The squeezed earth. Illustration: Jackson Rees
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Will Self: We like to feel cosy in our happy little tribes – but it’s a big world, after all

In my visual field alone there must have been 5,000 people suffering.

On the terrace of the Hotel Alsisar Halevi, the guests waft about in the shifting shades of the Indian night. Braziers are alight, sending streams of sparks shimmering into the local and empurpled void; I clutch my orange juice and am perfectly at ease in my conversational group of one. Then Faisal approaches: he has a fawn pullover, cords and thick sideburns of hipsterish extent. He introduces himself and says that he knows of me and my recent travails (I’ve spent the day being shot up with muscle relaxant and going for X-rays, suspecting a cracked rib after a fall sustained while kicking a ball for the dog), because a friend texted him moments ago, who shares a mutual friend with my daughter, who’s accompanying me on this visit to the Jaipur Literary Festival.

“Wow,” I say, “it’s a small world indeed when this feedback-loop of social connectivity lassoes you on a terrace thousands of miles from home.” Then I check myself: isn’t it absurd to be saying such things when all around us swirls the great whirl of Indian humanity, a multitude currently numbered in the region of 1.2 billion? I vouchsafe this to Faisal but he dissents: “No, it is a small world, if you mean people who speak English and have disposable income . . .”

He runs on – but I’m already crunching the numbers aloud, adding guestimates of the US population to those of the Anglophone Africans, Asians and so forth. Meanwhile, Faisal further shrink-wraps his small world: “. . . and an elite education . . .”

“Whoa!” I pull him up short. “That’s a hell of a qualification and, besides, what exactly do you mean by ‘an elite education’?”

We kick this one around for a bit (dangerous in my condition), before agreeing there can be at best 100 million of this ilk smeared across the mondial canvas. I suppose I can understand Faisal, hailing as he does from such a populous place, finding even this multitudinous company to be, um, claustrophobic. But recall: I was perfectly happy in my colloquy of one. When I first went to India in 1984, its population was a paltry 750 million, while the world’s overall was around 4.5 billion. Thirty very odd years later, India has increased by around seven Britains’ worth, while the world has stuffed itself with two full Indias (if you see what I mean) and called for more poppadoms.

I remember standing outside the Red Fort in Delhi and realising that within my visual field alone there must be 5,000 people who were – judging by their appearance – suffering. They were emaciated; they had sores and chancres; many hundreds of men were simply standing there, staring listlessly, with flies hovering around their eyes. Old women lay by the roadside on piles of rags and vice versa. Children played with shit. Good little liberal humanist that I was, I felt outraged that such things could be going on. After all, as I understood it, everybody – with a little help, admittedly – was capable of being both rational and altruistic, so what I was witnessing had to be the result of a cock-up in the distribution department. Happiness and good health simply weren’t being spread about enough.

That was then: I’m no longer a good little liberal humanist and, though I hope I feel as much compassion as I ever did, I’m afraid I accept that while efforts to ameliorate poverty should always be made, by the same token, some people will always remain in the shit. What bamboozles me about our attitudes to our pullulating population is the strange ulterior accord between liberal humanists and the every-sperm-is-sacred theists they otherwise so excoriate. Humanists, revering the human as they do, cannot in their innermost being object to an extra billion people here or there and underlying this is a perverse utilitarian calculus: it may be objected that with greater numbers the happiness of any given individual decreases but, since the desideratum is greatest possible happiness of the greatest possible number, a few billion more marginally less in the shit counts as a triumph of progress.

At least, this is what I want to convey to Faisal; this and the strangely vertiginous condition of contemporary humanity, always seeking to make the world we live in cosy by fashioning our own little tribal groups out of the rampaging hordes. I begin to expatiate in this manner, using the analogy of those peculiarly pleasing machines they have at airports that swaddle your suitcases in shrink-wrapping.

“You see, Faisal,” I say, “you have to think of the world as a suitcase that’s been packed too full; the obvious thing to do is leave some stuff behind but that’s not the way humanity behaves. Instead we try to wrap the thing tighter and tighter – arguably that’s the role of the social media that informed you about my doings. It’s a transparent film we stretch over our faces, pulling them into some semblance of familiarity, but this is a futile endeavour. It doesn’t matter how hard we try; we can’t transform 100 million people into a happy little family . . .” And I would continue in this vein, were it not that Faisal, muttering an apology, leaves me to myself and wanders off to join a much larger group on the other side of the terrace.

Will Self is an author and journalist. His books include Umbrella, Shark, The Book of Dave and The Butt. He writes the Madness of Crowds and Real Meals columns for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 06 February 2015 issue of the New Statesman, An empire that speaks English

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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.