Outside, the sound of breaking glass. It will go all night, until there is nothing left in the windows, and the ground is frosted like Christmas. Three hours ago, in the 2012 UEFA European Football Championship quarter final, England lost to la bella Italia in penalties — or to put it more succinctly, it went to penalties. In Soho’s shrinking Little Italy, they’re going sick; dancing, kissing, drinking, throwing up, breaking glass. The English look on in disgust — there’d be no kissing if they were celebrating.
The game was irritating in the way that only an evenly matched lacklustre two hours of football can be. I watched it in The Pillars of Hercules, raised a glass to Clive James in his old stamping ground, and made a wish — yes, yes for him to live, Jesus — and around the 75th minute of top-flight futility, turned to my companion and said: “this game is all plaisir and no jouissance” for which I got a kicking. But the comment was accurate enough.
As far as UK politics went, it was exact. For the past week, both sides of politics have been engaged in a ceaseless battle of moralistic point-scoring, devoid of any real solutions to complex issues. The effect was to reveal the bankruptcy of British politics, but without offering any indication as to any way out of it. It began with David Cameron attacking a clown, continued with Ed Miliband playing to the so-called “blue labour” attacks on open-ended migration, and ended with a yet more savage attack on the poor, as the authors of their own misfortune.
The clown in question was Jimmy Carr, a stand-up comedian and panel-show host, a sort of mid-market smart arse with a face you just want to slap. Readers of a report on tax minimisation/evasion were surprised to find that Carr earned more than £3.3 million last year, from jokes. They were even more surprised to find that the co-host of the semi-satirical, echt-leftish 10 O’Clock Live had been minimising his tax by having all earnings paid to a shell company in Jersey (island, not shore), and then having it loaned back to him. Pinged with a question of tax evasion at the G20 meeting in Mexico, Cameron was glad to have a target who wasn’t a banker:
“I think some of these schemes — and I think particularly of the Jimmy Carr scheme — I have had time to read about, and I just think this is completely wrong … Some of these schemes we have seen are, quite frankly, morally wrong.”
It was a return to the old “big society” stuff of before the election, and it was also designed to throw some confusion into a simple right/left, bad/good picture of tax evasion. But it didn’t go as planned. Carr tried to tough it out for no more than a few hours, before realising that he would have to be on stage in a few hours, presenting himself as the common man. He then reversed, made a full apology on Twitter, didn’t plead ignorance, and quickly won some kudos back. On Friday night, he was chairing his panel show 8 out of 10 Cats — whose first segment concerns the major news stories of the week — and endured a 20-minute shellacking from the six comedians on the panel, which constitutes one of the most deeply pleasurable bursts of TV ever.
Carr got a bit of heckling, but people don’t want to hate (good) comedians for long. No more than two days through the scandal, the guns had turned on Cameron, as the question of how many Tories and others were using a variant of the scheme. Most attention focused on Take That singer Gary Barlow – organiser of the Jubilee concert, and Tory darling — and by the end of the week, the Tories were backtracking on their promise to reveal the full tax details of all cabinet members.
Labour’s obvious strategy was to let this run and run — and so obviously they cut it off, with a release of a “mea culpa” policy announcement on immigration, saying that the government had been too quick to let in eastern European workers and migrants when new countries entered the EU, and the result had been a swamping of communities with cheap foreign labour. He then outlined a couple of probably unworkable schemes — banning foreigner-only employment agencies and setting up a “flag” system when local communities become more than 25% dominated by cheap foreign employment — and tried to dispel the disastrous memory of the 2010 election, when Gordon Brown had called a northern Labour supporter “a bigot” for asking about eastern European workers.
The strategy produced howls of anguish from many of Labour’s left-liberal supporters, and some grudging and teasing from the right-wing press. It also provoked a bout of reverse moralising, whereby British people were assailed for being indolent and entitled, compared to hard-working Poles, Romanians, etc. This served as an opening for the Tories to rush forward their release of a series of welfare “reforms” to end “entitlement” culture. The core changes were to put a reverse ramp in for full-time welfare recipients with more than three children (i.e. your benefits for each new child start to go down very sharply, or even backwards), and to abolish housing-benefit for the under 25s.
Since the UK dole is delivered through a derisory living allowance, and the direct payment of your rent (to a capped limit), the point of the scheme is to deter teenagers, etc, from launching themselves into the UK’s crowded housing market too early. But running to 25 means it includes young adults who have a part-time job, or lose a full-time one, who are made redundant far from home, or who have no home to go back to?The move, as Cameron noted, is aimed more at outlining a Conservative policy for the next election, than it is a working proposal for this one, as the Lib-Dems would never accept it. But it also introduces a new element into UK culture — real US-style welfare abolition over a whole category. Clearly the Tories have good polling showing that, at the moment, the only group people like giving a kicking better than the immigrants is the welfare-poor.
The objection to all this is not that there are not real problems — it is that the only mode of politics has come to be a moral discourse where a material response is required. To listen to both sides, you’d think that inner virtue, or lack thereof, created an entire society, rather than vice versa. Both “entitlement culture” — which is real enough in some areas — and “immigrant worker flooding” — come from one simple, but rarely discussed aspect of the labour market, exchange-rate and cost of living differentials.
Polish/Bulgarian/Romanian workers who come to the UK have the best of both worlds — free mobility within the EU, and a non-euro currency. That makes it hard to get out, but once you do, the differential kicks in, and you can support a whole family in Prk or Vffft on a single UK wage (as long as you sleep 12 to a room and eat beans). Do that for a few years and you can pay off a house in your home town, get kids into higher education, save, etc. No wonder migrant workers will work hard, find every job, etc — they are, in effect, self-defining guest workers, most intending to return to their home country eventually. Their incentive is clear, because they are building a good life in the future.
Compare the fate of the British unemployed, faced with the same badly paid job. There’s no chance that they’ll be able to accumulate enough for a house or savings. In one of the most expensive countries in the world, they’ll do no more than keep their head above water, in modest low-grade comfort — TV, sandwiches and lager. You’d have to be a very upright Protestant indeed to not conclude at some stage to bugger that for a game of soldiers. What looks like “welfare dependency” is also to a significant degree, an assessment about different life-chances.
Shutting off the tap isn’t going to make many more likely to seek out work that Poles are queuing up at 5am to get. Nor will Miliband’s idea of “flagging” high migrant work areas — since any form of discrimination to even the balance would fall foul of ECHR guidelines. Neither party is willing to admit that the structural imbalance of the EU superstate is here to stay — and could only be compensated for by massive training, education schemes, public projects, etc, that are entirely out of the question. That, or withdrawal from the EU and greater control of workers in and out — a suggestion that Labour, and one part of the Tories are desperate to avoid.
Comic misdirection, the relentless non-solution of a problem — plaisir without the jouissance if ever it was — the picking of teams. And in the future, the tinkle of breaking glass sound of the welfare aristocracy at play.