EU Immigration and English Identity: Mr Ed Bets on the Wrong Horse

It’s been a funny couple of weeks. 120 English councils signed a demand for powers equivalent to the Scottish Parliament – really? The trivialities of the Smith Commission recommendations provoked that? I find it hard to believe that that can really have ruffled so many feathers…not if they had really looked at them with any care. Similarly, the call for English Votes on English Laws – I (like most Scots polled), have no objection to that at all, but the emphasis put on it is bizarre, given the minuscule difference that such a change will actually make. The recent House of Commons Library report noted that of 3,600 divisions between June 2001 and September 2014, the presence or absence of the votes of Scottish MPs affected precisely 22 of them – 0.6%. So, Scottish representatives don’t really have much in the way of an impact just now, to justify others being that bothered about reducing it. More than that – the same report concluded that the way that English MPs vote 99% of the time is the same as the majority vote in Parliament. Scottish MPs only voted with the majority 24% of the time. So – not only do Scottish MPs make no difference (and get ‘their way’ less than a quarter of the time), but English MPs determine policy almost exclusively – much as south of England MPs determine who forms the Westminster government.

But it’s all about the illusion of parity – or, more accurately, the illusion that Scots might be having some sort of advantage, that must instantly be eliminated. This ‘unfounded grievance’ politics is a part of the recent rise and assertion of an English identity within UK politics – and its attitude towards Scots and their governance is rather similar to its attitude to the EU.

But it need not have been this way. In 2012, Ed Milliband was pushing to take hold of the opportunities presented by the rise in English nationalism, by promoting an English identity based on “great Labour traditions”. Unfortunately, this was just at the time that Scottish independence propelled the Labour Party (with a knowing nudge in the back from David Cameron) into the role of primary defenders of the Union in the face of the Scottish independence referendum, the party traditionally representing the mainstream left choosing instead to embrace their ‘One Nation’ theme, and quietly dropping their English nationalistic aspirations. Now, according to the new report ‘Taking England Seriously’ from the University of Edinburgh, this move has allowed the concept of ‘Englishness’ to become tightly associated with hostility to both the EU and immigrants – perfect for UKIP.

Increasingly over the last years (some might cynically say, since the banking crisis, in a preposterous attempt to deflect the blame), a variety of myths have been promulgated, which feed the right wing mindset associated with this ‘new Englishness’ – such as the poor all being scroungers, and all EU immigrants are here as benefits tourists. To an extent, some of this ‘straw man external threat’ rhetoric is quite familiar in Scotland, the model perhaps even being pioneered by the ‘benefits junkies’ slander first being perpetrated against Scots years beforehand, along with the myth that English taxpayers’ money supports Scotland, when the reverse is actually true. Of course, looking at the actual figures concerning these two freshly-demonised groups, you see that the small quantity of benefits paid incorrectly (£1.4 billion overpayments plus £1.2 billion benefit fraud) to those on low incomes is vastly outweighed by the quantity of benefits that simply goes unclaimed by the legitimately entitled (£16 billion), and the vast majority of EU immigrants come to the UK to work, generating much tax and spend to boost the economy, rather than to claim any benefits.

Whisper it quietly, but – the UK is not such a great place to come to live (especially with a government opposed to you being there), and these days it seems somewhat vain to think that it is so attractive. Indeed, some have satirically suggested that that state of affairs is a deliberate ploy by the government, to deter immigrants from coming to the UK, citing: an end to decent affordable healthcare; low-paid jobs for much of the population; the most expensive and unreliable rail system in Europe; ridiculously low wages and massively high prices and rents (see http://tompride.wordpress.com/2013/01/29/government-ministers-announce-plan-to-deter-immigrants-to-uk-by-making-it-shit/). Well, there has to be some strategy for such a ‘race to the bottom’…doesn’t there?

But in their quest to demonise the poor and the foreign for the ills of the UK (despite the numbers simply not backing up such outrageous nonsense), the right wing government and press may have put a monkey on their own backs, with the rise of UKIP and a surge to leave the EU. A poll in The Sun the other weekend found that immigration was a “key issue” for just 34% in Scotland compared to 56% elsewhere, and while it was the single biggest issue in the rest of the country, Scots were more concerned with the economy and the NHS.

And the economy – particularly the consequences for the poor – is increasingly visible as an issue in Scotland: the number of people using FoodBanks was 5,726 in Scotland over 2011-2012, but that has rocketed (with only a portion of the austerity cuts in place) to 71,428 in 2013; in October 2014, the Social Mobility Child Poverty Commission estimated the number of children in absolute poverty (the lack of sufficient resources to “keep body and soul together”) in Scotland as 17-20%(170,000-200,000), with children in relative property (where family income is less than 60% of the median) at 15%-19%(150,000-180,000, out of 1.4 million across the UK). Given the recorded popularity in the Referendum of ‘Yes’ in areas of poverty, and the likely increase of those same levels of poverty in the next couple of years with increasing austerity, one might expect an increase in support for, or at least an increase in receptiveness to, the idea that something radically different is urgently needed in politics. And that idea seems to be spreading, even through ’No’ voting areas in Scotland, if the two unexpected council by-election gains by the SNP yesterday (for Kintyre South and Elgin North), taking both seats through huge voting swings, are anything to go by.

Perhaps Scots could have forgiven Ed the ‘One Nation’ aspect – perhaps even acting as an advocate of English identity – on the grounds of getting Labour values in some way back into Westminster. However, the recent record for that – as noted above – is not good… You’ll have noticed that the 2001-2014 period noted earlier was predominantly a Labour Government, but a very right wing one, followed by an even more right wing coalition. In those contexts, as I said above, the votes of Scottish MPs have coincided with the majority vote of the UK MPs on only 24% of those 3,600 occasions. Now, against a background of supporting – nay, promising to outdo – Conservative cuts, against the current background of increasing poverty in Scotland, what appeal is there left for traditional Scottish Labour supporters in a vote for a Labour government at Westminster?

Straddling those two horses of defending the Union and supporting English identity politics would have been difficult for Ed, without further alienating a Scottish electorate, although socialist values would have helped to ameliorate that impact (the rationale being that some form of caring socialist values at the heart of a pro-English identity government would have been better than not having those values in a more evenly British one). But how much stronger would Labour have been, if they had elected to support the emerging English identity and nurtured it away from the right, as a means of reclaiming a potent political left in the UK mainstream?

Today we will find out whether Scottish Labour wants to recover its Soul, in the form of which leader it chooses. But Ed Milliband gave Labour’s UK – and, indeed, English – Soul away at least two years ago.

 

“Ed Miliband should be in full election mode.” “How would you know?” (Maurice Smith in conversation with Derek Bateman, on Bateman Broadcasting, 30/11/2014)

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