Wednesday, October 29, 2014


Before writing this, I thought I'd better just check and see what I've said about immigration before. Given that I've been writing this blog (albeit increasingly infrequently) for nearly 9 years now and it almost invariably tops the "what are you most worried about" charts in the polls, and that it seems to dominate public discourse (while apparently being something about which people aren't allowed to talk), I assumed I must have written something about it already. Well, it turns out that I haven't - which is itself an accurate reflection of where I place immigration levels on my own personal list of priorities.
It's probably worthwhile, therefore, before I start to set out what my views are on immigration. Basically, what Sam Bowman says here. Immigration is a reflection of the desirability of the country as a place to live and work: higher levels of immigration are symptomatic of a country's success. Those same immigrants are then causative of that nation's future success. While there are valid concerns (about which more below) immigration should be seen as a vote of confidence in the country, and a source of future prosperity.
Why then is everyone so angry about it? Is it because they're just big old racists who hate brown people? Labour (particularly risibly) and the Tories are engaged in a toughness battle on who can restrict immigration the most, while the Trots-in-tweed of Ukip embrace the impossibilist absolutism of an absolute 5 year ban. Bash a migrant, win a goldfish. It's understandable, if depressing - the public is so anti-immigration that any politician wanting to get elected almost has to go with the flow.
But, as I said above, why the hostility? I think there is actually a fairly straightforward answer to this - for all the standard "land of immigration" memes that get rolled out (rather poignantly, this rather good example is by Brooks Newmark, now just a punchline to a joke about press standards), the sheer scale of immigration in the last 15 years is unprecedented in British history. People talk about the Huguenot immigration of the late 17th century as being probative of a tradition of waves of migration. Some 50,000 Huguenots came to England over a 40 year period. Roughly 500,000 immigrants arrive every year now. Even as late as the early 1990s, net migration figures were roughly between 0 - 50,000.
Then something changed.
What changed was a rapid and sudden increase in immigration, from less than 100,000 annually to more than 300,000. In part this reflected the fact that the UK was becoming an increasingly nice place to live, and a good place to get a job. In part it was the result of globalisation - both capital and labour have become much more mobile over the past 20 years. In part it was the result of deliberate policy.
I suspect that a change in migration levels of this scale will always provoke a reaction. People generally don't like change. Visibly different populations create a perfect environment for resentment and mistrust. The closer-knit a community, the harder it is for incomers to assimilate (this, by the way, would be my explanation for why London reports by far the least hostility to immigration - most people in London are immigrants, whether that's to the UK, or just to London from elsewhere). If you add a leavening of genuine concerns (say, the strains put on local services by increased populations or, more tendentiously, the propensity of some minority immigrant groups to be much less tolerant of aspects of British society than we have come to expect) you make opposition more or less inevitable.
So, for what it's worth, there's my thesis. Immigration is a good thing, both as a marker of a good society and as a thing in itself. The unprecedented scale of immigration since about 1998, however, has caused local tensions that were probably almost impossible to prevent. What can we do about it?
There's the rub. There's actually very little that any Government could do to reduce immigration without the policy being deeply damaging to the wider economy (and society). As a starting point as poor old Nick Boles said (and then unsaid), freedom of movement of labour within the EU is a cornerstone of the entire project. This is not a battle the UK can win, and the fact that it's been picked as one looks like a marker set down towards Brexit (or, more charitably, like a colossal bargaining chip to be negotiated away). Another large component of immigration is marriage. Speaking as someone who married an immigrant, I'd be reluctant for the British Government to start banning its citizens from marrying who they pleased. The third key component is economic migration: people move here not only because there are jobs here for them, but because here is a great place to create jobs. These are not people we want to discourage from being here.
What should they do instead? Obviously, educate British children so that they can effectively compete in the modern market (and hey! at least progress is being made on that front). Talk about the benefits of immigration while accepting that there are downsides, and concentrating policy not on preventing the migrants, but on alleviating the social problems that come with them (Hopi is predictably good on this). Finally, be unapologetic in asserting British cultural values. New citizens of the UK should be welcomed, properly informed of British laws and customs, and left in no doubt that where cultures clash, it is British values that take precedence.
Obviously, none of this will happen. The Tories, Labour and Ukip will spend the next 6 months promising to be beastlier to immigrants, while never actually spelling out what that means (except for Ukip, who don't care when things are impossible, only that they fit on the door of a taxi), and one of the things Britain ought to be proudest of will become another grubby piece of politicking. Can't wait.

Monday, October 27, 2014


Dearly beloved, we are gathered together here in the sight of God, and in the face of this Congregation, to join together this man and this woman in holy Matrimony; which is an honourable estate, instituted of God in the time of man's innocency, signifying unto us the mystical union that is betwixt Christ and his Church.

I went to a Book of Common Prayer service last weekend, and when I wasn't soothing fidgeting children, I felt comforted by the familiarity of the service, and moved by the delicate grandeur of the words. What there is of my faith is rooted in tradition and association: we went to church every Sunday when I was small, and whenever I go to communion now I flinch if a word is out of place, or even if the vicar lays his stresses differently. I'm out of the habit of sermons though, and while this one got slightly tangled in a digression about Paul's first letter to the Corinthians I flicked ahead to the Form of Solemnization of Matrimony.
Obviously, the main memories triggered there are those of my own wedding (although we did cheat slightly by using the 1925 version that leaves out all those brute beasts and their carnal fornications), but it struck me how apt the title is. A marriage is (or should be) solemn, as well as joyful. Getting married is a hell of a big committment if done properly. Two people are joined, with neither submitting to the other, but both becoming something greater. Something as serious as that deserves its attendant ceremonies. But the ceremonies can of course be stripped away, and the entire service reduced to its core: two people agreeing to become one partnership, making that committment before witnesses, and evidencing it by signing a contract.
Get past Archbishop Cranmer's text, therefore, and marriage is a very straightforward thing: a legal contract granting certain rights on the parties to it, that they would not otherwise have. Contract law is the cornerstone of the English legal system, and freedom of contract is at its heart (and something that divides us from Napoleonic Code countries - here everything that is not expressly forbidden is allowed, there it sometimes seems that the opposite is true). It is odd, then, to see an English judge strike at the heart of the philosophy that underpins his profession
It is not the role of the state, in my humble opinion, to go round telling people how they should form their relationships... I do not support two classes of adjudication depending on whether there happens to be a marriage,’ he said. ‘I support the extension of the existing system of judicial equitable distribution to the unmarried, warts and all.’
As it happens, I more or less agree with Mr Justice Mostyn's first sentence. It isn't for the state to tell people how they should live their lives. If people want to get married, the state should enable it; if they don't, then the state should not force them. That's why I support marriage for same sex couples. It's the second part that I have an issue with. Because a key role of the state (perhaps the key role) is to ensure that the rule of law is followed.
If an unmarried couple split up, neither party has the right to the assets of the other, any more than if flatmates move out. This might seem like a slight against unmaried cohabitation. It isn't though, or at least it isn't meant to be. It's about choices. There's a related piece in the Telegraph that might help unpack this a bit.
For five years now I’ve been living in unwedded bliss (well, on good days) with my partner, and currently we have no plans to change the status quo... When cohabitees separate, there is no guarantee that capital and income will be divided equally, and this has proven to be financially disastrous for some – especially in the case of women who are long-term, unmarried partners and without any property in their name.
We sorely need new legislation to give equal status to cohabitees in the event of separation. Instead of turning marriage into a political issue and promoting the idea that marriage can save families, while cohabitees will destroy them, we should equalise them in law, thereby freeing the debate to focus on the really important issue of how to make relationships last, regardless of their status.
Let's ignore, for a minute, the difficulties of definition (at what point do you become a co-habitee, entitled to protection? When you first leave a toothbrush at hers? When you buy a house? When you have children?). The first question to ask is: if you are concerned about the extent of your entitlement to joint assets if your relationship breaks up, why don't you agree a formal contract dealing with it before the event? It wouldn't need to be public - just get it drawn up by lawyers (or do it yourself), signed and witnessed. Job done, rights protected. If it helps at all, there is a standard form version of this contract, that any local registrar can sort for you, for less than a lawyer would cost.

If a couple doesn't get married it's either because they don't want to, or because they want not to. Which is, obviously, entirely fine. Nothing to do with the state. But, because it's nothing to do with the state, there is no justification for the state to intervene at the end of the relationship to make sure everyone gets what they would have got had they been entitled to it. Mr Justice Mostyn is arguing that the state should enforce contracts that have, as a result of the deliberate choice of the parties, never been entered into. Without even considering morality or religion, that's a staggeringly bad idea.

Friday, October 10, 2014


The headline results of last night's bye elections aren't, in themselves, terrifically newsworthy. Douglas Carswell wins in Clacton, and Labour win in Heywood and Middleton. The details underneath are where things get more interesting. OK, so Clacton may not be a representative result: there was a strong personal brand for Douglas Carswell which will have distorted the result. Even so, to win 60% of the vote in a bye election is impressive.

But a big Ukip victory in Clacton was pretty much priced in ever since Carswell announced his defection. The second bye election, in the old Labour heartlands of Heywood and Middleton is a more interesting result. Let's just quickly look at what Labour's share of the vote there has been recently:

1992: 52.3%
1997: 57.7%
2001: 57.7%
2005: 49.8%
2010: 40.1%
2014: 40.9%

Labour's official line on this bye election has been that they have marginally increased their share of the vote and it was only because Tory and Lib Dem votes collapsed that Ukip got so close. Well, this is true as far as it goes. The problem is it appears to have slipped peoples' mind that 2010 was an historically bad result for the Labour party. Led by electoral kryptonite, the economy in pieces, the party in a shambles - doing basically as well as in 2010 is not an achievement to be proud of.

If Labour, as the main party of opposition less than a year before the General Election, aren't able to sweep up anti-Government votes in a bye election, what does this say for their prospects in 2015? For that matter, what does it say that they are winning 11% of the vote in Clacton - a seat where they won 40% in 2005? The picture may become a bit clearer after Rochester and Strood, but it's starting to look like Ukip are going to be the key to what happens in 2015, even if they only win a bare handful of seats.