such as their Plan for NHS Improvement are pretty much more of the same: advocating a flexible blend of public-sector and private-provider approaches to deliver the desired health benefits supposedly more cost-effectively and efficiently. This document, by the way, is an absolute master class in the art of dodging the issue of which National Health Service, or rather which nation’s health service, is being discussed, as it studiously avoids referring to England in all but some statistical examples that strangely relate to England alone (strangely, that is, if you thought the policy document was referring to Britain when in fact it was dealing with the English NHS only).

So for all the hullabaloo over the past few days, it turns out that there are in practice no ideological differences between Labour and the Conservatives over the NHS (in England, that is); just minor differences in the methods to be adopted to deliver the same type of ‘reforms’ – by which is meant the introduction of market mechanisms that supposedly lead to greater efficiency, and improved patient choice and outcomes. But to listen to the politicians from both parties as they traded blows over this you could be mistaken for thinking that what they are really falling over backwards to agree about is their commitment to the principles of a generously funded, public sector-based ‘British’ NHS that lives up to its founding mission to provide health care free at the point of delivery.

Two aspects are key here: 1) a general ideological shift has occurred, prompted by the recession, whereby people’s faith that markets could go on delivering ever greater prosperity, and hence the mechanisms and means to continually improve the NHS, has been shaken; and they are worried that talk of increasing private-sector involvement in the health-care system is simply an excuse to make expenditure cuts. Labour are clearly playing on these concerns; and the Tories are having to emphasise the fact that they plan to increase expenditure on the NHS (in England) in real terms, and underplay the fact that they are still intending to introduce more private-sector mechanisms for allocating those resources and delivering care; 2) both parties have a strong vested interest in suppressing the fact that the marketisation of the NHS they have been carrying out and intend to extend even further is limited to England, whereas the separately administered and funded NHS’s in the other countries of the UK have continued on more traditional public-sector lines.

In other words, the parties’ concern to underplay their commitment to market principles in the NHS is of one piece with their need to suppress the England-specific character of those market reforms – by which I do not mean that those reforms are supported by the English people and reflect the English ‘character’ as such; but rather the mere fact that those reforms have been and would be driven through in England only. Why is this? Because both parties, for their separate reasons, want to be seen as parties for Britain, not England. Labour is appealing to its core support, particularly in Scotland and Wales where it has supported and provided funding (via the Barnett Formula) for traditional public-sector NHS’s. Ignoring the rather different market-orientated policies that have been specific to its management of the English NHS helps Labour to invoke the folk memory of the nationalised health service when it was indeed a uniform public-sector service for the whole of Britain.

The Tories, for their part, are desperate not to be seen as a party associated with the Thatcherite market economics and wholesale privatisations that always enjoyed far more popular support (though never that of a majority of English voters) in England than in Scotland or Wales. For the Tories, openly supporting private-sector initiatives to improve public health-care outcomes, even though (and in part because) such measures would be limited to England, would be electoral suicide in Scotland and Wales. The Conservatives would then be portrayed as the party for the wealthy south of England, intent on cutting public expenditure in England, leading to reduced budgets in Scotland and Wales via the workings of the Barnett Formula. And, in fact, this is true. As I stated in my previous post on this subject, although the Tories are actually pledging to increase expenditure on health in England, they’re planning overall cuts in spending, which will result in lower budgets for the Scottish, Welsh and Northern Irish administrations, and possibly the need to cut spending on their NHS’s. So in fact, the Tories may end up spending more on the English NHS resulting in less spending on the NHS’s in the other UK countries.

So, by referring to the English NHS as the British NHS, the Labour Party are trying to gloss over their record in government, which has involved a substantial degree of privatisation of the service in England that the party has not supported in Scotland or Wales. And the Tories are also trying to downplay their actual support for market reforms of the NHS in England, which risks conjuring up the ghost of Margaret Thatcher and the idea that the Conservatives are the party for the wealthy and privileged of England (particularly, the south), not a progressive party for the whole of Britain.

But the consequence is that neither of the parties can be honest about their plans for the English NHS as such. Can we really be sure that if, by some freak, Labour got re-elected, they would not deepen their marketisation of the NHS – in England, only? And can we be confident that when the Tories set about extending the role of the private sector in the NHS (in England only), this will not become an excuse for delivering ‘efficiency savings’ that can then be passed on to the less efficient NHS’s in the other UK nations via the superior state funding they are guaranteed by the Barnett Formula? We don’t know, because the parties won’t tell us. They merely talk in misty-eyed terms of the British institution that is the NHS and how they stand firmly by its principles – even if those principles are put into practice in very different ways in England from the rest of the UK.

On one level, that’s fine: why shouldn’t the different nations of Britain develop the NHS along divergent lines in accordance with popular and national priorities? Why not, indeed? Except, in England, our actual priorities are not taken into consideration at all: the parties appeal to our affections for a fully state-funded and -run ‘British’ NHS and then they deliver an NHS in England that suits their own ideological and economic agendas, and is not what most English people are expecting, I would think. If the politicians actually engaged in dialogue with the English people and debated with them what sort of NHS we think we can afford, and the mix of public- and private-sector approaches that might best deliver the desired result, they might be surprised at the response they got. I don’t actually know what that would be: it might be more traditional public-sector, or more innovative, commercial and hybrid public-private. Genuine public consultation across the nation could deliver surprising results.

But the point is we’re not consulted, because a politics of dialogue between the English people and their political representatives would actually create a national English political community: one which might in turn design an English NHS that was worthy of the name. Instead, under the guise of a supposedly uniform British NHS that no longer exists, the parties canvass our support and that of those living in the other UK nations in order to deliver their own unspoken agendas for England. Unspoken, that is, because if they can’t even say the name of the country whose NHS they are supposedly standing up for, then such a health service is not a National Health Service that is truly designed with the best health outcomes in mind for the English nation.

And then they have the gall to talk of patriotism.

20 June 2009

The Dark Nationalist Heart of New Labour’s Devolution Project

I was struck last night by how the panellists of BBC1’s Any Questions displayed a rare unity in condemning the ‘nationalism’ to which they imputed the recent assaults on Romanian migrants in Northern Ireland. ‘There can be no place for nationalism in modern Britain’, they intoned to the audience’s acclaim.

Apart from the fact that statements such as this articulate a quasi-nationalistic, or inverted-nationalist, pride in Britain (‘what makes us “great as a nation” is our tolerance and integration of multiple nationalities’), this involved an unchallenged equation of hostility towards immigration / racism with ‘nationalism’. This was especially inappropriate in the Northern Ireland context where ‘nationalism’ is associated with Irish republicanism, and hence with Irish nationalism and not – what, actually? British nationalism à la BNP; the British ‘nationalism’ of Northern Irish loyalists (no one bothered to try and unpick whether the people behind the violence had been from the Catholic or Protestant community, or both); or even ‘English’ nationalism?

Certainly, it’s a stock response on the part of the political and media establishment to associate ‘English nationalism’ per se with xenophobia, opposition to immigration and racism. But this sort of knee-jerk reaction itself involves an unself-critical, phobic negativity towards (the concept of) the English – and certainly, the idea of the ‘white English’ – that crosses over into inverted racism, and which ‘colours’ (or, shall we say, emotionally infuses) people’s response to the concept of ‘English nationalism’. In other words, ‘English nationalism’, for the liberal political and media classes, evokes frightening images of racial politics and violence because, in part, the very concept of ‘the English nation’ is laden with associations of ‘white Anglo-Saxon’ ethnic aggressiveness and brutality. English nationalism is therefore discredited in the eyes of the liberal establishment because it is unable to dissociate it from its images of the historic assertion of English (racial) ‘superiority’ (for instance, typically, in the Empire). But the fact that the establishment is unable to re-envision what a modern and different English nationalism, and nation, could mean is itself the product of its ‘anti-English’ prejudice and generalisations bordering on racism: involving an assumption that the ‘white English’ (particularly of the ‘lower classes’) are in some sense intrinsically brutish and racist – in an a-historic way that reveals their ‘true nature’, rather than as a function of an imperial and industrial history that both brutalised and empowered the English on a massive scale.

This sort of anti-English preconception was built into the design of New Labour’s asymmetric devolution settlement: it was seen as legitimate to give political expression to Scottish and Welsh nationalism, just not English nationalism. Evidently, there is a place for some forms of nationalism in modern Britain – the ‘Celtic’ ones – but not the English variety. While this is not an exhaustive explanation, the anomalies and inequities of devolution do appear to have enacted a revenge against the English for centuries of perceived domination and aggression. First, there is the West Lothian Question: the well known fact that Scottish and Welsh MPs can make decisions and pass laws that relate to England only, whereas English MPs can no longer make decisions in the same policy areas in Scotland and Wales. This could be seen as a reversal of the historical situation, as viewed and resented through the prism of Scottish and Welsh nationalism: instead of England ruling Scotland and Wales through the political structures of the Union, now Scotland and Wales govern England through their elected representatives in Westminster, who ensure that England’s sovereignty and aspirations for self-government are frustrated.

It might seem a somewhat extreme characterisation of the present state of affairs to say that Scotland and Wales ‘govern England’; but it certainly is true that a system that involves the participation of Scottish and Welsh MPs is involved in the active suppression not only of the idea of an English parliament to govern English matters (which would restore parity with Scotland and Wales) but of English-national identity altogether: the cultural war New Labour has waged against the affirmation and celebration of Englishness in any form – the surest way to extinguish demands for English self-rule being to obliterate the English identity from the consciousness of the silent British majority. In this respect, New Labour’s attempts to replace Englishness with an a-national Britishness – in England only – are indeed reminiscent of the efforts made by an England-dominated United Kingdom in previous centuries to suppress the national identity, political aspirations and traditions of Scotland and Wales.

This notion of devolution enabling undue Scottish and Welsh domination of English affairs becomes less far-fetched when you bear in mind the disproportionate presence of Scottish-elected MPs that have filled senior cabinet positions throughout New Labour’s tenure, including, of course, Gordon Brown: chancellor for the first ten years and prime minister for the last two. And considering that Brown is the principal protagonist in the drive to assert and formalise a Britishness that displaces Englishness as the central cultural and national identity of the UK, this can only lend weight to suspicions that New Labour has got it in for England, which it views in the inherently negative way I described above.

However, the main grounds for believing that devolution enshrines nationalistic bias and vindictiveness towards England is the way New Labour has continued to operate the Barnett Formula: the funding mechanism that ensures that Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland benefit from a consistently higher per-capita level of public expenditure than England. One thing to be observed to begin with is that Barnett is used to legitimise the continuing participation of non-English MPs in legislating for England, as spending decisions that relate directly to England only trigger incremental expenditure for the other nations.

But New Labour has used Barnett not only to justify the West Lothian Question but has attempted to justify it in itself as a supposedly ‘fair’ system for allocating public expenditure. It seems that it is construed as fair primarily because it does penalise England in favour of the devolved nations, not despite this fact. This sort of thinking was evidenced this week during a House of Lords inquiry into the Barnett Formula. Liam Byrne, the new Chief Secretary to the Treasury, described the mechanism as “fair enough”, only to be rounded on by the Welsh Labour chair Lord Richard of Ammanford: “It doesn’t actually mean anything. Look at the difference between Wales, Northern Ireland and Scotland – is that fair?” So it’s OK for England to receive 14% less spending per head of population than Wales, 21% less than Scotland and 31% less than Northern Ireland; the only ‘unfairness’ in the system is the differentials between the devolved nations!

The view that this system is somehow ‘fair to England’ – except it’s not articulated as such, as this would be blatantly ridiculous and it ascribes to England some sort of legal personality, which the government denies: ‘fair for the UK as a whole’ would be the kind of phrase used – exemplifies the sort of nationalistic, anti-English bias that has characterised New Labour. It’s as if the view is that England ‘owes’ it to the other nations: that because it has historically been, and still is, more wealthy overall and more economically powerful than the other nations, it is ‘fair’ that it should both pay more taxes and receive less back on a sort of redistribution of wealth principle. But this involves a re-definition of redistribution of wealth on purely national lines, as if England as a whole were imagined as a nation of greedy capitalists and arrogant free marketeers that need to pay their dues to the exploited and neglected working class people of Scotland and Wales: the bedrock of the Labour movement.

In short, it’s ‘pay-back time’: overlaying the centuries-long resentment towards England’s wealth and power, England is being penalised for having supported Margaret Thatcher and her programme of privatisation, disinvestment in public services and ruthless market economics. ‘OK, if that’s how you want it, England, you can continue your programme of market reforms of public services; and if you want a public sector that is financially cost-efficient and run on market principles, then you can jolly well pay yourselves for the services that you don’t want the public purse to fund – after all, you can afford to, can’t you? But meanwhile, your taxes can fund those same services for us, because we can’t afford to pay for them ourselves but can choose to get them anyway through our higher public-spending allocation and devolved government’.

Such appears at least to be the ugly nationalistic, anti-English backdrop to the two-track Britain New Labour has ushered in with asymmetric devolution. This has allowed Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland to pursue a classic social-democratic path of high levels of funding for public services based on a redistributive tax system; that is, with wealth being redistributed from England, as the tax revenues from the devolved nations are not sufficient to fund the programme. Meanwhile, in England, New Labour has taken forward the Thatcherite agenda of reforming the public sector on market principles. In a market economy, individuals are required to pay for many things that are financed by the state in more social-democratic and socialist societies. Hence, the market economics can be used to justify the unwillingness of the state to subsidise certain things like university tuition fees (an ‘investment’ by individuals in their own economic future); various ‘luxuries’ around the edges of the standard level of medical treatment offered by the state health-care system (e.g. free parking and prescriptions, or highly advanced and expensive new drugs that it is not ‘cost-efficient’ for the public sector to provide free of charge); or personal care for the elderly, for which individuals in a market economy are expected to make their own provisions.

These sorts of market principle, which have continued and extended the measures to ‘roll back the frontiers of the state’ initiated under the Thatcher and Major governments, have been used to justify the government in England not paying for things that are funded by the devolved governments: public-sector savings made in England effectively cross-subsidise the higher levels of public spending in the other nations. Beneath an ideological agenda (reform of the public services in England), a nationalist agenda has been advanced that runs utterly counter to the principles of equality and social solidarity across the whole of the United Kingdom that Labour has traditionally stood for. Labour has created and endorsed a system of unequal levels of public-service provision based on a ‘national postcode lottery’, i.e. depending purely on which country you happen to live in. Four different NHS’s with care provided more
free at the point of use in some countries than others, and least of all in England; a vastly expanded university system that is free everywhere except England; and social care offered with varying levels of public funding, but virtually none in England. So much for Labour as the party of the working class and of the Union: not in England any more.

There’s an argument for saying that English people should pay for more of their medical, educational and personal-care needs, as they are better off on average. But that’s really not the point. Many English people struggle to pay for these things or simply can’t do so altogether, and so miss out on life-prolonging drug treatments or educational opportunities that their ‘fellow citizens’ elsewhere in the UK are able to benefit from. A true social-democratic- and socialist-style public sector should offer an equal level of service provision to anyone throughout the state that wishes to access it, whether or not they could afford to pay for private health care or education but choose not to. The wealthy end up paying proportionately more for public services anyway through higher taxes. Under the New Labour multi-track Britain, by contrast, those English people who are better off not only have to pay higher taxes but also have to pay for services that other UK citizens can obtain free of charge, as do poorer English people. One might even say that this extra degree of taxation (higher income tax + charges for public services) is a tax for being English.

But of course, it’s not just the middle and upper classes that pay the England tax; it’s Labour’s traditional core supporters: the English working class. On one level, it’s all very well taking the view that ‘middle England’ supports privatisation and a market economy, so they can jolly well pay for stuff rather than expecting the state to fund it. But it’s altogether another matter treating the less well-off people of England with the same disregard. It is disregarding working people in England to simply view it as acceptable that they should have to pay for hospital parking fees, prescription charges, their kids’ higher education and care for their elderly relatives, while non-English people can get all or most of that for free. What, are the English working class worth less than their Celtic cousins?

How much of this New Labour neglect of the common people of England can truly be put down to a combination of Celtic nationalism, anti-English nationalism, and indeed inverted-racist prejudice towards the white English working class? Well, an attribution to the English of an inherent preference for market economics – coming as it does from a movement that despised that ideology during the 1980s and early 1990s – could well imply a certain contempt for the English, suffused with Scottish and Welsh bitterness towards the ‘English’ Thatcher government.

But an even more fundamental and disturbing turning of the tables against the English is New Labour’s laissez-faire attitude to job creation, training and skills development for the English working class. The Labour government abandoned the core principle that it has a duty to assist working people in acquiring the skills they need to compete in an increasingly aggressive global market place, and to foster ‘full employment’ in England; and it just let the market take over. It’s as if the people of England weren’t worth the investment and didn’t matter, only the economy. And it’s because of Labour’s comprehensive sell out to market economics that it has encouraged the unprecedented levels of immigration we have experienced, deliberately to foster a low-wage economy; and, accordingly, a staggering nine-tenths of the new jobs created under the Labour government have gone to workers from overseas. Is it any wonder, then, that there is such widespread concern – whether well founded or not in individual cases – among traditional Labour voters in England about immigration, and about newcomers taking the jobs and housing that they might have thought a Labour government would have striven to provide for them?

How much of the liberal establishment’s contempt and fear of English white working-class racism and anti-immigration violence is an adequate response to a genuine threat? On the contrary, to what extent has that threat and that hostility towards migrants actually been brought about and magnified by New Labour’s pre-existing contempt and inverted racism towards the white working-class people of England, and the policies (or lack of them) that flowed from those attitudes?

Has New Labour, in its darker under-belly, espoused the contempt towards the ‘lazy’, ‘loutish’, disenfranchised English working class that Margaret Thatcher made her hallmark – and mixed it up in a heady cocktail together with Celtic nationalism, and politically-correct positive economic and cultural discrimination in favour of migrants and ethnic minorities?

One thing is for sure, though: English nationalism properly understood – as a movement that strives to redress the democratic and social inequalities of the devolution settlement out of a concern for all of the people residing and trying to earn a living in England – is far less likely to foster violence against innocent Romanian families than is the ‘British nationalism’ of the BNP or the various nationalisms of the other UK nations that have seen far lower levels of immigration than England.

But is there a place not just for English nationalism but for England itself in a British state and establishment that are so prejudiced against it?

3 May 2008

Cameron will win: it’s a generation game

I’ve been privately participating in the fever of speculation there’s been over the past few days – particularly since Labour’s local election debacle on Thursday – as to whether the tide of political fortunes has now turned back in the Tories’ favour, meaning they’ll win the next general election. Initially, I was sceptical about David Cameron’s prospects, as the Tories’ resurgence seems to be dependent more on people rejecting New Labour and Gordon Brown [GB] than on support for the Conservatives’ programme – whatever that might turn out to be. However, after the local election results, which saw Labour drop to third position on share of the votes behind the Liberal Democrats, and a consistent nationwide swing towards the Tories, I feel that, maybe, Cameron could just pull it off at the general election, which will take place probably in 2010.

Thinking about it further, there’s another reason why I think Cameron will win. This is my theory of generational evolution of society, or, putting it more simply, the way social changes are influenced by successive generations. I’m sure professional sociologists have developed a more scientific version of this idea, presumably with a technical name to boot; so I’m pretty sure this is not an ‘original’ theory, if such a thing exists in any absolute sense. However, if it is, I hereby dub it the ‘political generation game theory’, on the analogy of the amateur contestants of the immortal Bruce’s show who had to imitate the dazzling skills of professionals of one sort or another.

What the idea is, in essence, is that particular periods of a nation’s history – often defined or named in relation to the dominant political personality associated with it – have a character that is determined to a large extent as a function of the periods that immediately preceded them and the period before that. More precisely, each period is a reaction to the one before, which draws its inspiration in large part from the period before that. And it does this because the people who are most influential in shaping the character of any given age – the political, business and media opinion formers and decision makers – spent their most formative years (say, between the ages of about 10 and 19) in the period preceding the period in relation to which they are defining themselves.

An example: ‘the Blair years’ and New Labour were clearly in part a reaction to / against ‘Thatcherism’ and the period of ruthless market economics that is denoted by that term. And it was a reaction that represented in part a reprise of the social-democratic Labour that had been in power for much of the 1960s and 1970s, which was precisely the period in which the leaders in society during the Blair years spent their formative years. With the difference that the New Labour period was also a continuation of Thatcherism, which had in a sense laid the economic and political foundations for Blair’s social-democratic ‘redistributive capitalism’ to actually work – whereas the economic stagnation and political / union antagonisms of the 1970s had thwarted Labour’s ambitions to create a successful, prosperous welfare state. So what we got under Blair was a new blend of social democracy and market economics: social-market economics; equality of opportunity mutating into ‘equality of market opportunity’: the goal of government being to free up people to participate more fully in, and reap the rewards from, the market society (society as a market).

Similarly, you could say that Thatcherism itself was a reaction against the whole political and social model of the Wilson and Callaghan years: initially, the idealistic 1960s, with the vision of a socially and morally freer and more equal world, underpinned by economic prosperity and technological developments that enabled people to have a bloody good time, and enjoy hitherto only dreamt-of material and physical pleasures; later, collapsing into the cynicism and recriminations of the 1970s as the downward economic cycle and spiralling inflation caused industries to collapse, and engendered strife in the workplace, on the football terraces and in the inner cities as people sought scapegoats for the fact that living the good life was increasingly unrealistic.

The Thatcherite reaction to all that was indeed a reinstatement of the Tory values from the 1950s, when many of the leaders of the 1980s were in their ‘tens’ (aged 10 to 19): the individual standing on their own two feet and creating prosperity through their own hard work and enterprise – rather than just expecting a good standard of living to be handed to them effortlessly on a plate by their employer or the state. And yet, Thatcherism also carried forward much of the ethos and attitudes of the 1960s and 1970s: the anti-union and anti-industrial-working-class antagonisms on the part of the Thatcher government were in a sense the continuation of the 1970s industrial unrest, with the difference that Thatcher took on and saw off the unions, whereas Callaghan tried to instil reason in them through comradely beer and sandwiches at No. 10. Similarly, the materialistic individualism and hedonism of the ‘I’ve-got-money’ 1980s was a continuation, in the selfish-capitalist Thatcherite mode, of the increasingly cynical, materialistic direction that originally idealistic 1960s explorations of self-fulfilment and sexual freedom had followed in the 1970s.

So what of David Cameron, then? Are we about to enter into the ‘Cameronite’ reaction against Blairism and its feeble successor / continuation that is GB; just as the ineffectual Major saw out the dying phase of the Thatcherite period, and Callaghan stood watch over the waning of the initially optimistic Wilson Labour years – all prime ministers that took over mid-term from leaders that had really set the political tone for a whole period, but whose increasing unpopularity was a sign, perhaps, that one period was on its way out and the new epoch was about to begin?

If so, then a putative Cameron era, following my theory, should be both a continuation of some aspects of the preceding period (the Blair / Brown epoch), and a harking back to and blend of some aspects of the period before that, during which the leaders of the new age were growing up – which, in the case of Cameron’s relatively youthful team, was mainly the Thatcher years. Incidentally, the fact that it is now being said that people are no longer ‘scared’ of the Tories, for all Cameron’s charm, probably owes more to the fact that the people in the worlds of politics, business and the media who are, as it were, ‘of the same age’ as Cameron (or younger, as are many in his team) and are preparing his coronation grew up under Thatcher and would have regarded her attitudes and politics as normal, not as a grim assault on so much that my generation (growing up in the 1970s: the latter end of the ‘Blair generation’) held dear.

But we’ve already had the Thatcher ‘revival’: that was Tony Blair – Thatcherism with a socially caring face. And that’s part of the problem faced by David Cameron’s Conservatives (the ‘New Tories’ in all but name): they want to be ‘Conservatism with a caring face’ but Blair has already done that. So perhaps they’ll just have to reverse the paradigm and become ‘a caring society with a Thatcherite face’, perhaps?

The difference between these two terms can perhaps best be illustrated by the ambiguity of the ‘tag line’ – as the marketing bods might put it – for Cameron’s party philosophy: ‘modern compassionate Conservatism’. ‘Modern’ and ‘compassionate’: here are two words that could have been plucked straight from Blair’s vocabulary; and they sit comfortably – naturally almost – alongside ‘Conservatism’. Indeed, Conservatism has always been associated with the idea of compassion (of the wealthy) for the poor, and with social, philanthropic responsibility towards them. So this conveys the idea of classic, one-nation Conservatism (the Conservatism before Thatcher) – which in one sense was the space in the political spectrum that Blairism inhabited – but modernised in keeping with the challenges of today.

On the other hand, if you just insert a comma into the phrase, as follows – ‘modern, compassionate Conservatism’ – it changes the whole meaning. Syntactically, ‘modern compassionate Conservatism’ suggests a ‘compassionate Conservatism – single concept: one-nation conservatism – that is modern’. ‘Modern, compassionate Conservatism’, on the other hand, implies a ‘modern Conservatism, one of whose distinguishing features is that it is also compassionate’; in contradistinction to a previous form of Conservatism – Thatcherism – that is perceived as having lacked compassion. But by implication, this could suggest that the modern, compassionate Conservatism is also an updated, more compassionate version of Thatcherism itself. So this tag line is appealing to all three strands: modern, ‘Blairite’ care and compassion for the poor and disadvantaged in society (in keeping with the traditions of one-nation Conservatism) that also draws on all that was ‘good’ about Thatcherite Conservatism – its effectiveness, leadership qualities, appeal to English-British people’s distrust of state interference and ‘nannying’, and their wish to provide the best for themselves and their families, using their own skills and hard work, whether in material comforts, housing, health or education.

This in essence is the appeal of Cameron. On the one hand, he’s Blair Plus: embodying all that’s ‘good’ about Blair (the concern to alleviate society’s ills), but if anything pushed even further. Instead of Blair’s reform agenda, which in essence was economic reform (instilling market principles into the public services), we have a social reform policy. Instead of merely tinkering with the benefits system, attempting to provide more efficient public services and carrying out a bit of inner-city regeneration, Cameron’s Conservatives have set out their stall as a party that’s really trying to get to the bottom of what has caused the collapse of stable, responsible society in so many of our cities, and have so far come up with a rather traditional Conservative answer: that it’s about the break-down of the two-parent family, the absence of father figures, and the lack of discipline at school and in the home. And what is seen as being absent in such social contexts are the very values that Cameron is trying, in more neo-Thatcherite mode, to invoke as being at the heart of his political programme: individual and collective responsibility for making things better, rather than relying on central targets and the nanny state to deliver the improvements.

The initial outline of the vision that we were given at the Tory party conference last autumn suggested that one of the forms this new affirmation of the Thatcherite principles of personal moral responsibility for improving the things that matter to you in life could take was that of ‘local privatisation’: rolling back the frontiers of government and public-sector ownership and control not just at a national level but at the local level where people are users – ‘consumers’ – of services. So, for instance, rather than the Blairite approach of setting out a single blueprint for introducing market principles into schools and hospitals, which often meant putting them directly or indirectly in the hands of major corporate enterprises, the Cameron policy could well involve local people themselves taking managerial responsibility for their schools and hospitals – whether in the form of continuing public ownership of some sort (for instance, through trusts), or by actually establishing new schools (or taking over existing ones?) as businesses in which local people could take out shares and which would genuinely have to compete for private and public funding – while service levels were guaranteed, perhaps, through some form of charter and contractual agreement with local authorities.

To some extent, the finer details of this are just speculation, as the Conservatives have yet to outline their specific policies. But it’s informed speculation based on Tory statements, and reports into things like the family and the problems of the inner cities they’ve already produced; but also based on this generational theory of mine: that the Tories have this dual motivation to carry out the social-market agenda of Tony Blair more effectively and profoundly, and to do so in a way that resurrects the best principles of the Thatcherism they grew up under. This involves the idea of empowering and motivating ordinary individuals and communities to take responsibility for improving their lives by giving them a stake and a real say in the things that are most important to them. I think that however these fundamentals of ‘Cameronism’ are translated into tangible policy, they will help the Tories to win the next election because the people who are most influential in shaping public opinion were formed under Thatcher and want to see a return to her values of self-reliance and of the public taking private ownership of, literally, their own public services.

Looking at the massive nationwide swing to the Tories in this week’s local elections, the psephologists have come out with their usual meaningless predictions about how a general election would turn out on the same shares of the vote: a Tory landslide, with a possible 150-seat majority. What if this did happen, though? Would this mean, as Anthony Barnett of the OurKingdom blog put it, that “any democratic reform agenda is now in jeopardy”? The point is, if Cameron did win a comfortable outright parliamentary majority, he could – and probably would – ignore all the widespread support and calls for constitutional and institutional reform, such as a more accountable parliament (better still an English parliament), reform of the House of Lords, PR, a genuine bill of rights that protects civil liberties, and even an English Grand Committee to discuss England-only bills (why bother if the Tories have a majority both of English and UK-wide MPs?). Cameron might be a social and economic reformer at local level, but at national political level, it would not be in the perceived interests of his government or his party to do a single thing.

Cameron is no more interested in addressing the English Question, nor even in uttering the word ‘England’, than is GB. When Cameron talks of ‘our nation’, he means ‘Britain’ not England, even if the policies that are being discussed relate to England alone. Indeed, he has gone on record, in a Telegraph interview a few months back, as saying he’s not interested in being a PM for England – even though that’s what he effectively will be in most of his domestic agenda. And there seems little difference in the Tories’ description of their ‘responsibility agenda’ below from Brown’s emphasis on Britishness and his bringing together of the formulation of citizens’ rights with prescriptions about, and enforcement of, their responsibilities: “To make the most of the new world of freedom, we need to strengthen the structures which bring stability and a sense of belonging: home, neighbourhood and nation. Our Responsibility Agenda will therefore include Green Papers on welfare reform, health, marriage and relationships, addiction and debt, responsible business, social care, cohesion, and National Citizenship Service” (my emphases).

Like I said, the Cameron era will in many respects be a continuation of the Blair / Brown period. And it seems that the efforts to articulate, formalise and impose prescriptive definitions of (British) national identity and citizenship / responsibilities will be part of the baggage that is carried forward. I suppose that that’s also part of the Conservative unionist tradition and the British-nationalist Thatcherite legacy that the Cameron era will reaffirm; so there’s a ‘natural fit’ there between Brown’s wrapping of himself in the Union Flag and the New Conservatives.

There’s no doubt that the Conservative values, and the generational swing back to them, that Cameron appeals to are also in many respects English values: self-reliance, freedom from government interference, private ownership and enterprise, social responsibility and neighbourliness, and fairness towards the ‘poorest’ in society – as the Conservatives’ website continually refers, somewhat patronisingly, to the working class. And, in this respect, if English voters are largely responsible for electing a Conservative government with a large majority next time, then they can hardly complain when that government ignores the demand for an English parliament – except, of course, that government won’t have been elected by a majority of English voters; and if none of the major parties are even vaguely talking about the possibility of an English parliament, then the English people aren’t being offered the chance of voting for one.

This raises the possibility that the best hope for representative democratic English governance, accountable to the people of England, could again come from Scotland. Scotland and, to a lesser extent, Wales are unlikely to swing towards Cameron’s Conservatives to the same extent as the English. This could mean an increasing polarisation between ‘Tory England’, and nationalist and Labour Scotland and Wales, potentially resulting in growing antagonism and political divergence between England and the rest of the UK. Together with pressure in England to reduce the Barnett differentials (the formula guaranteeing Scotland and Wales a higher per capita level of public expenditure than the English), this could really give the Scottish-nationalist cause a massive shot in the arm. And, who knows, there might yet be a Scottish referendum that would say ‘yes’ to independence.

Cameron’s Conservatives, by continuing Brown’s Britishness crusade, might well yet set the seal on the Union’s demise. In which case perhaps, in ten years’ time, we might all be saying, along with Bruce (the English one, that is), “didn’t they do well?”

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.

1 July 2007

Putting Out the Smoking Gun: Anti-Smoking and Anti-Terror Measures

Today, a ban on smoking in confined public spaces enters into force in England: in England, specifically, as the other parts of the UK already have similar measures in place. To me, this ban illustrates the British and, I suppose in this instance also especially English, attitude to things that society regards as intolerable: beyond the limits of the much-vaunted British value of tolerance. (See other blog entries on this topic elsewhere.) Instead of confronting and discussing openly the real causes and possible solutions to problems that threaten or appear to threaten our security and well-being, we tend to suppress them from the public domain and confine them to the private realm, with legal measures designed to ensure they remain there.

In the case of the smoking ban, this is exactly the effect it will have. Smoking is effectively now censored as an acceptable public activity, unless you count smoking outside in the street. And you could argue that, in our society, the street is an extension of the private realm; or rather, society is trying to transform external public spaces into controlled, orderly environments in which everyone can go about their private business without interference from others – apart, of course, from the ever-watchful eye of Big Brother: the censorship authority in the shape of the steadily encroaching CCTV. So, as you stand smoking outside your workplace or walking to the shops, you are effectively acting merely in your capacity as a private individual; whereas, as soon as you enter a public building, your actions are regulated by civil law.

But a ban of this nature does not address the reasons why people smoke in the first place; nor does it – directly, at least – offer any real help to smokers in quitting; although it could be said to add a further social incentive for people to give up through increased stigmatisation of their habit. But essentially, the problem is just shifted from the public sphere to individuals’ private lives. In other words, society is effectively absolving itself of its responsibilities towards smokers and their families, and saying effectively, ‘it’s not our problem now; we don’t want to know. It’s up to you to decide whether you want to carry on with your anti-social behaviour or not’. So smokers go home and could well be more likely, not less, to light up in their houses (having not had their quota of nicotine during the day), with the consequence that the potential damage to their fellow residents’ health and safety is augmented.

One of the reasons why people start smoking is that it is – or used to be – quite a social habit: a chance to share time and a mutually enjoyable activity with other smokers in a relaxed if smoky atmosphere. There is or used to be a whole culture of smoking, with its conventions and rules governing social interaction and friendliness that were unique to the smoking situation. However, along with smoking itself, this aspect of sociability has been suppressed. I’ve been reading Watching the English by Kate Fox: an anthropological study of English behaviour and culture. The author discusses literally hundreds of unofficial but nonetheless binding ‘rules’ which, she says, govern English social interaction, including many rules relating to drinking and pub culture. But nowhere does she discuss ‘smoking rules’, even though smoking has been an integral part of English pub culture for as long as people can remember – until today, that is.

That’s all for the good, some people will say; it’s about time something was done about the problem. But then this is the ‘out of sight, out of mind’ approach that typifies English / British intolerance: suppress something from interfering with my freedoms and rights as a private citizen, and that’s the problem dealt with – except it isn’t, it’s just suppressed and denied. And of course, part of the issue with smoking is the hypocrisy around it from the highest level of government: the state literally earns billions of pounds from smoking through the ever-higher taxes that are imposed on the habit. So the state is effectively attempting to salve its conscience and demonstrate to the non-smoking majority that it is serious about the issue; while at the same time, the fact that the measures taken don’t really deal with the problem suits the state, which is co-responsible for it along with the cigarette manufacturers themselves.

Talking of the highest levels of state, it occurs to me on a somewhat fanciful level that if smoking were permitted in cabinet meetings, this might engender more truly collective, collegial government. When smoking was widely permitted, tolerated and indeed indulged in by the majority, I’m sure that the fact that smoking went on during meetings fostered a more congenial and trusting atmosphere in which people shared more of their opinions and participated more fully in making the decisions – simply because smoking is, or was, such a friendly, sociable activity. It isn’t that long ago that cabinet offices and, indeed, council chambers and boardrooms up and down the land would have had ashtrays almost in front of every seat. When was the last great smoking cabinet? One thinks of Churchill and Harold Wilson: both great smoking PMs; the former with cigars, the latter with pipes. The era of more centralised decision making concentrated around the person of the PM came in with Margaret Thatcher. Was smoking in cabinet also banned at this time?

None of this, one might argue, really matters very much compared with the much greater threat to our public safety that is posed by terrorism – with the two defused bombs in London last Friday and the attack on Glasgow Airport last night in mind. But firstly, you could argue that smoking is a very much greater danger to public safety than terrorism, especially in terms of real loss of life – except, of course, it precisely isn’t a matter of public safety any more, which is precisely the point I’m making: government has washed its smoke-smelling hands of it.

And secondly, the official response to the ‘terror threat’ exemplifies the same approach as that to smoking: the issue is censored and suppressed rather than being dealt with in its root causes. So we have repressive measures such as Control Orders and detention without charge for 28 days (90 days if GB [Gordon Brown] has his way); but there is no compelling evidence that such regulations have any effect in reducing the likelihood of terrorist attacks. That’s what’s so ridiculous about the government being fixated about supposedly eliminating ‘radical Muslim extremists’. ‘Radical’ means ‘at or from the root’. But the root of the problem is what you need to address and grasp with both hands, if the unwanted growth of terrorism is to be stemmed. And the root is not the extreme: at the root, there are real grievances; the extremism is the desperate outgrowth from those grievances, which lashes out at a government, society and culture that doesn’t want to know. An unacceptable and life-destroying form of behaviour, indeed, like smoking.

But just attempting to shut it up will not keep the gun from smoking. After all, a smoking gun is one that has already been fired not one that is about to go off.

14 June 2007

Should Britain Be Proud Of the Falklands War?

Today is the 25th anniversary of the liberation of the Falklands Islands (or Malvinas, as the Argentineans call them) from military occupation by Argentina. It’s the kind of day when one should refrain from political point scoring; rather, it’s a day for reflection and sorrow at the loss of so many young lives.

This morning, there has been a remembrance service at the Falklands War memorial church somewhere in Berkshire, England. This was attended by the Queen and Prince Philip, by the now Baroness Thatcher (the British prime minister at the time of the war, of course), and by Tony and Cherie Blair.

In order to truly do justice to the memory of those who lost their lives, an effort has to be made to understand the reasons and purpose of the conflict. Clearly, those who lost loved-ones wish to be proud of them, and so they should be: there is every honour in having the courage to risk and lose one’s life for the sake of a cause that one believes to be noble.

But on these occasions, there is a tendency for speakers to overstate the righteousness of the British cause in question. The preacher at this morning’s service, for instance, made the almost obligatory comparisons between those soldiers’ ‘sacrifice’ and that of Christ on the cross. But Christ did not carry weapons, nor did he go to war against the Roman occupiers of his homeland. That would have made him more like the Jewish Messiah that people were expecting at the time.

Lady Thatcher, in a speech to the islanders broadcast on radio yesterday, praised the way British soldiers have always been prepared to pay the ultimate price in the fight against ‘evil’, and stated that the current generation of British boys engaged in perhaps even more complex and dangerous struggles in Iraq and Afghanistan could take inspiration from the actions and victory of their predecessors in the Falklands – a victory over which, she asserted, everyone in Britain had rejoiced.

But can the Argentineans in the Falklands War be unambiguously identified with ‘evil’ in this way? Conflict is rarely that simple, and there is often a balance of right and wrong on both sides. The Argentinean soldiers in the Falklands War were mostly ill-trained conscripts: young lads who’d been whipped up since early childhood into patriotic indignation at the supposed ‘occupation’ by the British of territory that was ‘rightfully Argentinean’, and were effectively sent in by an incompetent military junta seeking to divert attention from troubles at home – lambs to the slaughter, indeed, against the professional British Army.

Historically and legally, Argentina probably has a reasonably valid claim to the islands, which were in fact taken by force by the British in 1833. However, clearly, the islands’ inhabitants are all of British descent and nationality, and wish to remain so; and trying to resolve the issue by force in their turn was obviously not a smart or justifiable move on the Argentineans’ part. It was almost inevitable that the British would send in a rescue force across the seas; that same Britain in whose heart still resonates the refrain:

‘Rule Britannia, Britannia rules the waves,

Britons never never never shall be slaves!’

But does that make it a just war? It’s hard to argue against it, especially on a day like this. But, also especially on a day like this, we should remember all those Argentinean mothers whose boys were gunned down by the British in a war for which their leaders had ill equipped them. Or those lads who were on the Belgrano: the Argentinean ship that was heading out of the British-imposed ‘exclusion zone’ around the islands when it was sunk on Margaret Thatcher’s orders.

Heroic things and evil things are done in war in the name of justice. Sometimes, it’s hard to tell them apart. So we should pray for all responsible: the Argentinean conscripts and the British professional warriors; the military dictators in Argentina and the Thatcher government, both of which made political capital out of the conflict. Christ died for them all.

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