Winner of the 2014 Editorial Intelligence Independent Blogger of the Year award

Friday, 30 May 2014

Immigration: No more pandering to prejudice

Immigration is good. There, I've said it. Now I wait to be struck down by a thunder bolt.

A country that attracts immigrants is a healthy country. It boasts a growing economy, a stable society, and offers a safe environment for children to grow up in. Its people live under the rule of law, with freedom of speech and of religion. It's a country of which I'm immeasurably proud to be a citizen.

Without immigrants, Britain would be a much poorer place. It would be hungrier, dirtier and less healthy. It's immigrants who pick and pack the food that we eat, immigrants who clean our offices and streets, immigrants who keep the NHS going and care for the elderly in their homes and nursing homes. (A quarter of NHS doctors are non-British, and according to the British Medical Association, "many NHS services would struggle to provide effective care to their patients" without non-British staff.)

In many of our biggest towns and cities, it's immigrants and their British-born children who drive the buses, trains and taxis, and immigrants who serve us our early morning coffee on the way to work. If they all went on strike on the same day, the country would quickly grind to a stand-still.

Some of my best friends are immigrants. Come to that, my own parents were immigrants, refugees from Nazi Germany. During my 23 years working for the BBC, some of my most interesting, dynamic and imaginative colleagues were immigrants.

To me, these are the truths that are absurdly self-evident. Immigrants tend to be young, energetic, and ambitious. They are risk-takers, otherwise they wouldn't be here. They run our corner shops and the late-night takeaways, they start their own businesses, pay taxes, employ staff, create wealth.

Stelios Haji-Ioannou of easyJet fame is just one of countless immigrants who have been of immense benefit to British national life. Mr Marks, of M&S, was a Jewish immigrant from Belarus, Mr Selfridge was from the American state of Wisconsin, Tesco was founded by Jack Cohen, the son of an immigrant from Poland. In Silicon Valley in California, where so many of the world's most exciting technology innovations are developed, more than half the corporate chief executives are foreign-born.

So how come no one is saying any of this? How come our political leaders seem to believe that the only way to confront UKIP is by parroting its prejudices? Since when was it the job of leaders to bow to bigotry? (To their credit, former Labour Cabinet ministers John Hutton and Alan Milburn did write a broadly pro-immigration piece in The Times on Tuesday.)

"Immigrants take our jobs." Wrong. They do the jobs for which there are no, or not enough, suitable British applicants.

"They undercut British workers' wage levels." Wrong. It's employers, not employees, who set wage levels. No immigrant wants to work for poverty-level wages.

"They sponge off the welfare state." Wrong.  According to a study by the Institute for Fiscal Studies, immigrants from the eight central and eastern European countries that joined the EU in 2004 were 59 per cent less likely than natives to receive state benefits or tax credits and 57 per cent less likely to live in social housing. What's more, the OECD has estimated that on average, households headed by migrants in the UK contributed about €3,000 more than they received in benefits in 2007-2009.

"The country is over-crowded; we haven't got room for any more." Wrong. We may be a bit more crowded than other EU countries, but UK population density is still way below that of Singapore, Hong Kong, Bangladesh, South Korea, India and Japan. The UK problem isn't lack of space, it's lack of housing.

"Romanians and Bulgarians will flood in to the UK as soon as restrictions on them are lifted at the end of 2013." Wrong. There were an estimated 144,000 Romanian and Bulgarian workers in the UK at the end of last year. Three months later, the number was 4,000 lower. Yes, lower.

I am a Londoner, I live in London, and I delight in the capital's kaleidoscopic culture. Unlike Nigel Farage, I love it when I hear foreign languages being spoken on the bus or train: was that Russian or Polish? Hausa or Yoruba? Urdu or Hindi? Does it really matter that I can't understand what my fellow passengers are saying? After all, they aren't speaking to me, and it makes me proud that so many foreigners want to come here.

The world's most successful economy and most dynamic nation has at the entrance to its main historic immigration gateway a giant, torch-bearing statue, famously inscribed with the words: "Give me your tired, your poor, Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free." Its freely elected head of state is the son of an immigrant father. (In fact, our own head of state, admittedly not elected, freely or otherwise, is herself descended from immigrants.)

By the way, some immigrants are criminals. Some of them are murderers, cheats, and swindlers. Just like the rest of us. But the vast majority of them are decent, law-abiding men and women who have chosen to come to Britain because they admire it and think they can prosper here.

According to the findings of the latest British Social Attitudes survey, reported in The Guardian this week, 30 per cent of the people questioned described themselves as either very or a little prejudiced against people of a different race. That's a lot higher than I would like it to be, but it also suggests that 70 per cent don't regard themselves as prejudiced.

The lies that UKIP voters (and not only UKIP voters) apparently believe about immigrants are just that: lies. It is the job of responsible politicians -- and the media -- to counter them. But I won't hold my breath …

Friday, 23 May 2014

A one-night fling with Nigel Farage


I have been trying to imagine what it must feel like to have woken up this morning and remembered that yesterday, for the first time, you voted UKIP.

Probably, it felt like any morning after the night before. You've been eyeing up someone for quite a while, not your usual type but attractive in a dangerous sort of way, and then last night, you finally got it together. This morning, you dragged yourself out of your crumpled bed, and here you are, staring at yourself in the bathroom mirror.

What have I done? Was it just a stupid one-night fling? Or do we have a future together? To be honest, it was OK last night, but not great. Not exactly an earthquake -- I can't say the earth moved -- but more than a spasm? Hmm …

Here's the thing. The people you usually end up with have always turned out to be disappointing. They make promises they don't keep, they take you for granted, and frankly, they're losers. So what the hell, why not? You thought you'd try something different, something that would horrify your friends if they found out. Their disapproval would just add to the excitement. But they don't need to find out, do they? What goes on in the bedroom stays in the bedroom.

Just like in the ballot box.

All right. Perhaps voting in local council and European parliament elections isn't quite the same as sex. But I hope you see my point: was it a one-night spasm, or was it a political earthquake? By Sunday night/Monday morning, as the European parliament results come in from across the 28 nations of the EU, we'll be treated to the full panoply of hyperbolic imagery: cataclysms, earthquakes, shifting tectonic plates, politics as geology.

I don't buy it. As I've suggested before, my strong belief is that voters across the EU are simply in a mood to adminster a damn good kicking to the nearest available target. Bankers and their brethren seem somehow to keep themselves well out of the way, so there's no alternative: kick the politicos where it hurts them most -- in the ballot box.

The fact is, of course, that millions of voters couldn't even summon up the energy to adminster boot to backside. Why bother? Instead of going out to pull a new partner, why not just stay at home and watch the telly-box?

By this time next year, we'll have had the 2015 general election. If the current opinion polls are anything to go by, it may be a very close run thing, and that usually brings out the voters in much greater numbers than if the result looks like a foregone conclusion. Five more years of Cameron, or time to give Miliband a go? It's a much clearer choice than choosing from a list of people you've never heard of.

My prediction? After next year's general election, UKIP will end up with not a single parliamentary seat at Westminster and a share of the vote much reduced from their share this week. On local councils where they have won seats this time round, the -- how shall I put this? -- somewhat variable quality of their candidates will soon become even more embarrassingly evident.

That's the thing about small parties led by a single dominant, charismatic figure. The internal tensions quickly lead to fatal fractures, and that's as true on the right as on the left of the political spectrum. I reckon there'll be UKIP councillors quitting within six months at most.

So nothing to worry about, then? Au contraire, as I wouldn't dare to say if I were sitting anywhere near Mr Farage. The success of UKIP is a direct and inescapable consequence of the abject failure of the mainstream parties to connect with deeply disillusioned voters. It doesn't need Dave and Ed to light up a fag and be photographed from now on only with a pint of beer in their hands -- perish the thought -- it just needs them to start talking a language that vaguely resembles the language the rest of us speak.

They've got just under 12 months to get it right. Meanwhile, the rest of us will start taking a closer look at some of Mr Farage's unpleasant new bed-fellows in the European parliament. And if you did vote UKIP this week, never mind, we all make mistakes, in bed as well as at the ballot box. Put it down to experience.

By the way, on a much more serious note, if you missed my recent reports from South Sudan, now threatened by both genocide and famine, my article for The Observer is here, and my report for The World Tonight is here. You can look at some of my photos here.

Friday, 9 May 2014

What will Mr Putin do next?

Did President Putin just blink? And if he did, what did he mean by it? 

He's good at being hard to read, is Mr Putin. And I suspect he rather enjoys it. So in Western capitals this weekend, after a bigger-than-usual Victory Day parade in Moscow, the question is simply this: has Russia stepped back from the brink in Ukraine?

The Russian president said two significant things this week -- first, that he wanted pro-Russian activists in eastern Ukraine to call off their separatist referendum planned for this weekend; and second, that Ukraine's presidential elections, scheduled for later this month, could be a move "in the right direction". That's not what Moscow was saying just a few days ago.

As things stand, the pro-separatists insist that they will go ahead with the referendum, with or without Mr Putin's blessing. But at least now he can claim that he did what he could to halt it -- and hope, in so doing, to lift the threat of further sanctions being imposed.

So -- perhaps -- the most serious crisis in East-West relations since the end of the Cold War may be about to ease. We'd be wise, though, not to start celebrating just yet. What Mr Putin says, and what Mr Putin does, are not always in perfect harmony.

But let's just suppose that he is indeed trying to lower the temperature a few degrees. And let's consider what could have led to an apparent change of heart. I have never believed that he was planning a full-scale military takeover of eastern Ukraine, but it did look as if he was, at the very least, encouraging pro-Russian fighters to usurp the authority of the interim government in Kiev.

One possibility is that Moscow has come to fear the consequences of a full-scale civil war on Russia's doorstep. Mr Putin can't have relished the prospect of thousands of refugees trying to cross the borders to escape the violence, nor the threat of unrest spreading into Russia itself.

A second possibility is that the impact of the sanctions already imposed by the US and EU has been greater than he expected. The Russian economy was in pretty poor shape even before the Ukraine crisis exploded -- and according to Mario Draghi of the European Central Bank, a staggering $220 billion may have left Russia over just the past few weeks.

But there's a third possibility that I find even more intriguing. Because according to a fascinating new survey of public opinion in Ukraine, Russia is a lot less popular, even in the supposedly pro-Russian east of the country, than you may have been led to believe.

The poll was carried out last month by the highly-respected Washington-based Pew Research Centre, and in its report published yesterday it says that 70 per cent of people in eastern Ukraine want the country to remain united. Even among people who identify themselves as Russian-speakers, barely a quarter are in favour of their region seceding.

I don't suppose Mr Putin got advance notice of the poll's findings. But perhaps some brave Kremlin official did venture to suggest that the sight of Russian troops massing on Ukraine's borders -- to say nothing of those mysterious "little green men" who have been popping up wherever there's trouble (most Ukrainians seem to be convinced that they're Russian military personnel) -- is not going down too well.

According to the Pew survey, far more Ukrainians are suspicious of Russia (67 per cent) than they are of the EU (33 per cent) or the US (38 per cent). Even among Russian speakers in the east of the country, fewer than half expressed confidence in President Putin.

Foreign leaders who see themselves as liberators (hello, Mr Bush and Mr Blair?) are often surprised when their self-image isn't shared by the people they thought they were liberating. So maybe Mr Putin is having second thoughts: does he really want to take on responsibility for a slice of a neighbour's territory where most of the people don't seem too keen on him?

In Crimea, by the way, it's an entirely different picture: the Pew survey suggests that more than 90 per cent of people in Crimea think well of the Russian president and say that their pro-secession referendum in March was conducted freely and fairly.

And of course, there's always the bigger picture as well. Mr Putin has long been suspicious of what he regards as US manoeuvring along Russia's borders: according to the former Kremlin adviser Alexander Nekrassov, he believes the Ukraine crisis stems from "a US desire to redraw the economic map of Europe, to start sorting out its enormous debts that are spiralling out of control."

The Moscow view is that the US is constantly looking for new markets, including in Europe, and that the US endgame is to run Europe while freezing out Russia. Back in February, I wrote: "Putin understands the nature of power, and he knows better than any other current world leader how to use it." For now at least, I stand by that judgement.

Friday, 2 May 2014

A message for UKIP voters

Apparently, Britain's mainstream political parties aren't quite sure how to deal with Nigel Farage and his rapidly-growing band of UKIP insurgents. Perhaps I can help. 

Here, free of charge, is a suggested outline for all future speeches to be delivered by mainstream party politicians between now and next year's general election -- and it'll work equally well, whichever party they represent:

"Yes, dear voters, you are right. We have failed you. Your elected representatives have failed to protect you and your families from a catastrophic financial and economic melt-down; we have failed to ensure that your children have a reasonable chance of a secure future; and we have failed to demonstrate the sort of moral probity that you are entitled to expect when you entrust us with your vote.

"So yes, you are right to be angry. You are right to want to punish us in the only way open to you, by transferring your support to the one party that you believe represents what you most yearn for: a fresh start with new faces and new ideas, expressed in a language you can understand. (And no, I won't call you a racist -- because I've never believed that insulting voters is a good way of winning their support.)

"You are right to resent the way Tony Blair took this country to war in Iraq (with Tory support) on what we now know was a false prospectus, and then refused to accept -- still refuses to accept -- that he was responsible for the biggest foreign policy mistake in British political history since Suez in 1956. You are also right to resent the way that he and Gordon Brown allowed City bankers (again, with Tory support) to write their own regulations so that they enriched themselves beyond anything that could be regarded as reasonable and then blithely shrug their shoulders when the whole shebang came crashing down.

"I'm going to do something that politicians aren't meant to do -- I'm going to be honest with you. I entirely understand why you don't trust David Cameron, George Osborne and Nick Clegg: like you, I marvel at how these privately-educated posh boys can claim that their "austerity" policies affect everyone, when quite plainly they have no effect at all on them or their wealthy friends.

"Incidentally, on the subect of honesty, how often have you heard Nigel Farage refer to his own background, as a privately-educated former City stockbroker? Come to that, how often have you heard him admit, as he did five years ago, that he has taken an estimated £2m in expenses and allowances since being elected as a member of the European parliament?

"I perfectly understand why you intend to cast a kick-up-the-backside vote in three weeks' time. Perhaps in the past, you would have voted for the Lib Dems, but that's not exactly a protest vote option now, is it? So where does your vote go to deliver a bloody nose? The Green party? Whatever happened to the Green party?

"So vote UKIP if you must in the local and European elections on 22 May. But then, please, take a deep breath and ask yourself this: do I really want UKIP to run the country? Or do I have to accept that, unpalatable though it may be, the truth is that the next government will be run by a very similar lot to this lot. The choice, dear voter -- the real choice in the real world, not your dream choice in a dream world -- is between pale blue, pale red, or pale yellow.

"Some of you, I know, think the country would be much better off with fewer immigrants and out of the EU. I think you're wrong, but I can see why you would want to blame immigration and the EU for the state we're in. If we'd had a few more honest politicians, prepared to listen to your grievances, sit in your over-crowded doctors' surgeries, or come with you to your child's school where teachers are struggling to cope with the demands of a multi-ethnic, multi-cultural intake, then, yes, just perhaps you'd feel that you were being taken seriously."
The always interesting Financial Times columnist Janan Ganesh argued this week that the UKIP surge isn't really the fault of mainstream politicians but is the result of a "fragmentation of class loyalty, which has cut the vote share commanded by the two main parties from 97 per cent in the 1951 election to 65 per cent in 2010." What that means, he said, is that more votes are now up for grabs by rebel parties.
It's a fair point to make, but in my view, he's too forgiving of the political class. Of course, they do a job that has to be done by someone -- my point is simply that they need to do it better. Too many politicians have forgotten how to listen to voters; instead they listen only to each other, plus a few journalist friends and their parties' ever more influential campaign advisers, who have been imported at enormous expense from the US or Australia.
So stand by for much breast-beating after 22 May. And then, with a bit of luck, the mainstream parties will seriously start trying to reconnect with the people who used to vote for them. And UKIP, having harnessed the scream of voters' rage, will slide back to the political fringe where it belongs.
By the way, my report from Burma is due to be broadcast tonight, Friday, on The World Tonight, and I'll also be on From Our Own Correspondent tomorrow. If you miss the broadcasts, you can catch up on BBC iPlayer. You can also see some of my pictures from the Burmese delta here.