Why I Am Glad To Be Leaving Britain

Statue of Liberty

[As I continue to wend my way through Southeast Asia en route from London to my new home in the United States, below are some reflections on leaving Britain which have been percolating in my mind. Regular political commentary to resume once our travel itinerary calms down a bit and I reach a country with more reliable internet connectivity.]

I’d like to say that it has been a pleasure…

Britain will always be home to me. I will never renounce my citizenship, even though I will proudly take American citizenship and become a joint citizen of the other country to which I feel love and loyalty when I become eligible to do so. But speaking strictly from the perspective of someone who thinks about policy and writes about politics more than is probably healthy, I’m very glad to be escaping Britain for America at this particular juncture.

Not because of Brexit. I hear the keyboards of fifty Twitter wags clattering to life in my mind right now: “Ha, look at this die-hard Brexiteer who wanted out of the EU so badly but now won’t live in the apocalyptic hellscape he has bequeathed us”. Save the wisecracks, this has nothing to do with Brexit (though Brexit certainly shines an unforgiving light on the institutional and intellectual rot which makes me glad to move across the Atlantic).

I’m happy to be leaving Britain because we have become a small, petty and insular country. Not because of Brexit; we have been gradually becoming so for years prior, helped in large part by our EU membership, the stultifying centrist Westminster consensus and decades of bland technocratic government. The smallness I refer to has nothing to do with military or diplomatic power, though there are certainly warning signs in both these areas. It has nothing to do with our immediate economic prospects, since growth continues and the fundamentals of our economy are no more or less wobbly than they were prior to the EU referendum. It has nothing to do with the rise of other powerful countries or Britain’s supposed isolation outside the comforting embrace of supranational European political union.

The smallness afflicting Britain is a smallness of aspiration, of confidence, of purpose. It is the gradual draining away of any self-belief among those who run, report or comment on this country that decisions made here could actually matter, or influence human events and progress in a significantly beneficial way. It is the even more alarming realisation that the people with the potential intelligence and vision to help Britain recover our place as a visionary leader among countries increasingly self-select out of political life for reasons which are as obvious as they are tragic.

Why climb the greasy pole in a broken party system which rewards group conformity over ideological consistency or necessary pragmatism? Why inch one’s way up from town councillor to county councillor to MP’s bag carrier to ministerial SpAd to junior MP to parliamentary private secretary to junior minister to Cabinet minister to prime minister, compromising one’s ideas every step of the way, when one can have a far more fulfilling career in every respect working in the private sector, and have a more lasting and profound influence on humanity in the process?

For a couple of years now I have been writing about the great challenges facing Britain and the world in the new period of discontinuity which we are entering – an era when the old political settlement with its associated policies neither solve the new challenges we face nor command widespread public support any longer. The last such period of discontinuity in British politics took place in the late 1970s, when a sclerotic economy and over-powerful vested interests (particularly the trades union) were gradually choking the life out of Britain. Back then, we responded with the Thatcherite revolution, which for all its faults (and yes, those faults were real) revitalised our economy and rolled back the worst excesses of the socialist post-war consensus.

This new period of discontinuity is different, with new challenges in the form of globalisation, outsourcing, automation, mass migration and uncertainty over the role and long-term survival prospects for the nation state. These are problems which affect nearly every advanced economy, and which most countries are currently sidestepping or delaying their day of reckoning to some extent. Brexit offered Britain the golden opportunity to be not a helpless canary in the coalmine but rather an innovative testing laboratory and beacon to the world, confronting some of these challenges head on, breaking open political taboos and experimenting with heretofore unconsidered policy alternatives to meet the challenges we face. Britain could have seized this opportunity to genuinely lead the way for the first time in the post-war era, certainly in my lifetime.

This opportunity has been squandered, and the squandering is both tragic and unforgivable. In the 1970s there was enough intellectual life left in Britain for new policy ideas to germinate in places like the Centre for Policy Studies, then-revolutionary think tanks who brought in outside talent and evaluated ideas based on their innate worth rather than the connectedness or insider reputation of the individual putting them forward. That’s how the famous Stepping Stones Report came to be written in 1977, which Margaret Thatcher then took with her into Downing Street in 1979 and used as a blueprint for many of the policies and reforms which ultimately saved Britain from seemingly inevitable national decline.

In 2018, there is nobody left to do this kind of radical, disruptive work. Some of the same think tanks and organisations still exist (in name), but to a large extent they are rusted out old shells of their former selves, living on past glories and eking an existence by flattering government ministers or acting as a mouthpiece for existing party policymaking theatre rather than doing anything genuinely revolutionary or independent.

When I proposed a new Stepping Stones Report for 2022, a document which would seek to identify and classify all of the issues and threats facing modern Britain in order to discover their interlinkages and arrive at a suite of mutually-supporting policies to tackle and overcome them, I received a few polite and non-committal words or emails from various MPs and think tanks, and then no more. On one occasion I was cordially thanked and then told that there is “nothing in particular for you to do at this time”. You see, I am from outside the inner Westminster bubble so it is inconceivable that I might have stumbled upon a good idea or have anything whatsoever to contribute to government policy.

A few fruitless efforts at gaining the attention of influential figures within the Conservative Party made it abundantly clear that while normal people like me are good for stuffing envelopes or knocking doors to get out the Tory vote, best leave the policymaking and strategic thinking to those inside the bubble. And so the Conservative Party’s effort to make policy continues to throw up random half-baked ideas to solve the housing crisis, the productivity crisis, the migration crisis, the healthcare crisis, the education crisis and the so-called crisis of capitalism (many of these ideas lifted straight from the Miliband playbook) without any attempt to consider how these challenges might be linked or best be solved in conjunction with one another. A few genuinely heroic Tory MPs – George Freeman, Nick Boles and Robert Halfon, to name the most active – are engaged in serious work attempting to reimagine conservative policy for the 21st century, but they are receiving precious little air cover from CCHQ or Downing Street.

Things are no better on the other side of the aisle, where Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party is permanently one anti-Semitic tweet away from total self-destruction. This blog celebrated Corbyn’s victory in the Labour leadership contests of 2015 and 2016, not out of any admiration for or agreement with his policies but because he represented a bold step away from the suffocating centrist consensus whose policies overlook so many Britons and which has been hugely resistant to change. And there have on occasions been genuinely encouraging signs of intellectual life within Labour, such as with Corbyn’s proposed National Education Service – a horribly statist idea, but one which at least sought to recognise the limitations of our present system and try something different rather than continuing to shoot for the middle.

However, much of the political backing behind Jeremy Corbyn – Momentum in particular – is anything but modern or forward thinking, offering nothing so much as reheated 1970s statism. Worse, it comes infected with rabid and widespread anti-Semitism which the leadership ignores in order to avoid offending certain other fellow ideological travellers at home and abroad. Such has been the infighting that one can scarcely discern a Corbynite platform more nuanced than raising taxes and renationalising industry. Meanwhile, the displaced Labour centrists, full of entitlement and utterly lacking in introspection as to how their moral and intellectual failures led to this nadir, have done precious little policy thinking of their own and when given the chance to displace Corbyn in 2016 were so concerned for their own precious political careers that none of the remaining big beasts would stand, leaving it to the malodorous Owen Smith.

Ah, but what about the smaller parties? Well, UKIP has collapsed into now inevitable (if once avoidable) irrelevance, the Green Party continue to wage their ostentatiously anti-prosperity agenda and the Liberal Democrats have become nothing more than a futile Stop Brexit Party (and even on this ground they are challenged by new upstart anti-Brexit parties such as Renew). If there are signs of intellectual life or political courage to be found on the political periphery they have escaped my attention.

Look at education, healthcare, housing, automation and AI. Britain isn’t even currently aspiring to emulate best practice in (or achieve parity with) other countries, let alone pioneer new policy solutions which might see us leapfrog our competition and point the way for other nations. Take just education as an example, where technology could be revolutionising our current conception of school, opening up new possibilities for remote learning and real-time interaction with experts and other classes across distance and borders, and research in the social sciences has long hammered home the importance of proactive parental involvement in order to inculcate success at an early age. Where is the new technology in our classrooms? Where is the digital learning strategy? Where is the government promoting more responsible parenting?

Instead of these necessary endeavours to face up to policy failure and change direction, we either indulge in vainglorious British exceptionalism and imagine that the world has nothing to teach us (see the Tory Right’s insistence on a hard Brexit and our national obsession with the NHS, according to its hagiographers the world’s only compassionate universal healthcare service) or else resignedly believe that we are so feeble a country that there can be no hope in striking out on our own to road-test new ideas. How pathetic. How cowardly. What a betrayal of the next generation. How utterly, utterly small.

None of this is to say that things are significantly better in the United States. Lord knows that my new adopted home has not got everything all figured out just yet; America is also idling in neutral to a large degree, an unpredictable and vastly underqualified new president at the helm, his own worst enemy, and an opposition party which has sold its soul to the false god of identity politics rather than offering any uniting, uplifting alternate platform. But at least the big issues are still debated in America, however crudely may sometimes be the case.

As I wrote last year when lamenting the decline in British political rhetoric:

Maybe part of the reason that there are no great contemporary British political speeches reflects our diminished status in the world, no longer a superpower or the pre-eminent actor in world affairs. Lofty words are easier to reach for when one reasonably expects that they might reshape the world.

Despite having every opportunity to take the lead, Britain seems determined to be a follower – either cowering fearfully within the EU or attempting to roll back the clock to a time when economic integration, regulatory alignment and international just-in-time supply chains didn’t make a mockery of the Tory Right’s hard Brexit fantasies. We even import our social movements these days, with British universities racing to copy their American counterparts in capitulating to the censorious cult of identity politics and organisations like Black Lives Matter UK springing up despite lacking any of the context or triggers which prompted the formation of the original.

I have very little desire to spend my time engaged in the minutiae of political debate in a country which stubbornly refuses to lift its gaze above its own navel, whose activists have enough spare time on their hands to worry about non-issues or capriciously import social movements from abroad yet no time to agitate for universal reform, true egalitarianism or issues which do not immediately benefit their own wallets. America may not be the country it once was in terms of the richness and profundity of its civic life (though this is not to dismiss the great and necessary advances in civil rights and equality) since many of its greatest thinkers left the stage, but it is a darn sight healthier than contemporary Britain.

Interventionism versus non-interventionism? That debate burns more brightly in America because it is the United States which must do the bulk of intervening in an age of parsimonious European retrenchment. Healthcare reform? The American system may exist primarily to make Britain’s NHS look good by comparison, but at least radical healthcare reform is possible in the United States, unlike Britain where NHS worship is a mandatory religion for those in power. Education? The federal system and greater role for local government in America means that far more experimentation with new policies and technologies can take place than in Britain, where “postcode lotteries” are feared and policy competition is severely limited. The benefits and costs of laissez-faire social liberalism? Nearly all of the most thoughtful writing can be found in American journals, not the incestuous British publications.

Only on the question of national identity and societal cohesiveness is the political debate more interesting and pressing in the UK and Europe than in the United States, and even then only because years of bad and arrogantly-imposed policy have bequeathed Europe with significant subpopulations which feel little loyalty to or affinity with the countries which give them life and liberty, thus making it an existential issue. It is now fashionable among many elites to bemoan the decline of liberal democratic values, yet there is precious little introspection as to how policies which deliberately undermine the nation state and erode a common sense of identity accepting of liberal values might have played a part in their demise.

America is presently less far down this destructive path, and thus freer from the risk of the kind of societal unrest and breakdown which would make other policy experimentation impossible. In other words, if you don’t have to continually fight to justify your country’s existence (either from plotting euro-federalists on one side or unintegrated subpopulations and post-patriotic citizens of the world on the other) then one can comfortably think about other policy concerns, but if national survival underpinning essential liberal values is not assured then everything else becomes largely irrelevant.

So why this long, somewhat bitter screed as I depart the United Kingdom? After all, in the grand scheme of things I don’t matter at all. I’m not a genius, a policy wunderkind or a charismatic future political leader, so me quitting these shores to make my mark in the United States is no great loss for Britain. But if even people like me survey the state of British politics and civic life and feel overwhelmed by a feeling of resigned ennui, how must those individuals blessed with real talent and inspiration feel? You think they are going to stick around to watch Owen Jones, Ian Dunt and EU Supergirl slog it out with Nigel Farage, Jacob Rees-Mogg and Liam Fox, or feel compelled to step forward and offer their leadership skills to a country which itself has no desire to lead?

Britain can survive me flouncing off across the Atlantic; indeed, the country may well be much the better for it. But the pathetic state of British politics and civic life that I have described here is not only repulsive to me; it alienates talent and discourages innovation at nearly every level.

When British politics becomes little more than a technocratic debate about making the trains run on time or ensuring by national decree that hospital waiting times hit a certain target, we are thinking far too small.

When British political debate is more about desperately ignoring obvious truths (the unsustainability of the NHS, the failure of unmitigated multiculturalism, our broken welfare state) than tackling those problems head-on, we are being far too cowardly.

And when the desire and capacity of British elites to confront and overcome 21st century challenges gives way to a sense of resigned powerlessness and a petulant impatience for somebody else to do the difficult work, I can’t muster much sorrow to be taking a step away from that dismal stage.

I will never stop following or writing about British politics, and this blog continues. Britain is my homeland, a place towards which I will always retain a deep attachment and where I will undoubtedly spend some future years raising a family – and indeed, one of the unique selling points of this blog – I hope – is my ability to provide a familiar Brit’s perspective on American politics and a (nearly) American perspective on British politics, which would make unplugging from the debate quite counterproductive to my work.

But since Britain has repeatedly shown itself to be disinterested in domestic or global leadership of any kind, my focus will naturally gravitate more toward the politics of my new adopted home, a country which despite its many dysfunctions still retains that optimism and self-belief that matters debated and decisions made in America can shape the world for the better.

And Lord knows I am looking forward to that change of scenery.

 

Sign at Plymouh Rock - landing place of the pilgrims - 1620

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Europeans, The New Persecuted Minority In Britain?

Europeans are Britains new minority - Brexit hysteria - Nick Cohen

Europeans are apparently the latest persecuted minority in benighted, dystopian Brexit Britain

From the annals of overwrought self-pity today comes this piece from Nick Cohen in The Spectator, declaring that thanks to Brexit, Europeans are supposedly the latest designated victim class in Britain.

Money quote:

They have lived, worked and loved here. They never saw their status as a problem until Brexit. Nor did anyone else apart from a few thugs who look for any excuse to racially abuse a target. They knew who they were. And now their certainties have gone.

By this I don’t mean that the British government and the EU are still arguing about their legal status – important though the argument is. Rather that their secure sense of identity has gone.

I am not unsympathetic to the theoretical notion of one’s identity being impinged upon or “ripped away”, as so many Remainers like to claim. And Cohen is quite correct in his piece to point out that the umbrella term “EU immigrant” contains multitudes and diversity, from Romanian fruit-pickers to Romanian or French management consultants and bankers.

I will further concede that some on the Leave side have a tendency to paint all EU immigrants to Britain as city-hopping, rootless “citizens of the world”, members of the highly-educated professional class, when this is by no means always or even usually the case. I have been guilty of this kind of oversimplification in my own writing at times, and it is important to note that an individual or family can simultaneously be EU citizens from another member state and also one of the JAMs (Just About Managing people) invoked by Theresa May.

But what is particularly galling about Cohen’s piece is the total lack of self-awareness yet again shown by Remainers. Yes, an unexpected threatened change to one’s legal residency status can be unnerving and stressful (even though such issues have now been put to bed) but there is no reciprocal regard for the feeling of many Leave voters that their identity had been under increasing assault for the past forty years of Britain’s EU membership. This identity is not to be mistaken for a white ethno-nationalist sense of self, but in the sense of people of all races and ages who hold their British identity significantly more dearly than any European identity, yet have seen government political power and agency increasingly shift from being rooted in a demos to which they feel a part toward a wider European demos with whom they have far less affinity.

In other words, Remainers like Nick Cohen complain because of a sudden reversal of fortunes whereby they no longer call all the shots or get to see their worldview prevail unchallenged, but spent the past recent decades dismissing the concerns of Leave voters who watched their sense of Britishness being undermined against their will and without their positive consent.

Further, it should be pointed out that there is a surefire solution available to many of those who now claim to feel like “aliens in a land they took to be their home”, and that is to apply for citizenship. That’s what people do in practically every other part of the world if they choose to live and work in a country other than their own, and nowhere but within the European Union is it considered an outrageous, retrograde demand. My US citizen wife took the oaths of British citizenship only last month in a very moving ceremony in Camden Town Hall precisely because having lived in this country and grown to love it, she wanted to formalise and make permanent that connection rather than simply renewing her permanent residency ad infinitum or having to apply for it all over again when we return from the United States.

The process of applying for citizenship is bureaucratic, stressful and expensive, not helped by Home Office red tape and administrative incompetence, which should be changed. But barring those rare cases where joint citizenship is not permitted then there is no justifiable impediment from taking this step and formalising one’s connection to the United Kingdom.

As I wrote last month:

Citizenship is more than a basket of rights, privileges and perks. It is also a binding commitment to the society in which we live. Choosing to naturalise means a willingness to undertake obligations as well as demand one’s due. Becoming a citizen is a declaration that one is bound to one’s fellow citizens by something more than temporary convenience or the accidental byproduct of an overseas work assignment or relationship.

This bond is hard to describe or put down in words, which is perhaps why so many self-declared “citizens of the world” – people who consider themselves to have transcended national alignment and who flit from place to place without ever making a binding commitment to anywhere they set foot – don’t understand why it matters.

But if you have built a life in Britain over the course of years or even decades, why would one not want to formalise that connection? Yes it costs money, and yes the Home Office does its damnedest to make the process as bureaucratic, expensive, frustrating and opaque as possible, often actively throwing barriers in the way of people who desperately want citizenship. But if one has the means and the opportunity, why not take the pledge and acquire the passport? Failing to do so is the civic version of cohabiting with a partner but never marrying, one foot always out the door, one eye always casting around for something better.

There is one surefire way to ensure that you are never made to feel like a stranger in the land you call home, and that is to seek and acquire citizenship. The European Union is very much an aberration in that freedom of movement suspended this requirement and removed much of the motivation for taking citizenship in another member state, but this is exactly what people in other parts of the world do every day.

But as I wrote last year when thinking about the degradation of the concept of citizenship in general, we have been indoctrinated to see citizenship as a purely clinical, transactional affair when in reality it is supposed to be so much more:

In Britain, citizenship is increasingly regarded (to the extent that people think of it at all) as a transactional affair, services rendered for taxes paid – or even rendered with no reciprocity at all in the case of the modern welfare state. The argument goes that by the sole virtue of paying taxes or drawing benefits here one deserves a full voice in the country’s affairs, even if one is a non-citizen or is present in the country illegally.

This very transactional approach has frayed the contract or bond between citizen/resident and the state. Of course, people still expect the state to protect them from foreign foes, guard against domestic security threats, provide healthcare, offer a welfare safety net and distribute various domestic and EU services. But even as they make these demands they offer rapidly diminishing loyalty to the state in which they live. People are increasingly insatiable for the benefits while being less and less willing to accept the responsibility.

[..] Today, many people demand the perks without accepting the responsibilities – hence the outrage of and on behalf of EU citizens who have built permanent or semi-permanent lives here yet refuse to see why they should formalise that commitment through the naturalisation process (or at least the acquisition of permanent residency following Brexit). They forget that the European Union is an aberration, that nowhere else in the developed world would countries offer so much while asking for virtually nothing in return.

In a way we should actually be glad to encounter a sustained argument from the Remain side rooted in identity rather than the usual alarmist, short-term economic forecasts and prophecies of doom (or insistence that a reduced rate of forecast economic growth in future years means that we will all be digging through the trash for food tomorrow) – in that sense, I suppose Nick Cohen’s submission to the Oppression Olympics actually counts as a forwards step. But in every other sense, it is just more of the same.

More furious obsession with safeguarding access to perks and benefits, more failure to empathise with or comprehend the other side, more demanding something in exchange for nothing, more Politics of Me Me Me, more trying to win a political argument by referring to one’s supposed oppression rather than with reference to empirical facts and ideas.

Victimhood and oppression are the currency of our age, but Nick Cohen goes way too far with his latest argument, devaluing the idea of discrimination and persecution in just the same way as Social Justice Warrior student activists who take time out from their Ivy League or Oxbridge educations to complain about feeling “unsafe” at some of the most prestigious, well-resourced academic institutions in the world.

Citizenship and residency in another country is a privilege, not a right, and will remain so until the nation state is no longer the primary building block in human civilisation (an inevitability, but by no means an imminent one). The displacement which some EU citizens may feel with regard to their identities, while thoroughly regrettable, is therefore nothing more than normality finally reasserting itself in Britain after a long, unbidden hiatus.

Anti Brexit Pro EU protester holding Second Referendum banner

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Nancy Pelosi’s DACA ‘Filibuster’ And The Dishonest, Manipulative Illegal Immigration Debate

Nancy Pelosi illegal immigration filibuster - DACA - Dreamers - House of Representatives

When lawbreaking is openly celebrated and any efforts at immigration enforcement painted as racist by the Left, Democrats are stoking social division and political gridlock nearly as much as Donald Trump

From both Democrats and Trumpian Republicans, all we get is a stream of dishonesty on the subject of immigration.

Conservative anti-amnesty extremists live in a fantasy world where millions of people without legal status can be summarily removed from the United States without a seriously disruptive effect on both society and the economy, and where building an expensive and functionally questionable fortified border wall will prevent future illegal immigration when they know full well that even a hundred foot wall would do nothing to prevent visa overstays and other methods of subverting immigration law.

Meanwhile in the space of a decade, the bulk of the Democratic Party, cheered on by its most ideological activists, seems to have moved toward a de facto Open Borders position, refusing to countenance any additional immigration enforcement measures and regarding those already in existence as openly racist. Using Donald Trump’s often ignorant and xenophobic rhetoric as a cover, Democratic Party leaders have preposterously suggested that any effort to implement a skills-based immigration policy is by its very nature part of an immoral plan to “Make America White Again” (ironically failing to realise that their assumption that non-white people lack marketable skills is itself racist).

This is not the kind of political posturing from either side which is conducive to the kind of comprehensive deal on immigration reform which everybody knows is not only needed, but by far the most sensitive way to address an intractable situation in a way that allows both Left and Right to gain something that they desperately want.

But while much is made in the media of Donald Trump’s xenophobic boorishness and the lack of nuance to his border wall policy, virtually no scrutiny has been given to the Democrats’ new maximalist position – and certainly no Democratic politicians have been put on the spot by the media as to their actual stance on immigration enforcement (assuming they still believe in any such laws). Republicans are frequently put on the spot and made to squirm over their support (or lack of denunciation) of Donald Trump’s “leadership” on the issue, and rightly so. Meanwhile, senior Democratic politicians who for all intents and purposes have repudiated the need for any kind of immigration control are seemingly immune from the slightest scrutiny. The fact that the media take such a position without any self-awareness is itself evidence of their soft but deeply ingrained bias on the issue.

The latest example of left-wing intractability on the issue came yesterday evening when Democratic Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi staged an eight-hour filibuster-style speech in favour of unilaterally granting legal status to DACA recipients. From the New York Times’ misty-eyed account:

House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi staged a record-breaking, eight-hour speech in hopes of pressuring Republicans to allow a vote on protecting “Dreamer” immigrants — and to demonstrate to increasingly angry progressives and Democratic activists that she has done all she could.

Wearing four-inch heels and forgoing any breaks, Pelosi, 77, spent much of the rare talkathon Wednesday reading personal letters from the young immigrants whose temporary protection from deportation is set to expire next month. The California Democrat quoted from the Bible and Pope Francis, as Democrats took turns sitting behind her in support. The Office of the House Historian said it was the longest continuous speech in the chamber on record.

Of course, this was immediately (and falsely) reported by much of the mainstream media as a stirring speech in defence of immigrants in general, as though there were some unprecedented new dystopian war being waged against people who correctly followed US immigration law. But so successful have leftist efforts to conflate all types of immigration (legal and illegal) as indistinguishable from one another that few people now raise an eyebrow at this continual, deliberate manipulation of language.

One surefire way to prevent bipartisan agreement on immigration reform is to inject more emotion into the fraught debate than already exists. And again, both parties are guilty of cynically and immorally attempting to manipulate the overly sentimental or credulous by personalising the debate rather than making it one about principles and processes. We saw this at work most shamefully during Donald Trump’s recent State of the Union speech, when Democrats saw fit to bring unlawful immigrants into the spectator gallery of the House chamber, rubbing the lawbreaking aspect in the face of conservatives, while Donald Trump invited bereaved family members of innocent people killed by illegal immigrants, as though to suggest that all such people represent a violent menace to society.

All that this blatant emotional manipulation can do is harden the positions of each respective activist base, eradicating any nuance and unnecessarily demonising the other side. Such behaviour is equally irresponsible coming from Republican or Democrat; both should know better. And it’s worth noting that the Democrats have form when it comes to this kind of manipulative behaviour, with “undocumented” immigrants having been featured prominently and cheered to the rafters at Hillary Clinton’s Democratic Party nominating convention in 2016.

But in yesterday’s speech Nancy Pelosi actually went further, not only making an emotional case for those Dreamers brought illegally to the United States as children – a plight with which many moderate, reasonable people can sympathise – but going further and praising the parents who brought their children to America and in doing so put them at risk of future deportation (or at best a childhood and adolescence spent in the shadows).

This crosses the line into open contempt for the rule of law. Many of these parents may have had the best of intentions in doing what they did, and nobody can deny that many American citizens and legal residents, finding themselves in similar circumstances, would likely do the same thing. But ultimately if the parents decide to take up residency in a country to which they have no legal right to remain, they can not be absolved of all blame if immigration law later catches up with their family. Yes, we should absolutely look to provide amnesty to those who have built productive, law-abiding lives in the United States, particularly those brought through no fault of their own as children, but we should also be able to acknowledge that the parents took a calculated and questionable risk in exposing their children to the very real possibility of traumatic future detention or deportation.

And yet Nancy Pelosi will not even make this slight rhetorical concession. Pressured by uncompromising “immigration” activists and her increasingly extremist base to hold the parents of Dreamers in the same high regard as the Dreamers themselves (or “the original Dreamers”, as Democratic leaders have taken to calling these parents) Pelosi instead offers nothing but fawning praise and endorsement of those who knowingly violated US immigration law. From her speech in the House:

“I say to their parents: Thank you for bringing these Dreamers to America. We’re in your debt for the courage it took, for you to take the risk, physically, politically, in every way, to do so.”

Pelosi made a similar point in a recent CNN televised town hall:

“Our Dreamers, they make America dream again, they’re so lovely and we frankly owe a debt to your parents for bringing you here to be such a brilliant part of our future”.

Astonishingly, there is absolutely no nuance to this praise from Nancy Pelosi. Yes, some or even many such parents may have legitimately qualified for refugee status and faced genuine danger and persecution in their home countries. But others simply moved for economic advantage and the promise of a better life – and normalising the flouting of immigration law in case of the latter is effectively an argument for open borders, a declaration that anyone able to set foot on American soil should have the right to permanently remain and ultimately enjoy the full blessings of citizenship.

This is not to attribute the current impasse exclusively to Democrats, who deserve only half of the blame for the present polarisation. But it is worth focusing on Democrat failings, as so much of the media seems determined to give the Left an entirely free pass on the issue, unquestioningly accepting the premise that unilateral amnesty should be offered with nothing demanded in return, and failing to interrogate left-wing politicians on what (if any) immigration enforcement measures they actually still support.

Neither is the Democratic Party’s commitment to the Dreamers proven beyond all doubt. Already they have rejected a deal which would have granted legal status to nearly two million DACA recipients (at significant political cost to the Republicans) because the deal also included measures to tighten future immigration enforcement. If the welfare of the Dreamers really is the top priority for Democratic leaders, why did they spurn an opportunity to secure their status?

Of course there can only be one answer to this question – because it is no longer enough for the Democrats to legalise everybody currently illegally present in the United States. They want to secure this prize while also doing nothing to make it harder for more people to illegally gain entry into the United States in the future, so that they can wheel out these same emotionally manipulative arguments in two decades’ time and cynically repeat the entire process. Having already mentally “banked” the legalisation of hundreds of thousands of illegal immigrants, the Democrats seemingly want to ensure an endless, uninterrupted stream of future arrivals. Certainly no prominent Democrat has spoken convincingly about the need for more robust border protection since the 2016 presidential election.

At a time when much of the focus is (rightly) on the often xenophobic and discomforting language emanating from the Oval Office, it is also worth reminding ourselves of just how far Democrats have shifted to the Left on the subject of illegal immigration in a very short space of time.

Twelve years ago, this is what then-Senator Barack Obama had to say on the subject:

“When I see Mexican flags waved at pro-immigration demonstrations, I sometimes feel a flush of patriotic resentment. When I’m forced to use a translator to communicate with the guy fixing my car, I feel a certain frustration.”

Yes, Obama went on in his book The Audacity of Hope to emphasise that Americans should not act negatively on such feelings, but rather look positively on illegal immigrants seeking to become American. But to even make such a statement today would see any Democrat hounded out of the party and summarily labelled a racist or (at best) an unwitting tool of white supremacy.

In his 2017 essay in the Atlantic, “How The Democrats Lost Their Way On Immigration“, Peter Beinart hammered home the same point about this radical shift:

In 2005, a left-leaning blogger wrote, “Illegal immigration wreaks havoc economically, socially, and culturally; makes a mockery of the rule of law; and is disgraceful just on basic fairness grounds alone.” In 2006, a liberal columnist wrote that “immigration reduces the wages of domestic workers who compete with immigrants” and that “the fiscal burden of low-wage immigrants is also pretty clear.” His conclusion: “We’ll need to reduce the inflow of low-skill immigrants.” That same year, a Democratic senator wrote, “When I see Mexican flags waved at proimmigration demonstrations, I sometimes feel a flush of patriotic resentment. When I’m forced to use a translator to communicate with the guy fixing my car, I feel a certain frustration.”

The blogger was Glenn Greenwald. The columnist was Paul Krugman. The senator was Barack Obama.

That is an extraordinary shift in the space of a decade, yet the Democrats are going into immigration negotiations with the Republican leadership as though the country is in lockstep with them in their leftward lurch toward de facto open borders when there is absolutely no evidence that this is the case. And while the Republicans (thanks to Donald Trump) doubtless win the prize for ugliest turn in rhetoric on the subject of immigration, the Democrats by far and away win the award for most radical policy shift in a short space of time. This is an incredibly significant fact which still attracts far too little media scrutiny.

Ultimately, this debate is characterised by exaggeration, character smears and base emotional manipulation of the worst kind – and the excesses of one side only encourage the other to behave even more outrageously and irresponsibly in pursuit of their own goals.

For many years there was an eminently practical and workable compromise almost within reach, based on compassion for those illegal immigrants who have built model lives in America but tempered with a resolve to improve border security, immigration enforcement and to reduce both the push and pull factors which drive future unlawful immigration. But thanks to extremists on both sides – frankly childish activists who demand nothing less than 100 percent of their wishlist from a deeply divided country – and spineless political leaders of both parties too afraid to stand up to those voices of unreason, instead we find ourselves in this dismal position.

It is easy to pin all of the blame on President Trump; he certainly makes a large and inviting target. But when it comes to immigration, Donald Trump does not have a monopoly on irrational, uncompromising behaviour. And a more honest media would do a better job of reporting as much.

 

immigration-the-land-is-for-everyone-no-borders

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Don’t Expect Better Political Outcomes In Britain Until We Change The System

Brexit - EU protesters - Breverse

Upset by how Brexit is being prosecuted by the government, overseen by Parliament and reported on by the media? It’s time to stop lamenting the symptoms and fixing the underlying issues with our constitution and system of government

Of the sum total of British political discourse at all levels, a good 95 percent is probably spent whining about events with just 5 percent devoted to thinking about the systemic issues which all but ensure that our political system continually throws up results we don’t like or believe to be illegitimate, over and over again.

I was musing on this the other day, and started a rambling Twitter thread on the state of British democracy which I thought was worth spinning into a slightly longer blog post, if for no other reason than to prevent the words being buried deep in the dusty archives of Twitter. And so here are those same words, expanded and transplanted to the even dustier archive of this blog instead.

The great question before us in these challenging times is this: Should the people, as they participate in the democratic process, be permitted to make mistakes? This is the underlying but often obscured contention behind some of the most contentious issues in British and American politics right now, namely Donald Trump and the “resistance” to his presidency in the United States, and the effort to undermine or reverse Brexit here in the UK.

Rightly or wrongly, the political classes of both countries, as a whole, object both to the policy initiatives of Trump and Brexit as well as the tone and context in which these events transpired. Parliament may have voted convincingly for Britain to invoke Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty and commence the process of secession from the European Union, but few MPs believed that it was a good idea and many only voted to do so under duress. In America, most Republican politicians have either chosen to circle the wagons around Donald Trump or study feigned ignorance of his unsuitability for high office, in both cases because they see him as a useful idiot and an automatic pen with which to sign their own policy priorities. Yet hardly any of these Republican politicians are firmly aboard the Trump Train.

Whether it is Republican politicians using illegal immigration as an issue to get themselves elected in opposition only to blanch at the idea of illegal immigration actually being significantly impeded or reversed now they are in power, or Tory MPs building entire careers on moaning about Britain being ruled by a nascent European superstate only to fall in line with David Cameron and the Remain campaign during the referendum, there is a deep and unpleasant hypocrisy at work – a hypocrisy which needs to be acknowledged and confronted whether or not one agrees with the policies in question.

In both cases, the objectors – those who want to summarily impeach Donald Trump or overturn the EU referendum result in the light of “new facts” – are actually saying something quite serious. They are saying that in the cases of highly consequential decisions, the people are wrong and should not be allowed to inflict their wrongness on the country via the ballot box.

A degree of catastrophisation is required to pull off this argument, given how odious and undemocratic it sounds when stated plainly. And so we hear wildly overwrought tales about how Donald Trump represents a near-physical threat to designated minority groups, or that Brexit will see the UK economy returned to the stone ages.

The implication is that some decisions are simply too important, consequential or irreversible to be left to the direct judgment of the people (unless, conveniently, the choice in question can be blended with a bunch of other decisions in a general election, supported by all the main political parties and thus be preserved in perpetuity). And the clear subtext is that the ruling classes know best, are imbued with a deeper wisdom and sense of morality which must prevail any time there is a conflict between the governed and the governing.

Yet rarely do the decisions thus normally kept out of the reach of the people rise to this level of irreversible calamity. Take immigration. If throttling illegal immigration would harm the economy, do politicians have the right to override electoral wishes, even if the decision could be reversed? How great would the economic harm have to be, how would it be measured and how would it be balanced against any other factors?

Secession from the EU is rather more complicated, since reversal would likely involve the UK returning to the bloc on worse-than-current membership terms and therefore only ever be partially complete. But again, it could be done. So should politicians have the right to prevent the people from making only semi-reversible decisions? And if so, what are the criteria which should be met in order for politicians to step in and ignore popular opinion in order to effectively prevent the public from potentially scraping their knees?

Sometimes, though, the argument becomes more distasteful. Many polls have suggested that the British public would back the restoration of the death penalty given a straight-up referendum. Should politicians allow people to make that “mistake” too, and if not, what clearly written and easy for laymen to understand justification is there or should there be for thwarting such an odious policy change?

I am not (yet) a constitutional lawyer and I don’t have answers to all of these conundrums, but it seems clear that the current processes (if you can even call flying by the seat of your pants and making it up as you go along a “process”) that we in Britain have in place to adjudicate questions of vital importance are wholly inadequate to the decisions now before us.

When should referenda be offered, and when should they not? If they are to be offered, when should they be advisory and when should they be binding? When should blanket decisions be made at the national, supranational or local levels, and are exemptions ever to be allowed, and under what circumstances? What recourse should the public have when repeatedly rebuffed on a subject by politicians?

Many of these questions could be foreseen & mitigated through a well-written constitution which clearly prescribes the powers reserved by the people and those which are lent to local, national and supranational government. If we abandoned the Traditional British Fudge in favour of a written constitution, no longer could we so plausibly claim that we didn’t know what we were doing or that the outcome of any constitutionally legitimate process was unfair.

Of course a written constitution would not be a cure-all. Much would depend on the process of drafting such a document, who could participate and whether the process was taken seriously or simply used by special interests as an excuse to shoehorn every last entitlement onto the statute books as a “corporate necessity” or “human right”.

Britain’s constitutional monarchy is another complication, being one of those institutions which nobody would think to invent today but which arguably serves its purpose well enough and is part of the rich cultural fabric of our country that cannot be measured and summed up in an Excel spreadsheet. Embarking on any kind of constitutional convention would immediately generate enormous friction with the monarchy and its strongest supporters, which is one of the key reasons why such a movement has never properly gotten off the ground (with some honourable near-exceptions).

But unless we bite the bullet and physically write down a code of governance under which we are all willing to live, we are going to keep coming up against political elites of one faction or another assuming a divine right to attempt to implement their own worldview, wholesale, over the objections of others.

It’s worth noting too that such a national conversation was neither realistically possible nor worthwhile so long as Britain was bound to remain a member state of the European Union. When you are busy being slowly subsumed into a supranational government of Europe with its own ideas of federalism and subsidiarity, tinkering around with a little old national domestic constitution is almost laughably pointless, comparable to an animal grooming itself in ignorance of its surroundings while a much bigger predator sneaks up from behind.

It is only now that we have taken the first (hesitant and often erroneous) steps toward undoing the error – or great national act of settling for second best – that was our EU membership that we more fully realise the flaws in our own system and have the opportunity for a serious discussion about what comes next.

So what would such a constitutional document look like? That is a big question best left to a separate blog post but at the highest level I believe that any law or treaty which threatens to impinge on the life, liberty or property of other citizens – things like the death penalty or confiscation of property – should, *if* ever put to a referendum, require such a super-majority that the process is not easily abused by demagogues.

Other decisions, though, should be put within much readier reach of the hands of the people – such as whether successive UK governments are authorised to freely give up vast areas of sovereignty, wholesale, without sufficient oversight or realistic chance of painless future revocation.

I am open, for example, to the argument that the EU referendum should have required a certain threshold of victory to achieve quorum and passage, but then so every significant EU treaty signed by successive UK governments should have been put to the British people – the most recent of which would certainly not have been approved and ratified. But we are where we are and there is very little point crying over spilt milk – the best we can do is fix the system for the future.

At present there are virtually no meaningful checks and balances in our democracy. Victory goes who whoever can summon the loudest and most vociferous outrage, either on the pages of the tabloids or (far more effectively, though curiously less controversial) at the dinner parties & papers of those in the governing class.

By all means, we can keep blundering on as we are, lurching from crisis to crisis, failing to tackle our problems in a systemic way and then just working ourselves into a spittle-flecked outrage each time our broken system throws up a result we don’t like. That’s Option 1. Option 2 involves stepping back a bit and thinking about what kind of constitutional, governmental processes are most likely to yield outcomes which we can all get behind.

Option 2 is far more boring and requires more work, and lacks the appeal of being a meme-worthy MP, smug newspaper editor or shouty TV news talking head. But that’s what we need to do at this point, because given the period of discontinuity we have entered (one which affects many other countries too), there will be other hugely consequential decisions to make down the line, and we need to handle them a hell of a lot better than we are currently handling Brexit.

As a country, our capacity to competently govern ourselves has atrophied and withered during our 4+ decades of EU membership. That membership, combined with a bipartisan but increasingly broken centrist consensus, succeeded in masking the extent of the rot for some time, but no longer. Now the rot has been revealed and the full horror of the decay is clear to us, effecting every branch and level of government from the town council to 10 Downing Street.

If, as a side benefit, a period of serious reflection on how we govern ourselves as a country (whether or not that leads to a constitutional convention) further exposes just how ill equipped many of our institutions and present leaders are to navigate these national challenges, so much the better.

Sunlight can often be the best disinfectant.

 

Scene at the signing of the Constitution of the United States - Howard Chandler Christy - Hamilton musical - Brexit

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On Citizenship

Camden Town Hall council chamber doorway - Citizenship ceremony - British UK flags and Queen Elizabeth portrait

The unexpectedly moving experience of watching forty strangers become fellow citizens and compatriots at a UK citizenship ceremony

“Citizenship is more than an individual exchange of freedoms for rights; it is also membership in a body politic, a nation, and a community”
— Melissa Harris-Perry

“There can be no daily democracy without daily citizenship”
— Ralph Nader

On Wednesday this week I had the privilege of attending a citizenship ceremony at Camden Town Hall, as my American wife finally took the oaths and became a British citizen.

This journey has been quite the odyssey for us. Jenny first came to this country on a short study abroad programme, staying for only a matter of months. She returned a couple of years later to study for her postgraduate degree, which is when we met, and after marrying we moved back to London (she on a spousal visa) and have been living here together since 2012.

The subsequent steps – applying for indefinite leave to remain, studying for and taking the Life in the UK test, providing biometric data more often than one would think necessary given the unchanging nature of one’s fingerprints and of course forking over large sums of money to the Home Office at regular intervals – were frequently stressful and time consuming, but there was never a question that this was a step we were going to take.

Britain is home for Jenny just as much as is the United States of America. She may have stubbornly refused to learn the 24-hour clock, use Celsius when talking about the weather or guzzle tea ten times a day along with everyone else at her office, but she is indisputably a proud Brit and a Londoner. She understands our cultural quirks, appreciates our history, loves the natural beauty of our countryside and maintains a richer social life and a wider network of British friends than I have ever cobbled together for myself.

Thus, naturalisation was simply a case of formalising on paper a transformation which had already taken place in her heart and mind. Jenny was already British in pectore; we were simply waiting for the legal side of things to catch up with reality. And so it was that I found myself sitting in the gallery of the council chamber at Camden Town Hall in King’s Cross, witnessing my wife and a diverse group of strangers complete the long and arduous process to become something which (through accident of birth) I have been fortunate to take for granted my entire life.

It was a genuine honour to be present as over 40 people from all backgrounds, races, religions and countries of birth solemnly affirmed their commitment to our United Kingdom. Many people are content to live in this country, building lives here, contributing and receiving back, without making this gesture of commitment. But I believe that it is very important, and admire those who do so.

Citizenship is more than a basket of rights, privileges and perks. It is also a binding commitment to the society in which we live. Choosing to naturalise means a willingness to undertake obligations as well as demand one’s due. Becoming a citizen is a declaration that one is bound to one’s fellow citizens by something more than temporary convenience or the accidental byproduct of an overseas work assignment or relationship.

This bond is hard to describe or put down in words, which is perhaps why so many self-declared “citizens of the world” – people who consider themselves to have transcended national alignment and who flit from place to place without ever making a binding commitment to anywhere they set foot – don’t understand why it matters.

But if you have built a life in Britain over the course of years or even decades, why would one not want to formalise that connection? Yes it costs money, and yes the Home Office does its damnedest to make the process as bureaucratic, expensive, frustrating and opaque as possible, often actively throwing barriers in the way of people who desperately want citizenship. But if one has the means and the opportunity, why not take the pledge and acquire the passport? Failing to do so is the civic version of cohabiting with a partner but never marrying, one foot always out the door, one eye always casting around for something better.

If I was a non-citizen living in Britain, I would take citizenship in a heartbeat. In fact, as a natural born citizen of this country I was almost envious that the immigrants who were naturalised today in King’s Cross were able to solemnly mark the event. Those of us born here often take our citizenship for granted, but these immigrants strove and sacrificed to attain their status.

With the ongoing debates around Brexit, I encounter all manner of arguments from people who clearly don’t understand the first thing about what citizenship entails or represents. For example, many are genuinely outraged that EU citizens could not vote in the 2016 referendum. I find it to be astonishing that people who live here but are unwilling to share the bond of citizenship with me seriously believe that they should still have the right to help determine the future of my country.

At this point I inevitably hear outraged spluttering along the lines of “I pay my taxes / serve in Our Blessed NHS / help employ local people, so why shouldn’t I have a say?” But this only highlights the transactional view of citizenship that many now hold, with paying taxes and claiming benefits the only relationship one might possibly have with a country.

And to be fair this transactional view of citizenship is also encouraged by the UK government, which rather than pursuing an immigration policy optimised for economic growth, social stability or national security instead blindly chases an arbitrary and unattainably low net migration number. When the state makes clear its view of immigrants as a problem to be mitigated and prospective citizens as purely a bureaucratic burden to be processed it is difficult to demand greater fealty or civic engagement from immigrants themselves.

Yet citizenship still matters, despite its somewhat tarnished image. Only citizens are able to participate fully in our civic life – voting, running for office, serving on a jury. If one is unwilling to undertake these commitments 99% of the time, as long-term EU residents who choose not to take citizenship are essentially declaring, you can’t object when you are then prohibited for participating in the one very specific event (voting in the EU referendum) in which you have a direct interest. That kind of cafeteria civics would represent a one-way flow of benefits from the state to the individual and undermine the reciprocity needed for society to function.

The Brexit debate has highlighted just how degraded our conception of citizenship has become. With reduced and increasingly ineffectual armed forces, only a very limited opportunity for national service (the National Citizen Service being one of the few entirely positive policies enacted by David Cameron) and our exquisite embarrassment about any display of patriotism, it is really no wonder that we have come to see citizenship as just a bunch of perks.

As I wrote back in September last year:

This very transactional approach has frayed the contract or bond between citizen/resident and the state. Of course, people still expect the state to protect them from foreign foes, guard against domestic security threats, provide healthcare, offer a welfare safety net and distribute various domestic and EU services. But even as they make these demands they offer rapidly diminishing loyalty to the state in which they live. People are increasingly insatiable for the benefits while being less and less willing to accept the responsibility.

I am sure that some of those who naturalised in the citizenship ceremony today did so for purely practical or transactional reasons. But I hope that even they will look back on today with pride and now feel a deeper connection to the country they call home.

Ultimately there is nothing magical about naturalisation. The certificate does not hold any special magical powers. It is not a measure of personal worth, and of course many UK residents who are non-citizens on paper are far better citizens in practice than many of us who are natural born. Naturalisation is just one indicator, albeit a very important one, of an important responsibility solemnly accepted.

Of course, none of this will be the case in perpetuity. The nation state is not forever, and in a century or two, civics and geopolitics will doubtless look very different. But for now, the nation state remains the best guarantor of freedom and incubator of prosperity that mankind has yet devised, and attachment to the nation state has been the means of securing these blessings for an individual. Wishing for its premature demise is foolish.

To those citizens of the world, outraged by Brexit, who hold their EU citizenship more dear than their British citizenship, I would simply point out that any objective, dispassionate analysis shows us that the European Union is not the only (nor best) vehicle for international cooperation, its status as the natural successor to the nation state is far from certain and it will never possess the essential spirit of democracy until there is a European demos – a body of citizens willing to take the oath that my wife and forty others willingly gave to the United Kingdom.

Watching these people – as diverse as one would imagine forty people randomly plucked from the streets of Camden to be – take the oaths of allegiance was to witness them transform from being strangers and fellow immigrants to being compatriots. It was nearly as emotional for me, sitting perched in the gallery, as it clearly was for many of them.

And if only more of us knew the journey involved and the sacrifices made by these people so that they might share the same rights and responsibilities that we enjoy as British citizens, we would not be so cavalier about our own citizenship and all that it represents.

Camden Town Hall council chamber - view from public gallery - Citizenship ceremony

Oath of allegiance - British UK Citizenship ceremony

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