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Friday, 28 February 2020

Blue Wall Bishop Blues

Frances Coppola has suggested that "getting on your bike" might be the best message to give the "blue wall" (formerly "red wall") seats that have become the cynosure of British politics over the last three months. It wouldn't be a popular message, and like any form of social exhortation would be largely ignored, but it does have the virtue of recognising the reality on the ground. However, there is a problem in her analysis which becomes obvious when she draws a parallel with the early 1980s and the then government's answer to deindustrialisation: "Of course, in many traditional manufacturing and mining communities, people never did what Tebbit said anyway. And nor do their children. A report from the Resolution Foundation finds that in the so-called “blue wall” constituencies in the North of England, the Midlands and Wales – the Labour Party’s “lost heartlands” – people are much less likely to move to another part of the country for work. They stay where they are."

This is an example of the confusion between "blue wall towns", i.e. the seats that flipped from Labour to the Conservatives in the 2019 general election, and "left behind towns", i.e. those that suffered decline in the 1980s and which have struggled to recover since. It is a confusion of social and economic geography but also of time. Many of the blue wall seats are actually on the margins of the old industrial areas, rather than in the heart of them. This is particularly obvious in Durham and Teeside, where North West Durham, Bishop Auckland, Sedgefield and Darlington all flipped from red to blue in December. These are seats that sit between Tory-dominated rural areas (the North Pennines and Yorkshire Dales) and Labour's actual Northern Eastern heartlands along the coast between Tynemouth and Middlesbrough. Some are seats with a history of periodic Conservative incumbents, such as Darlington, or abut seats like Stockton South that have traditionally been marginals.


The temporal difference between these seats and the coastal areas where Labour still dominates is that the social and economic changes experienced in the 1980s and after were much more pronounced in the latter. The former certainly saw incidents of deindustrialisation - the closure of the Consett steelworks or the Shildon railworks were famous examples - but large parts of these constituencies escaped the direct effects of the Thatcher government's policies. This reflects the semi-rural nature of the seats and the reliance on more flexible light industry. The latter shouldn't be taken to imply modernity - these are areas of low productivity - but it meant that the loss of high-employment industries during the 1980s was often not as traumatic as in the North Eastern coastal constituencies that lost shipbuilding, much large-scale manufacturing and the remnants of the coal industry at the same time (most of the the pits in West Durham closed in the 50s and 60s). It also meant that these seats saw little of the regeneration championed in the 1990s in the region's cities and missed out on the emergence of new technology industries after the millennium.

Many of the blue wall seats historically had a substantial Tory vote, like Bishop Auckland, which was obscured in the media by the assumption that Northern constituencies where humans outnumber sheep must be solidly Labour. Though the seats are generally thought of as urban, they are "edgelands" more than inner-city and include substantial semi-rural hinterlands and market towns, like Barnard Castle. Many are former mining areas - as are many of the Midlands seats won by the Tories, such as Bolsover, Ashfield and Bassetlaw - but the media symbolism of that is invariably "heavy industry" rather than the reality of "countryside". To put it in antiquated literary terms, the blue wall is more DH Lawrence than Alan Sillitoe. To put it in contemporary sociological terms, these are areas of low mobility and a scarcity of cultural goods. The Resolution Foundation report that Coppola cites, Painting the Towns Blue, notes the high levels of car usage and poor public transport (this is gilets jaunes territory, hence the hostility to fuel duty). It also notes that while incomes are low relative to the national average (which is heavily skewed by London and the South East), they are marginally higher than incomes in nearby Labour seats - the actual "left behind" areas.

Home ownership is also more extensive, which reflects both higher incomes and low house prices but also historically lower levels of both public and private rental stock. That might be assumed to imply an ageing population, but the average age is actually close to the national average. However, I suspect this is less a sign that the young are reluctant to move away (i.e. insufficient push) and more a reflection of the fact that the significant migration following deindustrialisation happened over 30 years ago. Since then, younger generations have tended to stick around because the opportunity to move to the big cities on spec, particularly London, has reduced due to the high cost of rented accommodation and the greater difficulty of securing temporary benefits (i.e. insufficient pull). The ease of mobility from small Northern towns to the capital in the 1980s simply doesn't exist any more, but this is due to structural reasons, not a lack of interest or will. The Resolution Foundation is correct to talk of these areas having a "low level of demographic dynamism", but this was always so. There was never a halcyon time in the postwar period when the population of Bishop Auckland was being rapidly turned over by youngsters moving away to college or incomers attracted by new industries.


The discussion on what can be done for these blue wall constituencies, whether from the perspective of the Tories seeking to hold onto them in 2024 or Labour trying to regain them, has tended to reinforce the confusion with the left behind towns narrative and the longstanding calls for industrial regeneration and large-scale infrastructure investment in depressed regions. Historically, the blue wall constituencies took their place further down the industrial pecking-order, providing peripheral manufacturing support to the larger conurbations and localised service support for the rural hinterland. This means that employment generation in these areas is likely to be more dependent on the growth of demand in regional cities, but I doubt the Tory government will want to pump more money into Labour seats in Nottingham and Sheffield in order to hang on to Ashfield and Rother Valley. As the decision to proceed with HS2 indicates, transport investment will continue to disproportionately favour the big cities (and the biggest of them all in particular). While money has been earmarked for buses, the sums are relatively modest and the lion's share will probably end up being spent in the North East in smaller cities like Sunderland and Middlesbrough rather than small towns like Spennymoor and Lanchester.

The problem of small towns is both global and local. Stian Westlake defines a small town, with just a hint of right-populism, as "population roughly less that 300,000, that’s fallen on hard economic times and isn’t populated by metropolitan elite types". These face four key issues: "(i) towns everywhere, not just the UK, are becoming less productive relative to cities; (ii) UK cities outside London are poorer than we’d expect by global standards, probably because of poor infrastructure and investment; (iii) the UK invests less than other rich countries in a range of things, including skills and machinery, in part because of recent policy changes; (iv) our planning system makes it hard for people to move to prosperous bits of the UK, which makes the plight of left-behind places a more urgent problem." This is the conventional neoliberal wisdom, to which you could add the belief that Britain lacks a sufficiently dominant second city that could counter the draw of London (though whether this is possible is moot).

If we convert this analysis into a policy prescription then we're looking at investment in infrastructure, skills and technology to raise productivity, with some deregulation of planning in growth areas like Oxford and Cambridge. This may not be wrong, but it's little more than pabulum. The problem is that no one has managed to come up with a credible plan to regenerate the big Northern cities beyond trying to encourage agglomeration in Manchester, to the detriment of Liverpool and Leeds, or connecting them via high-speed links to London, which will simply suck more high-value economic activity south. This is not to say that those cities aren't growing and don't have examples of high-productivity or an entrepreneurial culture, but the growth rates are modest and the spillover effects geographically limited. In other words, the big Northern and Midlands cities can just about take care of themselves but aren't likely to do a lot to help haul up the small towns.


Given that investment funds will always be rationed, even at a time of low interest rates, it is hard to imagine much government largesse finding its way to the blue wall constituencies. The large cities offer a far better return on investment and at least some wider benefit in supporting regional supply chains and labour demand, though that indirect effect will be larger in those towns closer to the cities - i.e. what remains of the red wall rather than the repainted blue wall. Gateshead will still see more benefit than Bishop Auckland. The reality for the latter is that direct investment isn't going to happen in any meaningful way under a government both committed to avoiding significant tax rises and seduced by the allure of mega-projects. In any rational assessment of the investment priorities required to "level up" the country, the blue wall constitiuencies would be near the bottom of the list, and political realism means they're likely to lose out in any fight over the crumbs with longtime Conservative-held rural seats.

But the truth is that Bishop Auckland is a constituency that probably doesn't expect much anyway, and in this it may be typical of the blue wall. Beyond Brexit, there is little in the way of a coherent political objective uniting local voters. For all the media talk of disadvantage and resentment, it is relatively comfortable with its marginal status and happy that its kids haven't generally deserted for the bright lights of either London or Newcastle. A few more buses, a little more money for council social care and panegyrics in the press to the glorious post-EU future may be enough to convince voters that their concerns are being addressed. The broader worry is that between pensioner-friendly "shoppas" and construction-friendly HS2, the actual "left behind towns", like Hartlepool and South Shields, will continue to struggle due to a combination of political posturing and weak growth outside the South East.

Monday, 24 February 2020

Let the Right One In

Immigration policy has always served multiple, and often conflicting, purposes. The 1905 Aliens Act was partly a response to an antisemitic campaign, partly the scapegoating of immigrants for poor housing and health conditions, and partly a moral panic about "foreign criminals". It would prove typical of later immigration policy in its inadequacy and the incompetence of its associated bureaucracy. In the postwar era, immigration policy took a conscious turn towards the needs of the national economy in the form of the 1948 Nationality Act. Subsequent immigration acts - in 1962, 1968 and 1971 - attempted to strike a balance between the economic and the xenophobic. From 1973 onwards, policy was driven by a simultaneous tightening of UK citizenship rules and a loosening of restrictions on movement for EU nationals. The consequence was a new focus in the 1990s on "bogus asylum-seekers", a group that lacked popular support and which was routinely demonised in the tabloid press as criminal, echoing the arguments of a century ago.

In this historical context, the Conservative government's proposed points-based system is a continuation of the technocratic and economistic approach in which immigrants are judged on their potential contribution, but it also marks a departure from a policy preference for privileged national groups, whether they be Commonwealth or EU citizens. Of course, privilege remains central to the policy, but it is now the privilege of wealth or proxies for class, such as PhDs. This is an oddly post-national approach for a supposedly nationalist government, which prompts the thought that the contradictions between the policy and the expectations of Conservative party members and supporters will lead to problems down the road. You don't have to be a full-on racist bigot of the type that BBC's Question Time now seems to specialise in to wonder whether there will be any noticeable change on the ground. Insisting that all immigrants must speak English looks like a distraction from the abandonment of a numerical target for net migration.

Much of the proposed system is gestural. The use of multiples of 10 for the points scale is less about furture-proofing flexibility, as some commentators have suggested (you could always use fractions, after all), than in suggesting a mountain to climb. The points for a PhD rule doesn't make a great deal of sense as it is unlikely to be decisive for a job outside low-end academia. For most professional roles you would probably hit the 70 points target through a combination of a sponsor, appropriate skills, English language competence and pay-grade. Having a doctorate would be a nice-to-have. This, and the bias towards STEM subjects, looks like a propaganda gloss to keep Dominic Cummings happy, but that in turn points to the potential conflict of interests between the technocrats and free-traders on the one hand and the nationalists and small town-botherers on the other. The system has succeeded politically by tangibly "taking control", but the likely tinkering over shortage occupations suggests a future of uncertainty.


Liberal opinion on the matter has oscillated between a critique of virtue, centring on the economic vandalism and social spite of government ministers, and an instrumental reduction of immigrants to factors of production. The former is largely noise. That Tory ministers are callous weasels is hardly news. That they are prepared to risk damaging the economy in pursuit of its restructuring - towards greater investment in automation or the redeployment of the "inactive" - should hardly come as a surprise. In comparison to the wider project of Brexit, or indeed the policies they pursued in the early 1980s, this gamble is trivial. The latter argument, that we need low-skilled immigrants as well as skilled ones because apples have to be picked and arses wiped, reveals a logic that is no less utilitarian than the government's. The only point of difference is that the Tories additionally want to satisfy the xenophobic vote.

To point out that Priti Patel's or Sajid Javid's own parents would have been barred from entry to the UK if the proposed rules were in place in the 1960s is not evidence of those politicians' hypocrisy. Immigration rules change over time. Theoretically applying the rules of one era to the cases of another is literally anachronistic. Nesrine Malik, in a typically hot and bothered opinion piece in the Guardian, went so far as to imagine a symbolic erasure: "Javid and Patel should be grateful that the world doesn’t work like the picture of Marty McFly’s family in Back to the Future, or they would currently be fading from existence, having eliminated the conditions of their own birth". Immgration policy generally doesn't have retrospective effect (the "hostile environment" introduced by the Conservative and Liberal Democrat coalition government was a change in operational practice, not a change in the statutory rules, and one that echoed previous "clamp-downs" during the New Labour years).

As an ideological artefact, the government's proposal suggests that the free-traders in government have the upper hand over the nationalists. Though Priti Patel will do her best to give the policy an authoritarian and populist spin, it should be remembered that she was a co-author of the Britannia Unchained tract that demanded a smaller state, deregulation and lower taxes, and even went so far as to lambast British workers as "idlers". Her comments about the 8 million inactive filling the roles vacated by unskilled migrant labour can be read as evidence of her shallow understanding of the UK's society and economy, but they are also indicative of radical ambition. The question is whether the new immigration policy is a harbinger of "Thatcherism 2.0" or whether it will prove emblematic of a policy of fudge, unable to reconcile the competing demands of free trade and nationalism. The upcoming budget will give us a clue as to the answer.

Tuesday, 18 February 2020

The Sabisky Affair

Eugenics is in the news again, following the departure of the hitherto-unknown Andrew Sabisky from the fever-basement of Number 10. Though this looks like a victory for the bien-pensants, it's worth noting in passing that the Prime Minister clearly sees no reason to apologise, let alone purge his chief advisor who supposedly employed the "weirdo". I suspect all this has done is further lower the bar for "acceptable opinion". Eugenics is an odd topic in public discourse because there is a tendency to avoid actually spelling out what it means, either in theory or practice. You might protest that we already hear far too much on the subject, and that there is no lack of pseudo-intellectual justifications or madcap schemes, not to mention thorough debunkings informed by both science and moral philosophy, but I think a lot of this is just meaningless theatre that neither gets to the heart of the eugenicist case nor adequately explains why eugenicism is both objectionable and pernicious.

The philosophical basis of eugenics is essentialism: the idea that qualities are biologically intrinsic. What follows from this is a belief that function follows form: that certain types of person are more suited to particular purposes and roles. In the pre-modern world, where social relations were largely unchanging, rank was believed to reflect virtue. In the modern world, "breeding" has been replaced by talent as the expression of intrinsic value and the arbiter of rank in a notional meritocracy, but in reality we have barely left the old forms of thought behind, merely translated them from an aristocratic to a democratic vocabulary. This, as much as the Boer War, is why the 1900s saw so much concern over the calibre of the "national stock" in tandem with the debate over universal suffrage. What did change over the course of the twentieth century was the language of eugenic advocacy, with a shift away from the metaphorical farmyard to the abstract of the good society in phrases such as a "healthy people".

Making an essentialist claim in respect of race or class is clearly offensive, and easily disproven, but the truth is that polite society is tacitly supportive of the idea in its wider application. It consciously rejects racism and bigotry, but it subsconciously divides society into the better and the worse. This obsession with rank frequently breaks cover in issues around social virtue & competing rights, where the charge of prejudice can be more easily avoided and discrimination given a veener of respectability through an appeal to just deserts or equality of treatment. It has become a mainstay of media commentary in recent years, from the notions of the "undeserving poor" and "problem families" to the indulgence of gender-critical feminists in their scepticism about trans rights. On the one hand a section of society is congenitally deficient and "not pulling its weight", on the other a minority is disruptive of a natural order and destabilising to a wider good.

The practicalities of eugenics are also elided unless addressed in their strong form of selective breeding, sterilisation or euthanasia. In other words, Nazis. This is because in their soft form they have long been central to the liberal state in the forms of natalist policies. While selective breeding for heritable characteristics gets the headlines, eugenic practice has largely been about encouraging the birth of healthy native sons and daughters, their biopolitical optimisation and more recently genetic correction. For all its investment in meritocracy, postwar social democracy was selective and essentialist, hence the slow progress towards gender equality, the segregation of the disabled and the treatment of immigrants as temporary "stock". One reason why eugenics is popular among a strand of the British right is that it would require the ruthless exercise of the levers of the state (I suspect this, rather than an obsession with phrenology, explains the attraction for Dominic Cummings). These "nationalists" are quite different to the free-market libertarians who would shrink the state and divest government of all concern for population growth and personal health.


The philosophical objection to eugenics is not that qualities of social value aren't intrinsic or heritable (though they're mostly not) but that we cannot know, let alone collectively agree, what a "better" population would be. We can debate what a better society would be, and we can exercise choice in the matter through elections and other mechanisms, but we reserve the right to change our mind. This is why we have historically supported soft eugenics, from free school milk to a woman's right to abortion, but balked at anything that smacked of coercion or irreversibility. Rejecting the harder form of eugenics is partly an argument against utilitarianism and the treating of people as means rather than ends, but it's also a recognition that the future is simply unknowable (Hayek was sceptical of eugenics for this reason, as much as because of his aversion to planning). The history of public policy tells us that we will inevitably make errors of judgement when it comes to future social value.

The recognition of the "waste" of women's abilities in the immediate postwar years is an example of how that value changes. Initially, the belief was that women could best contribute to society by making homes and raising children. Changes in the economy gradually led to the recognition that their social value would be greater if they worked too. Both views were utilitarian - more concerned with social contribution that personal flourishing - so neither is necessarily admirable, but what matters is the change. A eugenicist policy would have to eschew any such change or risk becoming arbitrary. It also presumes a fixed template not only of social but of human value. In its hard form, "Life not worthy of life". The precautionary principle suggests that even if we adopt a rigorously utilitarian approach, we should be tolerant of variety because its value is not immutable. To take a more recent example, consider the growing awareness of the talent of the autistic in the digital economy.

Eugenics is not about designing a better future but about restoring a mythical past. It is extreme conservatism, hence it is ultimately indistinguishable from ancestor-worship. The inherent contradiction is that it presents as radical and transformative (or at least as edgy and inconoclastic) but it is driven by a vision that obsesses over rank and elitist cultural capital (eugencists are invariably snobs). The intellectual wandering of eugenics, from the Fabians through the Nazis to contemporary national-populists, is a clue to its fundamental dynamic: revolution in the service of reaction. It is the adoption of utilitarian principles and the pragmatic of state power to preserve a traditional hierarchy of privilege. The departure of Sabisky for saying the quiet part out loud does not suggest that this underlying project is about to hit the buffers. Meanwhile his critics see no irony in amplifying this mini-drama of natural selection into a debate about Dominic Cummings' status.

Friday, 7 February 2020

Rabbiting On

Taika Waititi's JoJo Rabbit tells the story of a ten year old Hitler Youth member, a loyal if naïve Nazi ("massively into swastikas"), who compensates for his unpopularity as a squeamish nerd by imagining that Hitler is his friend. Naturally, this imaginary Adolf, played with relish by Waititi himself, is also a squeamish nerd, though one increasingly given to petulant rages that mirror the young Johannes "JoJo" Betzler's dawning realisation that Jews don't have horns and that the Fatherland may be heading for defeat. The trigger for JoJo's rapid maturing is the discovery that his mother is a member of the resistance and secretly harbouring Elsa, a teenage Jewish girl. When not interrogating Elsa for the book on Jews that he is writing, JoJo spends his time on Hitler Youth duties amid a collection of misfits, pyschopaths and his sole friend, the indestructible Yorki. It's a coming of age story, but it's also a commentary on the need for a measure of fantasy to maintain psychological health.

The film has been criticised as tonally clumsy and even flippant in its attitude towards the Nazis, with the implication that a lack of seriousness towards the subject is typical of a jaded liberal intelligentsia. In contrast, the film's champions have seen it as a story of hope and empathy in the face of the recent normalisation of the far-right in politics. In other words, the film is being read as a contemporary satire that either fails because it isn't vicious enough or succeeds because it is humane. It is insufficiently intolerant on the one hand, and "we go high" on the other. Margaret Hodge vs Michelle Obama. My own reading is different, you'll be pleased to hear. I think the key to the film, and the reason why it should be regarded as a sophisticated work, is that it isn't about the Second World War so much as the postwar reaction to it, and specifically how literature dealt with the proximity of horror and humour, from Joseph Heller's Catch 22 to Spike Milligan's Adolf Hitler: My Part in His Downfall.

For most of the critics, the reference points are films that attempted to satirise the Nazis, such as Charlie Chaplin's The Great Dictator and Ernst Lubitsch's To Be or Not to Be, or more recent works that sentimentalised the Holocaust, such as Roberto Benigni's Life is Beautiful and Mark Herman's The Boy in the Striped Pajamas. But JoJo Rabbit isn't really a satire of Nazism, any more than Mel Brooks's The Producers was. Just as that film was a satire of showbusiness, so Waititi's slapstick and verbal wit is concerned with the role of contemporary cinema. The better comparison would be with Quentin Tarantino's Inglourious Basterds. What the two films share is a more-is-better attitude to irony and a soundtrack that nods to David Bowie (the theme from Cat People and Heroes respectively). When Captain Klenzendorf prepares for his own Gotterdamerung at the film's climax, it is pure glam. In fact, Bowie might have been good casting for the part, though Sam Rockwell in eye-shadow is certainly enjoyable.


This Nazi world seen through the eyes of a child is absurd, but not simply in terms of its mad ideology or the moral evasions of its people. It doesn't make sense, or no more sense than the parallel universe conjured-up by Tarantino. Everyone in the picture-postcard small town appears well-fed and smartly-dressed despite it being the final weeks of the war, with armies approaching from every direction - "Even the Canadians". There is no shortage of weaponry and Hitler Youth camping trips are still being organised. The death of JoJo's sister is never explained, nor are the circumstances of his mother's capture and execution. Yorki finally decides he has had enough of being a child soldier in a paper uniform and should return to his mother ("I need a cuddle"). This is a landscape straight out of a fairy tale, not an exercise in cinema verité. As a study in delusion, it owes more to Harvey than A Beautiful Mind.

The film is also not engaged in a sentimental celebration of the human spirit, or the survival of decency amid the horrors of war, despite the humanising narrative arc of JoJo's relationship with Elsa. There are moments of heroism, such as when Klenzendorf covers up for Elsa during a visit by a faintly Pythonesque Gestapo squad, and Yorki remains a beacon of innocence throughout, like a diminutive Good Soldier Svejk, but these reflect a live-and-let-live attitude rather than any adherence to principle. Many of the characters have something to hide: JoJo his imaginary friend, his mother her resistance activities, Elsa herself, Klenzendorf his homosexuality. The only one who seems unburdened is Yorki, though his worldview is not without pathos. JoJo's final rejection of Hitler is a moment of self-acceptance, but Yorki got there before him: "I guess I'm just a fat kid in a fat kid's body".

Rather than other films, what JoJo Rabbit reminded me of were two books: Gunter Grass's The Tin Drum and Kurt Vonnegut's Slaughterhouse Five. Both were made into films but neither fully captured the feel of the novels. I've not read the original story, Caging Skies by Christine Leunens, but I understand Waititi's screenplay is radically different both in plot (there is no imaginary Hitler in the book) and tone. What I think Waititi takes from Grass is the self-absorption of the child who believes he can influence the world around him. What I think he takes from Vonnegut is the idea that only the fantastic can allow us to conquer the terrible. It's hardly an original thought that we must leave behind childish fancies in order to face the terror of existence, but JoJo Rabbit makes the further point that adults can never fully escape the desire to recover that childishness and that sometimes surrendering to it is the only fit psychological response. In a round about way, he's mounting a defence of the Marvel Cinematic Universe.