Released without charge: Gerry Adams with Northern Ireland's deputy FM Martin McGuinness on 4 May. Photo: Getty
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Arresting Gerry Adams, the problem with Venezuela, and beating poverty… with maths

Peter Wilby’s First Thoughts column.

What was the point of the Northern Ireland police arresting and holding Gerry Adams for four days over a murder that happened 42 years ago? A conviction would be impossible to obtain. Using a Diplock court (sitting without a jury) would be unthinkable for such a high-profile case. Few potential witnesses would be willing to give evidence and few jurors willing to convict, either because they regard Adams as a liberation hero or because they still fear the IRA. Mainland press commentators who insist “justice” must be done forget that justice is always elusive in a divided society where paramilitary gangs are never far below the surface.

Tony Blair’s peace with the Provisional IRA was a fudge and perhaps a necessary one. Hardline republicans will stick with democratic politics as long as they think it works for them. If it ever ceases to do so, the IRA – or a “rebel” offshoot, which is what the Provisional IRA was in the first place – will reappear. “We haven’t gone away, you know,” a Belfast rally was told after Adams’s arrest. That understanding has underpinned the province’s affairs for 16 years.

There was never a formal amnesty, only a series of nods and winks. Paramilitaries on both sides could do as they pleased in sectarian working-class ghettos. But Northern Ireland’s middle classes could get on with their shopping while business could make profits without inconvenience from bombs. So that’s all right – for the time being. 

Shapps goes Caracas

Grant Shapps, the Tory party chairman, accuses Ed Miliband of favouring “Venezuelan-style rent controls”. I don’t deny there are arguments against controls. But why doesn’t Shapps – who, I suspect, knows even less than I do about housing in Caracas – make those arguments instead of namechecking Venezuela as though that settled the matter? That country is now scarcely mentioned, even in the centre-left press, without words such as “dictatorship” and “tyranny” lurking nearby. Tory papers and politicians bracket it with the likes of North Korea, Iran and Syria. Although it is far from perfect, Venezuela regularly hovers around mid-table in most indices of democracy and human rights. It is singled out because its government is among the few that is recognisably socialist.

What Shapps probably had in mind was a new law that forces some private landlords to sell to their tenants at a “fair price” determined by the government. Which reminds me of the Right to Buy policy that the Tories forced on local council landlords. 

Everybody hates Tony

Et tu, Philip? The Financial Times commentator Philip Stephens, one of Tony Blair’s more respectful biographers, wrote a startling column the other day about the former PM’s “single-minded, almost manic, quest for personal riches”. Stephens has always argued that Blair’s intentions in Iraq were honourable and still thinks he was “a better prime minister than history will probably allow”. But he now says no other political leader has been so “diligent . . . in the sullying of his own reputation”. He accuses Blair – who recently called for the west to ally with Russia and China against Islamists – of “ahistorical and simplistic analysis”.

It is a measure of Blair’s fall that even the judicious Stephens holds him in such contempt. Some Labour people still call themselves Blairites but it will soon rival Stalinist or Maoist as a label to be avoided.

A problem halved

Rejoice. Global poverty – defined as the proportion of people living on less than $1.25 a day – has nearly halved, from 19.7 per cent to 11.2 per cent. Moreover, this fall happened overnight, just the other day. How? Not, alas, because some hedge-fund manager hired helicopters to drop dollar bills across Africa and Asia but because the World Bank has recalculated. Instead of using currency exchange rates, it has switched to purchasing power parity – which tells you what $1.25 will buy in different countries. Goods are usually cheaper in poor countries so a little goes a long way and, as the Financial Times economics editor, Chris Giles, puts it, “Many of the world’s poor are not as destitute as we had imagined.” That is a convenient conclusion for the World Bank, a body that imposes “structural adjustment” on developing countries, meaning less welfare and fewer public services.

Jurassic snark

My old friend Simon Heffer, trailing his new book, Simply English, writes in the Daily Mail: “To describe someone with outdated attitudes or opinions as a dinosaur is now a cliché.” It presumably wasn’t a year ago, when Heffer, commenting on an NS interview with the Unite union leader, Len McCluskey, wrote: “The roar of the dinosaur . . . echoes again.”

Peter Wilby was editor of the Independent on Sunday from 1995 to 1996 and of the New Statesman from 1998 to 2005. He writes the weekly First Thoughts column for the NS.

This article first appeared in the 08 May 2014 issue of the New Statesman, India's worst nightmare?

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A small dose of facts could transform Britain's immigration debate

While "myth-busting" doesn't always work, there is an appetite for a better informed conversation than the one we're having now. 

For some time opinion polls have shown that the public sees immigration as one of the most important issues facing Britain. At the same time, public understanding of the economic and social impacts of immigration is poor and strongly influenced by the media: people consistently over-estimate the proportion of the population born outside the UK and know little about policy measures such as the cap on skilled non-EU migration. The public gets it wrong on other issues too - on teenage pregnancy, the Muslim population of the UK and benefit fraud to name just three. However, in the case of immigration, the strength of public opinion has led governments and political parties to reformulate policies and rules. Theresa May said she was cracking down on “health tourists” not because of any evidence they exist but because of public “feeling”. Immigration was of course a key factor in David Cameron’s decision to call a referendum on the UK’s membership with the EU and has been central to his current renegotiations.  

Do immigration facts always make us more stubborn and confused?

The question of how to both improve public understanding and raise the low quality of the immigration debate has been exercising the minds of those with a policy and research interest in the issue. Could the use of facts address misconceptions, improve the abysmally low quality of the debate and bring evidence to policy making? The respected think tank British Future rightly warns of the dangers associated with excessive reliance on statistical and economic evidence. Their own research finds that it leaves people hardened and confused. Where does that leave those of us who believe in informed debate and evidence based policy? Can a more limited use of facts help improve understandings and raise the quality of the debate?

My colleagues Jonathan Portes and Nathan Hudson-Sharp and I set out to look at whether attitudes towards immigration can be influenced by evidence, presented in a simple and straightforward way. We scripted a short video animation in a cartoon format conveying some statistics and simple messages taken from research findings on the economic and social impacts of immigration.

Targeted at a wide audience, we framed the video within a ‘cost-benefit’ narrative, showing the economic benefits through migrants’ skills and taxes and the (limited) impact on services. A pilot was shown to focus groups attended separately by the general public, school pupils studying ‘A’ level economics and employers.

Some statistics are useful

To some extent our findings confirm that the public is not very interested in big statistics, such as the number of migrants in the UK. But our respondents did find some statistics useful. These included rates of benefit claims among migrants, effects on wages, effects on jobs and the economic contribution of migrants through taxes. They also wanted more information from which to answer their own questions about immigration. These related to a number of current narratives around selective migration versus free movement, ‘welfare tourism’ and the idea that our services are under strain.

Our research suggests that statistics can play a useful role in the immigration debate when linked closely to specific issues that are of direct concern to the public. There is a role for careful and accurate explanation of the evidence, and indeed there is considerable demand for this among people who are interested in immigration but do not have strong preconceptions. At the same time, there was a clear message from the focus groups that statistics should be kept simple. Participants also wanted to be sure that the statistics they were given were from credible and unbiased sources.

The public is ready for a more sophisticated public debate on immigration

The appetite for facts and interest in having an informed debate was clear, but can views be changed through fact-based evidence? We found that when situated within a facts-based discussion, our participants questioned some common misconceptions about the impact of immigration on jobs, pay and services. Participants saw the ‘costs and benefits’ narrative of the video as meaningful, responding particularly to the message that immigrants contribute to their costs through paying taxes. They also talked of a range of other economic, social and cultural contributions. But they also felt that those impacts were not the full story. They were also concerned about the perceived impact of immigration on communities, where issues become more complex, subjective and intangible for statistics to be used in a meaningful way.

Opinion poll findings are often taken as proof that the public cannot have a sensible discussion on immigration and the debate is frequently described as ‘toxic’. But our research suggests that behind headline figures showing concern for its scale there may be both a more nuanced set of views and a real appetite for informed discussion. A small dose of statistics might just help to detoxify the debate. With immigration a deciding factor in how people cast their vote in the forthcoming referendum there can be no better time to try.