The contempt for democracy

Think about this while you read press coverage of the student protests.

This is a cross-post from Enemies of Reason

We'll read a lot about these student protests today. Much of the rage will focus on the fact that an elderly chutney maker had his car kicked in by some people on his way to see Michael McIntyre and Cheryl Cole perform in his honour. Some will deplore the breaking and burning of things by those whom Kay Burley would label as "insurgents". Some others, maybe a smaller number, will wonder if it's a tremendously excellent thing to charge at children with police horses or drag other people out of wheelchairs, or bash them over the head with batons, and all of that – but probably conclude that, yes, sadly, it's actually OK.

One thing that might come up a few times is the idea that a protest of this nature shows "contempt for democracy". If it is, you have to ask: who showed contempt for democracy first?

Is it contemptuous of democracy, for example, to tell people that you have certain policies, become elected because of their votes on the basis of what you've said, and then once you're safely in power for five years, turn around and say, "Look, I'm awfully sorry but things have changed – that manifesto which we said was our manifesto is more of a 'holding manifesto', to be broken open in the unlikely event that we ever get elected with an overall majority; and it is to be entirely ignored if we become part of a coalition, when we can cheerfully reject some or all of our promises?"

Is it contemptuous of democracy, for example, to not tell people that you're going to introduce something like tuition fees in the first place, but then, once you're safely elected, and having given no indication that you're going to introduce tuition fees, introduce tuition fees?

Does it say something about politicians' contempt for democracy, perhaps, that the country can go to war with a foreign power that poses no threat to it, based on no legitimate evidence whatsoever, and that no citizen of that country should have a say in the matter; that entirely peaceful protests should be completely and utterly ignored because it is history, not citizens, who are the real judge of a prime minister, and besides, God told him it would all be all right?

No, of course not. Have a patronising pat on the head and a biscuit to make you feel better. None of that is contempt for democracy at all; that's just part of the rich ebb and flow of parliamentary life, which is so very vital and important to everything getting done. Well, if people told you what they were going to do, or did the things they told you they were going to do, how on earth could things function then? It would almost be as if you were voting for parties based on certain principles, or values, and that they would stick to them, or something. And that would never do.

Patrolling the murkier waters of the mainstream media
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Brexit is teaching the UK that it needs immigrants

Finally forced to confront the economic consequences of low migration, ministers are abandoning the easy rhetoric of the past.

Why did the UK vote to leave the EU? For conservatives, Brexit was about regaining parliamentary sovereignty. For socialists it was about escaping the single market. For still more it was a chance to punish David Cameron and George Osborne. But supreme among the causes was the desire to reduce immigration.

For years, as the government repeatedly missed its target to limit net migration to "tens of thousands", the EU provided a convenient scapegoat. The free movement of people allegedly made this ambition unachievable (even as non-European migration oustripped that from the continent). When Cameron, the author of the target, was later forced to argue that the price of leaving the EU was nevertheless too great, voters were unsurprisingly unconvinced.

But though the Leave campaign vowed to gain "control" of immigration, it was careful never to set a formal target. As many of its senior figures knew, reducing net migration to "tens of thousands" a year would come at an economic price (immigrants make a net fiscal contribution of £7bn a year). An OBR study found that with zero net migration, public sector debt would rise to 145 per cent of GDP by 2062-63, while with high net migration it would fall to 73 per cent. For the UK, with its poor productivity and sub-par infrastructure, immigration has long been an economic boon. 

When Theresa May became Prime Minister, some cabinet members hoped that she would abolish the net migration target in a "Nixon goes to China" moment. But rather than retreating, the former Home Secretary doubled down. She regards the target as essential on both political and policy grounds (and has rejected pleas to exempt foreign students). But though the same goal endures, Brexit is forcing ministers to reveal a rarely spoken truth: Britain needs immigrants.

Those who boasted during the referendum of their desire to reduce the number of newcomers have been forced to qualify their remarks. On last night's Question Time, Brexit secretary David Davis conceded that immigration woud not invariably fall following Brexit. "I cannot imagine that the policy will be anything other than that which is in the national interest, which means that from time to time we’ll need more, from time to time we’ll need less migrants."

Though Davis insisted that the government would eventually meet its "tens of thousands" target (while sounding rather unconvinced), he added: "The simple truth is that we have to manage this problem. You’ve got industry dependent on migrants. You’ve got social welfare, the national health service. You have to make sure they continue to work."

As my colleague Julia Rampen has charted, Davis's colleagues have inserted similar caveats. Andrea Leadsom, the Environment Secretary, who warned during the referendum that EU immigration could “overwhelm” Britain, has told farmers that she recognises “how important seasonal labour from the EU is to the everyday running of your businesses”. Others, such as the Health Secretary, Jeremy Hunt, the Business Secretary, Greg Clark, and the Communities Secretary, Sajid Javid, have issued similar guarantees to employers. Brexit is fuelling immigration nimbyism: “Fewer migrants, please, but not in my sector.”

The UK’s vote to leave the EU – and May’s decision to pursue a "hard Brexit" – has deprived the government of a convenient alibi for high immigration. Finally forced to confront the economic consequences of low migration, ministers are abandoning the easy rhetoric of the past. Brexit may have been caused by the supposed costs of immigration but it is becoming an education in its benefits.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.