When Tolkein was writing his Ring trilogy (1937-49) he had a clear sighted view of the British temperament of his day. The hobbits are small-minded, parochial and too much interested in their domestic comforts. Still they are able to resist totalitarian Mordor more resolutely than even a wizard might expect – their strength is grounded in a fundamental sense of decency.
Nowadays the Brits are not sure who they are. We could say our society is fractured, or that it has become multicultural, according to taste. We’re more aware of cultural differences and even respectful of them. On the other hand, values are seen as relativistic – the nation is working through what this means, but for the moment it is problematic to assert any values as self-evident (as for example the USA constitution declares its ‘truths’ to be). In this state, the kind of decency that George Orwell epitomised, as an Eton educated socialist with a foot on either side of the class divide, can no longer be taken as a universal.
It’s nice to believe that Corbyn-era Britain is rediscovering decency, though on the question of Europe and the welfare state, there’s a troubling absence of honesty still hanging in the air. It’s easy to see the effects of 38 years of Thatcherite politics on UK society. The UK is rich, which means it has a high GDP, but most of the wealth is held by a few, and when you come back after time away it is easy to see why visitors from other developed countries are shocked by our disintegrating infrastructure and public services. Many of us would like our welfare state and our mixed economy back.
Practically, and subject to the vagaries of our democracy, that would be possible, but not within the enlarged EU of 28 states, many of which have chronically poor economies that would have disqualified them from membership had diplomacy not trumped club rules. Before enlargement, UK had a big and growing Asian population that was granted access either from a sense of obligation regarding our colonial past, or to provide UK business with cheap labour, depending on your viewpoint. A more recent flow of people from the Eastern European countries bankrupted by communism has augmented the diaspora. Those compiling UK government statistics that are made public have made strenuous efforts over the past few years, both in terms of the data they collect and how it is presented, to avoid giving clear answers to certain uncomfortable questions regarding the effect of enlargement – understandable they want to avoid becoming the football of political factions or be accused of stirring hate. Even so, when you read what is published about the level of annual inward migration, that 45% of new arrivals receive UK state benefits, the level of child benefit paid from UK for Polish children who remain at home while their parents live in UK, the disproportionate requirement for health and education services from big families that were living hard lives, for example, then it seems tolerably clear that UK has an unsustainable pre-brexit situation.
EU rules say you can’t have one set of benefits for your own nationals and another for EU citizens. Those of us who would like to protect UK state benefits and even improve them should appreciate there is a vast population of people from poor UK countries who are ready to move to whichever country offers the most generous prospects – in terms of state benefits that means UK. Useless to blame these people for acting with economic rationality, equally useless to pretend this is not so.
For a remain Tory, there’s no problem, just a question of reducing UK state benefits to the lowest common denominator across Europe and the flow will even out across countries. There’s a coherent divide on the right between the attraction of cheap labour for business and nationalistic sentiment. On the left, currently, there’s a sense of breathing a sigh of relief that fair social policies can now be put on the table, while pretending to deplore ‘Little Englanders’ and the quitting the EU that make it possible. Of course, you could be a Guardian journalist and pretend that both ‘for the many’ and an open door policy for the many more of Europe and beyond are entirely compatible, on the basis that how you feel about your personal belief set is more important than facts. If you turn away from that intellectual cowardice, things are a bit harder. Personally, I don’t see why we are so attached to the neoliberal economics sacred cow of free movement of people. Maybe decency should incline us to provide meaningful help for our neighbours to improve their lives where they live, not tell them they should be free to get on their bikes and wait tables in London.
[Incidentally, about Tolkein, people say he didn’t intend his book to be an allegory, as if intention had anything to do with it. If you lived through the rise and fall of National Socialism, how could anything worth the time to write not reflect the history of the times? Writers become skilled at telling stories – why a particular story demands to be told is not really their specialism. Culture writes books as much as authors (and sadly this means that society, as well as the writer, has a responsibility for the success of, say, Dan Brown). Lots of writers working away at stories that are similar (or in the case of Pierre Menard’s Quixote, in the story by Borges, identical) but it is readers – a cross section of people – who determine which shall resonate. If the professor’s fantasy didn’t tell us something about Britain in the war years, and more generally the destinies of little people caught in great events, then someone else’s version of a similar theme would have become more popular.]