Maybe after Henri “le Douanier” Rousseau.
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I’ve been feeling an obligation to write something on the post-referendum UK here at CT, but little inclination to do so. The result came as a punch to the gut, and everything since then has been a weird combination of deeper depression and insane hilarity as the dreams of the Brexiteers unravel. Still, we have a new Prime Minister and a new government, the basic contours of which are becoming clear. Mrs May has been chosen as a grown up, charged with charting a course through the reefs and shallows of Brexit to the fabled open water beyond (reports of which are largely based on unreliable traveller’s tales). So what sort of government do we have? One that is markedly to the left of the Cameron-Osborne version on matters of economic policy and markedly to the right on individual rights and citizenship. We’ve had May giving speeches about inequality, class and opportunity that are indistinguishable from Ed Miliband’s election platform and Philip Hammond (the new Chancellor) saying that, given low interest rates, we can borrow to invest in infrastructure projects. On the other hand, May’s record at the Home Office is one of some who thinks that “citizenship is a privilege and not a right”, who has floated the idea of leaving the European Convention on Human Rights, who doesn’t think the rule of law applies to foreigners, and who was reluctant to guarantee the position of existing EU national residents in the UK. The quasi-libertarians who believe in free-market economics and gay rights have been dumped, Osborne foremost among them, to be replaced by social authoritarians like the disgraced Liam Fox. More inclusive and cuddly for good native-born citizens, an iron fist for the rest. The only incongruous note in all this, and one that undermines somewhat May’s image of seriousness, is appointing Boris Johnson as Foreign Secretary, a man who has insulted many world leaders personally (and entire countries) and who is know abroad for serial lying, adultery and getting stuck on a zip-wire wearing the Union Jack. Still, even that is of a piece with her tactic of putting Brexiteers (Johnson, Fox, Davis, Leadsom) in the places where the hard negotiating has to be done. They said leaving the EU would be a piece of cake, now they are expected to deliver.
Went to bed feeling optimistic, believing the late polls and the bookies, and turned the radio on at 4.20 to hear Nigel Farage gloating. A coalition of English and Welsh voters, advanced in years, low in education, and xenophobic in attitude, have enabled the worst and most reactionary people in British society, made it extremely likely that Scotland will secede, undermined the peace settlement on the island of Ireland, and destroyed the UK’s access to the single market. They have made it likely that their children and grandchildren will be deprived of the right of free movement within the EU. The pound is tanking and the stock market too. Imports will be more expensive, inflation will rise, house prices will fall but interest rate rises will keep the cost of being housed high. Immigration will probably fall, but not because “we” regained “control of our borders” but because immigrants come for jobs and there will be way fewer of those. Already we have the farce of areas of the country, like Cornwall, that voted for Brexit demanding that central government guarantee that the EU subsidies they get will be replaced. And then the horrible lying politics of the whole campaign, with Leave claiming that money saved on the EU would be diverted to the NHS (a commitment Farage repudiated within hours of the result). Little England with Wales is a poorer, narrower, stingier place. Cameron, the most incompetent Prime Minister in British history and the architect of this disaster is walking away, to be replaced by a hard right Tory administration under the leadership of Gove, May or the Trumpesque clown Johnson. People, we are well and truly fucked.
From the same stable as some of Harry’s recommendations, the song that I had always meant to post in this eventuality:
Peter Singer, consequentialist philosopher and patron saint of “effective altruism” has expressed himself on the question of rights to asylum and refugee status:
Singer has urged a rethink of global asylum policy. He wants to stop refugees able to travel to the country of their choice from being able to claim asylum at the expense of those unable to make the journey. He worries that the current system enables people to “somehow jump the queue” – adding that although Britain has a “moral obligation” to accept refugees, this does not include everyone who makes it to the UK.
“I don’t think Britain has a particular obligation to accept those who manage to set foot on British shores,” he tells i. “I think something needs to be rethought about this idea of the right of asylum as it’s now being applied.”
The same goes for his homeland, Australia, he adds, where the government is often criticised for not taking in more Rohingya refugees fleeing persecution in Burma. “Taking those who manage to get on boats to Australia provides an incentive to make these dangerous journeys during which some get drowned. [The refugees] in the UNHCR camps in Lebanon or wherever are in just as much need of a place to go as the people who are landing in Australia or Greece.”
Here, the perfectly valid point that the those in refugee camps in poor countries are just was worthy of help as those who arrive in rich ones is placed in service of the demonization of those who arrive in boats as “queue jumpers” and the endorsement of the ridiculous argument of right-wing politicians about “incentives” to make dangerous journeys. The reason people make those dangerous journeys is because the governments of wealthy countries, using mechanisms such as carrier sanctions and visa restrictions, have blocked safe and inexpensive routes of escape from dangerous places. They do this not in the service of a fair conception of the distribution of humanitarian burdens but because they don’t want to deal with the numbers and would prefer to maintain the existing unfair distribution where most refugees are in poor countries. Singer is correct that we can distinguish between the right to asylum and the right to settle in a particular place. Perhaps when the governments of wealthy states are willing to have a proper discussion about what a fair pattern of settlement would look like, we can also reassess other elements of the system. Pending that commitment to justice on the part of the wealthy, stigmatizing those who make it across from Libya, Turkey or Haiti as “queue jumpers” is the mark of someone who has lost his moral compass.
At the moment, I’m reading my way through David Miller’s new Strangers in our Midst and also getting very exercised about the UK’s Brexit referendum (to the point where I’m waking at night and worrying about it). My siblings and I have all benefited from the EU’s free movement rights, my children both have non-British EU partners, we think of ourselves as Europeans. So for me, the threat of Brexit is a threat of lost identity, of something that has been there all my adult life just disappearing overnight. And so I’m feeling pretty resentful towards my fellow citizens who might vote to cut that tie and thereby endanger the security and family life of millions of EU citizens in the UK and UK citizens elsewhere in the EU.
One of Miller’s arguments is a familiar one about social trust, about how welfare states depend for their stability on such trust and that the increasing diversity that immigration brings tends to undermine support for redistributive programmes. This lack of trust gets expressed in anger about stories that immigrants are ahead in the queue for social housing, that they are a drain on health and education services, that they are getting “something for nothing”, and so forth. Needless to say, most of such stories are false. Nevertheless, there may be elements in the design of the UK’s welfare state and its relatively non-contributory character that fuel such anxieties.
Here’s the thing. Those voting for Brexit out of resentment against immigration are disproportionately the elderly poor whites who don’t pay much in but who benefit from those public services. A predictable consequence of them getting what they want is that the fiscal base for those services will be eroded and that either they will have to be cut or taxes will have to be increased. This is because those EU immigrants are, in fact, paying more in taxes than they are taking in services. (Actually, the UK is free-riding in a big way, as it never paid for the cost of educating and training those workers.)
When I take those political affiliation surveys, I always say I’m willing to pay higher taxes. But now the devil on my shoulder is saying “why should you pay higher taxes to replace the taxes that were paid by EU migrants? Those idiots have brought it on themselves, let them now suffer the consequences”. An ugly thought, but I’m guessing that if I’m having it then I’m not alone. The UK’s EU referendum has eroded social trust more than immigration per se ever did. It poses the question of what citizens owe to one another in pretty stark terms. If people could mitigate the need for higher taxes by accepting immigrants and they choose not to do so, why should their wealthier fellow citizens bear the cost of their choices?
With Euro 2016 about to start, thoughts naturally turn to Euro 96, when England hosted the tournament. 1996 was a great year for me, I awoke from what may, in retrospect, have been a period of undiagnosed depression (certainly hypochondria), and it felt like coming out into the sunlight. My two boys were 8 and 11 respectively, it was the year of Britpop, the phoney battle between Oasis and Blur and the wonder that was Pulp’s Different Class. It was also the the year of Liverpool 4, Newcastle 3 (the greatest game in the history of the Premier League), and the year when I started a journal, Imprints, with a conference at Senate House in London which commenced with a debate between Jerry Cohen and Tony Skillen. As the conference finished, we all crowded around a radio to hear the England-Spain penalty shoot-out (the last time England prevailed in one). Though England didn’t win the tournament, losing to Germany — who else? — in the semis, we got to see the thrashing of the Scots with McAllister’s miss and Gazza’s genius and then then destruction of the Dutch, all to the soundtrack of Baddiel, Skinner and the Lightning Seeds. We were on the verge of the first Labour government since 1979, and with the Tories looking tired and split the country felt together and optimistic. The St George’s flag, which fluttered everywhere that summer, seemed to stand for this mood, somehow magically recovered from a narrow and exclusive nationalism.
(Much of this was undoubtedly fluff and illusion, and probably massively irritating to the other local nationalities. Still, the optimism was real, the sense that a better future was coming after the night of Thatcherism.)
“Today, alas, that happy crowded floor looks very different.” Thirty year of hurt have turned into fifty, and nobody has any expectations of this England team. But more pertinently, we live in a deeply divided country, squeezed by austerity and xenophobia, where each camp in the Brexit referendum views the other with loathing and contempt (I’m no exception). The Labour government that came to power in ’97 squandered its chances in the sand of Iraq. England is now a dark fractured place: nasty, British and short-tempered, beset by cuts, food banks, benefit sanctions and performance targets. The St George’s flag has become the property of racists, Islamophobes and “white-van man”, a symbol to be deployed against unpatriotic middle-class lefties. I hope we get through this, and stay in Europe, but the wounds will be deep and the resentments strong either way. What a difference twenty years makes.
I was interviewed by Nigel Warburton for Five Books about Rousseau, so here are my thoughts, as edited from audio of our conversation, and so reasonably spontaneous. Of course, the real starting-point should be the man himself.
I’ve felt myself getting almost irrationally angry over the past few days with a certain sort of person. The kind of person who advocates Brexit from a “left-wing”, “classical republican” or “democratic” perspective. It is bad enough when such people live in the UK or Europe, but at least those people will have to live with the consequences. But it is particularly galling to hear these lectures from across the Atlantic, from people whose sole take on the subject is that the EU is undemocratic, a “bosses club”, enforces a neoliberal agenda, and would be an obstacle the plans of some future hypothetical fantasy Jeremy Corbyn government. (I suspect that Corbyn is imagined in this scenario as the analogue of Bernie Sanders.) Nearly all of the things such people say about the EU are actually true. But before drawing the Brexit conclusion, you at least have to demonstrate that leaving would not make things even worse. You have to ask, “where we are now?”, and consider what the real-world possibilities actually are. And make no mistake, If we vote for Brexit the economic consequences will be pretty awful, many people will lose their jobs, living standards will be hit hard, non-British workers will be in fear of being kicked out, many of our rights will be curtailed, and many of the environmental protections we now have will be ditched. Brexit will energise the most reactionary and xenophobic elements in British society at a moment when the left and its institutions are pretty weak. Even now the right-wing part of the “Leave” are licking their lips at the prospect of people being subjected to a Darwinian sink-or-swim future. Perhaps the “left-wing” advocates of Brexit hope that a renewed workers’ movement will be magically conjured into in such an outcome? That’s about as likely as a similar left-wing renaissance under President Trump (who also backs Brexit, by the way). Here’s a pretty good piece by Alan Thornett about why the left should back Remain.