Population and Politics

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I’m actually writing about another subject at the moment, and thought I might slip a paragraph or two in, but then it seems unnecessarily awkward. The subject, though I’ve touched on it before deserves proper attention

I’ve thought, during these unsettled political times, that immigration is the one thing that I feel defines us all absolutely. I’m sure that most folk concerned about immigration would be appalled  at being called racist. This is something that only the far Right might be proud of. But against immigration? I’m thinking of a lot of friends here, people I know and respect; who typically respond that the country is just too full, and worry about hospitals and schools (not enough of them), scarcity of jobs, and dilution of British culture.  However, recent calculations have perhaps changed the argument, and tipped the playing field in favour of the immigrants. And that’s without the unappetising sight of coloured nurses and carers risking their lives on Whitey’s behalf, as we’ve seen on a daily basis during this Covid pandemic.

I’m talking about population growth, and new calculations that show it falling well before the end of the century. It is now calculated (published in the Lancet, June 2020) that by 2064 our global population should peak at about 9.7 billion, to slowly withdraw from then. Still a lot of folks, but the urgency really should be reducing … and the sooner the better, I hear everyone say! The article in the Lancet also has things to say about associated factors, like the shift in economic power. It sees Nigeria, India and Brazil especially becoming more active, due to the younger working populations of those countries, and away from the elderly folk of Europe, the US, Japan and China. Hollow laughs from us ‘no borders’ advocates, as the old imperial nations, like the UK, clear their throats and attempt to reverse the frosty reception they’ve so far offered to migrants and refugees … “ah … ahem, I say, did we say you’re not welcome? …. no no, do come in. We need someone to tuck us oldies in and swab our arses”. Actually, maybe this pandemic is already changing the argument; the urgent health and care workers, the shelf stackers, drivers, and fruit pickers … all the really essential jobs … who do we really need? We should be encouraging people to join us, rather than  building walls to keep ‘them’ out. During this lockdown, due to the Covid epidemic there was a rather futile but well intentioned attempt to encourage the swathes of idle British workers outside to help pick the rotting fruit on the farms. It didn’t last long; we just couldn’t do it! Where are those Romanians when you need them? (I remember picking sprouts one frozen January, as a young man; determined to show the dozen or so women what a fit man could do … wreathed in sweat by the end of the day, and only a fraction of what the ladies picked)

It would be a big mistake however to try and second-guess the future. Who was that US futurologist who in 1970 forecast Britain would be reduced to barbarism by the start of this century? Who could have foreseen the rise of Trump? … or Hitler after the Great War? At least though, we could marshall  ourselves to the changing face of the world, see what we have to offer.

So what are we good at? Here in the UK I mean.  The GDP figures for the last 3 months have just come out, and Rushi Sinak quite accurately explained our poor performance, compared with the rest of Europe, on that our GDP depended more on hospitality than the other European countries. This once proud manufacturing centre of the world is now reduced to giving a good foot massage. My heart didn’t exactly bleed for the lady who catered for deluxe weddings and was having a hard time of it. Mind you, apparently we’re good at theatre and video games. And pop music. And film sets. Oh, and Universities. And a few top end manufacturers like Rolls Royce and McLaren. Associated with the universities are cutting edge research facilities, and if it wasn’t for good theatre and restaurants we’d perhaps not attract students and researchers. And decent services.  And with robots gradually doing most of the heavy lifting, what becomes useful? Let’s ask human beings …. clever and capable things after all, and you never know which ones are going to come up with the goods. Beethoven? … the product of syphilis, should have been put down at birth. Luxury wedding parties? … who’d have thought of that?

One thing that time proves is how wrong we were! It’s not very often that old opinions seem prescient. Even ten year old opinions on current affairs sound dated. But that doesn’t mean we shy away from prediction. I was watching Freeman Dyson, the ancient physicist who died recently, giving a TED talk, about possible life in the outer solar system. He guessed how life might look, and how we might find it, in the Kuyper belt, beyond the planets.  He also recommended that we should “look for what’s detectable, not what’s possible”.  So he suggested that we look for his ‘sunflowers’, because they’d be easy to spot from telescopes on earth, having grown enormous reflectors to gather the feeble sunlight out there. What I especially liked about him was the way he said “if it’s not there, why, we make it …” … and from there seed the galaxy. Reality has a way of fulfilling our dreams, so here’s hoping. (subject for another essay!)

I read a book a couple of years ago, written by Kate Fox, an English anthropologist, called Watching the English. She did her best to be objective, but I’m sure wouldn’t mind if I say she was only partly successful. She’s rather proud, for example of the British (though she tries to confine herself to English) sense of humour. I do remember, as a child, wondering how Hitler ever thought he could beat us, as long as there was an Englishman left to laugh at him. I can’t remember what the war film was, but it was a theme that ran though most of them, and Dad’s Army is testament to that lingering  belief. It would fit with our theatrical bent. Art schools begat a lot of rock bands, and the entertainment industry is now recognised as being one of our main exports. So we’re good at invention … at last a favourable echo of the ‘old days’.

If you browse the internet, regarding population, you might come across the Corruption Perception Index, which each year (since 1995, when Transparency International started doing it) looks at the levels of corruption in a country. Out of 180 countries, the UK lies 12th at the moment (2020) … I was pleasantly surprised by this, as were most friends I asked to guess. So reasonably fair, and surprised by the fact. Which is a fair sort of reaction.

There may be invention in our culture, but it does not reside mysteriously in our DNA. There are many aspects of our culture of which I’m proud. But not in our history of domination. For example, I’m proud of Wilberforce and our part in the end of slavery … but not in the fact that the only way the abolitionists could get their bills through parliament was to pay the erstwhile slave owners for their loss of income; recompense that apparently was only discharged in 2015 … money to the slave owners, not to the Africans who had lost their lives and their liberty. My own family, rooted in Liverpool and Manchester no doubt benefited at least indirectly from slavery. My grandfather left us all money in trust to pay for private education, whether we knew it or not. There is a sickening program about modern slavery on the TV as I write; undercover in the maid-trade in Kuwait; girls from Guniea being sold online… it still booms! Lots of lasting images, but that of the young Kuwaiti woman, immaculately groomed, appalled that a maid might want a day off a week, AND demand ownership of her own passport! … another Guinean girl on a three month trip to Saudi Arabia, with her Kuwaiti ‘parents’, was told to sleep with the cows, and referred to as ‘Animal’. They are traded on-line as goods, and if they escape they are sent to prison. How dare they?

The racial blending that helped form the new country of America made for fitness. The 400 metre record holder (then) ~Michel Johnson made a good documentary on the eve of the 2012 Olympics for the BBC about the roots of black athletic success. He pointed out that the selected breeding for strength, handy for  picking cotton, was foisted by the white slave drivers and markets, on a variegated  and separated African gene pool. Like the US, the UK’s colonial past is also quite colourful and varied. Unlike the Hapsburgs with their big chins and small gene pool. Indeed, I’ve never seen any evidence that racial purity leads to any advantage whatsoever … the more mixed the better!

Anyone who takes advantage of another, even indirectly is diminished  as a human being. They are diminished to the same degree that they diminish another. Why are we so short sighted? There are reports at the moment of the Greek Government raiding their own refugee centres, and towing raft loads of people out to sea at night, and abandoning them there. This is the same Government who ten years ago plucked at our collective conscience, in the rich North of Europe when they nearly went broke through no fault of their own. What? … What??

One of the side effects of the current pandemic is a recalibration of value … how much we appreciate – or not – different occupations. I’ll resist the temptation to list once again the real value of jobs, and hope that this is being done already. Our real paymaster is now the planet, not which political system best suits. As I have argued before, being inclusive is a good arbiter of political thought, and in any consideration of humanity’s future, it would seem wise to include our planet. That our health, even our lives might depend on the survival of other animals, let alone other humans?

We can extrapolate injustice from the merest sleight. I was brought up by the monks at Ampleforth, and had Christian ideals drilled into me. On leaving school and going to work in a factory I found it hard to believe how unfair everything was. Someone had been telling me porkies. I remember standing on the streets of Liverpool, railing at the temples to greed that festoon the city centre (banks and insurance companies); I saw it as a moral duty to steal; I was an angry young man and proud of it; Raskolnikov was my hero. But gradually we mellow, and we wonder what all the fuss is about. A friend gave me a book to read the other day, Capitalist Realism by Mark Fisher. I couldn’t disagree with anything he said, but I kept getting distracted by a vision of Mr Fisher jumping up and down on the edge of a wind swept field, stabbing himself. We accept with age that the world is not fair. History, class, distribution of wealth … all things worthy of consideration. But it is immigration that remains for me the real touchstone of decency, and our attitude to race as the supreme arbiter. The only person I’ve ever ‘unfriended’ on Facebook was a chap who announced that anyone he knew who might ‘take the knee’ should unfriend him now. Click.