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The New Depression

The business and political elite are flying blind. This is the mother of all economic crises. It has

We are living through a crisis which, from the collapse of Northern Rock and the first intimations of the credit crunch, nobody has been able to understand, let alone grasp its potential ramifications. Each attempt to deal with the crisis has rapidly been consumed by an irresistible and ever-worsening reality. So it was with Northern Rock. So it was with the attempt to recapitalise the banks. And so it will be with the latest gamut of measures. The British government – like every other government – is perpetually on the back foot, constantly running to catch up. There are two reasons. First, the underlying scale of the crisis is so great and so unfamiliar – and, furthermore, often concealed within the balance sheets of the banks and other financial institutions. Second, the crisis has undermined all the ideological assumptions that have underpinned government policy and political discourse over the past 30 years. As a result, the political and business elite are flying blind. This is the mother of all postwar crises, which has barely started and remains out of control. Its end – the timing and the complexion – is unknown.

Crises that change the course of history and transform political assumptions are rare events. The last came in the second half of the 1970s, triggered by the Opec oil price spike and a dramatic rise in inflation, which marked the end of the long postwar boom. Its political consequences were far-reaching: the closure of the social democratic era, the rise of neoliberalism, the discrediting of the state, the embrace of the market, the undermining of the public ethos and the espousal of rampant individualism. For the next 30 years, neoliberalism - the belief in the market rather then the state, the individual rather than the social - exercised a hegemonic influence over British politics, with the creation of New Labour signalling an abject surrender to the new orthodoxy.

The modalities of this present crisis are entirely different. Extreme as they may have appeared to be at the time, the economic travails of the 1970s were progressive rather than cataclysmic. The old system did not hit the wall, but became increasingly mired and ineffectual. What swept the social democratic era away was not the force de frappe of an irresistible crisis but that it was accompanied by the steady rise of a new ideology and political force in Thatcherism - and Reaganism in the United States - and its victory in the 1979 general election.

In contrast, the financial meltdown of 2007-2008 demolished the neoliberal era and its assumptions with a suddenness and irresistibility that was breathtaking. The political class, from New Labour to the Conservatives, is standing naked. They are still clinging to the wreckage of their old ideas while acknowledging in the next breath that these no longer work. The financial crisis is a matter of force majeure; political ideas and discourse change much more slowly, even when it is obvious that the old ways of thinking have become obsolete. Meanwhile, there is no political alternative waiting in the wings, refining its radical ideas in think tanks ready to storm the citadels of power as there was in the 1970s, notwithstanding the fact that think tanks are now far thicker on the ground. Instead, it has been the mainstream which senses that neoliberalism no longer works, fatally undermined by events and, ultimately, the author of its own downfall. This crisis will have the most profound and far-reaching political consequences and will in due course transform the political landscape, but it remains entirely unclear in what ways and when that might be.

In all these senses the financial meltdown has far more in common with the Great Depression than the Great Inflation. When the financial crisis consumed Wall Street in 1929 and proceeded to undermine the real economy, engulfing Europe in the process, it was not accompanied by a radical shift towards Keynesianism, but rather a reassertion of sound finance orthodoxy, followed in due course by the adoption of protectionism. The political mainstream as represented by Labour's Ramsay MacDonald and Philip Snowden and the Conservative Stanley Baldwin all sang from the same hymn sheet. Only Keynes and a faction of the Liberal Party enunciated a plausible alternative. Eventually a programme of fiscal deficits and public works was pursued by Franklin D Roosevelt in the United States, but in Britain Keynesianism was not properly embraced until rearmament and the approach of war. Indeed, it was not until 1945 that the combined legacy of war and the Depression belatedly resulted in a fundamental political realignment and the birth of the social democratic era.

The Grim Reaper has finally spoken:

a boom pumped up by credit steroids and a bust that takes us back to the 1930s

Since the financial meltdown dramatically intensified in September 2008, Gordon Brown has managed to ride the economic storm rather more successfully than the Conservatives, or, for that matter, than Tony Blair would have done. It is Vincent Cable, the Liberal Democrats' econo­mics spokesman, however, who has indubitably emerged as the political sage, unafraid of confronting neoliberalism's shibboleths, demonstrating a clarity of mind and the political courage to tell things as they are, in a way that has escaped all other prominent politicians. Although Brown was the economic architect of the past decade and was responsible, more than anyone else, for its excesses and was shaping up to be a rather disastrous Prime Minister, he displayed last autumn, at least initially, an agility of mind and nimbleness of foot that defied the expectations of those who believed he was capable of neither. He revelled in the sense of purpose and vision offered by the crisis, seemingly prepared to jettison the thinking that had imbued his previous decade as chancellor.

But Package Part I, widely hailed at the time and imitated elsewhere, proved woefully inadequate, and the financial system remains frozen. Meanwhile the waters are rising up the Good Ship UK, threatening to transform the banking crisis into a fiscal and currency crisis. It seems unlikely that, if that should happen, Brown will survive the next election.

Even if it does not happen, Brown faces a serious problem about his own past role, because Britain’s crisis has been greatly exacerbated by the soft-touch regulation, easy credit, runaway house inflation and overexpansion of financial services over which he presided and for which he is accountable. So far he has refused to admit or accept responsibility for his actions – he initially had the temerity (or foolhardiness) to argue that the UK was better placed than other countries to deal with the credit crunch, even though it has become abundantly clear since that the very opposite was the case. So while Brown remains in denial, the plausibility of his new turn, and his understanding of what is entailed, must be seriously doubted.

Indeed, after its initial boldness, the government now seems trapped by its past actions and its former ways of thinking. Brown's failure to accept the need to nationalise the banks suggests the limits of his new-found political courage, and his inability to embrace the logic and imperatives of the new situation. He is still a prisoner of his old timidity and his conversion to the neoliberal cause. It is his good fortune that the Cameron Conservatives have been hugely wanting in their response to the financial meltdown. Having spent his first years as leader of the opposition seeking to reassure the country of his centrist credentials, David Cameron, at the first whiff of gunfire, has turned on his heels, rejected Keynesianism and, at the very moment when events have shown Thatcherism to be deeply flawed and historically out of time, headed back to the Thatcherite womb of sound finance, arguing that a government must balance its books and that deficit financing, Keynesian-style, is reckless and irresponsible.

But all this, it must be said, is the small change of politics. The crisis threatens in time to sweep away the political world as we know it and those who fail to grasp its magnitude and meaning. Far more is at stake than the fortunes of a few leaders, be their name Brown or Cameron. Who knows where things will be this time next month, let alone next year or, indeed, in 2012? The financial meltdown now rapidly plunging the western world into what increasingly looks like a depression is the first great crisis of globalisation. There was plenty of warning. The Asian financial crisis of 1997-98 proved a salutary lesson about the dangers posed by huge capital movements that were subject to precious little regulatory control. Three economies capsized (South Korea, Thailand and Indonesia) and others stood on the brink.

There were other earlier warning signs, notably Mexico in 1995, when GDP fell by 9 per cent and industrial production by 15 per cent, following a run on the peso. These crises were blamed on the immaturity and fecklessness of national governments - in the case of east Asia on so-called crony capitalism (which, incidentally, prompts the question of how we should describe Anglo-American capitalism) - which the International Monetary Fund obliged to engage in swingeing cuts in public expenditure as a condition of their bailouts.

Yet what if such a crisis were to be no longer confined to the peripheries of global capitalism but instead struck at its heartlands? Now we know the answer. The crisis has enveloped the whole world like an uncontrollable virus, spreading from the US and within a handful of months assuming global proportions, at the same time mutating with frightening speed from a financial crisis into a fully fledged economic crisis. In so doing, it has undermined the foundations on which the present era of globalisation has been built, namely scant regulation, the free movement of capital, a bloated financial sector and immense reward for greed, thereby bringing into question the survival of globalisation as we now know it.

Enormous international flows of unregulated capital have capsized the international financial system - with disastrous consequences for the real economy - in a manner akin to the effect of a roll-on, roll-off ferry shipping too much water. We can now see the cost of free-market capitalism and light-touch regulation. Iceland may provide an extreme example of the consequences of the credit crunch but it also illustrates the dangers facing the more vulnerable economies, the UK included, in a deregulated world where the market rules: a small, open economy; a large, internationally exposed banking sector; an independent currency that is not a serious global reserve currency (of which there are only three); and limited fiscal strength. These propositions have constituted the core economic beliefs - from Thatcher and Lawson to Blair and Brown - that have informed policymaking over the past three decades and without which, it was claimed ad nauseam, an economy could not succeed. Heavy-handed regulation and an overbearing state would serve only to frighten off capital and condemn a country to slow growth, stagnation and global marginality. Now we know the fallaciousness of these claims and the consequences of "letting the market decide".

Like Iceland, albeit not as extremely, Britain has been living in a fool's paradise. A failure to regulate the banks and other financial institutions in any meaningful fashion allowed bankers to behave in a grossly irresponsible and avaricious fashion; a boom that was made possible only by a government-enabled credit binge in which people borrowed recklessly; a bloated financial sector that grew to represent over 8 per cent of the total economy and which was found to have been built on foundations of sand; an overvalued currency that made manufacturing exports uncompetitive and thereby resulted in an unnecessary and counterproductive contraction in the manufacturing sector which must now be reversed; an absurd belief that boom and bust had been banished for ever, allowing the banks to turn a blind eye to the inflating of various asset bubbles and display a profound ignorance of the history of capitalism; a persistently chronic current account deficit that can no longer be compensated for by inward capital flows; monstrous salaries for those at the top of the financial and corporate tree, which were justified in terms of a trickle-down effect that remained a chimera, and as the reward for risk which was, in fact, a reward for greed and failure; growing inequality, which was justified in the name of a more competitive economy accompanied by declining social mobility in the cause of an open and flexible labour market; and, finally, the mushrooming of what can only be described as systemic corruption on a mega-scale as the state ignored the gargantuan abuses of those who ran the banks and other financial institutions, while regulatory authorities willingly colluded in their excesses.

This is the sad story of the New Labour era.

The ultimate cost of this debacle as yet remains unknown. What began as a financial crisis is threatening, as the government seeks to bail out a bankrupt financial sector, to become a currency crisis, with foreign investors concerned about the effects this might have on the value of sterling, and perhaps even worse, ultimately a sovereign debt crisis, with growing doubts about the UK’s financial viability. Until there is some end in sight to the financial crisis, and a line can be drawn under the banks’ indebtedness, we will not know the answer to these questions. One thing is clear, however: whatever the limitations of the social democratic era, it was never responsible for such an all-enveloping and cataclysmic crisis as the one that the neoliberal era – and the Thatcherites and New Labour – have managed to produce. After all the boasting about the virtues of the Anglo-American model of capitalism, the Grim Reaper has finally spoken: a boom pumped up by credit steroids and a bust that takes us back to the 1930s.

There are two key aspects to this crisis: national and global, with the latter promising to be rather solutions are concerned, we are in uncharted territory, with close to zero interest rates, a Keynesian-style fiscal boost that may prove inadequate to the task and could well fail, a hugely indebted financial sector that threatens to leave us with an enormous future tax burden and a greatly expanded national debt. All of this, furthermore, must be addressed in the context of an open-market regime which is very different from those of previous eras, and which could render Keynesian-style national solutions ineffectual. What would greatly assist any national recovery is a co-ordinated global response to the crisis; in other words, global co-operation at the highest level. This cannot be ruled out, but it would be a brave person that would bet on it. It was exactly the lack of international co-operation that bedevilled recovery in the 1930s and eventually led to the Balkanisation of the world into regional currency and trading blocs.

The most important single question in this context is the relationship between the US and China. Will the Obama administration be able to resist the slippery slope of creeping protectionism? Will arguments over the revaluation of the Chinese renminbi be resolved amicably? If the answer is in the negative, then the global outlook will be very bleak indeed and so, also, as a result, will be the prognosis for national recoveries. Indeed, the prospects would look disturbingly like those of the 1930s, with growing international antagonism and friction and a continuingly intractable crisis at a national level, with only the very slowest of recoveries.

Around the world there is growing evidence by the week of a resort to national solutions at the expense of others: measures to subsidise industries that are in severe difficulties; the Buy American clause that was inserted by the House of Representatives into Barack Obama's latest package (though since weakened); the industrial action in Britain against foreign workers; the withdrawal of banks to their national homes; the attack by Timothy Geithner, the US treasury secretary, on China as a currency manipulator. No Rubicon has been crossed but the warning signs are clear. A retreat into protectionism and beggar-thy-neighbour policies will deliver the world into a second Great Depression.

So what will be the political effects of the financial meltdown? Some are already evident. Just as the Great Inflation of the 1970s played to the tunes and concerns of the right, with its invocation of the market, the New Depression suggests the opposite, the inherent limitations of the market and the indispensability of the state. Indeed, the speed with which the neoliberal refrains and invocations have unravelled has been breathtaking. The single most discredited aspect of the social democratic legacy was nationalisation, and yet the government, with the most extreme reluctance, has been obliged to nationalise Northern Rock and partially nationalise the Royal Bank of Scotland and the merged Lloyds TSB and HBOS. Who would have ever imagined, at any point during the past 30 years, that no less than the financial commanding heights of neoliberalism would have ended up in the hands of the state, with precious little opposition from anyone except a few disgruntled shareholders? Even now, however, the Labour government, still trapped in the ideological straitjacket of New Labour and displaying extreme timidity in the face of powerful vested interests, which has always been a New Labour characteristic, is running scared of the inevitable logic of the situation, namely that all the high-street banks should be taken into public hands until the mess is sorted out. Anything else leaves the public responsible for all the debts and risks, while the banks continue to be answerable to the very different interests of their shareholders. But such is the fury and depth of the crisis that this scenario is highly likely.

The state is experiencing an extraordinary revival. The credit crunch is the most catastrophic example of market failure since 1945. It became almost immediately obvious to wide sections of society that there was only one institution that could potentially sort out the mess: the state. Far from being a rational distributor of resources, the market had proved the opposite. Far from bankers and financial traders embodying the public interest, they have been exposed as irresponsible and dangerous risk-takers whose primary motivation was voracious greed. If trade unionists and the nationalised industries were the demons of the 1970s, bankers and the financial sector have assumed the mantle of public enemy number one in the late Noughties. In fact, the irresponsibility of bankers, and the damage they have inflicted on the economy, hugely exceeds anything that the unions could possibly be held responsible for in an earlier era. Meanwhile, the fallen heroes of the pre-Thatcher era, most notably Keynes, are duly being exhumed, restored to their rightful position, and pored over for their ability to throw light on the present impasse and what might be done; if the recession turns into a depression, Marx will once again become required reading.

This political shift is not just a British phenomenon, but a more general western one. The most striking feature of President Obama's inaugural speech was the way in which it embraced and legitimised African Americans for the first time in American history. But it also had another powerful theme, namely its invocation of the public interest and public service. After decades during which American political discourse has been dominated by the language of individualism and the market, it came as a shock to hear a US president articulate a very different kind of philosophy, renouncing private greed in favour of the public good. Obama's election can in part be seen as a response to the failure of the neoliberal era, as well as of Bush's neoconservative agenda; certainly his election represents a remarkable shift to the left in US politics, in contrast not just to Bush, but every recent US president, including Reagan, Bush Sr and Clinton. That Obama is the first African-American president also represents a remarkable redrawing of the political landscape. There is no more powerful - nor difficult - way of redefining society or to embrace a new form of representivity than to include a racial minority that has been excluded.

This brings us finally to what might be the longer-term global consequences of the crisis. Again, we are inevitably stumbling around in the dark because so much depends on whether the recession metamorphoses into a fully fledged depression and in what way and shape the world eventually emerges from the debacle. That said, two key points can be made. First, the credit crunch signals the demise of the Anglo-American, neoliberal model of capitalism, which has exercised a hegemonic influence over western capitalism and been the blueprint for globalisation since 1980. Because of its catastrophic failure there seems very little chance of its resurrection. The process of recovery - whenever that might be - will be accompanied by an overriding concern to ensure that the events of 2007-2009 are not repeated in the future, just as happened in the US in the 1930s with the strict regulatory framework that was introduced for the banks after their comprehensive failure in 1929. This will include the search for a new global regulatory framework that controls and constrains international movements of capital, as well as strict controls over the financial sector at a national level. A new set of political priorities - and with it a new political language - will be born.

Meanwhile, the influence and prestige that the US, and to a far lesser extent Britain, have enjoyed will vaporise in the same manner as their neoliberal model. Their 30-year project has failed and they will be obliged to pay the price in their reputation and the esteem in which they are held. The countries of the former Soviet Union and the casualties of the Asian financial crisis that were forced to swallow the neoliberal medicine will have good reason to feel aggrieved and resentful. The west has been forthright in accusing the non-western world of corruption. The financial meltdown suggests that the west has been guilty of huge hypocrisy. Systemic corruption has lain at the heart of the western financial system. An entirely disproportionate and extortionate level of bonuses has ensured the enormous enrichment of top executives in the financial sector, all in the name of reward for success, when in fact it was the reward for failure. In addition, we have had the collusion of the credit-ratings agencies; a regulatory system characterised by its failure to act as any kind of constraint; and governments that ensured the continuation of this web of relationships and applauded its achievements. The corruption was on a breathtaking scale as evidenced by the size of the bailouts required to rescue the banks. It will be difficult for western governments to make these kinds of accusations of others in the future. That Obama represents such a voice of hope will help to mitigate the inevitable ill-will towards the US, but this should not be exaggerated amid the euphoria surrounding developments in Washington.

The second point is more far-reaching. It is doubtful whether we can still describe ourselves as living in the American era or, indeed, the Age of the West. If not yet quite over, both are certainly drawing to a close, and it seems likely that the effect of the financial meltdown will be to accelerate the rise of China as a global power. The contrast between the situation in China and that in the US could hardly be greater, even though it has been partially obscured by the depressive effect of the western recession on Chinese exports and on China’s growth rate. While the US economy is contracting, China’s grew at roughly 9 per cent in 2008 and is projected to grow at about 6 per cent in 2009. Its banks, far from bankrupt like their US counterparts, are cash-rich. China enjoys a large current account surplus, the government’s finances are in good order and the national debt is small. This is a crisis that emanates from the US and whose impact on China has been essentially indirect, through the contraction of western markets. It is the American model that has failed, not the Chinese.

One of the factors that intensified the Great Depression, and indeed was part cause of it, was Britain's growing inability to continue in its role as the world's leading financial power, which culminated in the collapse of the gold standard in 1931. It was not until after the war, however, that the US became sufficiently dominant to replace Britain and act as the mainstay of a new financial system at the heart of which was the dollar. The same kind of problem is evident now: the US is no longer strong enough to act as the world's financial centre, but its obvious successor, namely China, is not yet ready to assume that mantle. This will undoubtedly make the search for a global solution to the present crisis more difficult and more protracted.

Martin Jacques's new column will be published fortnightly in the New Statesman. His book "When China Rules the World: the Rise of the Middle Kingdom and the End of the Western World" will be published in June (Allen Lane, £25)

the global downturn in numbers

    0.5%

    IMF prediction for global growth in 2009 - worst since WWII

    Up to 40 million

    Number of people who will lose their jobs this year, according to the International Labour Organisation

    $9.7trn

    Total pledged by the US alone towards solving the crisis

    3.6%

    Proportion of GDP pledged by the G7 and BRICs countries towards fixing the crisis (1.5% this year)

    2.3m

    Number of US properties that received a default notice or were repossessed in 2008. In the UK, 45,000 homes were repossessed - another 75,000 are expected to be taken in 2009

    14

    Number of major global banks which collapsed, were sold or were nationalised during 2008

    200,000

    Number of European companies expected to fail this year; an additional 62,000 are expected to fail in the United States. These figures represent record levels of insolvency

    52%

    Increase in UK company failures between late 2007 and late 2008

    14%

    Drop in level of Chinese exports during January

    1%

    Current UK interest rates (down from 5% in October 2008). In the US, rates have fallen to between 0 and 0.25%

How the crisis unfolded

13 September 2007 Run on Northern Rock begins when it is revealed that the bank has requested emergency support from the Bank of England

21 January 2008 FTSE suffers worst falls since 11 September 2001

February 2008 Northern Rock nationalised

17 March 2008 JP Morgan Chase takes over the US investment bank Bear Stearns

12 July Mortgage lender IndyMac collapses - second biggest US bank in history to fail

9 August 2007 European Central Bank pumps ?95bn into banking market

7 September Financial authorities step in to rescue Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac

9 September Bradford & Bingley becomes second British bank to be nationalised

15 September Lehman Brothers files for bankruptcy

16 September AIG, biggest insurance firm in the US, receives $85bn rescue package

3 October 2008 US government announces $700bn Troubled Assets Relief Programme

8 October UK launches its first bank bailout plan, making £50bn available

October 2008 Iceland's banks collapse. IMF extends £1.4bn ($2.1bn) loan a month later

24 November Alistair Darling announces a temporary cut in VAT from 17.5 to 15 per cent

23 January 2009 UK enters recession

28 January US Congress passes Barack Obama's $819bn stimulus package

5 February UK Monetary Policy Committee votes to cut interest rates to 1 per cent - the lowest in over three centuries

Michael Harvey

Martin Jacques is a journalist and academic. He is currently a visiting fellow at the London School of Economics Asia Research Centre and at the National University of Singapore. Jacques previously edited Marxism Today and co-founded the think-tank Demos in 1993. He writes the World Citizen column for the New Statesman. His new book on the rise of China, When China Rules the World, will be published in June.

This article first appeared in the 16 February 2009 issue of the New Statesman, The New Depression

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Owen Jones talks to Calais migrants: “They forget we are human”

The camps in Calais are a small part of one of the great stories of our time - mass migration. What do people in the Jungle think awaits them in Britain?

It is like entering a parallel universe, and a deeply discomforting one at that. In central Calais, the banal comforts of the average western town: cafés brimming with gossiping customers, families on days out, well-groomed French youngsters flirting with each other in the afternoon sun. A taxi picks me up from outside the Calais-Ville train station and takes me to the “Jungle”, the refugee camp a few kilometres out from the centre. Through my deteriorating French, I learn that the talkative driver blames both the refugees and the British authorities for the crisis.

As we approach the site, he points at the advancing row of towering white fencing with barbed wire that lines the road, intended to prevent refugees from throwing themselves on to passing lorries. Orange-clad construction workers and a couple of trucks are there to finish the job.

As soon as I leave the taxi, I am hit by the smell: a combination, bluntly, of human beings who haven’t washed for days or weeks, excrement and rubbish. Roughly 3,000 people are crammed into a camp of ramshackle tents. There are 30 or so portable loos – not for the faint-hearted – to cater for all of them. There are a few primitive showers; facilities for washing clothes are limited. Andy Young, a British doctor volunteering with Médecins du Monde, tells me that, in these circumstances, a cholera outbreak is easily possible, and refugee populations are susceptible to measles. About a fifth of those the doctors examine have scabies, an extremely itchy condition in which mites burrow into the skin. Fungal infections from not having washed are common. Relatively young men are falling sick with illnesses they would not normally contract if they had nutritious food. Diabetes, asthma, heart disease, epilepsy, HIV: these are all conditions the doctors must tend to and which, in many cases, have gone untreated for too long. The doctors and nurses who volunteer here have few resources, and one of their main jobs is to take the refugees to French hospitals to argue their case.

But one of the most prevalent health problems is instantly recognisable. Many of the refugees have bandages on their hands; others have arms in casts. Some of these injuries have mundane causes all too familiar to many young Brits: playing football or falling off a bike. Indeed, as soon as I arrive, young Sudanese and Afghan men trundle past along dirt paths on cheap bikes. With little lighting at night, cycling injuries are an obvious hazard. Yet that is not the explanation for most of the injuries. The most common cause is refugees – every single day – trying to clamber on to trucks, or trains, or ferries, to end a journey that has taken them across many borders and more than one war zone and get to British shores.

For most of its inhabitants, the Jungle is a transit camp, not a permanent settlement, but there are the rudimentary trappings of a community. A few shops have been set up in tents, mostly selling warm cans of fizzy drinks. A caravan near the entrance serves as a community noticeboard: it advertises the make-do hospital 250 metres away and its opening hours; bikes for €20-€30 (£14-£21); a bike workshop; advice for dealing with police and the asylum system.

There are political posters, too. “The grass is greener where there are no sides,” says one, featuring a dark-hooded silhouette climbing over a fence. Another says: “NO BORDER – RESIST! REBEL! REVOLT!” A large blue-and-white-striped tent functions as a community centre; it is filled with people in sleeping bags. “I’m human like you” is graffitied on the side, along with words such as “Help!” and various messages in Arabic. Young men sit outside, charging mobile phones with a few precious plug extensions as music blares from a loudspeaker. Every evening, hot meals are distributed, but not quite enough for the number of residents.

The various nationalities group together: the Afghan flag flies over one tent. As a white westerner, I swiftly attract attention. Not everyone is happy to see a British journalist. At one improvised shop, I explain where I’m from and why I’m there. The mood sours instantly. “You in England, you don’t like us,” spits out an Afghan in his early thirties with considerable venom. “You English, I don’t like you either.” With a dismissive swipe of his hand, he tells me to go away.

But nearby, there is a warmer reception: some laughing young Afghan men beckon me over, perching beneath a makeshift shelter and playing with cheap pay-as-you-go mobiles. Habib* tells me that he’s 24 years old, although his friends snigger as though that’s preposterous. “I first left Afghanistan in 2006 and went to the UK, but they refused my asylum and deported me back,” he says. He is not the only Afghan who tells me this: having settled in Britain and being sent to Afghanistan, he feels as though going to Britain is returning home. “Our life is dangerous; we are not safe in Afghanistan, that’s why we leave Afghanistan. We come here to make the good life.”

Habib comes from Jalalabad, where his mother still lives; but his brother and uncle were killed by the Taliban, he says. He travelled all the way from his war-torn home to Calais by lorry, on foot and by taxi. “In England, they give you a home, they give you a doctor, they give you the food money,” he says. When I tell him that a single asylum-seeker such as himself gets only £36.95 a week, he is taken aback but not deterred. “They’re not supporting the refugees here. We need a home, we need school, we need the good life. We are not animals.”

With so many stressed people from different cultures crammed together, he says, fights break out at night. “Of course it’s dangerous here. The Jungle is not safe.”

Every day Habib tries to escape to England: by lorry, by train. Will he ever make it? “Yes.” He has friends back in his adopted country, one of the main reasons he wishes to return. His friends evidently have journalist fatigue; most of Britain’s media have sent reporters to interrogate the refugees. Couldn’t I do something more useful to help them, like bring supplies?

Although I don’t say it, journalists have not descended on Calais because the British media have a new-found interest in the plight of refugees. The crisis near the entrance to the Channel Tunnel has disrupted the holidays of Britons seeking warmer climes, ensuring that the story dominates the summer news cycle. There has been sympathy, too, for hauliers who face on-the-spot fines of up to £2,000 for every person found in their vehicles. “The broader issue of migrants is a complete nightmare for our members,” the chief executive of the Road Haulage Association, Richard Burnett, has declared. “We again call on the French government to take whatever measures are necessary to ensure that migrants are separated from lorries in the Calais area; and we call on the UK government to support that more strongly in its dealings with the French government.”

Migrants squeeze through a fence near the Eurotunnel terminal in Coquelles. Photo: Rob Stothard/Getty

 

In an effort to prevent refugees from entering Britain, the French have installed a mile-long fence with barbed wire around the tunnel entrance in Calais. The government says it is necessary to prevent deaths, as at least nine people have been killed trying to board lorries or high-speed trains since the beginning of June. On a single day at the end of July, more than 2,000 attempts were made to enter the restricted areas.

The refugees have been dehumanised by media outlets and politicians alike: the Foreign Secretary, Philip Hammond, infamously described them as “marauding”; David Cameron referred to a “swarm of people”; the Ukip leader, Nigel Farage, suggested sending in the army.

But they are not “marauding”, like barbarians or bandits. Neither are they saints. They are just people caught up in very difficult situations who, more than anything, crave a security they have largely been denied. Forty-year-old Malik is one of those in the camp who has previously been deported from England. For 14 years, he lived in west London, between Shepherd’s Bush and White City, near the BBC’s old headquarters, working at a grocery store. When he was deported he was “devastated”. As far as he is concerned, he is simply travelling back to his old home. Some of those who have made the journey on their own all the way from Afghanistan are very young. Parwaiz is a slightly chubby 15-year-old with piercing blue eyes; he says his father was killed in a bomb attack four years ago.

Every one of the men I speak to tells me he has fled either war or dictatorship. Two men walk through the camp, squinting in the afternoon sun. One is Abdul, from Sudan, who is 26; he tells me his whole village was destroyed by the Janjaweed, an Arab-supremacist militia. “They were all burned with fire,” he says of his fellow villagers, without flinching. His father is dead; his brothers and mother remained in Darfur and he constantly fears for their safety. His reason for wanting to come to England is straightforward: English is one of the official languages in Sudan, which he believes will allow him to establish a life in Britain in a way that would be more difficult in France or Germany. A portly, bespectacled 16-year-old, Abdel, dressed in a blue gingham shirt and black shorts, tells me that many of his relatives were shot dead by the Janjaweed. “It’s dangerous, very dangerous, it’s not safe,” he says. He has family in England and that is the main reason he wants to come.

The Darfuri refugees I met were some of the keenest to reach England. When some of them learn that I’m English, they break into cheers, chanting, “We love England! We love England” and treating me like some sort of rock star. Some of them have bloodstained bandages on their hands. A short, 21-year-old Darfuri with dreadlocks speaks to me in fluent English, explaining that he is a member of an African tribe and faces problems from both the Janjaweed and the Sudanese government. He was arrested along with his friends, given no water and subjected to electric shocks.

“I just want a future, to educate myself, that’s my ambition,” he tells me. But why England? “The UK used to colonise Sudan,” he says, “and we speak English. Look at this camp. Would you live here? They forget we’re humans. Where is the humanity? Where are the human rights?”

When he asks me if people from England want people like him, I shuffle uncomfortably, trying to describe the hostility to new arrivals that exists back home. “Is that from the government or the people?” he asks. I try to explain sensitively that it comes from both, which leaves him visibly dejected.

Three Eritrean men in their early twenties wave me over to their tent. One sits on a chair in front of a mirror as his attentive friend trims his beard for him. Hayat is a handsome young man with some sort of bulge on his chin, though I’m too embarrassed to ask the cause. Eritrea – a tiny country in the Horn of Africa that won independence from Ethiopia in 1991 – is ruled by one of the most repressive dictatorships on earth. When Hayat’s friends were arrested, he fled immediately. They were crammed 20 to a car, he tells me, cheerful and smiley throughout, and they travelled from Ethiopia, to Sudan, to Libya – “It’s dangerous there, there’s Isis there” – before crossing the Mediterranean.

Why England? “I can speak the language,” he says. “If I went somewhere else, I’d have to spend years learning the language.” Like many of the refugees I meet, he is educated: he was studying life sciences in Eritrea. He has been in the camp for a week and has already tried five times to jump over the fence; he shows me his bandaged hand as proof. He tells me in detail about how he tries to get over fences, “crawling like a tiger” to avoid the attention of guards. He will not give up until he makes it to England.

***

Not all refugees stay in the Jungle. Approximately 100 Syrian refugees are camping near the centre of Calais, outside a transport depot. Their tents – mostly blue, some red – line a ramp. Four men, three in their thirties and one aged 42, sit on chairs, smoking cigarettes. They look older than their years. They hail from Daraa, a city in south-west Syria with a pre-war population of fewer than 100,000. It was there that the civil war began after troops loyal to the Assad dictatorship fired on pro-reform demonstrations.

“There is no food, no medicine, no anything in Syria,” says 33-year-old Ziad, who has been appointed spokesman by the others because of his superior English. He sits, fidgeting with a packet of cigarettes with his bandaged hand until his friend loses patience and confiscates it. “We all have friends, brothers and relationships killed by the regime,” he says. Ziad and his friends fled Syria about four months ago, arriving in Calais in June after crossing from Turkey to Greece and onward.

“We live in miserable conditions here, no toilets, no douche, no anything.” Méde­cins du Monde helps with medical needs, but otherwise the residents rely on private donations. When I arrive, they are about to start begging for money so they can change the bottle of gas for cooking. Ziad was a lawyer in Syria; so are the other two, while the 42-year-old is a nurse. “Is everyone a lawyer in Syria?” I ask, and they laugh.

Their relationship with the French authorities is strained. “They treat us very difficult, the police, the military force here,” Ziad says. “Sometimes they hit us and spray the gas – you understand me?” He tries every day to escape to England, by ferry or train. It’s “very dangerous”, he concedes, as he talks of climbing iron walls and jumping, of security and dogs. “I jumped and hurt my hand here,” he says, raising his bandaged, bloodied hand. Why England? “We have relationships in England – whether family or community,” he explains. “But the language is a broader reason, so we have many chances of jobs there.”

Another Syrian, a 26-year-old called Firas, leans out of his tent; he is speaking with his 20-year-old cousin, who seems much more well groomed than the others. He has big, dark eyes and would not look amiss in a boy band. They offer me hot milk sweetened with a sugar cube; at first, I turn down their offer, but they insist. They are from Daraa, too, but Firas was studying English literature at al-Baath University in Homs, another heartland of Syria’s initial uprising. The war ended his studies.

“The army came to Daraa and they took a lot of people to prison because they asked for freedom,” he explains. “Not to change president, just freedom. So they use force against us, they kill us, they send tanks, air force – everything they use to kill us.” Three members of his family have perished, by bomb or by gun. When the regime tried to conscript him into the army, he fled. “I left Syria. I want to go to England and continue my studies there.” He dreams of Oxford’s spires.

In England, he explains, he has relatives in London, Leeds, Oxford, Sheffield and Edinburgh. “Some people have jobs, some study.” He tries every day to make it to England. Like so many others, he had an injured hand. “I’m scared about the future,” he says readily, “but I ask for future in UK. But, as you know, we can’t go there, because the government of UK doesn’t want us to go there.” He alludes to possible tensions among the refugees in Calais, suggesting that people from Sudan and Iran are falsely masquerading as Syrians to gain entry. He tries every day to make it to England. “Inshallah, inshallah, I will go to England some time,” he says dreamily. “Inshallah.”

***

If refugees are indeed masquerading as Syrians to gain asylum in Britain, then they face a rude awakening. Fewer than 200 Syrians have been granted asylum in the UK, and the country has pledged to take just 500 in total. Germany, on the other hand, has promised to take in 30,000.

For those currently unsympathetic about the Calais refugee crisis, the arguments are straightforward. If these people are so desperate, why not claim asylum in the nearest possible country to their home? Why travel so far? Why the stampede to leave France in favour of Britain? Does this not prove that Britain is a soft touch, a magnet attracting all and sundry from far-flung corners of the world?

Céline Schmitt is a spokeswoman for UNHCR, the UN’s refugee agency, and she sits in the Jungle being briefed in French by her organisation’s workers. I sit next to her on a bench as she is kept up to speed by a young Frenchman about the medical situation. The subordinate is finally given the all-clear to enjoy his evening.

“We’ve been here for many years, before Sangatte [a previous refugee camp]; we’ve always been here,” she tells me, explaining how they work closely with the French authorities, NGOs and other “local actors”. She pauses after every question, choosing her language diplomatically. The role of UNHCR, she explains, is “to make sure people in need of protection have access to the asylum system and that they are protected, that they have access to their rights”. Many of them, she emphasises, are fleeing conflict and violence.

She believes the constant use of the word “migrant”, when in fact these are mostly refugees, is misleading. “The French authorities have already increased their ­capacity to reduce the delay in asylum procedures, but it’s still too long: it takes a few months.”

But why are they so intent on seeking ­asylum in Britain, I ask? “I think we need to put the figures back into perspective,” she says carefully, as though navigating a minefield. “More than 200,000 have arrived this year in Europe, crossing the Mediterranean, and the majority are refugees. But you have four million Syrian refugees alone – and I’m only talking about Syrian refugees, including one million in Lebanon alone. So, in comparison, the numbers coming to ­Europe are small, low.”

The figures speak for themselves: 31,745 applied for asylum in Britain last year; twice as many opted for France; more than six times as many applied in Germany; and in Sweden, with a population nearly seven times lower than Britain, the number was 81,180. The UK accepted 10,050 non-EU asylum applications, but France took over 4,000 more; in Germany, it was more than four times as many; Italy, ravaged by economic crisis, accepted more than twice as many. And yet, as Schmitt points out, the vast majority of refugees move from one poor country to another. UNHCR figures show that 86 per cent of refugees live in poor countries, compared with 70 per cent a ­decade earlier; 95 per cent of Syrian refugees are in neighbouring countries, mainly Lebanon and Turkey.

So who are the 3,000 in Calais, who make up roughly 0.015 per cent of the global refugee population? Philippe Wannesson, an activist based in Calais, is a burly, tall man with long, straggly hair. “The conditions in the Jungle are like the third world,” he says over an espresso in the town centre. “But these are middle-class people; they are not living like that in their own country. They discovered it in Europe.” These are people, he points out, who had enough money to leave their own country.

A Sudanese man gets a haircut at a camp near Calais early in August. Photo: Emilio Morenatti/AP Photo

Is someone a refugee or a migrant? Calais underlines how blurred is the distinction between the two. All the people to whom I spoke were fleeing countries deeply traumatised by war and dictatorship. Their lives were in considerable danger. They had lost relatives and other loved ones, often in nightmarish circumstances. They had witnessed scenes of violence and death that most westerners will never experience. But they may have lived already in Britain. They may well speak English and believe that it gives them a chance of a decent life over here which would be denied to them in the eternal banishment of, say, a Lebanese refugee camp. They may have family in Britain. Most of them are educated. Libyans usually opt for Italy, because it is the former colonial power; people from the Democratic Republic of Congo usually go for France, because French is the official language. Those who portray Britain as the destination of choice for refugees and migrants have demagoguery, but not facts on their side.

There are nearly 60 million forcibly displaced people across the world; in total, there are nearly 20 million refugees. Most of them will remain near their often ruined homes; a tiny number will continue to seek security in Britain, driven by a combination of despair and hope. Some will suffer wounded hands, broken arms; others will die. But however tall the fences, however sharp the barbed wire, however fierce the dogs, however hostile the public opinion, they will keep coming.

*Names have been changed throughout

Owen Jones is a left-wing columnist, author and commentator. He is a contributing writer to the New Statesman and writes a weekly column for the Guardian. He has published two books, Chavs: the Demonisation of the Working Class and The Establishment and How They Get Away With It.

This article first appeared in the 13 August 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The Battle for Calais