14 November 2013

'Depoliticisation' – our old friend 'Authoritarianism' in another guise

To ‘depoliticise’ something means to take the politics out of it.

It is a strange and paradoxical term when you think about it, because to take politics out of something is a political act, and to be non-political is political. After all, power doesn’t disappear when a group of people decide they don’t want it or remove it from others through ‘depoliticising’. It goes elsewhere.

In practice, depoliticisation means taking a sort of politics out of something, a type of politics – probably a kind that advocates of the process don’t much like –democratic politics for example.

The term has received something of an airing recently in British public debate, and one guess for by whom ...

... That’s right (or wrong): the ‘Big Six’ energy companies. Step forward Mr Tony Cocker, chief executive of Eon UK:

It would be really helpful to depoliticise this debate [on energy],” Mr Cocker told MPs on 29th October.

You bet it would ... all those pesky politicians, concerned about people being able to heat their own homes - they need to be removed.

This is the sort of attitude that I have written about here before, under the title: ‘A Stealthy Form of Authoritarianism’. It is part of a process in public life in which politicians have willingly given up their democratic powers and passed them over to other bodies like Commissions, the eponymous ‘Quangoes’ (Quasi-Autonomous-Non-Governmental-Organisations) or simply given up their powers altogether.

This isn’t always bad by any means: for example there is no good reason why governments should be controlling car production as ours used to do with British Leyland.

But this abnegation of responsibility can have some troubling consequences. After all, we elect our governments to make decisions on our behalf. When they cede that decision-making power to others who don’t have that responsibility to us, on decisions that have big effects on our lives, we could be forgiven for questioning the whole point of our democracy and whether it has completely forgotten or lost its reason for being.

Yesterday, I was surprised to hear a form of this ideology from Jeff Masters, a policy adviser to Labour’s Shadow Business Secretary Chuka Umunna, at a seminar organised by the think tank Civitas. When asked what Labour’s plans for corporate governance and takeovers were, Masters repeated several times that his team was anxious to depoliticise it and keep the politics out of it.

To which my response was: what is politics for if you’re going to keep the politics out of it?

Big takeovers, like of our energy, water and rail companies, or of the iconic Cadbury’s by Kraft, are important: they are therefore natural political territory. Yet our guiding economic consensus is that they should be left to the market and our politicians should not interfere, whatever the consequences for our national interests, whether in jobs, skills or energy security.

Civitas’ seminar, organised to promote a book by Patrick Diamond, a former Head of Policy Planning in 10 Downing Street under Tony Blair, started with a summary of Diamond’s conclusions in his book (titled ‘Transforming the Market: Towards a new political economy’). The discussion ranged widely across the various endemic problems in the British economy and possible solutions (of which Diamond offers a number – while admitting the failures of various schemes followed under the New Labour governments).

The businessman and Labour Party donor John Mills made the point that £615 billion of UK assets were sold to foreign buyers in the period 2000-10, and that the City of London made a total of £40 billion in fees and other payments from managing these sales. He pointed the finger partly at Labour’s abolition of the Monopolies and Mergers Commission in 1999 and its replacement by the Competition Commission– a change that removed any public interest considerations from takeover decisions.

That was a political decision to reduce the importance of the wider public interest in favour of a narrower consumer interest (to be guaranteed by protection of competition). It was a ceding of authority away from democratic control to markets and money interests.

Yet the public interest is what we elect our politicians to protect. If they feel that they can’t or shouldn’t be doing that, then surely they shouldn’t be standing for election in the first place?

8 November 2013

Immigration: our public debate misses the main point

Our public debate on immigration in Britain almost always focuses entirely on money and thereby misses the main point, a point that our political-media class finds difficult to deal with and that many regard as almost illegitimate.

This is how people feel.

It is emblematic of the state of democracy in Britain that any sort of negative opinions about immigration routinely get shouted down and lambasted as ‘wrong’ by the siren voices of people and institutions, most of which are on the supposedly ‘liberal-left’ side of politics. It is particularly disturbing the way that anyone who talks about negative effects of immigration is routinely attacked (often by hordes of lefty people on Twitter) as ‘racist’.

These voices have a huge and in my view poisonous impact on the debate, forcing anyone who wants to make some nuanced points about immigration and identity into defending themselves against charges of racism, which is well established as one of the the worst offences one can commit in public life. Those shouters use their apparent moral superiority to full effect in their bullying.

In polling, immigration always scores highly as one of the most important issues facing the country.  Yet, the response of the self-styled ‘anti-racists’ is to damn people as ‘wrong’ for feeling this way. Their views are treated as illegitimate.

That tendency was again very well exercised earlier this week when a study on ‘The Fiscal Effects of Immigration to the UK’ from University College London was widely trailed in our media, with the BBC for example appending the headline: "Recent immigrants to UK 'make net contribution'". As I saw from my Twitter feed, this was widely taken by conventional lefties as a closing of the debate and a final nail in the coffin for all ‘racists’.

However, as is the case with most detailed statistics, alternative interpretations are entirely possible if we try to take statistics as some sort of gospel. The study found that European Economic Area (EEA) immigrants had made a particularly positive contribution in the decade up to 2011, contributing 34% more in taxes than they received in benefits. However it also showed between 1995 and 2011, immigrants from non-EEA countries claimed more in benefits than they paid in taxes.

So, if you are an actual racist, believing in the determinism of skin colour, these figures could easily provide fuel to your prejudices.

But these debates around ‘net contribution’ and the like will never reach a final answer and never resolve the question because that is not what statistics do (statistics always provide a limited picture on a limited question and miss out far more than they include). Immigration like other things is a political question, and we are blessed to have a democratic society that (at least in theory) values every citizen equally, whatever their skin colour or ethnicity.

In a democratic society, it shouldn’t be the role of superior minds to dictate what is legitimate and illegitimate for people to consider important and to close off avenues for alternative views to their own. This is a road in which views get suppressed, and thereby become tinged with resentment and anger, and debates become polarised. But this is what has happened to us in large part; left and right repeatedly split apart and shout at each other; meanwhile the mass of people who don’t like either extreme get squeezed out.

As for how people ‘feel’ about immigration, a statistic of 35% seeing it as one of their principal concerns doesn’t really tell us that much. It does however tell us that immigration is imbued with meaning.

I see it as largely a question of territory, of land and of a sort of ownership over place that is perhaps best expressed by the word ‘home’.

British society has become increasingly fragmented and atomised over the years since the Second World War, and immigration has become a part of that story. However, there is another aspect to it, in that many of the immigrants coming in have integrated very well, but many have done so not into the society as a whole but into their own diaspora communities, which have grown in number and cultural strength.

As we are human beings, remaining very much part of the animal kingdom, the existence of groups separate and apart from ourselves setting themselves up on 'our' land and growing in number represents an existential threat. This is normal. It is happening all over the world as migration flows increase, and is nothing especially new to human societies.

The development economist Paul Collier* put it this way on Radio 4 a few weeks ago:

“The most powerful driver of immigration is having a stock of the diaspora already in the country because migration from a poor country to a rich one is daunting, it’s costly, and the poorest people can’t move. So what we get is people leaving countries where they have some money, but where they have good connections. And so as the migration builds up a stock of the diaspora, that’s why migration accelerates.”

He also said:

“Some diversity is good. It gives the society more innovation, gives it more variety. But if you have too much diversity, trust starts to erode; cooperation erodes; generosity erodes. And so there is a right amount of diversity. I can’t tell you how much the right amount is, but that’s what every society’s got to antagonise about.”

For me personally, living in London, I have mixed feelings about mass immigration. On one hand, my city is undoubtedly a more interesting and vibrant place for the impact of mass immigration and the masses of overseas visitors who come to visit.

But ‘interesting’ is a very different concept to ‘home’.

One day recently I took one of my normal journeys across town on train and tube and found myself in a whole load of places in which there was barely an English or British voice. My feeling of belonging and of being ‘at home’ dissipated. I felt it and I knew it, and I knew why.

Similar, seemingly rapid, social changes are happening in my local area. It is now normal for me to go out and hear only foreign languages as I walk my local streets and travel on local buses. Also, the primary school of which I am governor is facing extra challenges from around half of its new children having English not as primary language, and many having no English at all.

These changes are not all bad by any means – far from it.

But we should reflect on what they mean and whether what they mean for many people matters. For me, that is an issue primarily for democracy, and not one for the economists and technocrats and those obsessed with race to dominate with their narratives.

With the Office of National Statistics estimating that Britain’s population will rise by 9.6 million to 73.3 million by 2037 largely down to the impact of immigration, I think we should be enforcing strict limits on further incomings, giving some breathing space for existing migrants to integrate on their own terms and the wider society to settle down rather than be subject to further significant social pressures.

* See here for audio/video feeds of a lecture given by Collier to the LSE recently on the topic
'Exodus: immigration and multiculturalism in the 21st century'.