No Strings Attached

In a country where abuse of the system matters more than the system itself, giving without conditions is a revolutionary act

In India’s caste system, there is a class of people known as the Dalits. There are 165 million of them – around 1/6th of the total population. Dalits are not actually a caste; they’re a group so low in social standing that they don’t even merit official inclusion. The name means ‘broken people’, but they’ve historically been known to the outside world as ‘untouchables’. They are considered too filthy to be integrated into ordinary society. They don’t have jobs. They rummage through garbage heaps for scraps of metal or food. They sleep rough on the streets or in makeshift shelters.

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A school of untouchables near Bangalore,  by Lady Ottoline Morrell

When I was a kid, I believed I lived in a country where that could never happen. Of course, I thought the UK had its problems. We certainly had no shortage of self-consciousness about class. I grew up the son of a church minister, a job seen as comfortably middle class for no apparent reason, but certainly not for reasons of income. But I went to a private prep school, and to church, with children whose lives and houses did match that description – well-off, you might say; or, to put it another way, rich. In my dormitory town surroundings in West Sussex, I watched men in suits get on the train to London, flowing, like well-dressed automatons to the ‘dead sound on the final stroke of nine’.

The closest I came to poverty back then were the whispers about “Bentswood” – the estate a few hundred yards from my family’s church. The impression I had as a small child of this small council estate, now mostly privately owned after Right To Buy, was hellish. I vividly imagined bawling toddlers, vicious fathers and mothers smoking and drinking away the child benefit, and teenagers high or getting into knife fights. I based this solely on having seen one woman come out of her house in her dressing gown and slippers to pick up a newspaper, and on the fact that at Christmas, the estate was lit up with what I considered incredibly tasteless, garish tableaux that had little to do with the Nativity as I understood it.

In my church, there were people who were genuinely different. These were what we then called the ‘handicapped’; people with often quite serious mental health issues, and some who had physical disabilities as well. I knew they came from a special home and that they had people dedicated to looking after them. I knew how uncomfortable they made other people when they said strange things during the service. And I knew how uncomfortable they made me when they came near me and asked me questions smelling, as they often did, faintly or strongly of urine, and rarely willing to accept or able to understand my answers. Most of all I knew how uncomfortable it was when one of them, a middle-aged woman, kept coming to our house and monopolising my mother’s time and energy, frequently crying and sometimes shouting.

But these people weren’t ‘untouchables’. To the contrary, I saw people welcome and love them despite their discomfort. They were part of community life, in many ways more associated with the way things worked and the life of the church than many of the comfortable families that surrounded them. In short, they were shown compassion, love and warmth, and they could carry themselves with dignity. In some cases, it was possible to see them grow into completely different people: people who had more humanity, intelligence and empathy than the average ‘ordinary’ person. And because they often spoke with less of the repressed, self-conscious, buttoned-up fear I’d come to associate with the English middle class, what they had to say often resonated far more deeply.

The lesson I learned from observing those people was simple. They were given love and, yes, charity, without strings attached, and it transformed their lives for the better. I don’t know if they knew nothing was expected in return, but I know they responded anyway. Their problems weren’t gone overnight, but their lives, and ours, were enriched many times over. I believed that anything could be overcome in the same way, and that the benefit of this approach would be obvious to anyone.

Then, at 12, I moved to Brazil with my family and my eyes were opened to what poverty and hardship could be. Suddenly, all around me was evidence of a problem that was too big for a church or a community to fix. And these people weren’t mentally ill or disabled; many of them were healthy working age adults, especially men, who stood on street corners or gazed menacingly at passers-by.

For the first time, I felt the threat of poverty. I felt the tension that comes when you live in a society where there really are haves and have-nots, and where the gap’s too evident, and too wide, to ignore. For the first time, I was a rich kid, and though I lived in a rich neighbourhood, and even a rich state, I lived in a poor country.

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The sign reads, “We want a cure for hunger”. Recife, June 2013. Photo by Sebastian Freire

I’ve never forgotten what it felt like to realise that this problem could only be fixed by people with far more power and money than the richest families at my church. And I’ve never forgotten what it felt like to realise that the problem had been created by those same people. That good government could change people’s lives, but so could bad government; and that every decision a government makes – even one that only oversees a small dormitory town in West Sussex – carries weight, because it carries the lives of others in its grip.


The Iraq war turned me on to politics in earnest. I marched against the war, and watched brave, clever Robin Cook resign from the government to applause, and to no purpose. I joined the Liberal Democrats for the first time, having heard Charles Kennedy speak out equally bravely, and demand a higher standard of proof before we sent people to kill, and to die.

A couple of years later, I went to university in London. The 7/7 attack happened just before I enrolled for my first year. Overnight, the city I most associated with unrivalled enjoyment of all that’s best about humanity became a place where I sometimes looked over my shoulder. This was somewhere an innocent Brazilian man, Jean Charles de Menezes, could be mistakenly shot multiple times by armed police who believed he was the Asian terrorist they were after. In my half-Indian skin, dark after a summer spent largely outside, I was wary about getting on the tube.

These two events, and their political consequences, may have been when I first noticed it. We no longer had a government that was generous, or patient. It was instead willing to ignore what had gone before for the sake of expediency or some intangible sense of security. The language used about citizens became almost imperceptibly harsher. And meanwhile, the Conservative Party was in the doldrums, increasingly far from power, or so it seemed; embracing unthinking nationalism over the euro, and preaching hate against immigrants and criminals. No, Michael Howard: I’m not thinking what you’re thinking.

The Tories were in such a mess for so long. I could barely remember what it had been like before Blair’s enormous majority in 1997. And although so much had changed in the world after 9/11, Afghanistan and Iraq, Britain still seemed like a country at ease with itself, that generally looked after its poor, and that was trying to make things better for its people. Maybe things couldn’t only get better, but in the UK at least, they didn’t seem likely to be getting worse any time soon.

But then luckless, clumping Gordon Brown finally rose to the position he’d dreamt of. And barely a year later we had a financial crisis that threw the country into disarray. It’s easy to forget that only ten years ago, we had a proper bank run in the UK. And after a decade of easy living, tightening belts was suddenly very much de rigeur. ‘Austerity’ was the new watchword, and having spent years trying to outdo each other in generosity (we should never forget George Osborne promised to match Labour’s spending plans), they now began to compete on meanness.

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Bank run at Northern Rock, 2007 (Photo: Lee Jordan)

Brown’s ascent was always marked with tragedy. He displayed a craven willingness to appease the worst kinds of political pressure. His first speech to a Labour conference as leader, much like Theresa May’s almost a decade later, betrayed him as a figure who would be more politically opportunistic and amoral than anyone had expected. It’s almost entirely forgotten that it was during that speech that he first promised to create ‘British jobs for British workers‘. He continued to stand by the use of the slogan, more typically associated with the National Front and the British National Party, despite criticism from his own MPs and even from David Cameron, who was then positioning the Conservatives as a modern, internationalist party.

Then, during the election campaign of 2010, Brown had his infamous run-in with Gillian Duffy. This was a cataclysmic error not because of what he said, but because of the circumstances in which he said it. Politically, he had no option but to renege on his comments, even though they were accurate. Duffy was a bigoted woman. But her views had been given oxygen by Brown himself.

Brown as Chancellor and then as Prime Minister had also contributed to a change in the way we thought about benefits. The thrust of Blair and Brown’s many changes to benefits policy, and especially the introduction of their flagship tax credits was to switch spending from traditional forms of social security payment to conditional (and very complex) programming that provided incentives to take work and then increase the number of hours in employment.

While this had some positive effects, particularly while the economy was growing, it had the effect of removing redistribution from the political arena, or at least obscuring the true intentions of Brown and the Labour government (which, in this area, to my mind at least, were honourable).


Since the turn of the tide in 2010, and the rise of the Conservatives to power, things have got far worse. Despite the restraining hand of the Liberal Democrats for the first five years, the damage was already done when meanness (or ‘austerity’) became the key metric for political competence. And the impact of this is clearly visible.

Walking around London now is a very different experience to what it was ten, five, or even two years ago. In the centre of town, around Victoria or Covent Garden, you can count dozens of people sleeping rough. London looks increasingly similar to cities in the US, rather than to its counterparts in Europe. And from what I hear, other major UK cities like Manchester and Birmingham have seen far greater rises in homelessness. The official statistics from local authorities bear this out (although they also look incredibly conservative).

That environment is what originally sparked my desire to write this. An article by Matt Broomfield in the New Statesman, arguing for giving money ‘directly and unconditionally‘ to homeless people, has been doing the rounds on Facebook and Twitter.

Just before Broomfield’s article appeared, I attended a Tech Solidarity event in San Francisco where a rapt audience of tech employees heard from Jennifer Friedenbach, the director of the Coalition on Homelessness. The non-profit org runs on $270,000 a year, employing 9 staff on a flat wage of $16 an hour (including Jennifer herself); roughly about the same as a single software engineer’s annual salary.

Friedenbach outlined a situation in which one of the wealthiest cities in the world has somehow contrived to produce one of the worst housing environments. The homeless people in San Francisco, she said, had had no difference in terms of ability, health, or other social metrics from the housed; the only difference was whether people received housing subsidies or not. But after a few months on the streets, homeless people displayed a decline in health equivalent to ageing as much as 25 years. Most damningly, she said, the cost of providing healthcare to the homeless in SF now outweighed the likely cost of housing them.

This is where we are, in rich Western democracies: so obsessed with conditionality, with testing whether people ‘deserve’ good treatment, that we impoverish them and ourselves in the service of… what? Accuracy? Efficiency?

The impact of this can be felt in all sorts of ways in the philanthropic world, too, which is obsessed with metrics and benchmarks to demonstrate ‘impact’, and loses out on huge opportunities as a consequence of the bureaucracy that this requires. (I’ll write more on this another time. This fear of failure is definitely not holding back the right wing foundations, which will gleefully throw money at and take risks on projects that share their values, regardless of whether they have their paperwork, monitoring and evaluation and theory of change exactly right.)

All of which brings me, finally, back to Bloomfield’s article, and to the point. How do we begin to solve this? The problem of homelessness is just one indicator for a wider set of political principles that, I propose, most people do not share, but have somehow become an essential measure of successful public policy. Whether a system is abused seems more important to today’s politicians and media than whether the system is achieving the outcomes we want as a society.

As individual citizens, we can of course vote for parties we think will change that. But in the meantime, in the vast majority of years, when we’re not voting at major elections, we should aim to model the values we want to see. I don’t want to live in a country that values meanness over kindness. I want to live in a society that is liberal and generous, and so giving money without conditions (not just to homeless people but also to worthwhile charities, or even extra tax) seems a great way to do that.

Every individual act of kindness is a statement of rebellion against the meanness of the state. Giving without conditions is a revolutionary act.

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Why I’m voting to remain in the EU

I am going to explain in this post why I think a vote to remain in the European Union is the only responsible choice. I’m not going to link to sources as it would take far too long, and anyway I want it to be clear that this is my own view, based on everything I have read and absorbed during the debate to date.

The “too long, didn’t read” version: On every conceivable issue, remaining in the EU would be a more sensible and fair course of action for the vast majority of people – both in the UK and elsewhere – than leaving. It is right to fear something as absurd, unnecessary, alarming and damaging as a vote to leave would be.

If you don’t think my view is worth much, and you want a list of different sources on the campaign, try here. It aims to give a fair hearing to all sides.

Fair warning: this post is very long so here’s a list of internal links if you want to jump straight to different sections.

Take me to…


The “Common Good” Approach

UK politics has largely abandoned the concept of the common good. In fact, it’s questionable whether it was ever supported. For almost a century British politics has been dominated by two parties, Tories and Labour, which were deliberately set up to preserve the interests of particular social groups rather than society as a whole. More than any single thing they’ve done – and they’ve done a lot – this is why I am instinctively hostile to them.

Nonetheless, I still try to apply the principle of the common good to my own politics. The Rawlsian original position, incorporating the idea of the “veil of ignorance”, is vital to this process. It is not perfect but as a structure for thinking about the social contract it is unsurpassed. It also has roots in many other writers’ and philosophers’ wisdom, from John Stuart Mill to Jesus Christ. Jesus famously told the parable of the Good Samaritan, answering the question “Who is my neighbour?”; this approach essentially expands that to ask, “What if I were my neighbour?”

The benefit of this approach is that it does not ignore the individual even as we consider a question so sweeping as the UK’s membership of the European Union. We can begin to identify, for instance, the people who may be affected by a decision to remain or leave, ordered by the probable impact of the decision on their lives:

In the UK

  • UK citizens (in all their shapes and sizes – urbane Londoners, impoverished working class folk, Scottish nationalists, etc)
  • Irish citizens living in the UK
  • EU citizens living in the UK
  • Non-EU migrants living in the UK

In the EU

  • UK citizens living in EU member states (particularly France, Spain and Italy)
  • EU citizens living and working in their own countries or other member states
  • Non-EU migrants living and working in the EU
  • Refugees fleeing into the EU

On the fringe of the EU

  • Citizens of countries hoping to join the EU
  • Citizens of countries threatened by or already attacked by Russian aggression

Global

  • All world citizens

There are of course other things to consider, such as gender, ethnicity, sexuality, and the rest. But for now let’s keep it simple. When I consider whether to leave or remain, I am actively trying to consider the impact on all of these groups. I want my decision to avoid harm to any of them, if possible, and ideally to create benefit for all.

So now let’s explore, issue by issue, what the impacts of the referendum vote could be, and whether a Remain vote aligns with this idea of the “common good”.

Economics

Like it or not, the world runs on money. A referendum on EU membership is certainly a chance to consider big, existential questions, and I do that below. But any assessment of the common good has to consider the impact on ordinary people’s circumstances.

The UK Economy

There is absolutely overwhelming consensus among economists and financial experts that a vote to leave the EU would create major short-term problems for the UK economy. Even the Leave campaign has not seen fit to contradict this assessment: their working hypothesis is that there will be a recession for a couple of years and then growth will return.

That simply isn’t good enough. One of the reasons we are in a parlous state politically is because the recovery from the last recession (2008/09) was so anaemic. We are arguably in a state of hidden depression as a country, as a continent and as a world. Yet people seem to have forgotten that the impact of that recession was hugely disproportionate: as with every major financial crash, it was people on low and middle incomes who suffered, and continue to suffer most.

The Leave campaign has taken an incredibly narrow approach to economic matters. They have focused on the idea that if we leave the EU, we will have more money to spend, as we won’t be paying our fees any more. They have lied about how much this will save the country time and time again. And they have totally failed to engage with the wider benefits that being part of the EU club brings the UK economy.

Worse still, they have entirely failed to set out clearly what their preference is for a new deal after we exit the EU. At various times, they have implied that they like the idea of having a deal with the EU along the same lines as Switzerland, Norway, Iceland, Canada, and even Albania. But they have never specified which they would pursue – and there are immense problems with all of these. For example Norway still makes significant financial contributions to the EU, has to accept the vast majority of EU regulations, and (worst of all for Leave) has to embrace free movement of people – without having any say on the rules.

Britain’s clout in the EU is considerable when it comes to economics, and we have successfully used our influence many times, not least to defend London’s competitive advantage on financial services. The UK government also succeeded in appointing its current EU commissioner, Lord Hill, to a vital and powerful role, overseeing the entirety of the EU’s work on financial stability, financial services and capital markets union.

Here’s the economic reality of Leave: we don’t know what we’re getting into. We don’t know what kind of deal our political overlords will attempt to make. It is highly likely that the EU and large economies like Germany and France will want to make an example of the UK in order to dissuade other countries from following in our footsteps – and that is its right.

We will enter a period of economic recession, perhaps depression. The impact of this will not just be on the UK but on the EU and on economies around the world – including the US and China. Lives will be ruined. Jobs will be lost. There will be less money available to pay for public services and social security safety nets. And we will be led by a political party, and likely by a prime minister, whose response to recession is austerity. How do we know this? Because that is what they did last time.

This is a theme I’ll keep returning to, because it’s very important to recognise it. If we vote to leave the EU, we will still be led by the same government that is in charge today. That means a majority Conservative government, probably with a new prime minister – and that prime minister seems highly likely to be either Boris Johnson or Michael Gove. (The other options – George Osborne, Theresa May, Philip Hammond – aren’t exactly cuddly One Nation types either.) The Conservative party is not there to represent the majority of people: it is there to represent the minority of wealthy, older people who keep it in power.

The combination of huge economic uncertainty, an economy only gingerly recovered from one of the biggest recessions in history, and a Tory party even more hellbent on destroying the state’s power to intervene positively in people’s lives is not one I can vote for in good conscience.

So the economic argument for Remain is overwhelming from a UK standpoint.

The Eurozone and other European countries

It isn’t just about the UK, though. A decision to leave would also have a major impact on the credibility of the EU as an institution capable of stimulating economic prosperity. It is probable, although harder to predict with confidence, that a nation of the UK’s size moving towards the exit would create sufficient upheaval and uncertainty that the entire bloc might fall into recession.

That is no small thing given the travails facing some of the EU’s weaker economies. Greece is in a parlous state but several other nations are also in danger – Italy being the most pressing.

Destabilising the European economy would be one thing if it could be set against obvious economic gains for the UK. As it is, though, even the Leave campaign recognises that the short term consequences of exiting the EU will be negative. Again, then, the economic argument is for Remain.

A wider issue for some Leavers seems to be that the UK puts more money into the EU than it gets back. This betrays their inability to see beyond national borders and empathise with other nations; at heart, it betrays their belief that economic redistribution is simply wrong. As someone concerned with the common good, I cannot go along with that view; the UK is one of the richest nations in the world (for good reasons and bad) and should be proud to give some of its wealth away to poorer countries.

Without the EU in place, that becomes less likely: European countries do not tend to be considered impoverished enough to warrant overseas development aid (ODA), and with Gove or Johnson in Downing Street the likelihood of major increases to ODA spending is slim to say the least.

Then we can also consider those countries that have yet to join the EU, but wish to. I currently live in Bosnia and Herzegovina, a beautiful country that suffers from the legacy of a peace agreement, the Dayton Accords, that froze into place the ethnic divisions that had erupted into war. Like many of the other countries in the Balkans and on the eastern fringe of the EU, it is in the grip of corruption and organised crime. It desperately wants to join the EU and access the single market. The EU is using that desire to encourage change in the country – improved regulation, better environmental standards, and the introduction of border controls, for a start.

The same process is going on in several other countries and has been for some time, as part of the EU’s enlargement process. Progress on reform means access to valuable EU funding. This is excellent evidence of the benefit of an expansionist supranational institution where core members are committed to the prosperity not only of its existing members but of prospective joiners. To me, it is one of the EU’s most laudable goals.

A British exit puts all of this at risk. The EU is at a low ebb in any case, lacking confidence and being chipped away at by petty nationalism. If we undermine it further by withdrawing our consent for the overall project, the European continent loses one of its best ways of securing future prosperity for developed and developing economies alike.

The global economy

The impact of Britain’s exit from the EU on the global economy is less certain. Leading American economist Janet Yellen, the chair of the Federal Reserve, is on record as of yesterday saying that Brexit could delay an interest rate rise and hit overall demand in the US. She warned of ‘significant economic repercussions’, something that other major economies around the world will also be concerned about. It’s certainly possible that the uncertainty created by an economy of the UK’s size and importance being shaken to this extent could plunge the entire global economy back into recession.

However, I think the main point to make is on the long term effects. By 2030, the three major economies of the world will be the US, China and the EU. Other national economies show no real sign of growing quickly enough to bridge the gap to these titans. Moreover, China is slowing down from its period of miraculous (unbelievable?) growth, while other emerging economies like Brazil and Russia are currently captured by corruption and organised crime, showing no real sign of improvement. Brazil in particular is in a dreadful state politically and economically.

The idea that the UK standing alone will somehow be in a position to forge ahead outside the EU, building bilateral trade agreements with whomsoever it chooses, does not resemble reality in any form. There have already been warnings from the President of the United States and from the head of the World Trade Organization that any new trade deals will be extremely costly and time-consuming.

The one saving grace in this may be that London is no longer viewed as the preeminent home for dirty money. But at the same time, there will be far less incentive for the UK to take a leading role in tackling corruption if we are seen as a small-minded pariah state rather than as a prominent global power. And the thing is, there are already ways to deal with that unwanted reputation now: we already have the ability to clamp down on tax evasion and avoidance, put people in jail and fund investigative work that exposes the structures enabling offshore tax haven usage.

So, again, based on the wider economic ramifications, I can’t see a good argument for voting to leave the EU.

Immigration

Will leaving the EU actually give us more control of our borders?

Let’s turn to the reason many Leave supporters want out of the EU, then. You will find time and again that this trumps (pun intended) the economic argument for lots of people. The argument runs that it may be even worth giving up some temporary economic security if it means regaining control of our borders. Nigel Farage is on record as saying that he wouldn’t personally object to being poorer if it meant we could keep people out who we don’t want.

The reason people want to come to the UK is that we are a successful country. What these people are saying, in essence, is that they are prepared to run down the UK in order to make it less attractive for new citizens, forgetting that this also harms its own citizens. It’s a remarkable argument to make, as it also totally ignores what many people are trying to escape: they can be fleeing conflict of course, but they can also be fleeing the result of historic conflict and political instability.

There’s no attempt at all on Leave’s part to understand this or to empathise, only the narrow-minded belief that the UK deserves to be suspended in some sort of sepia-tinted stasis (or ideally wound back to a time when there were fewer immigrants already fouling our golden shores).

Of course, the myth behind the myth is that immigrants are robbing us blind twice over: stealing our jobs and also taking vital resources through the UK’s generous benefits system. Obviously, both cannot be true, but lies like this have taken hold to such an extent that they are no longer questioned. The fact remains that you are more likely to be treated at A&E by an immigrant than standing in the queue behind one. Time after time, evidence shows that EU migrants contribute more to the economy than they remove, and that the people who are the biggest burden on the British economy are, well, British people.

I wouldn’t exist were it not for the generosity of previous generations towards immigrants. My mum is Indian and I am half-Indian. While India isn’t in the EU, there are millions of people in the UK in the same position as me from all sorts of European backgrounds. To see the country I was born and raised in turn away from that position of open-minded generosity sickens me.

So it’s clear I don’t agree with the Leave campaign’s attitude on immigration. In fact, no major party is adequately pro-immigration for my liking – not even my own, the Liberal Democrats. Labour, and the Lib Dems to a lesser extent, have allowed themselves to be dragged into a race to the bottom on immigration rhetoric that is poisoning our country from the inside out.

But all that aside, would leaving the EU even have the effect the Leave campaign claims? I’m not so sure. It is undoubtedly true that, having left the EU, we would initially regain total control of our own borders. The implications of that are more complex than you might think, though.

First of all, the UK-France border could no longer be in Calais, but in Dover. The Le Touquet agreement was negotiated on the basis of the UK’s membership of the EU, among many other things, and there is no guarantee that it would continue; French ministers have already made noises to the contrary. That means the dreaded “Jungle”, so despised by right-wing tabloid newspapers, could come to Britain.

Secondly, and more importantly, the Leave campaign has sporadically suggested that a new deal would be done with the EU to enable trade to continue. As discussed in the Economics section, they have never set out what this would look like. However, we can probably assume it would look something like the agreement that set up the European Economic Area. Other countries involved in this – Norway, Iceland, Switzerland and Liechtenstein, all members of the European Free Trade Association – have not only had to accept the principle of free movement, but have gone further by joining the Schengen Area.

If you don’t know what Schengen is and you’re anti-immigration, listen up: Schengen enables passport-free travel without any kind of border control. It basically acts as a single country for travel purposes.

I personally love the idea of Schengen, and wish the UK had not opted out of it. But if you are anti-immigration and like the idea of border controls, I hate to break it to you, but EU migration is actually likely to get “worse” and more difficult to control if we leave the EU than if we stay in it.

You might argue that Britain will somehow negotiate a better deal than any country before it has. But the EFTA countries were able to negotiate their deal from a position outside the EU, rather than after leaving it – a far stronger position – and look where they ended up. To think the UK is somehow immune to the negotiating power of the world’s largest trading bloc is wishful thinking in the extreme.

So, whether you’re pro- or anti-immigration, staying in the EU appears to be more beneficial for the UK than leaving it. It shows both that we are committed to being an outward-looking country and it means we won’t have to cede further control of our borders.

What about UK citizens living in EU countries?

This is another important question. There are around 1.2 million UK citizens living elsewhere in the EU, while 3 million EU citizens live in the UK. It is a real shame that the vast majority of these people have been denied a vote, given their lives could conceivably be changed significantly by a decision to leave.

While deportations of existing residents are unlikely, there’s every chance that countries with sizeable populations of UK immigrants like Spain and France could introduce new charges to access public services, levy additional taxes on UK-owned property, or introduce new requirements to allow children into the school system.

Without some concessions to freedom of movement, too, it makes these people’s lives far harder – their families may find it more difficult to visit on short notice, or they may have trouble getting access to healthcare in an emergency. That could, in turn, increase the number of people returning from overseas. They won’t be young, eager, energetic people looking for jobs and a chance in life; they’ll be old people looking for housing having sold property on the Algarve or in the Dordogne, driving up property prices further and unlikely to contribute to the economy in any useful way.

Some of the concerns around this question have been overdone by the Remain campaign, but we shouldn’t simply discount it as a consideration. If the purpose of political decisions is for the common good – and if you were in these people’s position – what would you do?

Democracy

This is probably the issue I’ve had to debate most during this referendum. The issue of democracy has been placed at the very heart of the Leave campaign. The claim runs that the EU is unaccountable, and that there is a democratic deficit. The theory is epitomised by Michael Gove’s vivid statement that “one of the most powerful symbols in our democracy is the removal van”: this is another way of saying that if you can’t kick out the people who make decisions and laws on your behalf, then the system you’re in can’t be called a democracy.

First off, let’s recognise something: the EU could stand to be more democratic. The Commission, in particular, has too much power. It should be recast as a proper civil service, depoliticised entirely, and its monopoly on proposing legislation should be ended. The simplest way to do this would be to give more powers to the European Council, asking them to propose concrete legislation rather than set a direction of travel, and to the European Parliament, which already has powers to initiate legislation.

It should be noted that the Parliament has had its powers significantly extended by recent treaties and has intervened decisively twice in recent times to remove or challenge the Commission; removing Jacques Santer’s corrupt and fraudulent regime in 1999 and forcing Jose Manuel Barroso to reshuffle his team before taking office.

The EU as a whole also needs to do a far better job at educating its citizens – in every Member State – as to what its institutions do, who we are electing when we vote, and why it matters. And serious thought should be given to the problem of subsidiarity. While David Cameron has secured a deal on this – the so-called “red card”, where national parliaments can object to a law so that it is amended or withdrawn – the importance of transnational issues should be sufficient to warrant a strong program of activity without resorting to tinkering with tiny issues.

To suggest as many do that the EU is undemocratic in the round, though, is simply wrong. EU law is actually held to a much higher standard than UK law, as logic would dictate; it has to be approved by 28 very different nations, rather than one (or sometimes three or four). The process for making law in the EU is exacting, sometimes painfully slow, and introduces democratic checks and scrutiny in excess of what exists in Westminster:

Image by Jude Kirton Darling, Labour MEP (src)

And while we’re on the subject of Westminster, let’s just think through how democratic the UK’s own system is:

  • We have an unelected, hereditary head of state.
  • We have a head of government – the prime minister – elected by a self-selecting group of political obsessives (party members) rather than directly by the people.
    • This means that the position can be vacated and filled mid-term without recourse to the electorate, as has happened twice in my lifetime.
  • We have a government appointed from the elected legislature. Ministers are not required to be confirmed in their positions by the Parliament (unlike in the EU).
  • We have a Cabinet personally selected by the prime minister and that can be changed on a whim.
  • We have a whole House of Parliament that is unelected. People are appointed to it – political patronage, obviously open to abuse and corruption – unless they happen to be a high-ranking Bishop or someone whose male ancestors were Earls.
  • The prime minister can appoint people to his Cabinet who aren’t in either House of Parliament: he does this simply by making them a member of the House of Lords.
  • The other House of Parliament – the Commons – is elected using a system that has very little relation to the numbers of votes each party receives. At present:
    • The Conservatives have 50.8% of the seats on 36.8% of the vote;
    • Labour has 35.7% of the seats on 30.5% of the vote;
    • The Lib Dems have 1.2% of the seats on 7.9% of the vote;
    • The SNP has 8.6% of the seats on 4.7% of the vote;
    • UKIP has 0.2% of the seats on 12.7% of the vote.

In short, the UK has nothing to say to the EU on democracy. Our system is as broken as it gets. The total lack of any kind of positive proposal from the Leave campaign on reform of the UK’s democracy shows just how little they value the concept itself.

Layer on top of that the current UK political situation and things start to get really ugly. Who are the people we are going to give more power to if we leave? The current majority Conservative government is appalling in all sorts of ways.

  • It is kicking out legitimate immigrants vital to our education and healthcare systems in the name of hitting a target it will never reach.
  • It is attacking our civil liberties by introducing mass state surveillance (with Labour’s blessing).
  • It is trashing our decent record on the environment by reducing investment in renewable energy and encouraging fracking.
  • It is threatening to destroy the BBC’s place in our society as a neutral source of political coverage and as a producer of high quality TV and radio.
  • Worst of all, it is standing firmly against any attempt to reform our democracy, and actually attempting to make things worse by cutting opposition funding, forcing through boundary changes, etc.

Meanwhile, there is no prospect of any party seriously challenging the Conservatives while Labour is led by someone of such limited calibre as Jeremy Corbyn – and you’ll note I’m not even getting into his actual politics.

We face at least nine more years of the Conservatives, and even if we stay in the EU, that gives them plenty of time to destroy what is left of our country’s best qualities. At least the EU holds them back to an extent, and other European institutions guarantee our human rights. Leaving the EU will only encourage attempts by senior Conservatives to remove the UK from the European Convention on Human Rights – something the Home Secretary is already advocating.

In summary: UK democracy is in a parlous state, and removing EU oversight from the government is likely to result in significant further harm. The EU has shown more promising signs of reform in recent times than the UK has, and is starting from a better place. So, once again, it is clearly right to vote to stay in.

Voter Registration

One way of testing a supposed commitment to democracy is whether the Leave campaign is encouraging voters to register in time for the referendum. As I write this section, the deadline for registrations is approaching. I have seen any number of neutral institutions and Remain campaigners – including the official campaign, the Electoral Commission and the government itself – encouraging people to register. By contrast, this was the 0fficial Leave campaign’s effort:

Page on Vote Leave website

While they eventually changed the page that this button led users to, it originally led to a splash page thanking people for supporting the campaign. Even after they changed it, it still only led to another page asking whether people had registered. This is shameful behaviour and demonstrates just how little the official Leave campaign cares about democracy. (It is also a pretty low way of collecting voter data.)

Of the two sides, only Remain has shown any kind of active and tangible commitment to democracy. This only bolsters my view that staying in will be the better course for those of us who consider ourselves democrats.

Sovereignty

The sovereignty argument is very important to the Leave campaign. Along with the idea that we can rid ourselves of the “undemocratic” EU, the idea that we can “take back control” by quitting the institution is literally their campaign slogan. The argument is that we have given away control of the key decisions that affect our lives to a load of unaccountable bureaucrats. As I said above, they feel so strongly about this that they are willing to risk economic pain (if not for themselves, then for the country at large) to regain parliamentary sovereignty.

The problem for me here is that it’s very clear that sovereignty is not a binary concept. If we want to be black and white about things, the UK Parliament is clearly sovereign over our EU membership; if they so chose, they could simply repeal the 1972 European Communities Act and we would be out. Such a move would be mercifully quick in comparison to the interminable campaign we are currently experiencing.

But in day-to-day matters, yes, EU membership does impinge on national sovereignty. EU law can overrule UK law. The European Court of Justice can effectively veto acts of the UK Parliament. It’s worth constantly reappraising whether this is a price worth paying for our membership.

The truth is, though, that we make trade-offs about sovereignty all the time. That is what international treaties are for. Throughout Britain’s history we have been involved in treaties that required us to act if another nation was threatened or invaded; that is why the First World War happened. That is how NATO also works. Standing alone – what Nigel Farage would call “independence” – can make you weaker if it reduces your influence or makes you more reliant on fewer allies.

One of the reasons we think so little of the EU is that our own Parliament is terrible at scrutinising the laws that come from Brussels. The House of Lords takes a more active role than the Commons in doing so and MPs, who are in any case hugely overworked, take little interest in the intricacies of obscure European regulations. They have enough to do rubber-stamping the government’s statutory instruments.

In discussions on this aspect of the referendum I frequently find myself banging my head against a brick wall, though. There is a sizeable number of voters who genuinely believe that the UK has somehow given itself away to Europe, and that only by leaving can we ensure we do not lose our sense of self. I just cannot identify with that. To me, part of the richness of the EU is in travelling from country to country (easily, thanks to being an EU citizen) and seeing just how well preserved the sense of national identity is. It strikes me that the chippiness of the Leave campaign proves pretty well that we have lost none of our Englishness.

Our world is increasingly borderless in every important way – financially, culturally, and technologically. There is no way to turn back time and no way to pull up the drawbridge. I want the UK to be a modern, successful nation that plays its part in all major international institutions. That means voting to Remain.

A final thought on this issue: our sovereignty will almost certainly be immediately diminished if we leave the EU. We will lose Scotland, and possibly Gibraltar. A movement for independence in Wales could well begin. Who knows what might come next. It really could be Little England, a tiny nation with limited resources, reliant on its shrinking financial services sector, forced to become an out-and-out tax haven to survive.

Foreign and defence policy

The debate on foreign policy, and defence, has become extremely poor in the UK. The general election last year lacked any real sense of what is happening outside the UK. The only small reference to defence policy was about the renewal of Trident, on which both major parties agree, but they managed to find a way to argue about it anyway. The only other area of debate where foreign and defence policy crop up is through the prism of the immigration debate.

This shows just how parochial and selfish we have become. Rather than talk seriously about solutions in Syria, we are more concerned with dealing with the aftermath by keeping out the refugees. That neither helps the refugees in question, who are frequently so desperate that they are willing to risk death to escape death, nor does anything to address the real problems in the region.

This bad situation is made worse by the fact that Europe, the continent, is at its most vulnerable for some time. The threat posed by Russia to European and global stability is significant. Putin is a vicious dictator who does not ask “why”, but “why not”, and responds to weakness with further aggression. People in the UK seem to be ignorant that Russia continues to invade other country’s territory and, through insidious media networks and online trolls spreading mendacity and misinformation, is continuously attempting to undermine governments in the entirety of Eastern Europe.

Meanwhile, across the Atlantic, our main non-EU ally is readying itself for a two-horse race between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump. While I am confident that Clinton will win, nothing can be discounted in a two-horse race, as we’ve seen with this referendum. Trump is the wild card to end all wild cards, and senior Republicans who were earlier dismissing him are now falling into line behind him.

The total lack of discussion about what any of this means for the UK is shocking. Only the Remain campaign has really tried to raise the issue, although it has been tentative and weak in doing so. But surely this is a very real consideration. Without EU membership and cooperation, the UK will be heavily reliant on NATO. Yet Trump himself has called NATO obsolete and thinks that it needs to pivot towards combating terrorism, something that is probably linked to his well-attested admiration for Vladimir Putin. That admiration is reciprocated in the Kremlin, which has already endorsed Trump’s candidacy.

Putin himself could not be more clearly attempting to destabilise the EU. He likes to deal with nations one-on-one, where brinkmanship is part of the game. A united, multilateral, supranational institution like the EU is probably his idea of hell, partly because it reminds him that the Cold War was lost. While he has been careful to avoid being seen to intervene directly in the referendum campaign, it’s very clear that Russian state propaganda channels like Sputnik and Russia Today (RT) are pumping out the Brexit message – Farage is frequently to be found on RT – while Putin has also been travelling to other EU countries such as Greece to try to warm up relations and ensure that a future outside the EU becomes more attractive.

Trump may not win. But I am hardly confident, and I certainly don’t want to be outside of the EU if he does. We are going to need all the help we can get in that horrifying scenario.

Human rights

The European Convention on Human Rights is not part of our relationship with the EU. It is a separate document to which we are a signatory, drafted by the Council of Europe at the recommendation of British Prime Minister Winston Churchill and with the oversight of British MP and lawyer Sir David Maxwell-Fyfe. The European Court of Human Rights was established by the Convention.

As such, leaving the EU will not directly affect the UK’s position on human rights in itself. We will continue to be a signatory to the Convention and cases will continue to be heard in Strasbourg.

However, it would be ridiculous to suggest that there would be no impact on the wider human rights debate. The current Conservative government came to power on a pledge to repeal the Human Rights Act and replace it with a British Bill of Rights. They have found this near-impossible for many reasons. Withdrawing from the Convention might solve many of them, but by no means all; the problem of the Good Friday Agreement would remain, for example.

Nonetheless, this is why Theresa May, the Home Secretary, has proposed staying in the EU but withdrawing from the Convention. (Obviously another reason is to differentiate herself from the current leadership by striking out as a different kind of Eurosceptic.)

The impact of exiting the EU would be to renew the focus on the ECHR as just another example of meddling supranational institutions standing in the way of British justice. The number of myths peddled about the ECHR is already staggering; if the Leave campaign’s lies succeed, then that will only encourage the nationalists in the media to begin the next round.

I like the ECHR much more than I like the EU, and believe that anything that puts such an authoritative, powerful defence of human rights and civil liberties in jeopardy must be resisted strongly. Therefore, this is another reason to vote Remain.

Intergenerational equity

The final piece to this puzzle is the principle of intergenerational equity. What’s that, you ask? It’s the idea that each generation should bequeath to the next the same privileges it has enjoyed. To put it another way, successful generations should not pull up the ladder behind them to prevent young people from leading good and happy lives.

The baby boomer generation, born in the 15 years after the end of the Second World War, has had an unprecedented degree of good treatment and good fortune. Being of a certain age, they grew up used to the idea of Britain as a proud nation: proud of having stood alone against the Nazis, proud of being the country of Churchill and Monty and the Dambusters.

But as they entered their  teens and their twenties, they also reaped the benefits of an economic recovery and a political class that understood the importance of social infrastructure. They also benefited from free or very cheap university education, if they went. They benefited from low house prices and have seen their property appreciate in value many times over. They own houses that are too large for their present needs, and very often they own more than one. They even got to see England win the World Cup, for goodness’ sake.

In older age, they have been protected from the worst effects of the 2008 recession thanks to a coalition government that introduced one of the most generous systems for uprating pensions that can ever have been devised. I still wince to think that it was a Lib Dem minister that was responsible for the ‘triple lock’, a policy utterly in favour of the Conservatives’ natural constituency.

To put it bluntly: baby boomers have had it better than any other generation of people in the UK, and the generations coming after them are experiencing a lower standard of living. This is well-attested. It may sound strange to that cohort of people, because after all, there’s always someone better off than you, isn’t there, but it is true.

By contrast, my generation in the UK – the so-called ‘millennials’ – is generally outward looking. People aged 18-40 are overwhelmingly pro-EU. We grew up in the open world of the internet and of regular travel by air. We do not really experience national borders in the same way as they used to be thought of; we certainly haven’t experienced what it is like to have to defend them from attack. We like the EU because we can study and work where we want, and because it is reducing the cost of using our mobile phones while we’re escaping from the British weather. We tend to be equally suspicious of all authority, and perhaps more suspicious of authority closer to home. We know we get shafted regularly by a government that doesn’t really care about young people, because they don’t vote.

I graduated in 2008 as the recession tore apart the global economy. I applied for around eighty jobs before I decided to take an unpaid internship, and I could only afford to do that because I had generous support from loved ones. Most people my age other than the trustafarians are painfully used to paying most of their wages in rent, gaping CV gaps, taking bar work or manual labour, endless short-term or zero-hours contracts. Most of us have accepted that our most cherished skills and creativity may not be applied to work we actually enjoy for some time – if ever.

Hugo Young once said that Britain’s relationship with the EU is “a perpetual struggle between the future it could not avoid and the past it could not leave behind”. A more brilliant encapsulation of this referendum is hard to imagine.

Older people should think very carefully about the country they want to leave to their children and grandchildren. To take the UK out now will be a final insult to the generation that will be paying – despite flatlining or shrinking salaries, no property assets and poor pension provision – for the baby boomers’ social care.

Could I ever have voted Leave?

As a Liberal Democrat, I recognise that the European Union project is very problematic. There are many things I would change about the structure of the EU and the way it functions. One of the biggest problems with the Remain campaign – and David Cameron’s petty, small-minded renegotiation before it – is that it has failed to articulate any kind of reform programme for the future.

Many of the criticisms levelled at the EU have considerable weight behind them: it is opaque, difficult to understand, and often lacks democratic accountability. I have worked with EU officials and navigated its innards for long enough to understand why it takes so long to get things done. Moreover, insufficient work has been done to prepare the ground for lofty ideals like ever closer union; political integration simply must precede economic reform if it is to be sustainable.

Why do I say all this? Because, contrary to what you might think if you’ve read much of my recent output on Twitter or Facebook, there was a case to be made for leaving the EU that could have persuaded me. That case might have gone something like this:

We believe that the EU is a noble idea, but one that can’t match up to the reality of vast differences in culture, economic performance and political beliefs.

Power is best put in the hands of the people – and should only move upwards when it is essential for decisions to be taken together.

The EU has taken too much power from national governments. There’s a case to be made for a single market and for cooperation on specific issues like crime and terrorism. But no country in the EU is incapable of managing its own affairs.

We’re advocating a vote for Leave. But we know we can’t ask you to throw off the EU comfort blanket if our own house isn’t in order. So to make sure the British people know we mean what we say, we are also proposing a wide range of reforms to make sure power really does rest with the people. In the event of a Leave vote:

  • We will hold a crowd-sourced constitutional convention that aims to enshrine our patchwork of rights in an authoritative document, that will consider:
    • Immediate introduction of an elected House of Lords
    • Consideration of a new voting system for the House of Commons
    • Introduction of proportional representation in local elections
    • The break up of the Treasury which has become far too powerful
    • The abolition and replacement of the monarchy upon the death or abdication of the current Sovereign in favour of an elected head of state
    • The introduction of a genuine federal system for the United Kingdom giving maximum power to its nations and regions – incorporating reform or replacement of the Barnett formula
  • The UK will remain committed to participation in the single market, and will be humble enough to accept that this will mean complying with EU principles on the free movement of people
  • No citizen will go unsupported through transition to the new trade settlements we will need. This may mean extra taxation, extra borrowing or cuts in public spending
  • Workers’ rights will not be watered down but will remain aligned with EU regulations, except in cases where we have improved upon those such as maternity leave
  • Environmental regulation will continue to match or exceed the EU’s in rigour and that we will not rely on cheap, low-quality imports of energy, food or other products
  • We will make additional efforts to preserve the UK’s status as an outward-looking nation through other supranational institutions including the United Nations, NATO, OECD and the G20, as well as through renewing relationships with Commonwealth countries
  • We will create new ways to provide direct support to EU member states such as Greece who are suffering from mistreatment due to their membership of the eurozone
  • The BBC will be supported and strengthened as an important part of our public life as an independent, politically neutral broadcaster in a media landscape characterised by strong political biases
  • Any new attempt to manage immigration will reflect the many positive reasons why people might want to come to our country (e.g. international students, who leave soon after arriving), starting from the proposition that all migrants have talents and skills to offer

The benefit of this approach would have been that it is honest about potential downsides to leaving the EU. It offers some serious ways to empower British citizens and preserve or improve the UK’s place in the world. Sadly, we are not being offered anything like this. If we had, I would be seriously considering voting to leave.

If David Cameron really wants an “assault on poverty”, he could always try giving the poor more money

One of the striking things about David Cameron’s much admired speech yesterday was the emphasis on the concept of “equality”. This was very much at the heart of the rhetoric: he promised to “finish the fight for real equality” and even went so far as to say that “you cannot have true opportunity without equality”.

Equality is undoubtedly a powerful concept. But it’s become a political cipher. And I mean that word in every sense: when a politician uses the word “equality”, it is simultaneously devoid of any meaning at all; a code that the politician’s supporters instinctively feel they can crack; and a method of concealment. The same can be said of words like “values”, “progressive” or – most problematically for my party – “liberal”.

Cameron himself acknowledged that he believes in equality of opportunity, but not equality of outcome. This is what enables the key elision in the most “centre left” section of his speech: that an “assault on poverty” is the same thing as tackling “the root causes of poverty”. If you read this part of the speech carefully, you can actually see the ghost of Lewis Carroll’s Humpty Dumpty hovering smugly in the background:

Central to [tackling big social problems] is an all-out assault on poverty.

Conservatives understand that if we’re serious about solving the problem, we need to tackle the root causes of poverty.

Homes where no-one works; children growing up in chaos; addiction, mental health problems, abuse, family breakdown.

This is a revealing passage. To put it in the language of sophisticated political commentary, Cameron has things completely arse about face. Look at what he is saying: that the reason people are poor is because they have dysfunctional lives, health problems, or are actually guilty of criminal behaviour.

I’ll repeat that: to David Cameron, the root causes of poverty are the terrible decisions that people choose to make about their own lives.

Poor children in olden times. They probably should have worked harder tbh.

Or to boil it down still further: if you’re poor, it’s probably because you live a life that led inexorably to that outcome.

If you really believe this – as David Cameron claims to – then equality of opportunity is a meaningless concept; there’s no use trying to magically turn such bad, stupid, dangerous people into good, intelligent, virtuous ones.

Of course, he’s wrong. The root cause of poverty is – surprise! – people not having enough money.

This might be a shocking revelation to some people. But it seems pretty obvious to me. People who have enough money aren’t poor. People who don’t have enough money do tend to be. QED.

Now, you might say that’s far too simple, and I’m making the same mistake that Cameron has, but from the other side. But if I’m right, then there would be lots of evidence suggesting that if you give poor people more money, their lives get better, yes?

And it just so happens that there is. In lots of countries across the world, governments have found – ASTONISHINGLY – that if you directly transfer cash into the hands of poor people, they… spend it on things that will make their lives better. And no, I don’t mean cheap booze and cigarettes – or even beer and bingo.

There are articles and studies which explore this phenomenon further.

But obviously, David Cameron isn’t just intending not to give the poor people in the UK more money. He’s already announced, via his sidekick George Osborne, that poor people will actually have money taken away from them. I’ve used this graph before, but it is kind of essential to understand the impact of the Budget on the UK population:

The Institute of Fiscal Studies, which produced the above graph, has also undertaken further analysis since then. This reaffirmed the fact that people on low incomes will be far worse off, even when you include all the random policies Cameron claims will alleviate the impact.

If David Cameron really wants an assault on poverty, and to ensure that there is equality – even just equality of opportunity – he could start by reversing or at least drastically reducing his tax credit cuts. But more importantly, his entire government needs to start seeing poverty the right way round, rather than from a position some way through and to the right of the looking glass.

“That’s 1 less to worry about – next please” – some Britons respond to the death of a fellow human being

A desperate human being has reportedly been killed in the Channel Tunnel, attempting to make the journey from France to Britain. Sky News tweeted the breaking story:

Some sample replies:

If the intent is to encourage people like me to want to leave the country and never come back – job done.

“No-one wants them” – BBC on stranded refugees

The BBC reported today on a boat filled with desperate people in the Andaman Sea. Apparently ten people on the boat have already died from starvation or dehydration, while others are resorting to drinking urine. 350 Rohingya people, from Myanmar, are said to be aboard, drifting, having been refused entry to Thailand.

This is just one of many such boats currently drifting off the coasts of Thailand, Indonesia and Malaysia. The Rohingya are one of the most oppressed ethnic/religious minorities in the world, having no recognition as citizens in Myanmar, and therefore having experienced constant persecution.

According to the BBC’s Jonathan Head, who can be seen in a video at the top of that report, “no-one wants them”. It’s quite striking when a journalist feels able to make that kind of judgement. But that is the world we live in.

Closer to home, meanwhile, the European Union has this week announced a new approach on its own “migrant” crisis, which follows the decision to scrap Mare Nostrum in October last year. This involves a new quota system aimed at allowing in a higher number of people (20,000 over two years) and distributing them fairly across member states. Even this reasonably moderate proposal was met with total rejection by Britain’s Home Secretary, Theresa May, who claims that these people leaving war-torn countries and despotic regimes are merely “economic migrants”, and that we shouldn’t encourage them.

The EU’s approach also contains some far more worrying plans. In particular, the proposal for a “military campaign” to “smash” smuggling networks should strike fear into the heart of any reasonably compassionate person. The Guardian reported that this would be at least an air and naval campaign – but that it might also include “a presence ashore”, which is a quite spectacularly horrifying euphemism.

This is all awful, of course. Both situations have been created by a lack of liberty – both in terms of the countries from which these people have already fled, and in terms of the response from the rich old nations to which they want to flee. The solution cannot lie in reducing freedom yet further. Whether it is Indonesia or Britain, the reality is that by turning such people away, you are actively choosing to contribute to their deaths.

Moreover, “cracking down” on the smuggling networks – as I’ve suggested before – is meaningless without providing a legal, safe alternative. It is not as if these people want to use such networks. They use them because they have no other choice. The smuggling networks are a classic black market, created by prohibition; they’re the equivalent of bootleg liquor or cocaine cut with ground glass. Except instead of intoxicants or narcotics, these people just want to live in a place that isn’t so irredeemably screwed up beyond repair that their very lives are worthless. And they’re willing to do anything – literally anything – to get to that place.

Any of us would do the same. And this is the biggest irony of all. The very hope that these people embody is another side of the “aspiration” that conservatives preach to their citizens. The same hope that drives people to get into rickety boats and drift for weeks without food or water is what is supposed to drive people in UK JCPs to keep applying endlessly for the same McJob.

It doesn’t seem to have occurred to conservative, aggressive, anti-immigration governments that shutting these people out doesn’t just tell them no-one wants them. It sends a message to anyone without hope: get out and stay out, because we don’t want your type here.

Compassion – the Missing Ingredient in our Politics

Yesterday I posted about the lack of ambition in UK politics. Of course, it’s not quite true to suggest that many of the parties or their leaders have low expectations. What I’m saying is that their ambition is limited only to the immediate, and based almost completely on the interests of a subset rather than of everyone.

My suggestion is that if you want people to be interested in the political process, this is shortsighted. It’s well known that people, and often those who don’t vote regularly, care and sometimes passionately about many inherently political issues. They just don’t link the issues to the people and institutions who are supposed to be sorting those issues out. Or worse, they do link them but think those people and institutions simply don’t understand or don’t care.

Political parties occasionally fixate on the gaps in their own reputation that seem to prevent their reaching more people. David Cameron famously attempted to “modernise” the Conservative Party when he became leader. More recently, Michael Gove (of all people) gave a speech in which he suggested that the Tories should be the “warriors for the dispossessed”, mirroring the “Good Right” movement spearheaded by the prolific and tireless Tim Montgomerie, the Times columnist and one-man Conservative think tank. Even Boris Johnson has been making noises about more moral politics in the press this week.

It’s easy to be cynical about such rhetoric. In Gove’s and Johnson’s case, it’s easy to see why they might be hammering out a slightly different message from their party’s suffocating but undeniably disciplined economic message. What’s perhaps harder is to recognise that they might be on to something. They may have stumbled upon the most important missing ingredient in our politics.

That ingredient is compassion. This is often thought of merely in terms of sympathy for those who are suffering, but it goes beyond that. Compassion is to suffer with others, with an accompanying desire to alleviate the suffering.

Our politics sorely lack compassion. I was struck reading this horrific BBC article about just one failed asylum seeker in London how a senior politician would naturally react (in public) to such a story. They would make some sympathetic noises, certainly; perhaps even offer to write a letter to the relevant Minister. They might refer back to policy decisions their party had taken, especially ones that were tangentially related, in an attempt to suggest that they have helped the person by association. But they’d also be cautious – perhaps suggesting that it’s important to look after the vulnerable but at the same time referring to the equal or greater need to ensure that only people who have a legitimate reason to be in the UK should stay here.

This is particularly true of the way we treat immigrants and asylum seekers. A friend of mine commented on a recent Facebook post:

I really think the way we treat immigrants as a society is the issue above all others that we’ll look back on and say ‘how did we ever think this was acceptable?’

But it applies, probably just as much, to the vulnerable in our own society – a group that encompasses the homeless and disenfranchised, disabled people, sexual or lifestyle non-conformists, low-skilled workers, even people in receipt of any kind of benefits other than pensions.

Most of all, in order to be truly compassionate, you have to be able to feel compassion for people that you might at best ignore. That’s what our politicians are particularly bad at. We’ve moved so far away from that as a society that it’s now not only acceptable to ignore such people; it’s part of political campaigning actively to sneer at them, to judge them and to punish them.

I’m not suggesting this is easy. But if politicians truly believe in public service and the public good, they must start to grapple with this – and how to reintroduce compassion into what they and their parties say and do.