I’ve worked out why I’m overcome with rage whenever I hear Frank Field championing the needs of the “ordinary white working class”, in the Guardian’s words (it’s not clear whether Field actually said “white”), besides, that is, his uncanny resemblance to Ian Richardson’s Francis Urquhart in the original UK early 1990s House of Cards series. I suspect that Field and I see the world quite differently. Hence my irritation.
The contrast between Field and, for example, Gordon Brown could not be more stark. It seems to me that Brown, and Blair for that matter, both share my view that, when in power, whilst they represented the British people – and they are patriotic – their concerns were not limited to the welfare of the British. Others, Poles and Romanians, say, deserve no more or less than us Brits. You could say that Brown, Blair and the many others who supported the Remain side, including myself, are internationalists, but there may be a more fundamental distinction – between open and closed thinking. An example of closed system thinking is to carefully conduct a laboratory experiment, varying only one factor at a time; but the real world is an open system, with numerous uncontrollable variables. Closed thinkers only want to worry about their own area of concern; open system thinkers grapple with complexity. I’m sure Frank Field believes Poles deserve a good life just as much as Brits do. I presume he just doesn’t think it’s his problem.
But that means Field has to ignore many of the people who make up today’s British society. And it seems to me that the specific closed way in which he is thinking is to consider only what I will term the “rooted” classes, the people Labour has historically represented. Perhaps this form of closed thinking explains in part why there’s not only a divide down the middle of the Conservative Party, but also a damaging – because the issue is so fundamental – schism in the Labour Party, the majority enthusiastic for Remain on one side and Field, Gisela Stuart, Kate Hoey, John Mann and Dennis Skinner, to name the most high-profile Brexiteers – assuming we take Corbyn’s Remain stance at face value – on the other.
Just because the Tories are divided over Europe doesn’t mean Labour has to be. The vocal minority of Labour Brexiteers (4% of their MPs said Field) have done untold damage to the Party, as well as skewed the referendum debate by portraying Labour as more evenly split on the issue than it in fact is. I expect many enthusiastic Remainers will transfer their allegiance to the Lib Dems, especially if Corbyn stays on as Labour leader.
So, to the point I wanted to make in this post. It seems to me that we have to begin with the observation that within each social class, in the UK specifically, but also elsewhere – however many classes you want to define – we have a significant subdivision that I would describe as “mobile”. For simplicity’s sake, I contrast these people with those we might term “rooted”. So we have skilled and unskilled or “blue collar” and “white collar” working class who will seek employment only near where they live, which is most likely where their parents live. “Community” – a term which I find to be another source of irritation, since it is far too often glibly used to refer to all those living in an area, whether they ever talk to their neighbours or not – is all important to them. But we also have skilled and unskilled, “blue collar” and “white collar” working class, however you want to divide them, who are prepared to travel across continents for employment.
Many of the uber-rich are extremely mobile, seemingly basing themselves in multiple global centres or even, to rub in the point, on £200m yachts, though some are undoubtedly more rooted than others. Though having said that, it occurs to me that it’s not unknown for even royal families to spend a generation or two in exile.
For large numbers of professionals – the middle classes, if you like – the employment market is national, if not international or even global. In fact, given the custom in the UK of leaving home to attend university, many of us relocate, at least temporarily, while still in education.
Some industries are so concentrated in small numbers of geographical clusters – consider Hollywood, the City of London, the English Premier League – that, if you want work, you’re pretty much obliged to relocate. Great cities, such as London and New York, are magnets for the aspirational. Companies increasingly require employees to relocate, often across borders – I’ve been told myself that “international experience” may be necessary for career progression.
Of course, not everyone, not even a majority, move to another country, but mobility has been a feature of the last few decades of globalisation.
Although many have emigrated for centuries, in particular to the New World, to some extent renewed mobility has recently trickled down to what Frank Field would call the working classes. Or let’s put it another way. Many families have become rooted over the last century or so, particularly in those former industrial heartlands we hear about that voted Brexit so strongly. Their ancestors, several generations ago, left the countryside during the era of urbanisation ushered in by the Industrial Revolution.
Other families, such as my own, have moved intermittently for generations, around the country and around the world. For many, moving for work, or for personal reasons, is just something you do. You make a life where you find yourself. I have never had any expectation of remaining in the same locality for my whole life.
Here’s my proposition. At the present time there is a conflict of interests, at least in the UK, between the rooted classes and the mobile classes. This was a critical divide between Remainers and Leavers in the Brexit referendum. The rooted classes see the mobile classes as a threat. This is particularly the case amongst Field’s “ordinary white working class”. And, indeed, in some ways they are a threat, since as a society we have allowed rights and privileges to accrue to the rooted classes, in particular entitlement to housing. But, as in the Industrial Revolution, as in the urbanisation of modern China, economic growth and development has always thrived on mobility. And the economy never stands still. You can’t make a decision to freeze the economy as it is – you’ll be destroyed by competition. The mobile classes are essential to the process of economic renewal, to support technological change. That’s why it’s a mistake for policy to be determined solely by the needs of the rooted classes.
A large part of the reason for the schism in the Labour Party, then, is that the Brexiteers, particularly the likes of Frank Field, see themselves as representing the rooted “ordinary white working class”. And, to be honest, they have a point, if they take the narrow view that they represent those who vote for them. Because we – the UK and the EU – have shamefully allowed the mobile classes to become disenfranchised. Not only were citizens of other EU countries living, working and paying taxes in the UK denied a vote in the Brexit referendum, so, ludicrously, were UK citizens living overseas, even in Europe, if they’d left this country more than the arbitrary number of 15 years ago.
In part this disenfranchisement has occurred because the rooted classes are seen as privileged. And see themselves that way too, no doubt – I’m sure there is a certain kind of Brit who would be apoplectic at the idea of giving the vote to “EU migrant workers”. It’s this idea of the “nation” as a people, rather than a place, of course – an idea which perhaps another time I will argue is unsustainable, though I doubt I have anything new to say on such a longstanding and tediously emotive question – together with the idea of citizenship, which rather ignores the fact that a large part of the point of free movement of labour in the EU was to avoid the bureaucracy and emotional hurdle of the citizenship process. The aim of course was to create a mobile workforce, with individuals perhaps working in the UK today and Germany tomorrow – something Brexit will no doubt make a more common experience!
But citizenship is only a piece of paper (or a bit in a Home Office computer these days, I suppose). Granting citizenship to immigrants doesn’t necessarily reflect either commitment on the part of the new arrival, though of course it may often do so, nor assimilation into British society. People become citizens in large part because they need to or perceive that they need to, especially given the significant cost involved to apply in the UK nowadays. And EU citizens living in the UK under free movement provisions in EU treaties haven’t needed to become citizens, even though they may be just as committed to the UK and integrated into our society than arrivals from elsewhere who have taken citizenship. In fact, EU citizens have not up to now had to apply for “indefinite leave to remain” in the UK, a status which gives citizens of Commonwealth countries the right to vote in General Elections and referenda.
Thus recent immigrants to the UK from non-EU countries who became UK citizens soon after arrival in this country were able to vote in the Brexit referendum, whereas citizens of EU countries who’d lived here for decades were not. Compounding the problem, citizens of Commonwealth countries with UK residency status were also allowed to vote, even from those Commonwealth countries which were never British colonies, as in the case of francophone Rwanda and Mozambique, who seemingly joined the Commonwealth out of dissatisfaction with their own former colonial power. And the status of citizens of Zimbabwe, suspended from the Commonwealth, was so unclear, I had considerable trouble finding out whether or not they were allowed a vote (for the record, I’m pretty sure they were)! Most of these enfranchised non-UK citizens were also non-EU citizens, but there is in fact overlap between the Commonwealth and the EU, so citizens of Malta and Cyprus could vote. As could many hundreds of thousands of Irish citizens living the in the UK, for separate historical reasons. You could hardly make it up.
The electoral bias against the mobile classes arises not just from the electoral franchise, though. Even when they have the vote, people may not know who to vote for. They are likely to be unfamiliar with the UK’s political parties. And our political structures are geographically based, favouring the rooted classes. Those who have lived in an area for many years are much more likely to join political parties. Not only will they have an understanding of local issues, they are also much more likely to see their involvement as a worthwhile investment of time. The political agenda is consequently driven by the rooted classes.
The idea of the Brexit referendum, indeed, any electoral process, was to weigh the views of all those affected by the decision – in this case all those with a direct stake in the UK’s membership of the EU. Excluding large numbers of the mobile classes simply biased the vote. For the mobile classes the opportunities provided by the EU may outweigh any downsides, whereas for the rooted classes aspects of the EU may seem a threat, perhaps one not sufficiently counterbalanced by the benefits to the UK economy. To reach the right decision all these individual experiences need to be taken into account. And since the outcome was 52% plays 48% – a difference of a bit over a million votes – somewhat less than the number of EU citizens living in the UK but denied a vote, let alone the total if we also took into account the UK citizens who’ve been living abroad for more than 15 years, it’s very likely that we’ve actually reached the wrong answer as to what is best for the UK.