Before the election last year I wrote about the problem of ‘politics as comic book’, a ‘twilight’ world of good and bad, right and wrong, conducted by fighting fog because relatively few people had any idea what they were talking about. We’ve long known, for example, that the public remains stubbornly misinformed about issues like welfare and immigration.
In some respects the rise of ‘populism’ in recent years takes advantage of this, offering simple certainties in an age which seems frighteningly precarious and complex: your problems are caused by immigration, by the European Union, by Westminster, by ‘bankers’. This populism has largely been associated with smaller parties, contrasted with the ‘responsible’ and ‘mainstream’ larger parties who had a duty to combat it. This started to change with the rise of Jeremy Corbyn here in the UK and now Bernie Sanders/Donald Trump in the USA: these are politicians who are presented by those who identify as ‘moderate’ and ‘reasonable’ as offering simple, populist responses to complex problems.
Yet it is increasingly unavoidable that this is little more than self-delusion. What these people like to call the ‘centre-ground’ of politics is conducted in that hinterland of unreality where no-one really has any idea what they’re talking about but everyone pretends otherwise. It’s clear, for example, that much of our politics is addressed at the myths around welfare and immigration rather than the reality. This has found strong, grim expression in the discussion around the referendum on the European Union.
It’s obvious that public awareness of the European Union, on the basic level of what it is and what it does, is woeful. In a survey last year less only 27% of respondents in the UK could correctly answer three relatively simple questions on the EU – if people have no idea of the number of members, the chances that they have any understanding of how laws are made or even what the bodies of the EU are aren’t high. Yet, as with (and not separate from) welfare and immigration, strong feelings and perceptions of the EU have come to dominate our political discourse with little regard as to how informed or otherwise they may be.
So it was that we ended up with yesterday’s bizarre spectacle of the Prime Minister trumpeting an improved ‘deal’ for the UK in the EU and asking that people vote to remain in it as a consequence. The two centrepieces of this deal underlined that this was about responding to ignorance rather than any practical concerns: a ‘red card’ veto over ‘unwanted legislation’ and an ’emergency brake’ on ‘migrant benefits’.
The ‘red card’ is clearly aimed at those who believe the much-renowned ‘faceless bureaucrats’ at the EU impose legislation on the EU, “like some distant imperial ruler legislating for its colonial subjects.” Aside from not even beginning to address the lack of education on EU decision-making or, for example, the distinction between the EU and the European Court of Human Rights, the ‘red card’ basically already exists. That’s a lot of noise mad about nothing much at all.
The hoopla over ‘migrant benefits’ gets, I think, a lot closer to the actual ‘concerns’ many have regarding the EU – concerns based on ignorance, xenophobia and just plain racism about ‘uncontrolled immigration’ and migrants ‘coming over here and taking our jobs/benefits’. Suffice to say, the available information doesn’t support this being a problem at all. The data is sketchy but suggests that:
EU migrants make up only a small proportion of the overall benefits caseload. They accounted for 2.5% of benefits the DWP administered in 2014 – mostly out-of-work benefits – in 2014, and 7% of tax credits, based on the HMRC definition discussed above.
The DWP analysis says EU migrants on “in-work” benefits cost the taxpayer £530m in 2013. That represents a modest 1.6% of the year’s total tax credit bill.
The vast majority of EU migrants living in the UK are in employment, while EU migration has been found to have “no statistically significant effects” on employment for those born in the UK (and in fact contributes billions to the UK economy). I’m also aware from personal experience that many, even on the left, are completely unaware that people living in the EU can’t just come to the UK and start claiming benefits. There are conditions, and the benefits they can claim are limited. It’s also the case, of course, the people from the UK are resident across the EU and some of them claim benefits.
The scare about EU migrants claiming benefits, then, feeds into the demonisation of welfare and immigration in general. We might not expect David Cameron to address these, given how well the Tories did out of inflaming English nationalism in May 2015. Could we expect the ‘moderate’ wing of Labour to do so? Of course not:
In claiming this as a ‘substantial win..for Britain’, Chuka Umunna reinforces the harmful myths around the EU and throws migrants under the bus. This comes after Andy Burnham and Liz Kendall spoke of wanting to restrict EU benefits in the Labour leadership election (contrast with Corbyn’s rhetoric). These are intelligent people who presumably identify as ‘progressive’, perhaps even left-wing. I find it hard to believe they aren’t aware that they’re responding to concerns which are largely baseless, and flirting with deeply unpleasant sentiments as they do so. Yet this is what seems to pass for ‘centre-ground’ politics – fighting fog to avoid being seen to challenge ‘ordinary people’, who must be deferred to always (except when they believe in things which punch upwards rather than downwards, such as nationalisation and wealth taxes).
Ignorance about the European Union isn’t, of course, confined to those who view it negatively. The incoherence of the SNP’s position, demanding ‘independence’ and ‘all decisions affecting Scotland, made in Scotland’ while being uncritically pro-EU, remains largely unchallenged. Amongst Scottish nationalists I would assert that much support for the EU comes not from a deep understanding of it (or a belief in countries working together in unions), but rather as a response to anti-EU sentiment being associated with right-wing English nationalism. This may be more benign than anti-EU sentiment but it is no less based in fog.
The SNP, of course, have made exploiting many people’s ignorance about politics into an artform. Whether it be going to war to prevent Westminster from implementing much the same law on fox-hunting as Holyrood did, constantly misrepresenting (read: lying about) EVEL while not even bothering to vote on the Housing and Planning Bill (EVEL’s first use) or presenting economic plans largely idential to Labour’s and framing it as ‘anti-austerity vs Red Tories’, the SNP understand that what is going on in Scottish politics has little foundation in fact and much in nationalist rhetoric. We saw this perfectly illustrated yesterday, when Scottish Labour called the SNP’s bluff on austerity and announced proposals to use the Scottish Rate of Income Tax to invest in public services. The SNP line on the SRIT has been consistent since Swinney’s December budget: that it’s not a ‘progressive’ tax and would hit the poor more than the wealthy. This is plain incorrect when it comes to SRIT as is and it’s even more wrong about Labour’s proposal. Yet the SNP knows that the faithful need lines and so it dutifully pumped them out: by making plans to protect the poorest income tax-payers, it was acknowledging the tax wasn’t progressive (a circular argument if ever there was one); the rebate was unworkable and possibly ‘illegal’; the tax rise was a ‘unionist’ tax to pay for Tory policies.
It was this last claim which most exposed the utterly daft, if deeply sad, state of Scottish politics, unleashing lots of unhinged ranting about ‘unionism’. Scotland doing things differently was apparently a ‘nightmare’ scenario:
Bearing in mind that public spending in Scotland is consistently higher per capita than in the rest of the UK, asking people to pay a bit more for more spending seems a no-brainer. Especially in a context where the SNP has, for example effectively cut Council Tax with its 8 year freeze, leading to a crisis in local government, while using the funds to ensure free university tuition while cutting student support for the poorest (something the SNP, again, condemned at Westminster, safe in the knowledge few would know they had done much the same). Clearly ‘doing things differently’ in Scotland is fine when it comes to enacting policies people like but when it comes to paying for it, it’s unacceptable. This is because we have the bizarre situation where, for many, the SNP get the credit for everything perceived as better than the status quo in England/Wales, but anything difficult is judged against an imaginary independent Scotland. Scotland is currently ‘too wee, too poor, too stupid’ to do things differently because once the country is’independent’ it will be able to do everything better. The SNP has, of course, never actually said how it would pay for doing things differently: its White Paper offered a corporation tax cut, it is cutting air passenger duty and, prior to is general election plans proposing ‘anti-austerity’ plans largely identical to Labour’s ‘austerity-lite’, it proposed more borrowing. The latter is, of course, a valid option but one which again relied on a lack of any realistic consideration (and again was probably inconsistent with EU membership). As Professor Wren-Lewis put it, it was “being in denial about macroeconomic fundamentals because they interfered with…politics.” If the fatuous fog of the EU ‘debate’ is infused with xenophobia and English nationalism, the Scottish variant has much the same effect of impeding informed debate.
Let’s be clear: people will support different political parties, different policies, different ideologies, for many reasons. I don’t mean to fetishise some ‘reality’ which exists in an ideology-free vacuum. There are certainly discussions and debate to be had about the European Union or spending/policies in Scotland. Yet to get to them we have to first acknowledge where we are and face the truth that what’s actually happening – the truth, as far as we can get it, of how much is spent on what, of what laws actually mean, of what governments are actually doing – is a secondary consideration. It would be tempting to accredit this to an age where ‘opinion’ has become a sacred right with no corresponding responsibility to inform oneself but this isn’t a recent development, as this excerpt from The Ragged-Trousered Philanthropists shows:
If we are to have any hope of a better world we have to be able to debate and to be proved wrong. Facile assertions that challenging the perceived status quo ‘insults ordinary people’ or ‘talks down Scotland’ or ‘presumes to know better’ are little more than dangerous demagoguery. It is beholden on each of us, as far as we can, to fight the political fog and refuse to flatter that which we know to be untrue. This doesn’t mean shouting about the media attacking Corbyn or protesting outside the BBC – it means attempting to understand where power lies, how it is operated and how it can best be challenged to achieve our goals. The alternative is darkness.