Britology Watch: Deconstructing \’British Values\’

15 August 2009

The Conservatives are the “party of the NHS”: but which one?

It’s as if devolution never happened and we were back in the ‘good old days’ when there genuinely was only one National Health Service. Not one single item – not one – in all of the news coverage I saw or heard yesterday on the reaction to Tory MEP Daniel Hannan’s criticism of the NHS on US TV correctly referred to the organisation in question as the ‘English NHS’ (or, at least, the ‘NHS in England’), which is what they were actually talking about.

At least, David Cameron, Andrew Lansley (the Conservative Shadow Health Secretary (for England)) and Andy Burnham (the actual Health Secretary in England) can only have been referring to the NHS in England in their comments following Hannan’s contribution, as that’s the only NHS they either will have (if the Tories win the general election) or presently have responsibility for. But you couldn’t tell that from what they said.

David Cameron: “Just look at all the support which the NHS has received on Twitter over the last couple of days. It is a reminder – if one were needed – of how proud we in Britain are of the NHS. . . . That’s why we as a Party are so committed not just to the principles behind the NHS, but to doing all we can to improve the way it works in practice.”

Andrew Lansley: “Andrew pointed out that many of the NHS reforms promised by Labour, including practice-based commissioning, Foundation Trusts, patient choice and independent sector investment, have stalled under Gordon Brown. And he stressed, ‘All those who care about the NHS know that these are the kind of reforms that will enable us to achieve the combination of equity, efficiency and excellence which should be the hallmark of the NHS’.”

Andy Burnham: “I would almost feel . . . it is unpatriotic because he is talking in foreign media and not representing, in my view, the views of the vast majority of British people and actually, I think giving an unfair impression of the National Health Service himself, a British representative on foreign media”.

Let me note in passing what a complete and utter joke those last remarks of Andy Burnham’s are. Has Burnham suddenly transmuted into an English patriot, as it’s only the English NHS that he and the government of which he is a part has anything to do with? I don’t think so. Hannan’s not a ‘British representative’, i.e. a representative of the British government or parliament. But if he was, then doubtless Burnham feels his job would be to do what Burnham himself does: not so much misrepresenting the ‘British NHS’ abroad but misrepresenting the English NHS to the English public as the British NHS!

And as for that Twitter stream, don’t waste your time checking it out. It’s full of junk now, and I had to click down a couple of hundred entries before I got any reference to England that wasn’t either a porn link or a job ad, or indeed practically any reference to the political debate.

But actually, Twitter is quite a good metaphor for the debate: full of sentimental waffle but very little substance. It’s easy to prattle on about the NHS as a great British institution of which the people of Britain are rightly proud and keen to defend from unfair criticism from abroad. But the reality is that as a national-British institution, the NHS already no longer exists. It’s New Labour, not the Tories, that did away with it through devolution. And its the New Labour British government that did far more than the Tories ever did to privatise the NHS in England, with things like public-private partnerships to build and run new hospitals, the introduction of internal health-care markets, Foundation Trusts, and competition between GP surgeries and the new supposedly ‘consumer-friendly’ polyclinics, etc. Admittedly, while all of that was going on, the NHS’s of the other UK nations were – for good or ill – remaining more faithful to Labour’s traditional socialist principles, with fully public sector-based organisations amply subsidised by the English taxpayer.

Does it matter, though, whether you call it the ‘English NHS’ or the ‘British NHS’? Isn’t this just semantics? Well, I think the English believe in the principle of calling a spade a spade: if you are talking about something that relates to England only, you should at least have the honesty and courtesy to let people know that’s what you’re doing. Of course, on one level, it’s legitimate to refer to the ‘British NHS’ even when discussing policy for its English variant; i.e. when talking about the founding principles that are said to inform the NHS throughout Britain to this day: fully public-funded health care free at the point of delivery. But the point is those principles are not applied evenly, and equally, across the whole of the UK. There is no longer a single UK model for how public-sector health care should be funded and organised. And the model presently applied in England has moved further away from the NHS’s original principles than that in any of the other UK nations.

This does matter for the political debate going forward into the general election. Daniel Hannan has helpfully exposed a vulnerability of the Tories in England, because it’s clear that the Tories do support further reform of the English NHS along the lines set out by New Labour. Those Tory reforms mentioned above in the context of Andrew Lansley’s reaction to Hannan’s remarks (“practice-based commissioning, Foundation Trusts, patient choice and independent sector investment”) are precisely New Labour policies that the Tories claim the government has failed to deliver. If the Tories pursue them, they will indeed drive further marketisation of the NHS – but only in England. By appealing to the founding ‘British NHS’ principles, and by promising to increase NHS funding in real terms, the Tories are trying to make out that they back the traditional, fully nationalised model for health-care delivery in the UK. They may well support a generously public-funded health-care system; but in England, at least, the delivery model will involve a much greater role for private companies and market competition, which will inevitably lead to inequalities and increased variations in the availability of high-quality NHS treatment for different conditions in different parts of ‘the country’ – England, that is. But the more they talk up their allegiance to the traditions of the ‘British NHS’, the more they hope we won’t read the English small print.

Plus the Tories are also addressing the non-English electoral ‘market’, of course, and are hoping that the uninformed (misinformed) public there – again, through the emotive appeal to the NHS as a national-British institution – will be deluded into thinking that a Conservative government will have direct influence on health-care policy in their countries (which it won’t) and will stand guarantor for traditional NHS values there – which it may do, through acquiescence with the policy variations and funding inequalities that have flowed from asymmetric devolution and the Barnett Formula. But actually, a real-terms increase in public expenditure on health in England will not necessarily deliver corresponding and proportionately greater increases in NHS funding in the other countries of the UK. This is because public expenditure overall under the Tories is set to decrease, so that increases in the health budget will have to be paid for by cuts elsewhere. And a decrease in overall spending in England will result in even greater proportionate decreases in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. In other words, increased investment in the NHS in England may actually result in the need to cut the NHS budget in the other nations. While some of us in England might derive malicious satisfaction from what would in effect be a levelling out of healthcare apartheid (and, after all, the Tories have promised, dishonestly, to improve equality of NHS care throughout the UK), this is a wilful deception of voters in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland: the Tories appear to be promising to increase NHS funding throughout the UK; but actually, they’re talking about England only; and increases in the English health-care budget may indirectly lead to decreases in the health-care budget in the other parts of the UK.

But Labour can’t talk, either. This system of unequal funding and differing delivery models throughout the UK is the one that they set up; and to claim that they support a uniform UK-wide NHS organised along traditional lines is a pure, downright lie. Well, they might emotionally support it, with misty-eyed reverence towards Nye Bevan and the post-war settlement; but in practice, the New Labour government has already broken up that British NHS beyond repair. The truth of the matter is New Labour has run out of policy ideas for the NHS in England but has supported a traditional-type NHS in the other UK countries. So all it can do is appeal to ‘patriotic’ and nostalgic support for a great British institution that is no more (in England, at least) in the hope that it can deceive enough of the English people for enough of the time to secure another election ‘victory’ that will enable it to continue to cross-subsidise a traditional NHS in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland through further privatisation of the system in England – as they have done since 1997.

Well, the English people won’t fall for that one again. But they might fall for the similar trap the Tories are laying. The English people need to have an informed debate on the type of health-care system they want in England; because that’s what the whole argument is really all about. Health care in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland is dealt with separately by the devolved administrations. So it’s only the English system that the Westminster politicians can do anything about. By claiming, as David Cameron did yesterday, that the Conservatives are the “party of the NHS”, the Tories are trying to reassure the English people that the NHS is safe in their hands. But that’s not the point. There will still be an NHS; but what sort of NHS will it be in England, as opposed to the doubtless very different NHS’s that are developing along divergent lines in the rest of the UK? The Tories need to be honest and up front about the small print of their plans for England, and not obfuscate the whole discussion by misleading references to a monolithic British NHS that is no more. But so do the politicians of all parties.

After all, Mr Cameron, Brown and Co., you can’t fool all of the English people all of the time, even if you think you can.

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?

26 May 2008

English Nationalism and Progressive Politics

For me, ‘progressive’ is something of a dirty word. I associate it with the arrogance of the left – particularly, in the British context, of the Labour Party – and of some secular liberals, who seem to divide the world into the rational, modern, ‘progressive’ sheep to the left, and the ideologically reactionary and psychologically ‘regressive’, (religious-)conservative ‘goats’ to the right. Traditionally, however, on Judgement Day – or, as we might put it, ‘in the final analysis’ – it’s the goats on the left that are damned.

New Labour is now facing up to its own impending Judgement Day, at the next general election. Of course, it’s already had to endure three minor tribunals (the recent local elections, the London mayoral vote, and Crewe and Nantwich) where the electorate has damned it for its ineptitude, its arrogance and its lack of a vision for ‘the country’. And, we may ask, which country?

Of course, it’s predominantly the English electorate that has delivered the recent swings towards the Conservatives; not the Welsh (also polled in the local elections) and certainly not the Scots, where the Tories remain as weak a political force as ever. Is there a connection between this growing rejection of New Labour by the English and the fact that, in the PM’s recent statement concerning the government bills to be brought to parliament in the autumn term, the most systematic parts of the Governance of Britain agenda – the Bill of Rights and Responsibilities, the Statement of British Values, and a possible British Constitution – were quietly put on hold?

One wonders what New Labour’s focus groups and private opinion polls have been revealing about the English public’s attitude to the Britishness crusade. Doubtless, people have been saying, ‘stop hammering on about what it means to be British and get on with the real job, particularly sorting out the problems with the economy’. A very pragmatic response, indeed, to the rather un-English attempts to systematise Britishness and even to establish a new integral Nation of Britain.

But the growing electoral favour enjoyed by David Cameron’s Conservatives (or shall we just call them the New Tories?) does not equate to a groundswell of support for English nationalism, as such; nor are the Conservatives the obvious choice for the majority of English people who favour some form of England-specific governance, ranging from an English Grand Committee to full independence. The Conservative Party is of course opposed to an English parliament and will probably abandon its as yet equivocal support for some variant of the EGC idea if it feels it can win a large outright majority. As the argument goes, since such a majority would be based entirely on the choices of voters in England – as distorted by the first-past-the-post electoral system – there would be no point in having a separate EGC for England-only bills, as the Tory majority in the EGC would simply be replicating that in the UK parliament as a whole. But would the Tory government’s legislative and policy programme constitute a new – let alone progressive – agenda for England?

Everyone wants to be progressive these days, even the New Tories. Indeed, in a recent article in The Independent, David Cameron affirmed that “it is the Conservative Party that is the champion of progressive ideals in Britain today”. The three main examples of Conservative progressivism Cameron provided were the commitment to eliminate poverty in Britain, environmental sustainability, and equality of opportunity / social mobility, which was described as “the most fundamental progressive ideal of all”. The mechanisms that the Tories would apply to realise these objectives were essentially those of the market, along with targeted increases in support to social services and charities working with the most vulnerable. These were contrasted to the “old-fashioned mechanisms of top-down state control” supposedly favoured by New Labour. In other words, David Cameron was unmistakably positioning the Tories as the party that would actually deliver on the New Labour agenda of market-driven economic and social reform, in contrast to GB [Gordon Brown], who had ‘conservatively’ resorted to his Old Labour statist instincts.

So in fact, the ‘new progressive’ politics of David Cameron’s Conservatives are just New Labour Mark II: he’s playing out the same old Conservative political narrative as Tony Blair himself, in which it is now the Tories, not New Labour, who have the innovative, flexible and market-orientated solutions to lift people out of poverty, to motivate individuals to improve their lives, to promote social cohesion, and to create wealth in an environmentally sustainable way. This is the same paradigm as New Labour: social-market economics or, in other words, Thatcherite economics as the instrument for achieving progressive social objectives, primarily because the market serves as the model for society itself. The more society is transformed into an efficiently functioning market, so the thinking goes, the more the needs of society will be addressed by the market and people’s lives will be improved by their enhanced participation in the market, i.e. through becoming ever more effective agents in the world of buying and selling, as employees and consumers.

David Cameron’s formula injects a modest degree of One Nation Conservatism back into the mix, in terms of stressing the importance of government concern for, and effective measures to support, the most vulnerable in society. But the message is essentially the same: greater social justice and improved economic efficiency are interdependent objectives, and addressing social problems is about enabling everyone to become economically productive individuals and social units – able both to create and capitalise on opportunity, and to lift up their own lives, without the economic inefficiency and social dependency of a bloated public sector. So Cameron talks of “paying couples to live together rather than apart” (economic incentive to engineer social result – what about the only recent Tory re-emphasis on marriage, which now appears to have been dropped?); “plans for radical welfare reform to help people move from long-term poverty to long-term employment” (difference from New Labour or Thatcherism? Cutting / re-structuring benefits to give people more incentive to work and so alleviate poverty); the green revolution driven by “markets and incentives for dynamic industrial change, rather than centre-left approaches such as bureaucracy and regulation”; and “radical school reform, bringing the best education to the poorest children by opening up the state system to new providers” (avowedly Blairite opening up of the education system to market mechanisms); etc.

So, David Cameron’s New Toryism in fact comprises a very tired set of arguably failed political mantras, and ultimately rests on an idea that (Britain’s) social problems can be addressed and remedied, in the first instance, through market mechanisms designed to stimulate economic growth. In this, it is not just the inheritor of New Labour, and by extension Thatcherism, but also in fact of Old Labour, which was economic and materialist in its thinking about social engineering, albeit that the formula was fundamentally different. Does this point to what is ultimately meant by progressive politics: a politics of how to improve society, where the model for that improvement is provided primarily by ideas of economic, technological and material ‘progress’? In this sense, the Tories are indeed true progressives: they worship the same Idols of wealth, power and human technology, and marvel at the social depredations caused by the greed, selfishness and lust for more that these unleash.

And another way in which the New Tories represent very much the same old politics is in their Britain-centric thinking. All the policy ideas are stated as relating to ‘Britain’, not England, even though those relating to education, the environment, and work with local-community organisations of every type, aimed at tackling distinctive local socio-economic problems, would mostly involve the government in its England-only aspects – policy in these areas for Scotland and Wales having been made the responsibility of the devolved administrations in those countries. Is it really possible, in the post-devolution world, to advocate a progressive politics for the whole of Britain when so many of the traditional levers for delivering that social agenda (education, health, housing, transport, communities and local government) have been devolved? The main political parties sidestep this problem by continuing to pretend that their remit in these areas is UK-wide, which they do by continually referring to ‘Britain’ and ‘this country’, and suppressing all mention of ‘England’ even when – or particularly when – they’re referring to England alone.

So to the intellectual poverty of the parties’ socio-economic prescriptions one has to add the political dishonesty of denying that the progressive agenda for Britain – insofar as it is thought of as being delivered by Westminster – is mainly a progressive agenda for England; the better to justify the participation of Scottish and Welsh Labour voters and MPs in deciding on laws and policies for England they are not directly affected by; or, under Cameron, to disguise the fact that a Tory government will have no mandate for Scotland or Wales – or even, really, for England, where it is unlikely to obtain an actual majority of the popular vote.

Can a government really be said to care for the people if it cannot even acknowledge them by name and affirm them for what they are: the people of England and not of Britain as a whole? And that means acknowledging English life and society as it really is: in many respects, profoundly broken and damaged; but also having many enduring, positive characteristics that can provide the basis for restoring civic pride and re-building shattered communities. Reaffirming English culture and identity as good and valuable in themselves, and rallying people around the idea that there is a whole ‘new’ nation – that of England – to be built, could provide a massive stimulus to re-engaging people in participative democracy at both local and national level, so long as voters’ actual intentions are reflected in election results and there is real accountability of politicians to the people at every level at which power is exercised. In short, we need political reform, giving the chance for the English people to vote on alternative ways forward for ‘their’ nation (England), before we can get any real momentum behind a new progressive agenda – as one could then begin to address the questions of who the progress is for, and who defines what constitutes progressive change in England.

How might this new English progressive agenda shape up? This is obviously a huge question. But it seems to me that the beginning of an answer to it could be found by definitively ‘breaking the mould’ – to coin a phrase – of the old assumptions and tribal loyalties associated with the ‘left’, ‘right’ and ‘centre’, while at the same time re-focusing and combining the best elements in the traditions of the left and of the middle of English-British politics towards addressing England’s real social problems. This involves making the social objectives paramount, and reforming the economy and politics in order to achieve those objectives most effectively: the objectives being to give individuals and communities more of a sense that they have a real stake in shaping their future, and can create sustainable economic activities and social infrastructure; in part because the purpose of business itself is redefined as being much more to do with creating and sustaining valued communities rather than providing increasingly insecure, and merely economic, value for isolated individuals (whether employees or shareholders) and for ‘the country’.

But such a programme is unrealistic without a significant transformation in the attitudes and expectations of people for their lives in general – moving away from placing value on material, technological and individual-economic progress for their own sake, and towards seeing progress in different terms: those of quality of life, not quantity of assets; of real, supportive and safe communities; sustainable production and consumption, not material excess; and technology harnessed towards the creation of an environmentally more sustainable way of life that needn’t discard all the positive benefits of our technological lifestyle in terms of comfort, health and a more enjoyable life. A better England, reflecting the priorities and addressing the needs of the people of England; and not a mad, economic growth-obsessed, and unsustainably globalising Britain whose economic success under New Labour – as we now realise – was built on the unsteady foundation of insane property prices and overactive global credit markets. Unrealistic? Well, maybe this sort of adjustment of our expectations will be forced upon us anyway through the need to mitigate and adapt to climate change. Better to plan ahead for, and make the most of, the wide-ranging changes that will have to happen in any case; and better that those who are doing this planning are people who care about England and her people, and are answerable to them.

The tables below illustrate my take on how the new progressive politics could re-state the old polarities of right and left. The first table shows how New Labour colonised not just the traditional centre of British politics but also classical or Thatcherite Conservative policies in the areas of society, the economy and international affairs; so much so that it has been impossible for the Tories to articulate any sort of credible position in these areas. The colour coding indicates which party has occupied the traditional left, centre and right positions in a number of areas during the majority of the New Labour period in power:

Angle Left Centre Right
Society Egalitarian, collectivist; working class: socialist Equality of opportunity, redistributive; middle class, aspirational: social democratic Hierarchical, individualist; upper(-middle) class, privilege: Tory
Economy Public ownership, command-based (‘needs-orientated’): socialist Regulated free markets, ‘social model’: social democratic Private ownership, demand-driven (market-orientated): ‘economic liberalism’, Thatcherism
Politics Statist, centralist, popular-unionist, ‘sovereignty of the people’, republican: socialist / social democratic; Old Labour Regionalist, localist, community-focused; small-scale, participative democracy: Liberal Anti-state, ‘centrifugal’, unionist-nationalist, ‘sovereignty of the individual’, monarchist: Tory
Philosophy, ideology Secular, rationalist, materialist, progressive, liberal; Western Enlightenment tradition: socialist / social democratic; Old Labour Pluralist, tolerant, consensus; libertarian, humanitarian, human rights-focused; Western Enlightenment tradition: Liberal Traditionalist, morally / socially conservative; (Anglican) establishment Christianity: Tory
International outlook Internationalist, solidarity / fraternity; ‘inclusive mono-culturalism’: socialist / social democratic; Old Labour A-national, universal; ‘exclusive multi-culturalism’: liberal Globalist, capitalist; imperialist mono-culturalism: Tory

David Cameron is clearly trying to re-occupy the centre ground for the Conservatives, particularly in the areas of society and politics as outlined in the above table. However, at the same time, this involves reaffirming Tory market economics – traditionally, a right-wing position – which was also colonised by New Labour. By emphasising the ‘soft’ social dimension of Tory policies (addressing the needs of the poorest and most vulnerable, creating greater opportunity and social mobility, environmental sustainability), Cameron is distracting attention from the fact that the basic mechanism he has in mind for achieving these goals is good old-fashioned market economics: Blair II (or Thatcher III, if Blair is seen as Thatcher II).

If this form of economy-centric approach to social re-engineering is rejected as a progressive position in favour of making economic activity the servant of social objectives – as opposed to ransoming society to a growth-obsessed economy – then one can begin to see the parameters of a new progressive politics that could affirm and redefine the goals of the best of the traditional left and centre, while repudiating the more traditionally right-wing aspects of Conservatism and New Labour, such as dogmatic market economics, unchecked globalisation, and ignoring the needs and priorities of the English working and middle classes. The table below illustrates how this new progressive alignment might shape up:

Angle Progressive Left Progressive Centre Old Tory
Society Working class; social justice Middle class, Middle England; opportunity, fairness, social responsibility Upper(-middle) class and the very wealthy; ‘selfish’ individualism and corporate greed; privilege
Economy Economic pragmatism: best ownership structures to ensure sustainable delivery of social objectives; ‘social enterprise’ culture: successful businesses, serving social needs; some services back to public ownership? Economic diversity: multiplicity of public-private cross-overs; local / social enterprises meeting community needs; small business Private enterprise, exclusively demand-driven (market-orientated); big business; global capital
Politics Popular nationalism: celebration and promotion of English culture, people, traditions, history; sovereignty of the English people; pan-British federalism / co-operation; importance of cohesive but also ethnically / culturally / internationally inclusive, open English nation (or nation state) Localism-regionalism: strong, constitutionally safeguarded commitment to powerful representative local-regional democracy; citizens’ rights Unitary unionism / British nationalism; anti-state, anti-English-nationalist tendencies (individualist, global-capitalist)
Philosophy, ideology Secular, rationalist, materialist, progressive, liberal; Western Enlightenment tradition Pluralist, tolerant, consensus; libertarian, humanitarian, human rights-focused; Western Enlightenment tradition; Christian / respect for all faiths Increasingly anachronistic, unrealistic, mono-cultural traditionalism / Christian-social-moral conservatism
International outlook Internationalist, solidarity / fraternity; new ‘English multi-culturalism’; co-operation and participation in international bodies where in the national English interest Focus on global sustainable development, alleviating world poverty / disease, world environment challenges, justice / human rights: ‘one-world’ culture Globalist, capitalist; imperialist; Western-centric mono-culturalism

The Tories’ present appeal is too dependent on developing a narrative that they will safeguard economic prosperity to develop a radical progressive agenda that could easily occupy even the centre ground of progressive politics, as outlined in the above table. And they are certainly too wedded to the unionist ideal to articulate anything approximating to popular English nationalism, which does, on the other hand, have considerable appeal among the working- and middle-class sections of the population that represent the natural constituency for the left and centre of English politics.

English people will be re-engaged by politics when they can see ambitious but also grounded, realistic policies for addressing the terrible social problems that exist in England, which are the legacy of the failures of both the welfare state and Thatcherite market economics. This would indeed be a new progressive agenda, but it would have to do two things: make flourishing economic activity and enterprise, critical though they are, the servant of social needs and communities, and not the other way round; and, to some extent, put England and the English first – while by no means forgetting our international partnerships and responsibilities, and above all those to the poor and oppressed throughout the world. Which means two long-term habits of progressive thinking will need to be abandoned: making economic growth and success, measured in purely GDP terms, the motor and definition of social progress; and making Britain the focus of all policy, when that Britain no longer exists and may well disappear altogether under a Cameron government that will be intensely unpopular in Scotland.

Then maybe the Last Judgement on the progressives will not be as harsh as might be feared, and the terrible dichotomies of left and right will fade away – but only if self-professed progressives learn to put real people and nations before the global gods of power and money.

13 March 2008

Is England the New Red?

Recently, there’ve been mutterings of revolution in the English-nationalist blogosphere. Doubtless, such fighting talk has got the minions at the Home Office who track potentially ‘subversive’ publications feeling twitchy. They do actually do this, or at least they used to back in the 70s and 80s when the threat they feared was that of presumed-to-be Soviet-backed revolutionary organisations and their antithesis: racist British nationalists. So we’d better be careful what we write: Big Brother’s most junior civil servants could be watching us. And if you’re reading this, chaps, hello and I hope you enjoy it. Gosh, I wouldn’t actually mind reading English-nationalist blogs for a living! (Well, I suppose you can get too much of a good thing.)

Joking aside, is English nationalism on the government’s radar as a serious threat to ‘this country’s’ stability, on a par with, or analogous to, terrorism? You could say that English nationalists are viewed by the liberal establishment as something of a combination of the two threats they used to be worried about 30 years ago: left-wing and right-wing extremism. Left-wing because of our defence of the English people, betrayed and ignored by a conservative New Labour that pursues its own mainly middle-class-orientated ideological agenda without a mandate, and ignoring the needs of the working class it used to speak for; right-wing because of the automatic assimilation liberals make between nationalism and racism, and hence between the often in reality rather liberal English nationalist and the in fact extremist BNP.

So when the government contemplates the world of English nationalism as it presents its case on the world-wide web, does it see red? That’s if it’s bothered to keep any sort of watch over what English nationalists and the English people as such are saying to them; because the extent to which the very existence of England as a nation is ignored in official government publications and policy could lead one to the conclusion that England isn’t on their radar in any shape or form.

The association of England with the colour red, and the radical political positions traditionally linked with that colour, is perhaps not just a trivial one. It was suggested in a local Campaign for an English Parliament blog recently that the English flag is genuinely and widely regarded as a health and safety risk, presumably because of its use of red. Anthropological studies have indeed concluded that red is associated with danger, violence and death – obviously because of the association with blood. For this reason, one academic report I heard about yesterday suggested that wearing red kit gives football teams a psychological advantage, because it’s a form of intimidatory display of male aggression. The report cited the fact that the three most successful English football clubs throughout the history of the game – Liverpool, Manchester Utd and Arsenal – all wear red as their home kit; and the study apparently backs up this observation with statistical analysis.

Much as it pains me profoundly as a Spurs supporter, I had often wondered myself whether wearing red gives teams something of a psychological boost for this very reason. And though I have an unfounded pride in the fact that the England national team wears Spurs’ colours for their home kit, maybe we should contemplate switching to our current second kit as the home kit: red shirt and white shorts. After all, we did win our only World Cup victory wearing the red shirts. Similarly, when the English Army was still known as the English, not British, Army, the uniform was also bright red; and it must have been quite an intimidating experience coming up against young English lads – who, let’s face it, have always enjoyed a bit of a ruck against Johnny Foreigner – bedecked in red in the field of battle. In fact, I seriously doubt whether the migrant-besieged citizens of Peterborough would have displayed the same level of aggression towards English military personnel – if they were English – than they are reported to have recently shown towards uniformed members of the British RAF.

Whatever you think of this sort of colour theory, it is an observable fact that the colour red is out of fashion: in design, corporate branding, the fashion industry proper, graphic art and politics. Red is used much more sparingly than it used to be. Think back to the 1980s when our streets were filled with bright-red cars; children’s toys were very often bright red; and people actually wore red clothing from day to day, rather than just on special occasions such as Christmas parties or, let’s be honest, when women want to draw the male eye. At that time, of course, the Labour Party was proud to sing the Red Flag (and its members used to actually know the words) and to sport red as its tribal colour, when it still laid claims to being socialist. The ‘rot’ perhaps came in when they opted for the red rose as their symbol, backed by inoffensive greys and beige.

Seriously, though, when did this decline of red from being a ‘popular’ colour – indeed, the colour of the people – to being a despised colour begin? It seems to me that it’s about the same time as the communist-socialist political ideal died a death in the early 90s, with the collapse of the former Communist Block and the end of socialism as a realistic, electable proposition not just in Britain but in most Western European countries. The end of the socialist dream also saw a realignment in people’s values, which became focused more on individual ‘aspiration’ rather than placing one’s hope for a better life in a collective political undertaking and a ‘better society’. Aspiration is about desire: not just sexual desire but about imagining a better future in which you can not only have everything you basically need but realise all your ambitions and possess all you want. Socialism, on the other hand, is about making sure everyone’s basic needs are met: to each according to his needs.

And the colour red is also about basic need: in addition to being associated with violence and death, and for the very same reasons, it is associated with everything that is most vital and indispensable for life itself – our life’s blood, and all that sustains life and resists the threat of suffering and death. Hence, the symbol of the great humanitarian organisation: the Red Cross on a white background. Which, of course, also happens to be the symbol of England. Because red is associated with basic needs, rather than with the aspirational aspects of our culture and our politics, it is also generally thought of now as a ‘cheap’ and ‘crude’ colour. Think just how widespread the use of red is to advertise or serve as the brand for goods and retail stores that are thought of as cheap or ‘on sale’.

So when those Home Office tea wallahs or serious liberal politicos visit English-nationalist websites to be regaled by the prominent use of red everywhere, including proud displays of the Cross of St George, are they put off by the dual associations of red with extreme left-wing, even revolutionary, politics, and with a crudeness of design reflecting a supposed crudeness of thought and expression? Are any would-be liberal middle-class converts to the English-nationalist cause put off by its apparent appeal – symbolised by the use of red – to populism and the supposedly ill-educated, rude and aggressive English working class? I think there can be little doubt that such class and cultural factors are at work in liberal squeamishness towards English nationalism, and the reluctance of liberals to even consider that fair, representative democracy for England is actually a natural liberal cause.

But really, we’ve got to look beyond image and consider the substance of the matter: that substance being the real needs and wishes of the English people that the British political establishment has ignored for so long. This is not necessarily a socialist argument, but it certainly is a demand for social justice; and an insistence that neglected English working and non-working people, with all the huge social and personal problems they face, need to be at the forefront of political thinking and policy, and not the despised margin. And for this reason, we should be proud to display the red of England: a reminder that England needs to be heard.

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.

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