Monday, 9 April 2012

Social Luddism?

By now most British internet users will be familiar with the YouTube video of Emma West expounding her controversial views about the ethnic makeup of the UK on a South London train. The video appears to have been shot on a mobile phone and quickly "went viral". Fascinating how what once would have been a purely local issue, a story to amuse colleagues with at work, became - through the power of these new technologies - a national news story and a case for the judiciary. For good or ill, big brother is certainly watching us, and yet with our personal recording equipment to hand, we ourselves are all the means of that surveillance.

A theme that ran through Ms West's less than eloquent soliloquy was that she wanted "her" country back. "My Britain's fuck all now" she mused bitterly. Needless to say, I'm one of the brown faces at whom she would have no doubt directed her ire, and she might have been surprised to find me somewhat sympathetic. This sympathy would not have extended as far as her antipathy towards those of different cultural and ethnic backgrounds to herself; I consider myself a citizen of the world, rather than subscribing to any parochial self-identity. However Ms West's bewailing that "her Britain" has somehow been wrested from her evokes a certain pathos.

Sadly for Emma West, the idea that the UK was ever "owned" by the ordinary man or woman in the street is fanciful. She uses the phrase "my Britain" several times - history suggests that this country has never really been run for the benefit of what is sometimes referred to as the "lower" social classes. My readings of twentieth century history also suggests that the masses were given greater consideration during the forty-five years following the second world war. However both prior and subsequent to this period, those at Ms West's strata of society have had very little say in the way that the country is run. Ownership - if use of the personal pronoun "my" can be referred to as such - has mainly always been the preserve of the rich and powerful. 

Considering this, I see in Emma West and others who are similarly angry with the shape of society, a modern-day Luddism. However unlike her antecedents it is not mechanical weaving technology that she seeks to destroy, rather it is the social changes being brought about by globalisation.

The weaving technology introduced during the industrial revolution brought many benefits to the capitalists, and at a stroke reduced the value of the skills of those who made their living from the hand-production of textiles. These workers were naturally irate and protested via a campaign of machine breaking and in a few extreme cases murder. They probably wanted "their" England back; one in which machines did not exist and in which they commanded respect and a decent wage. Sadly it all ended badly for the Luddites, with convictions, executions and deportations to penal colonies. Machines are of course still with us.

The large-scale immigration that has been experienced in the UK recently is frequently linked to beneficial outcomes for commerce and industry. The economics of foreign exchange mean that migrant workers are often happier to accept lower wages. These workers are also said to be more productive, less fussy and more pliant than native staff; think Polish plumbers or those hand car wash enterprises that are springing up everywhere. A director at a large banking organisation that I reported to said that he preferred hiring Indian IT staff because they worked harder than their English counterparts. He was a no-nonsense Yorkshireman, but his view was economically logical for someone at director level. As with the large frame automated looms of the early industrial revolution, the introduction of outsourcing and cheap foreign labour helps to improve profits for companies and shareholders.

Such immigration also benefits the migrants themselves, and there are many British middle-class knowledge workers who see migration as much less of a threat. Large numbers of this group actually enjoy the diversity that migration brings to the cities ("let's go to Brick Lane for a curry"). Furthermore middle class Brits often live in areas that are beyond the financial resources of migrants so that impact to this strata of society is often less acute. At the lower end of the social scale it can be a different story. Social patterns that had developed over recent generations can become disrupted by new communities of immigrants who bring unfamiliar norms and practices to an area. Moreover as is frequently discussed in the mass media, migration adds competition for resources that are most valuable to those at the lower end; social housing, manual employment etc.

It is understandable therefore that faced with such rapid change and challenges to income and lifestyle, some in these parts of society will be very unhappy. Protest often takes the form of support for the British National Party (BNP), the English Defence League (EDL) and other far right wing organisations. These organisations mix concerns about these issues with nationalism and a somewhat selective history. It can be an incendiary  brew and the political establishment appear wary about such developments. As with the Frame Breaking Act of 1812, the law is used to ensure that protest and direct action doesn't become too great a problem for the state. Recent convictions for racist behavior include Liam Stacey whose offensive tweets about a seriously ill black footballer landed him in prison. 

Sadly for those who feel significantly diminished by immigration, it appears that the story of the Luddites is repeating itself: protest, conviction and I suspect defeat will ultimately ensue. At the risk of sounding like a member of the far left (I am in fact ever-more politically agnostic) those who find themselves in such a position could do worse than coming to the understanding that it is not the immigrants wanting to take over that is the root cause of their woe (just as it was not the machinery itself in the Luddites' day) rather the cause is and was the powerful and wealthy in their quest to determine the most beneficial economic outcomes for themselves and perhaps the country. 

Britain does not belong to the likes of Emma West. It never has done. Some enjoy pointing misty-eyed at the post war settlement and declaring how good life was then. An argument could be made that those forty-five years were payback for the incredible sacrifices made by working people in two world wars. It increasingly appears that the powers that be consider that this debt has now been paid. Emma's generation has done little that even comes close to that former sacrifice. Therefore we appear to be returning to business as usual: the rich and the powerful calling the shots and the lower classes having to deal with the consequences. In the nineteenth century it was about mechanisation, this time it's about migration. In the future - who knows - it may even be about intelligent robots...

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