Maybe we are a bunch of Little Britons

Have the tabloids made us less tolerant of immigration, or are they simply reflecting their readers’

The "'Transatlantic Trends" report appears to reveal that Brits are more worried about immigration than any other country surveyed – worse than five other nations with more immigrants in their population, says the BBC's Mark Easton.

What could be responsible? Is it because we're an island nation, fearful of "contamination" or "invasion" from overseas, without the free flow of people provided by a land border? There is no comparison in the figures with a similar island, so it's hard to be sure. According to the Financial Times (link requires registration), as reported by Primly Stable, "Immigration experts blame this on the hostility to foreign newcomers espoused by many British newspapers and the fact that the arrivals from eastern Europe rose so rapidly during the middle of the last decade."

It's tempting, as one of those bloggers who has written so much about the anti-immigration language and stories of the tabloid press down the years, to conclude that Brits are more worried about immigration than we should be because we're told to be more worried than we should be.

Certainly, headlines such as "Keep out, Britain is full up" (Daily Express, in an uncanny parallel of the BNP slogan "Britain is full up"), "Migrants take all new jobs in Britain" (Daily Express), "White men to face jobs ban" (Daily Express), "Asylum – you're right to worry" (Daily Mail), "They've stolen all our jobs" (Daily Star), "One in five Britons will be ethnics" (Daily Express), "Muslim schools ban our culture" (Daily Express), "Bombers are all spongeing asylum-seekers" (Daily Express) and "Strangers in our own country" (Daily Express) would appear to lead to that conclusion.

There are also somewhat misleading stories about race, ethnicity and immigration that pop up almost daily in the tabloid press. Just this week we have seen the Express's story about the ethnicity of doctors, shown by Full Fact to be not the whole picture by any means; and anti-war politicians labelled as "Muslims" rather than anti-war by the Daily Mail when they refused to give a standing ovation to a British soldier (but called him a "hero" nevertheless), as reported by Angry Mob.

It's tempting to see all of this going on and conclude that it's the angry, scaremongering language of the tabloids ramping up the fear factor when it comes to immigration – but that doesn't mean that the screamsheets are the only ones tainting the issue, or that they are the main agents responsible for what appears at first glance to be a rather intolerant, angry Britain depicted in the Transatlantic Trends survey.

For one thing, it's not just newspapers doing this: our politicians of all hues are more than capable of using dog-whistles such as "British jobs for British workers", linking "crime and immigration" in election manifestos and demanding impractical immigration caps as a red line during coalition negotiations, for example. It's not just the odious BNP, and their vile little cousin the EDL, who are doing the yapping about immigration.

For another, it may simply be the case that we are more anti-immigration in this country than liberals like me might like to think; and that politicians and tabloids alike, rather than driving the people, are being driven by them. I'd like to hope not, and I prefer to think of this country as a warm, welcoming, rich and diverse place to live – but it would be wrong to rule out the idea that we're Little Britons who want to pull up the drawbridge. Maybe a lot of us are.

Mark Easton's conclusion is a little more hopeful: he says that Brits are more confused than anything else and we think immigration is a lot more of a problem than it really is. If that's the case, then the language and tone of some newspapers when it comes to immigration can hardly help, particularly when they don't give the full picture. Even if they are reflecting the views of their readerships rather than defining them, and simply confirming the prejudices that already exist, newspapers aren't helping people see the full picture – which is surely what they should be there for.

Patrolling the murkier waters of the mainstream media
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From Netflix to rented homes, why are we less interested in ownership?

Instead of owning things, we are renting experiences.

In 2008 the anthropologist Daniel Miller published a book based on an intimate study of 30 households on a single street in south London. The Comfort of Things ­explored the different kinds of relationships people have with what they own.

Miller described a retired couple’s house, cluttered with furniture, framed photographs and knick-knacks accumulated over decades. Down the road, a self-employed man called Malcolm had rented a flat. Malcolm preferred a spartan existence: he kept his belongings in storage, the better to travel at short notice, and conducted as much as possible of his life online. His home was his email address. His central material possession was his laptop.

Today, we are living more like the laptop warrior than the retired couple. Increasingly, our possessions are stored in the cloud or on a distant server. Just as we had grown accustomed to the idea of owning music in the form of data, we are now getting used to not owning it at all. In television, too, we stream instead of buy the latest drama series; when people use the term “box set” they are rarely referring to a box of discs on a shelf in the living room. Everything solid is melting into wifi.

Instead of owning things, we are renting experiences. The proliferation of mobile apps enables us to source or supply whatever we want, for short periods, more easily than ever before. The “sharing economy” is not about sharing, however. I encourage my three-year-old daughter to share her toys with her little brother; I don’t suggest that she charge him an hourly fee for doing so. A better name for it is the Paygo (pay-as-you-go) economy.

The Paygo economy combines two intertwined phenomena: the rise of renting and the decline of stuff. If you are in your twenties and unburdened by wealth you may already have accepted that you will always be in hock to a landlord. If you are in the market for a car, you will probably be thinking about leasing it, or joining a car club, or waiting until Google makes car ownership obsolete. There are even apps that allow you to rent a dog rather than take on the responsibility of owning one.

A world in which we own less and rent more is not necessarily one in which consumers are empowered. You never really own the electronic versions of a book or a film – you can’t lend them to a friend or sell them on – because the publisher retains its rights over them. Even our photos aren’t ours any longer: they are owned by corporations that scrape them for data that can be sold. In a recent article, the Financial Times journalist Izabella Kaminska argued that “ownership of nothing and the rental of everything represents . . . the return of an authoritarian and feudalistic society”.

The Paygo economy is changing our relationships with each other and with ourselves. Possessions form part of what the marketing academic Russell Belk calls “the extended self”. In Daniel Miller’s book, he describes how objects, however trivial, can embody relationships. Each household’s collection of stuff – tacky souvenirs, CDs we borrowed and never gave back – forms a constellation of personal significance. Post-materialism does not equate with spiritual enrichment. “Usually the closer our relationships with objects,” Miller writes, “the closer our relationships are with people.”

Human beings have a deep-seated tendency to imbue physical items with the ­essence of their owner. Hence the market for rock-star memorabilia: an old guitar that has been played by John Lennon is more valuable, and more revered, than a new replica that has not.

We apply this intuition even to money, the units of which are, by definition, interchangeable. Psychologists who study “essentialism” have found that people are less likely to recommend that stolen or lost cash be returned when it has subsequently been deposited in a bank account, as opposed to remaining in paper notes.

When things evaporate, so does ­meaning. A fetish for owning things connects to a yearning to retain a distinct identity in the face of change. Japan has been economically stagnant for decades and, as a result (and perhaps a cause), has preserved a set of idiosyncratic social norms, at odds with the rest of the developed world. One of these is a strong preference for owning music in a physical form: 85 per cent of the music bought in this technologically advanced society is on CD or vinyl. Japan is also the last developed country to rely on fax machines. A fax, unlike an email or the past, is something you can hold on to.

One way of framing the central arguments of British politics is that they are about the rights of owners versus renters – and not just in the sense of home ownership. Long-standing Labour members believe they own the party, and are outraged both by Momentum clicktivists and £3 voters. What appals many who voted Leave in the EU referendum is the thought that migrants can, in effect, rent a livelihood from the UK, treating the country as a giant Airbnb host. They want to know if this is still their country, or if they are now merely tenants of it.

Most younger voters chose Remain, but relatively few of them voted. That was a function of their lack of home ownership as much as age: millennials who rent are nearly half as likely to vote in elections as their peers who have managed to get on to the property ladder. This is partly a product of the mundane business of spending enough time in one place to get on the electoral roll, but it nonetheless suggests that renters form weaker bonds with the society in which they live.

For centuries, what we own has been an important way of placing ourselves in relation to those around us. The 18th-century curiosity cabinet was a collection of objects used to display the erudition and refinement of its owner. In the 20th century, houses became showcases. Your curtains, your car and your choice of decor said who you were or wanted to be. This was the era of what Thorstein Veblen called “conspicuous consumption”. In the Paygo economy, we will have fewer things of our own to ­display, as our possessions dematerialise and we rent more of what we need.

Despite all this, human nature has not changed: we are still apes with status anxiety, endlessly preoccupied by our position in any given hierarchy, eager for ways to convey our aspirations and allegiances. So we find other ways to signal. Rather than deploy what we own to say who we are, we use our photo streams and status updates to show it, even going so far as to arrange our meals and holidays with the aim of generating impressive on-brand content.

The vacuum of meaning opened up by the disappearance of stuff may even have increased the stridency of our political debate. One way I can let people know who I am is by loudly asserting my membership of a political tribe.

If I can’t show off my possessions, I will show off my beliefs.

Ian Leslie is the author of “Curious: the Desire to Know and Why Your Future Depends on It” (Quercus)

Ian Leslie is a writer, author of CURIOUS: The Desire to Know and Why Your Future Depends On It, and writer/presenter of BBC R4's Before They Were Famous.

This article first appeared in the 16 February 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times