Monday, 31 December 2018

We tell ourselves we choose our own life course, but is this ever true? The role of universities and advertising explored

By abetting the ad industry, universities are leading us into temptation, when they should be enlightening us writes George Monbiot in The Guardian


To what extent do we decide? We tell ourselves we choose our own life course, but is this ever true? If you or I had lived 500 years ago, our worldview, and the decisions we made as a result, would have been utterly different. Our minds are shaped by our social environment, in particular the belief systems projected by those in power: monarchs, aristocrats and theologians then; corporations, billionaires and the media today.

Humans, the supremely social mammals, are ethical and intellectual sponges. We unconsciously absorb, for good or ill, the influences that surround us. Indeed, the very notion that we might form our own minds is a received idea that would have been quite alien to most people five centuries ago. This is not to suggest we have no capacity for independent thought. But to exercise it, we must – consciously and with great effort – swim against the social current that sweeps us along, mostly without our knowledge. 

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The Day The Universe Changed


Surely, though, even if we are broadly shaped by the social environment, we control the small decisions we make? Sometimes. Perhaps. But here, too, we are subject to constant influence, some of which we see, much of which we don’t. And there is one major industry that seeks to decide on our behalf. Its techniques get more sophisticated every year, drawing on the latest findings in neuroscience and psychology. It is called advertising.
Every month, new books on the subject are published with titles like The Persuasion Code: How Neuromarketing Can Help You Persuade Anyone, Anywhere, Anytime. While many are doubtless overhyped, they describe a discipline that is rapidly closing in on our minds, making independent thought ever harder. More sophisticated advertising meshes with digital technologies designed to eliminate agency.

Earlier this year, the child psychologist Richard Freed explained how new psychological research has been used to develop social media, computer games and phones with genuinely addictive qualities. He quoted a technologist who boasts, with apparent justification: “We have the ability to twiddle some knobs in a machine learning dashboard we build, and around the world hundreds of thousands of people are going to quietly change their behaviour in ways that, unbeknownst to them, feel second-nature but are really by design.”

The purpose of this brain hacking is to create more effective platforms for advertising. But the effort is wasted if we retain our ability to resist it. Facebook, according to a leaked report, carried out research – shared with an advertiser – to determine when teenagers using its network feel insecure, worthless or stressed. These appear to be the optimum moments for hitting them with a micro-targeted promotion. Facebook denied that it offered “tools to target people based on their emotional state”.

We can expect commercial enterprises to attempt whatever lawful ruses they can pull off. It is up to society, represented by government, to stop them, through the kind of regulation that has so far been lacking. But what puzzles and disgusts me even more than this failure is the willingness of universities to host research that helps advertisers hack our minds. The Enlightenment ideal, which all universities claim to endorse, is that everyone should think for themselves. So why do they run departments in which researchers explore new means of blocking this capacity?

 ‘Facebook, according to a leaked report, developed tools to determine when teenagers using its network feel insecure, worthless or stressed.’ Photograph: Alamy Stock Photo

I ask because, while considering the frenzy of consumerism that rises beyond its usual planet-trashing levels at this time of year, I recently stumbled across a paper that astonished me. It was written by academics at public universities in the Netherlands and the US. Their purpose seemed to me starkly at odds with the public interest. They sought to identify “the different ways in which consumers resist advertising, and the tactics that can be used to counter or avoid such resistance”.

Among the “neutralising” techniques it highlighted were “disguising the persuasive intent of the message”; distracting our attention by using confusing phrases that make it harder to focus on the advertiser’s intentions; and “using cognitive depletion as a tactic for reducing consumers’ ability to contest messages”. This means hitting us with enough advertisements to exhaust our mental resources, breaking down our capacity to think.

Intrigued, I started looking for other academic papers on the same theme, and found an entire literature. There were articles on every imaginable aspect of resistance, and helpful tips on overcoming it. For example, I came across a paper that counsels advertisers on how to rebuild public trust when the celebrity they work with gets into trouble. Rather than dumping this lucrative asset, the researchers advised that the best means to enhance “the authentic persuasive appeal of a celebrity endorser” whose standing has slipped is to get them to display “a Duchenne smile”, otherwise known as “a genuine smile”. It precisely anatomised such smiles, showed how to spot them, and discussed the “construction” of sincerity and “genuineness”: a magnificent exercise in inauthentic authenticity.

Facebook told advertisers it can identify teens feeling 'insecure' and 'worthless'

Another paper considered how to persuade sceptical people to accept a company’s corporate social responsibility claims, especially when these claims conflict with the company’s overall objectives. (An obvious example is ExxonMobil’s attempts to convince people that it is environmentally responsible, because it is researching algal fuels that could one day reduce CO2 – even as it continues to pump millions of barrels of fossil oil a day). I hoped the paper would recommend that the best means of persuading people is for a company to change its practices. Instead, the authors’ research showed how images and statements could be cleverly combined to “minimise stakeholder scepticism”.

A further paper discussed advertisements that work by stimulating Fomo – fear of missing out. It noted that such ads work through “controlled motivation”, which is “anathema to wellbeing”. Fomo ads, the paper explained, tend to cause significant discomfort to those who notice them. It then went on to show how an improved understanding of people’s responses “provides the opportunity to enhance the effectiveness of Fomo as a purchase trigger”. One tactic it proposed is to keep stimulating the fear of missing out, during and after the decision to buy. This, it suggested, will make people more susceptible to further ads on the same lines.

Yes, I know: I work in an industry that receives most of its income from advertising, so I am complicit in this too. But so are we all. Advertising – with its destructive impacts on the living planet, our peace of mind and our free will – sits at the heart of our growth-based economy. This gives us all the more reason to challenge it. Among the places in which the challenge should begin are universities, and the academic societies that are supposed to set and uphold ethical standards. If they cannot swim against the currents of constructed desire and constructed thought, who can?

Monday, 24 December 2018

The crisis of modern liberalism is down to market forces

Wolfgang Munchau in The FT 

When I think about the crisis of our liberal system, I am reminded of an encounter almost 20 years ago in Berlin with Wolfgang Kartte, a former president of the German cartel office. I asked why he and his successors often took such a conservative view on competition cases and in particular why they were so dismissive of economic arguments. 

Like the majority of economic policymakers in Germany, Kartte, who died in 2003, was a lawyer. He said he considered his job as helping the little guy to defend himself against the big guy. This was the job of a lawyer, not of an economist. Moreover, he said he was not interested in levelling the playing field, as the metaphor goes, but in tilting it in favour of the little guy. 

The crisis of modern liberalism has similar elements. We have our own version of the little guy versus the big guy problem today — except that there is no one to tilt the field in the other direction. Smaller companies pay more taxes relative to their income than large multinational corporations. The economic policies that followed the financial crisis ended up widening income and wealth differences. Large immigration flows created insecurity, as did the arrival of new technologies. When you call voters deplorable — or patronise them, as happened in the UK after the Brexit vote — you add insult to injury. 

Kartte was an old-fashioned German ordoliberal, a school of thought that originated after the breakdown of German democracy in the early 1930s. The macroeconomics of German ordoliberalism is somewhat dodgy. But they excelled at one particular thing. Their intellectual leaders explained better than anyone else how the German liberal order of the 1920s collapsed and how it drove a majority of the population away from supporting it. 

The short, flippant answer is that the Weimar Republic favoured the big guy. The macroeconomic shocks of the period — hyperinflation and depression — are well understood. They contributed to a large extent to the political alienation of the middle classes. But they were not the only causes. The period also saw an increase in industrial cartels that threatened the livelihoods of small merchants and entrepreneurs. 

When the ordoliberals finally came to power in postwar Germany, they began by tilting the playing field in the other direction by creating a corporate and financial infrastructure to support small and medium-sized companies. Germany’s Mittelstand is both a reason for German robustness, but also for stagnation. And one of the main lessons of modern economic history is we cannot be oblivious to the distribution of income and wealth. 

This is not an argument about redistribution. This is about actively managing capitalism’s playing field to ensure that the majority of the population stays on it. Recall Margaret Thatcher’s successful brand of entrepreneurial capitalism in the UK in the 1980s. Through privatisation, she turned ordinary savers into shareholders. Through the sale of council houses, she turned tenants into property owners. 

We cannot replicate this example: there are no council houses to be sold, nor companies to be privatised. But to save modern capitalism we will need to find ways to keep the median voter committed to the system, just as Thatcher did in the 1980s. I would argue that voters are still broadly content in places such as Germany, the Benelux countries and in Ireland. I am less sure about the UK, France or Italy. 

What often leads the supporters and defenders of modern liberal democracy astray in their analysis is their addiction to macroeconomic aggregate variables such as gross domestic product and the officially recorded rate of unemployment. The decade before the Brexit referendum was a decade of reasonable GDP growth. There was nothing in the data that would suggest the UK would vote to leave the EU. But granular information paints a different picture. Data based on the official family resources survey and from the Resolution Foundation, a think-tank, showed household income after housing costs stagnated for the 60 per cent of households towards the bottom of the income distribution between 2002 and 2015. 

The current wave of discontent in France also contrasts with relatively solid GDP growth since the financial crisis. But a study by the McKinsey Global Institute showed that income growth came to an abrupt halt for almost all households in the advanced economies. 

The main constituency backing the Thatcher revolution in the 1980s was the C2s — the demographic classification for skilled working class people. Thatcher looked after the median household. Her successors first lost the middle classes, and then pretended to be shocked by events such as Brexit. 

Any system that leaves behind 60 per cent of households will eventually fail. It is the ultimate irony: liberalism is failing because of market forces.

Bluff, blackmail and brinkwomanship: the ‘madman theory’ of no-deal Brexit

Andrew Rawnsley in The Guardian

Don’t panic! Don’t panic! You need not spoil your Christmas by worrying that Britain is walking the Brexit tightrope without a safety net because the defence secretary, Gavin Williamson, has announced that the armed forces are on standby.

Standing by to do what exactly? That is not clear. Penny Mordaunt, the international development secretary, is redeploying civil servants with expertise in disaster management to no-deal emergency planning. And Matt Hancock, the health secretary, has declared himself the world’s biggest purchaser of fridges so that the NHS has somewhere to keep stockpiles of critical medicines. He recently told colleagues that, in the event of a bad Brexit, he could not guarantee that people would not lose their lives. Choose Brexit – and you may die. They certainly didn’t put that on the side of their campaign bus.

Those who willed this nightmare on our country did not reveal that it would require such costly and alarming measures

The obvious thing to say, but worth emphasising nevertheless, is that those who willed this Brexit nightmare on our country did not reveal that it would require such costly and alarming measures. They sold it as liberation day, not doomsday. Do you recall Boris Johnson and his gang telling us that leaving the EU could mean putting troops on the street, establishing a “war room” in the NHS, emergency airlifts of medicines, leafleting every household with advice on how to cope with food shortages and deploying those with experience of dealing with the aftermath of tornadoes, epidemics and tsunamis? No, me neither. It was supposed to be a piece of cherry-topped cake, not a humiliating national calamity.

A few of the Brexiters are still trying to claim that it might somehow turn out all right on the night, so it is important to be clear about the consequences of a no-deal outcome. It will mean a stark rupture to our relationship not just with the EU but with much of the rest of the world. The overnight termination of almost every legal and trading agreement between Europe and Britain would cause disruption without precedent in peacetime. There will be no transition arrangements. There will be no mutually recognised rights for EU citizens living in the UK and Brits living in the rest of the EU. There will be a hard border in Ireland. Instead of a glide path into a new relationship with our continent, Britain will be in free fall.

Large businesses have taken some precautions against a botched Brexit. That was only sensible after the abject combination of tragedy and farce that has played out over the past 30 months. But hardly anyone is ready for the crash version. Neither is the government. It can’t even tell companies what tariffs they might be expected to pay on imports from the EU. Britain’s five most important business organisations – the CBI, the Institute of Directors, the British Chambers of Commerce, the Federation of Small Businesses and the manufacturers’ body, EEF – all agree. An unprepared Britain would be plunged into severe turbulence.

There is no such thing as a pain-free no deal

Earlier this year, the British Chambers of Commerce outlined 24 critical risk questions that businesses needed answering in order to cope with any Brexit scenario. The BCC reports today that, with under 100 days left, the government has produced a satisfactory response to just two of the 24, while 15 “are still flashing red”.

A few of the Brexiters in the cabinet are touting the idea of a “managed no deal”. This is oxymoronic. There is no such thing as a pain-free no deal. It is notable that this latest iteration of fantasy Brexit is most often promulgated by ministers, such as Andrea Leadsom, who have no responsibility for delivering essential services. Even these Brexiters don’t deny that a no-deal outcome would present a big challenge to government on multiple fronts. In the light of their recent performance, how confident are you that our masters of disaster could cope? A couple of drones have just incapacitated Gatwick airport, an example of the degree to which the complex systems of advanced societies can be acutely vulnerable to disruption.

In a no-deal Brexit, a key role will be played by Chris Grayling, the rogue drone who goes by the title of transport secretary. This is the one-man disrupter who proved incapable of introducing new rail timetables without throwing the network into chaos. I don’t know about you, but I am not sleeping better at night for knowing that Failing Grayling will be in charge of trying to manage ports gridlocked by a crash-out Brexit.

I can’t forecast exactly would happen. No one can. One of the alarming things about this scenario is its very unpredictability. I observe that civil servants, those who lead government agencies and the majority of the cabinet, the people who would be expected to handle the consequences, are very scared of no deal. They differ only in thinking that it will be absolutely catastrophic or merely disastrous. Ministers fear that the disruption to normal life will be deeply serious and there will be an extremely nasty hit to the economy, a combination that would inflict once-in-a-generation damage on the Tory party’s reputation.

A calamity Brexit would do to the Conservatives what the Winter of Discontent did to Labour. The mass strikes that overwhelmed the Callaghan government in 1978-79 seared into the national collective consciousness images of picket lines, paralysed services, rubbish piling up in the streets, the sick going untreated and the dead left unburied. That haunted Labour, and cost it public trust, for years after the event. Empty supermarket shelves, shortages of critical medicines, stranded travellers, motorways to ports turned into giant lorry parks and all the other consequences of a bad Brexit would not be quickly forgotten nor forgiven. This spectre chills the blood of some of the most hardcore Brexiters in the cabinet. The case of Michael Gove is instructive. Ardent Brexiter that he is, his departmental responsibilities for farmers and the food supply have opened his eyes to how bad no deal could be for both the country and his party. In a piquant twist, he is now one of those ministers who believe that any deal is better than no deal.

This is a highly perilous game of chicken in which people’s livelihoods, and quite possibly people’s lives, are at stake

David Gauke, the justice secretary, is not a man given to the hyperbolic statement. His usual role in government is to be deployed as a fire blanket for the smothering of any controversy that is getting fiery. So it is noteworthy when such an unflamboyant figure publicly declares that a no-deal Brexit would be so grotesquely irresponsible that he would quit the government rather than sit in a cabinet that allowed it to happen.

If all the sentient members of the cabinet think a no-deal Brexit will be a calamity, and as good as admit this in public, why is the government nevertheless acting as if it might allow that to come to pass? Bluff, blackmail and brinkwomanship feature in the explanation. Though Theresa May will say that this is not a scenario she wants or expects to happen, some of her strategists think that amping up the prospect of a disaster Brexit suits her. The prime minister is still hoping that she can extract some last-gasp concessions from the EU that will help her get her unloved deal through parliament. European leaders are sounding unwilling to do very much to assist her. The EU has worked on the assumption that Britain is not so crazy as to crash out in a way that would hurt it, but us much more. So part of Number 10’s calculation is that the EU needs to start worrying that it really is possible that this could transpire.

To make sense of this, it is useful to have some familiarity with “madman theory”. This was an idea about how to conduct international relations that was formulated during the Cold War, when Richard Nixon was in the White House. It was thought to be useful for America to have a leader who seemed to be a bit unhinged, because this would throw the other side off balance and force the Soviet Union to make concessions for fear that the US president might be crazy enough to start a nuclear war. The Brexit variant is to induce the EU to believe that Britain might be unbalanced enough to crash out. The EU will then, so goes the theory, give Mrs May what she needs. She is also gambling that fear of a disaster Brexit will drive many Conservative MPs who don’t like her agreement into supporting it.

This is a highly perilous game of chicken in which many people’s livelihoods, and quite possibly people’s lives, are at stake. The risk is that it could accidentally lead to the very catastrophe that it is supposed to prevent. It was called “madman theory” for a reason.
A merry Christmas, everyone. I will not tempt fate by wishing you a peaceful and prosperous new year.

Sunday, 23 December 2018

Labour’s leadership is at rock bottom – it won’t be forgiven for conniving in a rightwing Brexit

The majority who oppose leaving the EU need a new coalition to rescue us from disaster writes Will Hutton in The Guardian

The march through London for a People’s Vote in October. Photograph: Wiktor Szymanowicz/Barcroft Images

The Labour party is united: the vast majority of its MPs, its members and its voters – from all classes – want Britain to stay in the European Union. They recognise that Brexit is a project by the right for the right.

For the EU stands for openness, peace, tolerance and the best of the Enlightenment traditions. It is the most successful institutional architecture forging international collaboration yet known. Britain has benefited immeasurably from its membership. It is the European answer to the 21st-century question of how to manage interdependencies between countries – economic, trading, security, financial, scientific – in a world where necessarily they must grow.
Those who believe in it as a force for good do not want to go down without a struggle – to wimp out because to have another democratic encounter with the issue is said to be anti-democratic, arousing dark warnings of impending civic unrest from those asked to vote again. A one-off, never to be revisited referendum, as in totalitarian states in the 1930s, has become an irreversible building block for a rightwing world, with the connivance of parts of the old left that hold the same conception of imagined, untrammelled national autonomy as the extreme right. 

This brutal right, with its increasingly strident nationalist and racist overtones, is not going to go away after Brexit – it will raise the stakes still further, attempting to turn our beloved country into a venomous, intolerant cesspit. It has to be confronted sooner or later. Better sooner.

Yet Labour’s leadership refuses to speak for this powerful and growing conviction within its party – in the country, too, with opinion polls hardeningin favour of EU membership. As the government amazingly puts the country on to a war footing to manage the fallout of an impending hard Brexit, Labour’s voice is weak and temporising. In his interview with the Guardian Jeremy Corbyn says that even if Labour won a snap general election, it would lead the country out of the EU but with a “better deal” built around a permanent customs union. Ongoing EU membership threatens a socialist programme, he argues, because of state-aid rules. If Theresa May recasts her deal in softer terms, he will back it, he says.

His stance is wrong at every level. First, he has just reduced his electoral base to the shrinking Leave vote so that Labour will not and cannot win a general election. Remain voters, now the majority, must find another home. Worse, he is threatening the cohesion of his party by opposing its majority view and the values that support it, just as Brexit is threatening the cohesion of the Conservative party.

All members of the Labour party must now examine their conscience: is this what they stand for and believe? The Corbyn deal, which can only be incrementally different from the May deal, will suffer from all the same deficiencies. We are to be associated with our continent as a satellite but not to share in its governance or play a part in shaping its destiny.

It betrays a 19th-century view of socialism. What industries are going to be built by direct government subventions? The world of the future is not state-supported steel and cement companies. Britain has the third largest AI industry and could become the global hub for blockchain – all done inside the EU. The task for 21st-century socialism is not to bankroll directly such vigorous businesses. It is to build the architecture to generate more of them, enfranchise workforces, protect the backs of ordinary men and women, put environmental sustainability at the heart of our economy and continually to upgrade the social contract. In this, the EU is our ally, not our foe.

The case must be put to the people again, framed by what we now know. It must be allied to a passionate case for reform. The desperate poverty and extraordinary inequalities that disfigure our country and that properly persuaded millions they could not vote for the status quo have to be addressed. Our economy has to be reshaped by an imaginative state; our society recast; our political institutions reformed.

On top, we need two reciprocal commitments from Europe. Freedom of movement is a core freedom, but host societies must have the capacity to regulate inflows of people, otherwise intolerable strains are created. The multiple derogations from freedom of movement used by other EU states must be codified into a new deal that permits Britain, and of course other members, sufficient control of our borders.

Second, the EU itself needs a democratic and accountability reboot. We are not recommitting to the same old EU – but one committed to change.

This case would best be made by Labour as the centre of a cross-party coalition: it has credibility as a fighter against poverty and abusive capitalism and an advocate for internationalism. But the case for tolerance and openness cannot be made from a tribal silo. I admire Tories such as Phillip Lee, Jo Johnson and Sam Gyimah who have resigned on this issue, and others such as Anna Soubry, Justine Greening, Sarah Wollaston, Ken Clarke and Dominic Grieve. I would be proud to stand and campaign alongside them – and also Nicola Sturgeon, Caroline Lucas and Vince Cable. Any differences are secondary to what unites us. What does our country stand for, what is its future and who are our allies? Not Putin, Xi and Trump.

Such a declaration will write me off with Corbyn, his gatekeepers Seumas Milne and Karie Murphy, and his cheerleader in the union movement, Len McCluskey. Anyone not 100% loyal to their world view and tribe within a tribe is beyond the pale. Even in normal times, it is a disabling way to think and act in a democracy. Today, it is dangerous. The Labour party has hit bottom – conniving in antisemitism and now in the rightwing coup that is Brexit. Its break-up is no longer inconceivable, nor is the emergence of a left-of-centre alternative. Britain deserves better than this.

Learn from Northern Ireland: beware entrenching Brexit divisions

 The unloved backstop in May’s deal offers a new strategic advantage writes MATTHEW O'TOOLE in THE FT

In my hometown, as with a handful of others in Northern Ireland, there is an Irish Street, English Street and Scotch Street. They were named to reflect the origins of people who have lived alongside one another for centuries, without ever quite becoming one people. 

These streets long predate the creation of Northern Ireland following partition in 1921; they predate the Act of Union between Britain and Ireland in 1801. At the most basic level, they reveal the enduring dilemma of that part of Ireland: how to accommodate more than one thing. How to live with ambiguity without antagonism. A task at which we have failed in the past with appalling consequences. 

The Northern Ireland backstop is now routinely described as the central barrier, or stumbling block, in agreeing orderly terms for the UK’s withdrawal from the EU. This view has become conventional in London — particularly among Brexiters, but also many Remainers — with little attempt to understand the prior problem that required solving. This tendency has been compounded by the extraordinary power currently wielded at Westminster by the Democratic Unionist Party, which does not welcome ambiguous interpretations of Northern Ireland’s current status, nor of its history. It opposed the Good Friday Agreement of 1998, which enshrined the principle of consent (Northern Ireland remaining in the UK until a majority voted otherwise) but added several asterisks that qualified UK sovereignty. 

That the DUP is the only party representing Northern Ireland in the Commons is itself further evidence of the place’s ambiguity. Sinn Fein, which holds the rest of the seats but does not take them, has never recognised the legitimacy of the UK parliament’s authority. 

It is the persistence of this dividing axis in one small corner of Europe that was always — and I do mean always — going to complicate Brexit. But something more is happening: at the very moment Northern Ireland’s divisions again require subtle accommodation, Britain’s own divisions are making that impossible. Guided by the baleful influence of the DUP, whose guiding mission is to assert Northern Ireland’s unadulterated Britishness, Britain is becoming more like Northern Ireland. 

Karen Bradley, the Northern Ireland secretary, was rebuked recently for implying precisely this — that the region’s divisions contain warnings for Britain at large. Northern Ireland, she wrote, “in particular, knows the damage that division can do”. Notwithstanding her previous confessed ignorance on the place she now governs — not knowing that unionists tended not to vote for nationalist parties, and vice versa — Ms Bradley was not wrong. 

Brexit has created — or perhaps revealed and clarified — an intense division in British politics, and in British life. As in Northern Ireland, reality itself is increasingly defined by the split over EU membership. Contradictory narratives — of national self-harm versus thwarted national liberation — are congealing in the veins of Remainers and Leavers. Several studies, including a recent analysis by polling expert John Curtice, have shown how entrenched Remain or Leave identities have become: far more fundamental than attachment to any political party. Voters on each side are now invested in these identities in a way that prevents compromise. 

There are clear limits to this analogy, dictated by respect for Irish history and its ancient and recent traumas. Britain is not the same as Northern Ireland, which is precisely the point of the backstop. It should, however, be careful about becoming any more like it, however maddening each side of the Brexit divide finds the perceived distortions of the other. 

It is also wrong to imply both sides are as bad as each other: fault lies largely with the Brexiters, whose zeal has driven the country to this precipice. But whether Britain ends up leaving the EU or not, its divided society will need to a find a way of accommodating tribes that have become remarkably entrenched in little more than two and a half years. 

In a few days, I travel back to Northern Ireland to spend Christmas. The place whose ambiguities are at the centre of Brexit, but where the views of most people are eerily absent from the debate in London. The backstop, unloved by virtually all sides in British politics, is mostly welcomed in a land that has learnt to live with constructive ambiguity. It remains a useful diplomatic concept as an alternative to purity and further division. 

The backstop guarantees Northern Ireland access to both UK and European markets. It offers the place something it has rarely known: strategic advantage. The chance to put its contradictions to a more productive use rather than hostility. 

If only divided Britain would give it the chance.

Britain’s immigration debate is not only about economics

Culture, identity and a sense of fairness matter just as much to many people writes  CAMILLA CAVENDISH in The FT

Last summer I was sitting in a café in Boston, Lincolnshire , interviewing Karol, its enterprising Polish owner. He arrived in England to pick lettuces ten years ago, worked his way up to factory packing, and then started this little restaurant on a side street. Sipping tea, he told me of his high hopes for the pierogi dumplings cooked by his wife. 

I had sought out Karol as an example of the kind of immigrant we want in Britain — friendly and hard-working. He was sheepish about his very limited English, though, and said that his wife and parents, who have joined him, barely speak it at all. Their customers, he said with a tone of regret, are almost all Polish, Romanian and Lithuanian. Here on the east coast of England, the old residents and the new arrivals are largely living parallel lives. 

 This was perhaps inevitable. The population of this little town grew at more than double the average rate for England and Wales in ten years from 2004. This followed the decision of the Blair government to open the UK to the eastern European accession countries without a transitional period. There was a 460 per cent increase in immigration. Unsurprisingly, Boston registered the highest Leave vote of the 2016 referendum: almost 76 per cent. 

Boston is an extreme example, but it is only one of many places I have visited where we have utterly failed to integrate people — including, sometimes, those of Pakistani and Bangladeshi origin. The government has been attacked for attempting to limit low-skilled immigration in this week’s white paper. But it is trying to respond to a deep malaise which is driving far-right populism in both Europe and the US, and even in previously moderate Sweden. 

As Britain tumbles towards a future which I still hope will see us clinging on to the EU, not crashing out of it, I am concerned that so many members of the establishment continue to paint anxieties about migration as purely economic, the misplaced rage of those “left behind” by globalisation and the financial crisis. 

While these are clearly factors, this explanation overlooks the fact that the challenge is not merely an economic one, of wages and productivity — it is cultural, too. The Migration Advisory Committee, which has done so much to provide objective analysis of this fraught subject, has stated that migration from the European Economic Area “as a whole has had neither the large negative effects claimed by some, nor the clear benefits claimed by others”. Something else is going on: boiling resentment at years of being ignored by the ruling classes who have benefited most from immigration. 

Academics including Eric Kaufmann and Jens Hainmueller have shown that attitudes to immigration in the US and Europe are not as highly correlated with personal economic circumstances as many commentators assume. Many Leave voters and supporters of US president Donald Trump have been influenced more by deep fears about the impact on national identity. 

Economists will argue that consumers benefit from cheaper vegetables in the supermarkets. But Boston voters who might prefer to pay a bit more to preserve their sense of identity should not be lightly dismissed. If we do end up remaining in the EU, we must not simply breathe a sigh of relief and resume business as usual. 

This week’s argument over the proposed £30,000 income threshold for new arrivals will no doubt continue through the consultation period. So will the debate — vital for the NHS — over how to define a “shortage occupation”. But £30,000 was not plucked out of the air. It was based on the committee’s finding that EEA/EU migrants as a whole pay more in than they take out, in services and benefits — but only when they earn roughly £30,000 or more. 

This goes to the heart of what many people feel deeply: that no one should take out more than they have paid in. During David Cameron’s renegotiation of the terms of the UK’s EU membership in 2015-16, polls showed that many people were aware that British taxpayers were paying child benefit to children who lived in Warsaw and had never set foot in Britain. 

Mr Cameron bumped up against not only the theology of free movement of people, but also the incompatibility between Britain’s free universal healthcare and school systems, and contributory social insurance schemes in other member states which require far higher levels of prior contribution before getting entitlement to benefits. 

The white paper states that people who arrive speaking only basic English are required to become more fluent; but I have interviewed many people who have survived for over a decade with no English at all. It makes a nod towards reducing entitlements for short-term workers, but does not address the question of contributions from people who want to put down roots and bring dependants, beyond the blunt instrument of income thresholds. We must bring back the contributory principle to our welfare state. 

I would never argue that immigration was the sole factor driving the Leave vote in the 2016 referendum. Nor will it be the sole consideration in any “people’s vote”. But we ignore it at our peril. This week, it felt as though the debate had shrunk back into convenient tracks. 

I hope that my friend Karol will succeed. Of course, if we crash out of the EU on March 29, high tariff barriers to agricultural imports will probably bankrupt our farms — and his café business. If that happens, Boston’s problem will no longer be too many people, but too few. 

Saturday, 22 December 2018

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Friday, 21 December 2018

The spectre of partition haunts India and Pakistan

Najam Sethi in The Friday Times

As the month of December inches forward to herald a new year, we might pause to reflect on some issues that continue to pose existential problems for us as a nation.

The Federal Censor Board has not yet cleared a film on the life of famed writer Saadat Hasan Manto by Nandita Das, a renowned peace activist and producer/director in India. Apparently, the Censor Board is concerned about how some aspects of the “Partition” are depicted in the film. The sad ironies in this matter should not be missed. In India, too, the film was not selected for screening in an International Film Festival in Mumbai, despite being shown at the Film Festivals in Cannes and Toronto, because of sensitivities about “Partition”. Apparently, if Indians are inclined to object when Hindus are shown to rape and slaughter Muslims, Pakistanis are wont to protest when Muslims are depicted in much the same communal light. The bigger irony is that in both countries, Manto is celebrated by the writers and artists of the subcontinent as a great short story writer whose humanity soared above communal or ideological motives because he situated it in the agony, rage and sadness of both sides of the divide during the months leading to the “Partition”. The biggest irony is that Manto was persecuted and prosecuted for the same original sin in the “Purana Pakistan” of the 1950s for which he is posthumously paying the price in “Naya Pakistan”, despite being honoured with a Nishan-e-Imtiaz by the PPP government in 2012. It seems that, seventy years later, both countries are still trapped in the trauma of the “Partition” and constantly seek ways and means to reinforce its memory in our new generations instead of “moving on” to create fresh spaces for mutual welfare and growth.

Pakistan was itself “partitioned” in December 1971 with the bloody birth of Bangladesh. Unfortunately, most Pakistani writing on the subject is still focused on the role of India in the military debacle instead of the role of its own Punjabi civil-military oligarchy in creating the economic and political conditions that led to the acute alienation of East Pakistani Bengalis. In India, the same moment is rung up as an occasion to savour the Pakistani army’s “humiliating” surrender while in Dhaka it is time again to fuel rage against Pakistan for the “genocide” in 1971 and demand an “apology” and “reparations” for it. The collective hostile imagination of the “Partition” continues to sour the quest for peace in South Asia.

Tragically, however, Pakistan continues to be the most adversely affected country by the consequences of the original Partition. Its attempt to seize Kashmir from India – to redress a gross inequity of the division – by force shortly after independence sowed the seeds of a continuing confrontation that has crippled us politically, economically and socially. Enveloped in anxiety, fear and rage, we have ended up creating a “national-security state” that has, in the name of supreme national interest, trampled on civil freedoms, curtailed provincial autonomies, manufactured violent non-state actors, thwarted political leaders, fashioned parties, engineered anti-democratic political systems and dissembled “political Islam” as a legitimizing force for itself. This state continues to hog the budget and restricts regional development connectivity for “security” reasons. It constantly straitjackets the space for cultural freedom and social advancement. In short, it has stalled the development of a vibrant, pluralistic society at peace with itself and with the rest of the world.

The Taliban attack on the Army Public School in December 2014 in which over 149 children were martyred is another grim reminder of some of the painful consequences of the path taken by our national security state. The Afghan Taliban and their Pakistani offshoot are a direct consequence of our regional security policies centered on the “threat” from India. While the Afghans were given safe havens, the Pakistani Taliban were mollycoddled with one peace deal after another even as they were attacking girls’ schools and assassinating civilians with impunity. It is only after they attacked the APS that the national security state finally girded up its loins to go after them with a vengeance. Those who fled to Afghanistan have now become proxies against Pakistan in the new great game unfolding in the region.

This December we also should also expect a final denouement against the two mainstream parties of the country for whom most Pakistanis voted in the last elections. The PMLN leaders, Nawaz and Shahbaz Sharif, are already shackled, and more troubles are in store for the PPP’s leader Asif Ali Zardari. To be sure, both parties and leaders are partly responsible for their tribulations. Each governed callously in turns. Each joined hands with the Miltablishment to undermine the other and erode the credibility of the democratic system. Now they are lined up to pay for their sins.

Unfortunately, however, the most enduring legacy of the Partition, the national security state, that has re-engineered the political system yet again, has put all its eggs in Imran Khan’s basket. But he is fumbling and stumbling, leaving us wondering about our options in case he drops the ball.

Thursday, 13 December 2018

My plan to revive Europe can succeed where Macron and Piketty failed

Under my Green New Deal, €500bn a year can be created without raising taxes – and it may tempt Britain back to the fold writes Yanis Varoufakis in The Guardian

‘Historians will mark Emmanuel Macron’s failed reform agenda as a turning point in the EU, perhaps one that is more significant than Brexit.’ Photograph: François Lenoir/Reuters

If Brexit demonstrates that leaving the EU is not the walk in the park that Eurosceptics promised, Emmanuel Macron’s current predicament proves that blind European loyalism is, similarly, untenable. The reason is that the EU’s architecture is equally difficult to deconstruct, sustain and reform.

While Britain’s political class is, rightly, in the spotlight for having made a mess of Brexit, the EU’s establishment is in a similar bind over its colossal failure to civilise the eurozone – with the rise of the xenophobic right the hideous result. 

Macron was the European establishment’s last hope. As a presidential candidate, he explicitly recognised that “if we don’t move forward, we are deciding the dismantling of the eurozone”, the penultimate step before dismantling of the EU itself. Never shy of offering details, Macron defined a minimalist reform agenda for saving the European project: a common bank deposit insurance scheme (to end the chronic doom loop between insolvent banks and states); a well-funded common treasury (to fund pan-European investment and unemployment benefits); and a hybrid parliament (comprising national and European members of parliament to lend democratic legitimacy to all of the above).

Since his election, the French president has attempted a two-phase strategy: “Germanise” France’s labour market and national budget (essentially making it easier for employers to fire workers while ushering in additional austerity) so that, in the second phase, he might convince Angela Merkel to persuade the German political class to sign up to his minimalist eurozone reform agenda. It was a spectacular miscalculation – perhaps greater than Theresa May’s error in accepting the EU’s two-phase approach to Brexit negotiations.

When Berlin gets what it wants in the first phase of any negotiation, German chancellors then prove either unwilling or incapable of conceding anything of substance in the second phase. Thus, just like May ending up with nothing tangible in the second phase (the political declaration) by which to compensate her constituents for everything she gave up in the first phase (the withdrawal agreement), so Macron saw his eurozone reform agenda evaporate once he had attempted to Germanise France’s labour and national budget. The subsequent fall from grace, at the hands of the offspring of his austerity drive – the gilets jaunes movement – was inevitable.

The great advantage of our Green New Deal is we are taking a leaf out of Franklin Roosevelt’s original New Deal in the 1930s

Historians will mark Macron’s failure as a turning point in the EU, perhaps one that is more significant than Brexit: it puts an end to the French ambition for a fiscal union with Germany. We can already see the decline of this French reformist ambition in the shape of the latest manifesto for saving Europe by the economist Thomas Piketty and his supporters – published this week. Professor Piketty has been active in producing eurozone reform agendas for a number of years – an earlier manifesto was produced in 2014. It is, therefore, interesting to observe the effect of recent European developments on his proposals. 

In 2014, Piketty put forward three main proposals: a common eurozone budget funded by harmonised corporate taxes to be transferred to poorer countries in the form of investment, research and social spending; the pooling of public debt, which would mean the likes of Germany and Holland helping Italy, Greece and others in a similar situation to bring down their debt; and a hybrid parliamentary chamber. In short, something similar to Macron’s now shunned European agenda.

Four years later, the latest Piketty manifesto retains a hybrid parliamentary chamber, but forfeits any Europeanist ambition – all proposals for debt pooling, risk sharing and fiscal transfers have been dropped. Instead, it suggests that national governments agree to raise €800bn (or 4% of eurozone GDP) through a harmonised corporate tax rate of 37%, an increased income tax rate for the top 1%, a new wealth tax for those with more than €1m in assets, and a C02 emissions tax of €30 per tonne. This money would then be spent within each nation-state that collected it – with next to no transfers across countries. But, if national money is to be raised and spent domestically, what is the point of another supranational parliamentary chamber?

Europe is weighed down by overgrown, quasi-insolvent banks, fiscally stressed states, irate German savers crushed by negative interest rates, and whole populations immersed in permanent depression: these are all symptoms of a decade-long financial crisis that has produced a mountain of savings sitting alongside a mountain of debts. The intention of taxing the rich and the polluters to fund innovation, migrants and the green transition is admirable. But it is insufficient to tackle Europe’s particular crisis.

What Europe needs is a Green New Deal – this is what Democracy in Europe Movement 2025 – which I co-founded – and our European Sprin
g alliance will be taking to voters in the European parliament elections next summer.

The great advantage of our Green New Deal is that we are taking a leaf out of US President Franklin Roosevelt’s original New Deal in the 1930s: our idea is to create €500bn every year in the green transition across Europe, without a euro in new taxes.

Here’s how it would work: the European Investment Bank (EIB) issues bonds of that value with the European Central Bank standing by, ready to purchase as many of them as necessary in the secondary markets. The EIB bonds will undoubtedly sell like hot cakes in a market desperate for a safe asset. Thus, the excess liquidity that keeps interest rates negative, crushing German pension funds, is soaked up and the Green New Deal is fully funded.

Once hope in a Europe of shared, green prosperity is restored, it will be possible to have the necessary debate on new pan-European taxes on C02, the rich, big tech and so on – as well as settling the democratic constitution Europe deserves.

Perhaps our Green New Deal may even create the climate for a second UK referendum, so that the people of Britain can choose to rejoin a better, fairer, greener, democratic EU.

How to create a leaderless revolution and win lasting political change

In an age of insurgency, from gilets jaunes to Extinction Rebellion, non-violence is key to harnessing the energy of protest writes Carne Ross in The Guardian 

The gilets jaunes movement in France is a leaderless political uprising. It isn’t the first and it won’t be the last. Occupy, the Arab spring and #MeToo are other recent examples of this new politics. Some of it is good. Some of it is not: a leaderless movement, self-organised on Reddit, helped elect Donald Trump. But leaderless movements are spreading, and we need to understand where they come from, what is legitimate action and, if you want to start one, what works and what doesn’t.

Leaderless movements spring from frustration with conventional top-down politics, a frustration shared by many

The Arab spring began with the self-immolation of one despairing young man in Tunisia; the revolt rapidly spread across the region, just as protests have proliferated in France. In highly connected complex systems, such as the world today, the action of a single agent can suddenly trigger what complexity theorists call a “phase shift” across the entire system.

We cannot predict which agent or what event might be that trigger. But we already know that the multiplying connections of our world offer an unprecedented opportunity for the rise and spread of leaderless movements.

Leaderless movements spring from frustration with conventional top-down politics, a frustration shared by many, not only those on the streets. Polls suggest the gilets jaunes are supported by a large majority of the French public. Who believes that writing to your MP, or signing a petition to No 10 makes any difference to problems such as inequality, the chronic housing shortage or the emerging climate disaster? Even voting feels like a feeble response to these deep-seated problems that are functions not only of government policies but more of the economic system itself.

What such movements oppose is usually clear, but what they propose is inevitably less so: that is their nature. The serial popular uprisings of the Arab spring all rejected authoritarian rule, whether in Tunisia, Egypt or Syria. But in most places there was no agreement about what kind of government should replace the dictators. In Eygpt, the Tahrir Square protests failed to create an organised democratic political party that could win an election. Instead, the Muslim Brotherhood, long highly organised and thus prepared for such a moment, stepped into the political vacuum. In turn, this provoked further mass protest, which eventually brought to power another dictatorship as repressive as Hosni Mubarak’s. 

When the demand is for change in social relations– norms more than laws – such as the end of sexual harassment, the results can be as rapid but also more enduring and positive. The #MeToo movement has provoked questioning of gender relations across the world. The British deputy prime minister, Damian Green, was forced to resign; in India, a cabinet minister. The effects are uneven, and far from universal, but sexual harassers have been outed and ousted from positions of power in the media, NGOs and governments.

Some mass action has required leadership. The race discrimination that confronted the US civil rights movement was deeply entrenched in both American society and its laws. Martin Luther King and other leaders paid exquisite attention to strategy, switching tactics according to what worked and what didn’t. King correctly judged, however, that real and lasting equality required the reform of capitalism – a change in the system itself. In a sense, his objective went from the singular to the plural. And that is where his campaign hit the rocks. Momentum dissipated when King started to talk about economic equality: there was no agreement on the diagnosis, or the solution.

The Occupy movement faced a similar problem. It succeeded in inserting inequality and economic injustice into the mainstream political conversation – politicians had avoided the topic before. But Occupy couldn’t articulate a specific political programme to reform the system. I was in Zuccotti Park in New York City, where the protest movement began, when the “general assembly” invited the participants to pin notes listing their demands on to trees. Ideas were soon plastered up, from petitioning Washington DC to replacing the dollar – many of which, of course, were irreconcilable with each other.

This is why a leaderless response to the climate change disaster is tricky. It’s striking that in Emmanuel Macron’s fuel tax rises the gilets jaunes opposed the very thing demanded by Extinction Rebellion, Britain’s newly minted leaderless movement: aggressive policies to reduce carbon emissions to net zero. Macron’s proposals would have hit the poorest hardest, illustrating that resolving the crises of the environment and inequality requires a more comprehensive, carefully wrought solution to both. But leaderless movements have largely proved incapable of such complicated decision-making, as anyone at Zuccotti Park will attest.

Conventional party politicians, reasserting their own claim to legitimacy, insist that such problems can only be arbitrated by imposing more top-down policy. But when most feel powerless about the things that matter, this may only provoke further protests.

Ultimately, to address profound systemic challenges, we shall need new participatory and inclusive decision-making structures to negotiate the difficult choices. An example of these forums has emerged in parts of Syria, of all places. Rightly, this is precisely what the Extinction Rebellion is also demanding.

Inevitably, leaderless movements face questions about their legitimacy. One answer lies in their methods. The Macron government has exploited the violence seen in Paris and elsewhere to claim that the gilets jaunes movement is illegitimate and anti-democratic. Mahatma Gandhi, and later King, realised that nonviolent action – such as the satyagraha salt march or the Montgomery bus boycott – denies the authorities this line of attack. On the contrary, the violence used by those authorities – the British colonial government or the police of the southern US states – against nonviolent protestors helped build their own legitimacy and attracted global attention.

Complexity science tells us something else important. System-wide shifts happen when the system is primed for change, at so-called criticality. In the Middle East there was almost universal anger at the existing political status quo, so it took only one match to light the fire of revolt. Meeting people in colleges and towns across the UK but also in the US (where I lived until recently) you can hear the mounting frustration with a political and economic system that is totally unresponsive to the needs of the 99%, and offers no credible answer to the climate emergency.

There will be more leaderless movements to express this frustration, just as there will be more rightwing demagogues, like Trump or Boris Johnson, who seek to exploit it to their own advantage. For the right ones to prevail, we must insist on nonviolence as well as commitment to dialogue with – and not denunciation of – those who disagree. Messily, a new form of politics is upon us, and we must ensure that it peacefully and democratically produces deep systematic reform, not the counter-reaction of the authoritarians. Get ready.

Wednesday, 12 December 2018

How one man’s story exposes the myths behind our migration stereotypes

Robert, a Romanian law graduate, didn’t come to the UK to undercut wages. But he ended up in insecure low-paid work writes Aditya Chakrabortty in The Guardian

Anti-Brexit protesters in November. ‘The likes of Robert make the easiest human punchbags. You rarely see him or the millions of other EU citizens living in Britain on your TV.’ Photograph: Daniel Leal-Olivas/AFP/Getty Images

Amid all the true-blue backbench blowhards and armchair pundits who will occupy the airwaves this Brexit week, one thing is guaranteed: you won’t hear a word from Robert. Why should you? He commands neither power nor status. He has hardly any money either. And yet he is crucial to this debate, because it is people like him that Brexit Britain wants to shut out.

Robert is a migrant, under a prime minister who keeps trying and failing to impose an arbitrary cap on migrants to this country. Born in Timişoara, Romania, he now lives in a democracy that barely batted an eyelid when Nigel Farage said it was OK to be worried about Romanian neighbours. And Robert gets all the brickbats hurled at foreigners down the ages – that he’s only here to take your jobs and claim your benefits (at one and the same time, mystifyingly), to undercut your wages and give nothing back.

What’s left is a 38-year-old tearing himself apart over his broken life. ‘I’m an idiot,' he says. ‘I’ve wasted myself.'

The likes of Robert make the easiest human punchbags. You rarely see him or the millions of other EU citizens living in Britain on your TV. Nor do you hear about them from a political class forever chuntering on about the will of the people, yet too aloof from the people to know who they are or what they want, and too scared of them to engage in dialogue.

Yet Robert (he’s asked that his surname be withheld) is no caricature. It’s not just how he dotes on his daughter and has a streak of irony thicker than the coffee he serves up. It’s also how his life in Britain proves that those declaimed causes of Brexit are both too easy and too far off the mark. However sad his story, it also shows where our economy really is broken – and how it will not be fixed by kicking out migrants.

We met a few weeks ago at his flat on the outskirts of Newcastle upon Tyne. Too bare to be a home, its sole reminder of his old family life is a little girl’s bedroom, kept in unchildlike order for his daughter’s weekend visits. He and his wife split a few months ago, he says, when the family’s money ran out. What’s left now is a bank account in almost permanent overdraft and a 38-year-old man tearing himself apart over his broken life here. “I’m an idiot,” he says. “I’ve wasted myself.”

But please, spare him the migrant stereotypes. Low-skilled? Robert came to the UK in 2008 with a law degree and speaking three languages. Low aspirations? Even while grafting in restaurants and hotels, he fired off over 100 applications for a solicitor’s training contract. That yielded just one interview, in Leeds. Local firms that were happy to have him volunteer for free proved more reluctant to give him a paying job. He ended up in a part of the country that has spent most of the past 40 years trying to recover from Thatcherism’s devastation, and which is even now paying the price in cuts for the havoc wreaked 10 years ago by bankers largely based hundreds of miles away. In a country where relations between regions are as lopsided as they are between workers and bosses, the odds were stacked against him from the start.

Finally, Robert signed with a temp agency, PMP Recruitment, which in August 2012 placed him with the local Nestlé factory. And that’s where trouble really began.

He had just enrolled in the precarious workforce, which at the last count numbered just over 3.8 million workers across the UK. Never guaranteed work, he had to wait for the offer of shifts to be texted to him a few days beforehand. He did days, nights, whatever was given, and started on the minimum wage in Nestlé’s Fawdon plant – a giant place churning out Toffee Crisps and Rolos and Fruit Pastilles. It was no Willy Wonka-land.

Robert began by “spotting” – standing on a podium overlooking the Blue Riband production line and pulling out imperfect chocolate bars. Seeing the conveyor belt spool along for hours on end made him dizzy, and another recently departed worker tells me he couldn’t bear to do it for long (Nestlé says it has “rotation processes for work that is particularly repetitive”). Stubborn pride made him stick it out for 12-hour shifts. “Leave your head at home,” workmates would advise and, amid the exhaustion of shifts and raising a family, that’s what he did. But bit by bit he noticed things were wrong.

As an agency worker, he says he was doing the same tasks as Nestlé staff, but for less money. They got a pay rise, he alleges, that agency workers didn’t. He would do work classed by the company as “skilled” but instead got “unskilled” rates. His former workmate, who doesn’t wish to be named, tells me this was common practice: “If Nestlé wanted you to come in at an awkward time, they’d say, ‘We can pay you skilled rates’.” Over the years, Robert estimates that he lost out on about £26,000 of income.

Robert was in no man’s land. He was spending his days working for Nestlé but was not their direct employee – even though he gave five years of service at Fawdon. Nor did he have much to do with his recruiters at PMP, a nationwide agency. As for the plant’s trade unions, he saw them as “a waste of space”. He was trapped in an institutional vacuum. The chair of the Law Society’s employment law committee, Max Winthrop, describes such arrangements – working for one company while on the books of another for years on end – as a “fiction”. “The most generous way you can look at it is, it’s a confusing situation. The least generous is that it’s a deliberate attempt to throw sand in everyone’s eyes so we can’t see the true nature of the relationship.” Nestlé says that of its 600 staff at Fawdon, 100 are agency, all via PMP. Over the years, Robert says he saw hundreds of agency staff come and go.

When Robert raised the issue with Nestlé managers, he alleges that shifts were no longer given to him. Finally, just before last Christmas, he resigned. He then tried to get other agency workers to join him in taking Nestlé to court, but they were, he says, “too nervous”. So he launched an employment tribunal case alone and, a few weeks after we met, Nestlé settled out of court. One of the conditions of the settlement is that he cannot discuss it, but Robert knows this article will appear. Citing confidentiality, Nestlé did not want to comment directly on his case but says that, since 2014, all staff in its factories get the living wage, and “we refute any allegation that working conditions at our Fawdon factory are below standard”.

On his PMP payslips Robert also noticed that – as a result of the “recruitment travel scheme” in which the agency had enrolled him – some months he was getting less than minimum wage, a situation for which Winthrop says he “cannot find any justification”. He took PMP to court too, and a couple of months ago was awarded over £2,000 in back pay. PMP wouldn’t comment for this piece, other than to say it is appealing the verdict.

The best way to defeat a crass generalisation is with specifics, and what Robert’s story tells you is it’s not the migrant worker doing the undercutting here. He even tries to get his British-born workmates to join him in a class action for what’s rightfully theirs. The real problem is instead the imbalance of power between the worker and the employer, which is happily maintained by the same politicians today who claim they want to help the “left behind”.

PMP and the 18,000 or so other employment agencies in Britain are overseen by a government inspectorate of just 11 staff. The director of labour market enforcement in the UK, David Metcalf, admits that a UK employer is likely to be inspected by his team only once every 500 years. Were I an unscrupulous boss, I would take one look at those numbers and ask myself: if I do my worst, what’s the worst that can happen?

What keeps Robert here now is those weekends with his daughter. But after 10 years in Britain he’s learned something else too, about the reality of a country that claims to welcome foreigners, even as they punish them. An economy that promises a better life to those it then sucks dry. A society that kids itself that it’s a soft touch when really, it is as cold and hard as any interminable overnight shift.

Saturday, 8 December 2018

Madina state and ‘naya’ Pakistan

Pervez Hoodbhoy in The Dawn

PRIME MINISTER Imran Khan says naya Pakistan shall soon resemble the seventh-century state of Madina. Beginning with his inaugural address of Aug 20, he has repeated his vow on no less than 11 separate occasions. Although all Muslims acknowledge the Madina state as a model of perfection, Khan leaves unsaid just how closely naya Pakistan shall be its image. Is achieving egalitarianism and welfarism the goal? Is the Madina state also a template for Pakistan’s political and judicial reconstruction?

To create a prosperous welfare state is an admirable — and universal — objective. Serving the needs of their citizens without prejudice, a few modern states already have operational systems in place. To join them, just five minutes of serious contemplation can tell you what needs to be done here in Pakistan.

It’s almost a no-brainer: eliminate large land holdings through appropriate legislation; collect land and property taxes based upon current market value; speed up the courts and make them transparent; make meritocratic appointments in government departments; change education so that skill enhancement becomes its central goal; make peace with Pakistan’s neighbours; choose trade over aid; and let civilians rule the country rather than soldiers.

That’s pretty hard! Implementation shall need no less than a revolution, bloodless or otherwise. But if Imran Khan wants to emulate the Madina state as a political entity, it will be way trickier. Modern states have geographical boundaries, a practice that followed the Treaty of Westphalia (1648) between European powers. But for the Madina state, borders were irrelevant — where you lived did not matter.

Built around a tribal accord, Misaq-i-Madina, citizenship required only that an individual submit to the authority of the Holy Prophet (PBUH). Perhaps anticipating that his followers would someday spread beyond the oases of Makkah and Madina, he very wisely left unspecified which territories constitute Dar-ul-Islam.

How to reconcile the contradictory notion of a borderless ummah versus an Islamic state with borders? Islamic scholars from the time of Al-Mawardi (972-1058) to the anthropologist genius Ibn-i-Khaldun (1322-1406) have differed. Another, Maulana Abul Ala Maudoodi, while residing in pre-Partition Hyderabad (India), opined that creating Pakistan as a separate entity was contrary to Islamic teachings and traditions. Instead, he said, India as a whole must be converted to Islam. This wasn’t easy and so ultimately he supported the demand for Pakistan.

Time has increased, not decreased, territorial affiliations. Everywhere, inside and outside Islam, large national armies protect borders and nationalism competes fiercely against religion as an emotive force. Imran Khan’s pledge to grant citizenship to 1.5 million desperate Afghan refugees was potentially a first step towards the Madina state, one inclusive of all Muslims.

Human rights activists were ecstatic. But, once the adverse reaction set in, Imran’s U-turn followed. He cannot be blamed alone: previous Pakistani governments refused to naturalise Bengali refugees and Burma’s persecuted Rohingya minority. Nationalism often trumps religious solidarity these days.

Moving on: what about judicial matters? Shall laws of the Madina state apply in naya Pakistan? Viewed through the prism of history, the accord negotiated by the Holy Prophet was perfectly logical at a time of bitter intertribal wars. The interested reader may consult Dr Tahirul Qadri’s PhD thesis on the Misaq-i-Madina. This lists 63 rules for determining diyat (blood money); ransoms to settle tribal feuds; life protection for Muslims and Jews; apportioning of war expenses; etc. These led to peace within the framework of Arab tribal justice.

But justice is an ever-evolving concept in every culture and religion. So, for example, 2,000 years ago, Aristotle had argued that some individuals and races are “natural slaves” better enslaved than left free. And, until 200 years ago, socially respectable Americans were slave owners. Kinder ones treated slaves better but slave-owning is now viewed as utterly abhorrent.

Among today’s Muslims, apart from the militant Islamic State group and Boko Haram and a few others, no one defends slavery. Countries legally forbid it even if slaves are to be treated extremely well. In Pakistan too, owning slaves is a criminal offence. Pakistani law also makes it illegal to barter women as goods or as booty. Owning another human being was considered okay once but isn’t kosher anymore and anywhere — and under any circumstance.

The notion of egalitarianism has evolved as well. Nearly all societies now accept, or give lip service, to the idea that all people are equal before the law. Limited to men at first, it was extended later to include women as well. In 2009, Pakistan legally recognised transgender as a separate category; earlier this year some transgender candidates ran for elections, albeit unsuccessfully.

Blood money, common in earlier times, also takes on a very different flavor. Pakistanis were outraged when a grinning Shahrukh Jatoi emerged from jail after murdering 20-year old Shahzeb Khan in cold blood. Jatoi’s wealthy parents had purchased his pardon through diyat, probably by pressuring Khan’s family. Months earlier, CIA contractor Raymond Davis had been released after the families of the two men he had killed were paid $2.4m as blood money.

The world of yesterday and the world of today bear no comparison. One marvels at the Holy Prophet’s sagacity in negotiating a better deal for all warring Arabian tribes. Still, we should appreciate just how different the world has become from those times. The combined population of Makkah and Madina was less than Kharadar’s, a typical Karachi neighbourhood. Joblessness and lack of housing were non-issues; air pollution and load-shedding hadn’t been conceived; and white-collar crime was awaiting invention centuries later. No police or standing army existed in the Madina state. There were no jails.

It is easy to see why certain religious slogans appeal to the popular imagination. In a country that is deeply unequal and plagued by huge class asymmetry, people yearn for an unblemished past when everything was perfect. But when political leaders promise to take us there, how seriously should we take them? The masses had responded favourably when Gen Ziaul Haq had raised a similar slogan in the 1980s — that of Nizam-i-Mustafa. Disappointment soon followed. Can it be different this time?