The refugee crisis looks quite different if you’re not a beneficiary of globalisation

I’m watching with interest the disparity between the way the migrant/refugee crisis is reported in mainstream media, and the way it’s reported online.

TV and papers shows the volumes of people moving, and depending on which paper you read either huge-eyed children and frail old people or else menacing-looking clusters of young men. The narrative is about resources, political debates within the EU about how to handle the crisis, or about which East European nation is the latest to close its borders.

The internet shows videos of rubbish-strewn campgrounds, refugees torching their tents in anger (say the memes) at being denied this or that, riots in German towns and furious meetings of villagers who have just learned that hundreds of strangers are about to be billeted on them.

I’m not linking to articles or posts because my aim here isn’t to join one side or the other, but to think a bit about what the disparity between them means. The elites – and by that I mean the wealthy, well-travelled, well-educated, internationalist net beneficiaries of globalisation – see  the refugee crisis as an issue of resources and, perhaps, of an ethical stance. A huge influx of people from a non-European culture is seen as a matter of resources and, in the long run, as a benefit to a Europe where birthrates are declining. They will work, earn, pay taxes – what’s the issue? There is also, perhaps more tacitly, a feeling among many that this influx will benefit those recalcitrant patches that still cling stubbornly to cultural homogeneity.

But globalisation has losers as well as winners. Ordinary people, getting by in ordinary jobs, some of which have been outsourced or offshored or rendered obsolete by robots, and for whom ‘a long way away’ is four hours’ drive, not four hours’ flight. The people who see their national flag as a source of pride, and whose identity is found in family, cultural traditions, belonging to a place, and not – as with the winners – a smorgasbord of international tastes, traditions, cultures and practices from which one can pick and choose while flicking through the FT in the BA lounge on the way to the next meeting.

I’m being a bit reductive here, but you get the idea. The former thinks globalisation is great, and isn’t that bothered about the refugee crisis except as a humanitarian disaster about which ‘we should do more’. The latter, when it thinks about globalisation at all, thinks it’s all out of their hands and all the money is going to the billionaires so we’ll just keep getting by, won’t we? And when presented with the outcome of the refugee crisis, namely large numbers of people arriving in their neighbourhoods who look and sound very different, the reaction of this second group is less humanitarian than outraged. Because these new arrivals might be the victims of war and privation and months of misery trudging through Eastern Europe, but now they’re in our town they’re competing with us for resources, funding, space and ownership of the local cultural norms. And we were here first! goes the cry.

Globalisation produces winners and losers. To the winners, the refugee crisis is about logistics, about doing the right thing, perhaps about loosening the bonds of cultural homogeneity. To the losers, it’s about being swamped. And neither side is able to see the others’ perspective with any empathy. It’s either ‘those self-righteous wankers who live in white neighbourhoods and don’t see them raping our women’ or else it’s ‘those knuckle-dragging racists who bring shame on my country with their vile hatred and backward xenophobia’. And meanwhile, the cold, hungry, miserable – and unmistakeably very, very foreign – refugees keep pouring into Central Europe.

To quote Creedence Clearwater, I see a bad moon rising.

A handy guide to nEUspeak

I’ve long been a fan of Private Eye’s EU-Phemisms, perhaps because they are only about 5% satire. The language used by the EU is riddled with phrases that mean the opposite of what they appear to mean. I think EU-phemisms isn’t really strong enough for the mendaciousness of many of these phrases, so with thanks to Orwell’s Newspeak here is my handy guide to nEUspeak.

Greater influence on the world stage: nEUspeak for ‘one-twenty-eighth of a seat at the WTO table, and we’re going to supplant the UK’s seat at the IMF too’.

Single market: nEUspeak for ‘German trade surplus, powered by permanent austerity in Southern Europe’.

Economic convergence: nEUspeak for ‘intractable 50% youth unemployment in Spain, Greece, Portugal and Italy’.

Populism: nEUspeak for ‘democracy’ (a bad thing).

Democratic mandate: nEUspeak for ‘unelected’, unless the election was ‘populist’, in which case it’s nEUspeak for ‘obstacle that needs to be removed’.

Referendum: nEUspeak for ‘question we will keep asking until you give us the right answer’.

Europe (usually meaning the 50-nation continent): nEUspeak for ‘the EU, a 28-nation customs union with superstate pretensions’.

Eur0pean solidarity: nEUspeak for ‘Do as Merkel tells you’.

Renegotiation: nEUspeak for ‘elaborate charade including stage-managed fights that will culminate in an offer of second-tier membership that we’ve already agreed on’.

I’ll add more nEUspeak as I come across it.

Between ‘hate-filled benefit bashers’ and ‘something for nothing culture’

To kick off, then. In the light of Osborne’s controversial cuts to working tax credits, measures which even Fraser Nelson at The Spectator thinks are a bad idea, some thoughts on the deeper history of where we are. Both left and right are fond of namechecking the 70s, in a very partial way, to suit their arguments; it’s either ‘back to the militant unions’ or ‘back to that meanypants Thatcher’. And both left and right talk as if the difficulties we have in the UK with low pay, poor productivity and an intractably unemployed underclass are 100% the fault of the other side.

But digging into that history for a moment, let’s not forget that Thatcher’s admittedly brutal approach to the unions was felt by many at the time to be necessary as a result of the greed and intransigence of those same unions during the 1970s. Explicitly socialist 70s policies brought the UK to its knees, sent entire industries to the wall due to lack of competitiveness / innovation and forced our country to call in the IMF.

UK industrial policy since WWII has overall been badly-judged, by governments as well as by unions. And I don’t think Thatcher was some kind of saint, of course not; the human cost of closing the mines was appalling, and most former mining communities have never recovered.But it’s a total lie to blame it all on Thatcher, as though she just destroyed the industrial proletariat for a laugh, or out of some kind of casual sadism. The militant unions of the ’70s should (and never do) take a share of the blame for pulling up the drawbridge against globalisation, insisting on a protectionism that destroyed competitiveness in our industries, and pushing for the rolling strikes that brought the confrontation about in the first place.

Whether we like it or not, that ancient history is still alive and well in contemporary Labour/Tory debates. Much of the argument about the welfare state, and about ‘generations who have never worked’ dates back to the collapse of Britain’s industrial proletariat, which in my view was in large part a catastrophic clusterfuck created by the irresistible force of unions’ militancy meeting the immovable object of Thatcher’s determination to defang them. This, combined with wider forces of globalisation driving manufacturing to countries with cheaper labour, and a shipping industry increasingly capable of transporting the output of same cheaply and efficiently.

The same has happened in most developed economies. My late father-in-law was one of the last generation of factory fitters in Liverpool, and spent time overseas in Detroit fitting the last generation of automotive factories there, factories that have recently closed down as the companies that built them leave or fold. A quarter of Detroit has now been or is scheduled to be bulldozed.

One of the most intractable questions for any government in a developed economy is what to do with the social class which previously formed the industrial proletariat. It’s awful and dehumanising to just leave a whole class of people on the shelf, but there aren’t enough industrial jobs in the UK any more. For the UK, that whole question is tied up in grief, anger and bitterness about the 1970s, when the whole edifice collapsed and left millions in destitution.

So what do you do? All attempts so far to find a solution have had unintended consequences. Thatcher pissed our North Sea oil and gas bonanza up the wall paying unemployed miners and factory workers hush money in the form of ‘sickness benefits’ to stay off the dole so as to massage employment figures. All that did was kick the can down the road. Blair tried to turn the same people, or their children, all into middle managers by expanding university attendance to 50%, but just created grade inflation instead and made it ever harder for poor kids to get good jobs because you need a Masters now where you used to be fine with A levels. And now Cameron and IDS are trying to force their children’s children back to work, any work, however shitty, in the service economy we now have in the absence of manufacturing, by taking away their tax credits. Meanwhile I’ve yet to see a plausible solution from Labour’s current incarnation, which doesn’t seem to have any alternative to welfare dependency.

Clearly I don’t have a solution to this, or maybe I’d be in politics. But it’s my observation that 1) whatever you do has unintended consequences, 2) the roots of our current situation actually go way, way back and a proper analysis needs to look at both sides of the story and 3) whatever path we take has to think seriously about what real, meaningful participation the UK as a country can meaningfully offer the former industrial proletariat in the political and economic life of our nation. Otherwise we’re going to be stuck forever in an argy-bargy between ‘hate-filled benefit bashers’ and ‘the something for nothing brigade’.