The outgoing French Ambassador to the UK, Sylvie Bermann, commented recently that Britain was talking to itself about Brexit and no-one else. And maybe that is right: we are having a conversation – though a bad-tempered shouting match might be more accurate – about who we are as a country. Still, endless navel-gazing and repetition of the same old slogans is tiresome. So here are three topics our political leaders (and others) might usefully address.
A number of immensely wealthy tech and other entrepreneurs have recently come out in favour of a Universal Basic Income, to make up for the jobs – and income – that will be lost as the tech revolution gathers pace. Well, they would say that, wouldn’t they. Less clear is how the tax revenues to pay for such an income will be generated, not least because those same tech giants have done all they legally can to avoid paying tax to the national governments whose citizens work in minimum wage jobs for the Jeff Bezos’s of this world.
There is something faintly insulting and Marie Antoinette-ish about the fabulously wealthy suggesting that the rest of us should make do with a basic income or with uncertain low-paying jobs with few benefits while the lucky and clever few accumulate ever more riches. Shouldn’t some of those riches be paid back to society rather than sit in offshore accounts doing nothing very much other than fattening a ledger?
And it is not just the ever more concentrated accumulation of wealth which matters. The tech revolution, for all its many benefits, is making products of us all, to be traded and used for the benefit of others, even as we receive goods within hours of them being suggested to us by clever algorithms based on knowledge about our shopping and browsing history. Information is power. How are those with power to be controlled and made accountable? How are they to be made to contribute to society? What will these changes mean for tired, angry and fractious democracies?
All mighty barons are eventually pulled down. The only question is whether this happens through relatively peaceful constitutional means, the law or more chaotically, violently even. It’s happened to kings, churches, empires, French and Russian aristos, unions, banks. Something other than being frozen in the headlights of technological changes and their implications for how we govern and run our societies is needed.
You have the poor always with you
The Gospel of St Mark, since you ask. And you can help them any time you want, the injunction goes. But do we? It is clear that people do not feel that our current economic and political settlement does really help the poor effectively. Indeed, as the recent agonising over student loans and end of life care has shown, many feel that our system has the effect of making many poorer, harder to achieve a home, create a family, get a worthwhile job and useful skills, obtain security in retirement.
Politicians can make good speeches about the issues: even May in her first speech on becoming leader did so and Corbyn has certainly caught the zeitgeist with his focus on unfairness. But this is now an issue which potentially affects many more groups than those who are traditionally marginalised. If the middle classes start feeling that the odds are stacked against them and their children, well, why should we assume that they will continue to support an economic settlement which they fear no longer works for them?
Home or hotel?
“We are not simply a credit rating or an economy but a history and a culture, a human population rather than a statistical phenomenon.”
So said the poet. And he was right. A nation is not just a geographical landmass with the people contained in it at any one time. If all those people were replaced by an equal number of people from a very different country far away, the nation would have changed, even if the numbers did not.
The desire for control of immigration springs – at its best – from a feeling that a country is a home, a family with all that that entails ( a sense of “us”), not simply a place for others to waltz into with no regard for behaviour, impact or the wishes of the existing family members. A home is not the same as a hotel. Equally, no-one wants a family which is suspicious, unwelcoming, turned in on itself and hostile to friendly strangers, let alone those trying to help.
There are no easy answers to the migration issues of today, whether how to deal with refugees, those seeking a better life or how to make our country attractive to those we want while keeping out those we don’t. But it might make the discussion about these matters a little less venomous if those on different parts of the home-hotel spectrum recognised the good faith and genuine concerns of those who differ from them.
Well, diagnosis is easy but solutions much harder to find. Still, might the new autumn political term be a good time to start thinking about them?