The manipulation of public anxiety about immigration has become an important element in Party politics here in Britain. With the economy flat-lining, against a background of a million job vacancies, debilitating understaffing in the NHS and social care, hostility to immigration seems odd. But at a time of economic distress, an appeal to xenophobia, subtle or open, and the stoking of anger against urban elites, (sometimes merited) brings approval and votes - as Geert Wilders in the Netherlands has recently demonstrated.
Anti-immigration rhetoric offers a scapegoat for a plethora of ills including the failure of governments to provide hope, justice and a sense of wellbeing for their citizens. From an America further divided by Trump to Orban’s authoritarian Hungary democracy looks in bad shape. The reasons are varied, the problems seemingly intractable but, as Donald Tusk’s electoral victory in Poland over the Law & Justice Party (PiS) showed, the direction of travel is not always towards far-right extremism ((Denis McShane ‘Geert Wilders: far-Right bogeyman or old Dutch cheese’ 25 November 2023). And, yes, the far-Right can soften its position once in power.
Worldwide, political Parties believe that if they are to have a reasonable hope of electoral success they must promise to control immigration. In Britain the fear of ‘them’ taking our jobs, our housing, places in our schools, is an understandable consequence of growing impoverishment and the accelerating erosion of the welfare state with its universal public services. Voters’ number one priority according to UK opinion polls is the cost of living. For growing numbers in the lowest income decile in the UK, the sixth largest economy in the world, this means the lack of basic material necessities, not being able to make ends meet. Some 4.2 million British children are growing up in poverty.
Peter Mandelson, Gordon Brown’s Business Secretary, speaking in 1998, was “intensely relaxed about people getting filthy rich - as long as they paid their taxes”. By 2012 he had retracted these sentiments and was worried about rising inequality and failure to increase middle class disposable incomes. By 2021, the top decile in the UK owned almost half our national wealth. The bottom decile received c. 3%. Or put even more starkly, the richest 1% of the population were worth £2.8 trillion, more than the £2.4 trillion owned by 70%, some 48 million people.
Mandelson warned against “business and bank bashing” yet banks make themselves targets. Money tucked away in tax havens is measured in billions while investment in the UK continues to stagnate and investment bankers get richer alongside the CEOs of public companies. The EU cap on bankers’ bonuses has been scrapped by the Government. The salaries of CEOs in energy companies, and their shareholder dividends, are eye-watering while their customers struggle with bills.
You will not find the word ‘inequality’ in Chancellor Jeremy Hunt’s recent Autumn Statement. Nor did he quote the words of King Lear “So distribution should undo excess, and each man have enough”. Hunt’s ‘levelling up’ measures mean an aspiration to equalise growth around the country; our geographical inequality is the worst in the OECD. His updating of benefits by 10% leaves them at the lowest level since 1990. He does mention ‘poverty’ but close to the end of his speech and then only in the context of measures ‘to get people back to work’.
Britain has become one of the most unequal societies in Europe, more unequal than Romania and Latvia according to the EU inequality index. Does it matter? Yes. In a new Cost of Inequality Report, the Equality Trust, a public policy think-tank, asserts that such a level of inequality “has made the UK more unhealthy, unhappy and unsafe than our more equal peers” and puts its economic cost at over £100 billion.
The sense of injustice, of being ignored and looked down upon, can result in voters directing the contempt to which they feel subjected towards a political entity variously described as ‘the swamp’ ‘the blob’ ‘the chattering classes’ ‘the metropolitan elite’, and voting for the Party that best seems to express their anger.
How else to explain voters’ enthusiasm for clever and dangerous, sometimes libertarian, clowns unsuited for high office who play the populist cards of immigration, Islamophobia, wresting control from the contemptuous elites: Wilders in Netherlands, Trump in the USA, Bolsonaro in Brazil, Milei in Argentina, Duterte in Philippines, Meloni in Italy, Braverman in UK. All march onto the political stage to the drumbeat of a dangerous form of nationalism.
The Indian academic Pankaj Mishra traces these developments back to the Enlightenment which he sees as creating the myth and expectation of progress. His Age of Anger: A history of the Present, Penguin 2017, tracks what he terms ressentiment, an amalgam of anger and resentment created by socio-economic structures experienced by people treated as ‘superfluous’. The invention of the microchip in 1971 opened a new era in the history of ressentiment. The revolution in communications technology and social media, its virtual solidarities, have enabled both the spread and intensification of ressentiment, contributing to retrograde and tribalist forms of nationalism and generating violence – see the recent anti-foreigner riots in Dublin.
There can be no doubt that poverty, wars, and climate change will increase international migration. One of the great failures of Western leadership is the lack of any ‘strategic plan’ (the words used by the Archbishop of Canterbury during the debates on the Government’s illegal Rwanda policy) to stabilise vulnerable economies in Africa and Asia enabling their populations to stay at home and make a living. This requires the provision of a level of aid commensurate to the financial flows into Europe after World War II, and means debt relief, a generous Loss and Compensation Fund and more. Just as Austerity in Britain since 2010 and indifference to inequality and poverty are a national economic choice, with consequences we can see, so is refusal to face the magnitude of the problems confronting vulnerable countries around the world.
This failure of vision and courage has deep roots. Mishra, a secular socialist, describes the Pope - remarkably - as the “most convincing and influential public intellectual today”. He believes that Francis’ moral stature rests on his critique of the “ostensibly autonomous and self-interested individual’, a figure emerging during the Enlightenment and now confronting “an impasse”. In the current phase of globalisation, Mishra writes, this figure has descended into ‘either angry tribalism or equally bellicose forms of antinomian individualism’, the denial of shared moral values. His is a provocative but compelling portrait of populist politics.
If we are to survive the 21st century as civilised, diverse, and democratic societies recognising our obligations under international law and preserving humanitarian values, voters must keep the clowns and extremists, the libertarians and newly minted ‘anarcho-capitalists’ and recycled fascists, out of high office. It is a political imperative in this age of anger to seek leaders with a moral core of honesty, empathy, solidarity and responsibility, capable of reducing inequality. This quest must not remain a form of utopian eccentricity.
See TheArticle 29/11/2023
“A completely extraordinary thing to do, to effectively overrule a decision on the facts, on the evidence, by the highest court in the land." That is Lord Sumption who served on the Supreme Court from 2012-2018 describing the Prime Minister’s proposed emergency legislation on offshoring asylum processing to Rwanda.
“With our new treaty Rwanda is safe”, Rishi Sunak declared responding to the Supreme Court’s unanimous judgement that Rwanda is unsafe and the government policy of deporting refugees to Rwanda is therefore unlawful. Sunak’s reaction to a judgement that does not please him is a demonstration of how to create Trumpian alternative facts - turn ‘magical thinking’ (Suella Braverman) into legislation.
The rest of the Government’s response has been gaslighting as usual. Sunak took the lead prefacing Prime Minister’s Question Time on 15 November by declaring “the principle of removing asylum seekers to a safe third country is lawful. There are further elements that they [the Supreme Court] want additional certainty on". So things are not what they seem: everything is under control.
But the Supreme Court was not deciding whether the general principle of moving asylum seekers to third countries was legal. The judges were hearing an appeal from Government against an existing decision of the Court of Appeal which had found outsourcing asylum processing to Rwanda unlawful. And the Prime Minister’s reference to mysterious ‘further elements’ relates presumably to facts about the past record of the Rwandan government including their treatment of Eritrean and Sudanese asylum seekers offshored to Rwanda by Israel between 2013 and 2018, as well as the question of past compliance with the 1951 Refugee Convention. Rwanda’s asylum procedures are clearly inadequate and require a substantial transformation to ensure compliance with the Refugee Convention and other international norms.
To seek and enjoy asylum from mistreatment and persecution in another country is a human right, Article 14 of the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights. A great safeguard for refugees is the prohibition of forced return to countries where they may be subject to ill-treatment or persecution, the principle of non-refoulement. The decision taken by the Supreme Court rested on applying this principle in the light of the Rwandan government’s rudimentary systems for the processing of refugees and its past record on asylum and other human rights.
The Supreme Court judges were not going to be satisfied with assurances given by the Rwandan government as had the divisional court in the UK in which legal proceedings had begun with a preliminary finding in favour of the Government. Its ruling relied on a realistic and thoroughly researched assessment of the risk of breaches of non-refoulement involving asylum seekers sent from the UK to Rwanda. In short, the Supreme Court painstakingly undertook the due diligence we might have expected from the Government before they began herding asylum seekers onto an airplane to Kigali.
The Government could have avoided lengthy and expensive legal challenges. Early in 2022, the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office had advised Downing Street, on the advice of the UK High Commissioner to Burundi and Rwanda, Omar Daair OBE, not to select Rwanda as a third country. The UNHCR, with what the Supreme Court called their ‘unique and unrivalled expertise’, had aired their strong opposition. The killing by Rwandan police of 12 refugees from the Democratic Republic of the Congo during a protest against poor food in 2018 should have raised serious doubts. Rishi Sunak was probably too busy in California in May 2011 to notice reports of British police warning two Rwandan dissidents of a credible threat to their lives. President Kagame’s way with political opponents was hardly a secret when the ‘Rwanda Migration and Economic Development Partnership’ was launched by Priti Patel in April 2022 in the face of objections not just from the political Opposition but also from her Home Office civil servants, the Churches and NGOs.
The Government’s reaction to this debacle foretold, and of their own making, is disturbing. There was the usual claim that only a ‘vocal minority’ were rejoicing. And the worn out refrain that the Prime Minister would courageously realise ‘the will of the British people’ against the naysayers. And where have we heard that before? According to James Cleverly, the new Home Secretary, this is “an incredible priority for the British people”. Recently Home Secretaries have changed at least once a year. The post is now so precarious poor Mr. Cleverly, sitting next to the Prime Minister last Wednesday, showed the nervous signs of nodding-dog syndrome. In interviews he was reduced to sounding like an old-fashioned colonial officer assuring the home audience that the natives will be trained in good government double-quick, an unenviable task he shares with newly ennobled David Cameron.
What are we to make of all this? And of the waste of £140 million on a Rwanda Partnership known to be doomed to failure plus the £8 million a day spent on hotel accommodation for asylum seekers during the wait for a failed policy to be adjudicated. The kindest interpretation is incompetence with a touch of arrogance. But when most reasonable and compassionate people who believe in policymaking based on evidence and facts tell you the Rwanda Partnership isn’t going to fly, why keep trying to make it get off the ground? A less kind conclusion is that the Prime Minister’s determination to send a few refugees to Rwanda has more to do with votes than lives. Perhaps he believes getting his message across, standing in front of a microphone saying what he thinks people in key marginal seats want to hear, is leadership.
If the Government goes ahead with concluding a previously prepared treaty with Rwanda, ‘revisiting’ “our domestic legal framework”, and introducing “emergency legislation” - a seasonal mix of Götterdämmerung and Pirates of Penzance - we are in trouble. It sounds like a grave step in the long decline of Britain, driven by the extreme Right and led first by Boris Johnson. This move away from both a human rights culture and respect for the rule of law is what in any other country we would describe as undermining the foundations of democracy. We are indeed in an emergency - one needing a General Election not emergency legislation.
See TheArticle 17/11/2023
Fifty years of Cold War gave us the Soviet Union and communist States as our enemy. We learned all about repression, the horrors of one Party rule. What else did we need to know about the German Democratic Republic (GDR), indelibly imprinted as ‘Stasiland’ by Le Carré’s The Spy Who Came in from the Cold? The question ‘what was it like living in a communist society?’ seemed redundant. Katja Hoyer’s Beyond the Wall: East Germany 1949-1990, published this year, gives us a full and different cultural and political history, a revealing and compelling picture of daily life on the other side of the iron curtain.
Anyone looking at today’s world from an historical perspective is drawn to asking ‘who’, ‘why’ and ‘how’ questions. That is part of the fun for historians, to some degree similar to the pleasures of outguessing a police procedural on TV. More taxing is exploring the past as ‘another country’, trying to get inside the heads of the natives, asking ‘what was it like living then’ and ‘how did people think’? Hilary Mantel’s portrayal of Thomas Cromwell and Henry VIII’s court in the early 16th century is a masterclass in doing just that.
It was more than a decade after the disintegration of the Soviet Empire in 1990-1991 that film-makers began to portray life in East Germany as like - even if not quite like - life anywhere else. Wolfgang Becker’s 2003 bitter-sweet comedy Good Bye Lenin! is a mother- and-son story. The mother, Christiane Kerner, spends eight months in a coma after a heart attack. Meanwhile the Berlin wall comes down and Chancellor Helmut Köhl steers Germany towards re-unification. To avoid a sudden shock, her family goes to any length to keep from her the new political and social reality. The humour is gentle with an underlying sadness. It’s political satire - by a West German director - but you get a feel for East German society.
Beyond the Wall addresses the social and political life of the GDR, a State that lasted barely forty years, providing a fascinating response to the ‘what was it like’ question. Katja Hoyer, born in East Germany and a graduate of the University of Jena, visiting research fellow at Kings College, London, writes with journalistic flair and an historian’s skills. Alongside the rewards of painstaking archival research, the book offers an attractive mix of interviews so that most chapters grow out of brief biographies of named individuals and their family life. You come away feeling you’ve learned something that you should have known before.
Hoyer’s first thesis is that the post-war division of Germany was far from inevitable. It was Walter Ulbricht, an uninspiring but determined communist ideologue, who was the main architect of the GDR. After 1945, he worked his way up to the position of Chair of its State Council which he held from 1960 until his death in 1973, though he wielded considerable power as Deputy Chair of the Council of Ministers from 1950.
Stalin was opposed to the creation of two Germanies. Hoyer writes that he had a genuine respect for German culture, literature and art, believed that the German people had become entranced by Hitler and were not ‘inherently warlike’. At the end of World War II in talks with Ulbricht in 1945, Stalin sought German unity: a unified, neutral, defanged Germany with its borders defined by the allies at Potsdam, a buffer between the Soviet Union and NATO. Ulbricht wanted a sovereign State with himself as President. Stalin reluctantly accepted a fait accompli in 1949 when representatives from the eleven Parliamentary Councils of the three Western Occupied Zones approved a State constitution for West Germany and the Federal Republic of Germany (FRG) was born. The German Democratic Republic was created from the Soviet zone.
West Germany’s Hallstein Doctrine, cutting off all diplomatic and economic relations with countries that recognised East Germany, forced the GDR into economic dependence on the Soviet Union (which of course had initially extracted huge reparations). Ulbricht’s regime’s survival of an early, often forgotten, uprising in 1953 was also dependent on brutal suppression by Soviet military power.
Rebuilding East Germany after the War was a colossal physical and human task. It took ten years to clear all the rubble from Dresden after blanket bombing by the Allies. In the mid-1950s there was a permanent shortage of people to fill professional jobs. From 1955-1957, years of economic crisis, an average of 300,000 left for the FRG each year; such was the reaction to the pressures created by Ulbricht’s push to build socialism. By November 1989 the GDR had a population of 16 million against the FRG’s 62 million.
Ulbricht was ideologically committed to, and invested in, equality between male and female workers. Average incomes doubled in the 1950s. By 1955 half the workforce were women. A third were women in the FRG and, by 1970, the gap had grown to 66% in the GDR against 27.5% in the FRG. Hoyer insists that upward mobility for workers, especially women, should not be dismissed as a cynical move: “this is not only to underestimate the drive towards gender equality...but also insulting to the women concerned”. But by 1961 three million East Germans, 7,500 doctors, 1,200 dentists, 33% of its academics and hundreds of thousands of skilled workers, had “turned their back on Ulbricht’s ‘workers and peasants state’. 80% of them via Berlin”. The brain drain had to be stopped – by force.
Construction of the Berlin Wall began on 13 August 1961. Most of the deaths in No-Man's land came in the first few months after its completion. Hoyer describes the daily life of the border guards and the phenomenal growth of the Ministry of State Security, the Stasi, from 1,100 staff in 1950 to 43,000 by 1970 with its own burgeoning paramilitary force, the Dzerzhinsky Guards Regiment.
In 1971, Erich Honeker - who had spent many years in Nazi prisons - took over from Ulbricht, continuing his attempt to plough a communist furrow outside Soviet control.
The GDR came out top of the communist world for consumer goods though with typically poor housing. Like a smelly old dog, the East Germans fell in love with the ‘Trabi’, the only car they could buy; the Trabant was a two cylinder, 26 horse-power ULEZ nightmare, slow and noisy. Even with a waiting list of many years, by 1988 half the GDR population had a car, making the percentage of car ownership much the same on both sides of the wall.
In Beyond the Wall, Hoyer provides many more revealing statistics, telling vignettes and unexpected snapshots of daily life. But she risks being condemned as a ‘leftie historian’ rather than a worthy apprentice to Hilary Mantel’s brilliant storytelling. Dwelling on what is usually omitted makes for balance, for good history. Today, in a polarised world, we badly need her kind of historical consciousness when considering our enemies, and friends.
I visited Honeker’s East Berlin in 1980. Out of the bright lights and vibrant life of the FRG into drab, empty streets, lunch in a dark wood-paneled restaurant, a surfeit of surly waiters arrayed around the walls. At her retirement ceremony in 2021, Angela Merkel asked the Bundeswehr band to play a 1970’s song by the East German singer Nina Hagen: “Du Hast den Farbfilm Vergessen (You have forgotten the colour - film), a gentle poke at the drabness of the GDR. The song ends: “You forgot to bring the colour film, good grief. All the blue and white and green will later not be true”. It brought tears to her eyes as she recalled her youth in East Germany. History is best written in technicolour, not grey, and not in black and white.
See TheArticle 04/11/2023