Monday, 11 February 2019

Peas in a pod

Taking the long view of human history, one feature that stands out as a constant factor is migration.  Wave after wave of migrating humans have swept across the surface of the globe and it is a truism to state that every country, every nation, every border owes something to migration in determining what they are and where they are.  The two most widespread languages in use (English and Spanish) both started out in small corners of Europe and were spread around the world by a combination of conquest and the ensuing migration.  There is something peculiar to me that, in a world largely shaped by migration, prevention of migration should have become such a significant political theme; it’s almost as though large sections of humanity have decided to forget how we became what we are and freeze history in aspic at its current point.
I saw an article a while ago in which Farage seemed to be arguing that it was wrong that citizens of EU states should have more right to come to the UK than citizens of Commonwealth countries.  It’s one of the few things on which I almost agree with him.  The problem arises, though, in the response to that inequality.
When two different groups of people have different levels of rights, there are always two obvious ways of resolving that inequality – you can either take rights away from one group or grant them to the other.  And the general problem with people who highlight this particular difference is that they always seem to want to diminish rights rather than enhance them.  It’s yet another case of the privileged few wanting to restrict freedom to themselves.  It also highlights the key difference in ideological perspective between two different world views.  It isn’t the simplistic one as which they present it, which is that anyone who doesn’t agree with them about controlling immigration is automatically in favour of mass immigration, it’s about where ‘rights’ start and end.  And there are two fundamentally different starting points.
The first is that, in principle, every member of the human race should have the right to travel, live and work wherever he or she wishes, and that it up to anyone who wants to restrict those rights to justify doing so.  The alternative starting point is that moving around is a privilege, not a right, and that governments should decide who can benefit from that privilege.  It shouldn’t need to be said (but probably does) that ‘privileges’ always somehow end up being disproportionately available to those who are already privileged, whilst it is the poorest who find the 'privilege' denied them. 
It’s perfectly possible, in principle at least, to end up with the same policies at a practical level when starting from either perspective, but the justifications will look very different.  From the latter perspective, it is the individual humans who have to justify why they should be allowed to move; from the former, it is for governments to justify why movement should be prevented.  It should be no surprise to anyone that a party like the Conservative Party, which believes in essence that ‘rights’ should be few and far between starts from the perspective that movement is a privilege not a right.  They do, after all, seem to think that the same rule applies to health, education, and housing. 
Superficially, it’s rather more of a surprise that Labour starts from the same perspective.  Yet their rhetoric tells us exactly that; it’s almost identical to the Tories.  There might be some difference of emphasis or in the rules governing exactly who and how many people should be allowed to migrate, but essentially, the party of self-styled “socialists” and “internationalists” is as strong in wanting to restrict movement as the Tories.  It’s a factor which Theresa May was quite right to pick up on in her response to Corbyn’s letter, when she pointed out that Labour was as wedded to the abolition of freedom of movement as she is. 
It’s only at a superficial level that Labour’s position should surprise us though.  As with so much which that party says and does, principle long ago stopped being the driving force.  They have adopted their current stance on migration not from principle, or because they think it’s right, or even because of any evidence relating to the economic costs and benefits; no, none of those drive Labour, only a cynical pursuit of votes.  They think, in short, that it’s what the people who vote for them want.  A party which set out to persuade, educate and lead people to a different and better form of society has become a political vehicle aimed at winning power by saying what they think people want to hear – a party which follows rather than leads.
It has been said that, in relation to Brexit, there are two things which both May and Corbyn want.  They both want Brexit and they both want it to be delivered by the Tories.  The reason we are in such a mess over Brexit isn’t just May’s red lines and utter incompetence (important though those factors are); it is also down to Labour’s cynicism and willingness to follow rather than lead.  The ‘game’ has become, for them, more important than the outcome.


Anonymous said...

Freedom of movement encompasses a lot more than just individuals or groups floating around the world. It includes cultures, religions and languages too.

Isn't it a particular problem here in Wales that large parts of society want to freeze a great deal of our largely fanciful history in aspic? Think culture, think language, think "Welshness', whatever that is meant to mean.

When people travel they bring baggage. And when people travel they displace others that have become marginalised (think only Welsh speaking communities). We need to accept these realities if we are truly in favour of freedom of movement.

In what direction has Plaid Cymru been headed over the past forty years?

John Dixon said...

I'm not entirely sure what point you're trying to make here, although I suspect that an aversion to the Welsh language and all things Welsh is rather colouring your view. This post was about migration, not culture change, and the two do not have the direct relationship which seems to underpin your comment.

It is true, of course, that when people migrate, language and culture migrate with them, but what happens thereafter depends on a range of things, including (but not limited to): numbers, relative strengths of languages and cultures, and public policy. So when a group migrates from one place to another, one of four things can happen: they can become a group apart - a minority culture within the physical space of another culture; they can be completely absorbed into the 'receiving' culture without trace; they can be assimilated in a way which changes the receiving culture (usually enriching it, but not always so), or their culture replaces and eliminates the pre-existing one. None of those are the sole inevitable outcome, and history can show us examples of all. Culture change is more complex than simply migration; and neither migration nor migrants alone can displace a 'native' culture. Those who seek to blame 'migration' for the decline of Welsh, for instance, are missing that wider point.

I'm not sure who you think wants to freeze the current situation in Wales either. I certainly don't - but that, again, doesn't mean that the future inevitably leads only in one direction, which is what you seem to be saying.

As for Plaid Cymru's direction - well, that's no longer any of my business - you'll have to ask them, not me.

Anonymous said...

Migration in all its forms is such an interesting topic and surely worthy of its own post. Some of us here in Wales have blamed inward migration for most of our ills. Are you now suggesting we just got the wrong sort of migrants or have we been too lenient with them once here?

For sure there in no way a migrant population with differing DNA can ever be fully absorbed into the receiving culture without trace. Not even over many generations. This we now know. As for your other three suggestions I do agree. But isn't this the exact matter we have been struggling with for decades.

Are you suggesting BREXIT is helping crystallise our national approach in this regard? If so, surely it is something to be welcomed. I, as an immigrant, am anxious to see how things develop.

John Dixon said...

"Some of us here in Wales have blamed inward migration for most of our ills." Indeed, some have. But that amounts to blaming others rather than taking responsibility.

"Are you now suggesting we just got the wrong sort of migrants or have we been too lenient with them once here?" Neither.

"For sure there in no way a migrant population with differing DNA can ever be fully absorbed into the receiving culture without trace. Not even over many generations. This we now know." Really? Your evidence is what exactly? In what sense does DNA prevent cultural differences from being obliterated (and please note that I make no assumption here as to whether such obliteration is good or bad: this isn't a value judgement)?

"Are you suggesting BREXIT is helping crystallise our national approach in this regard?" No, I wasn't suggesting that at all. What I was suggesting - going back to the original post - is that Brexit is exposing a common attitude towards migration from the two main UK parties. I'm not sure whether that's quite the same thing.

Spirit of BME said...

I have to say that after reading your post a few times, I am not quite clear I totally understand what your answer is in the real world.
If you live in a perfect world then I do get your drift – but life is not like that.
Migration thought out recorded history has not been a constant flow open to all, there was a sharp drop in Catholic migration into England during the Tudor reign, another just after the establishment of the USA, saw a drop in English monarchists, as they knew that migrating to that country would not enhance their life chances, as they would have to accept to live in a godless republic.
In the matter of immigration, you speak of “rights” and “privileges”, but I think it`s more rights and responsibilities, if the English monarchists turned up in Boston and stated that they while settling in the USA they do not accept the law of the republic and still wished to be governed under law of the God anointed Crown.
I think the answer would have been – “go away”.

John Dixon said...


The intention wasn't really to propose answers in the real world; the post was more to do with the fact that Labour, just as much as the Tories, start from the position that 'the state' determines who can move by exception, rather than from the position that humans should, in principle, be able to move freely. And nothing in the post implied that the right of people to settle where they wish should not be accompanied by certain responsibilities and obligations once they get there.

And starting from the position that it is for governments to justify why freedom of movement should be restricted rather than for individuals to justify why they should be allowed such freedom on an exceptional basis is not the same thing as arguing for mass movement to become the norm. It is, though, a starting point for looking at the issue from another perspective - and for me there are three main elements to that:

1. There seems to me to be something rather selfish about any country wanting to pick and choose who it lets in based on an assessment of the contribution they are going to make, particularly when the selected few are comning from some of the world's poorer countries. If the underlying problem driving migration is comparative economics (and I believe that it is), selectively attracting the people who could probably make the greatest contribution to reducing economic disparity doesn't look like a sensible approach to me.

2. Some of those arguing for selective immigration do so on the basis that with an ageing population, we need more young people of working age to support us oldies. Whilst that's 'true' under current economic models, it is treating pensions as a giant Ponzi scheme, which is completely unsustainable in the long term. And it also merely moves the problem from one place to another. A long term approach to an ageing population which depends on the working population growing faster than the non-working population is a model which assumes that the human population can continue growing indefinitely - and we know that isn't true. We need to look again at any economic model which leads to that conclusion, but this isn't the space to go into more detail on that.

3. If, as I say, the prime economic driver of mass migration is actually econonmic inequality, then the global response has to be about reducing that inequality. After all, much of the historic wealth of the richer world (and despite some claims to the contrary, Wales is actually one of the world's richer countries when looked at in a global, rather than merely UK, context) was accumulated by exploitation of the poorer parts. There is a cost to reducing that inequality, but it's a better aproach in the long term than trying to build walls and barriers to hold on to the unfair share of world resources which we currently consume.

In short, I don't see 'migration' as the problem; it is, rather a symptom of a rather different problem. Tackling symptoms will never be as good as seeking a cure. In a balanced world (or perhaps what you call my 'perfect world') there would still be migration but it would of a rather different and more balanced nature. Migrants are the victims, not the problem.