The Village that Voted the Earth was Flat (and why we misunderstand democracy at our peril)

The US Senate recently held three crucial votes on climate change. And, in other news, Rudyard Kipling wrote a short story in 1913 entitled ‘The Village that Voted the Earth was Flat‘.

It was my father who introduced me to The Village that Voted the Earth was Flat, which he described as one of the funniest stories he had ever read. Senses of humour vary, of course, but I have to say I rather agree with him: it is an iconic romp, beginning with the mundane matter of an unjust speeding ticket, and ending with worldwide ridicule for the offending village. Like much of Kipling, there are powerful undercurrents of revenge and matters taken too far.

The plot goes something like this: an English village is merrily making money be entrapping motorists, and hauling them before the local magistrate, who is part of the plot. In revenge, a journalist, an MP and an impresario manage to hold a special meeting of the Geoplanarians there. With the benefit of copious amounts of alcohol, they manage to persuade the villagers to vote that the Earth is flat. They then proceed to publicise this through the mass media, which, in 1913, is still relatively new.

Kipling makes a number of side-swipes at popular gullibility, the power of the press, the power of an oppressive judiciary, and the power of pomposity. However, the underlying point is all too obvious for being understated: no democracy has the power to determine what is, and is not, fact.

A lot of people have been sharing on Facebook their concerns that the US Senate voted by a narrow margin that climate change was not caused by human activity. What is less frequently shared is that the Senate voted overwhelmingly that climate change was genuine, and not a hoax. However, the Senate was just as misguided in doing this as in narrowly determining that climate change was not man-made.

It would be easy to characterise this as ‘Americans versus Science’, which is an attractive cultural stereotype for the British. In the words of Zack, the underperforming ex-boyfriend in Big Bang Theory, “That’s the great thing about science — there are no right or wrong answers”. Actually, Zack is closer to the truth than he knows. As Karl Popper would point out, science is a process of discovery, not a body of proven fact.


Democracy itself is widely misunderstood. It is Aristotle, of course, who laid down our first notions of democratic theory. He was not necessarily a fan (he also claimed that slavery was an essential part of society, a section of his Politics which is frequently glossed over). To Aristotle, the three forms of government were monarchy — government by one — aristocracy — government by the noble — and polity — government by the citizens. Each of these, where the government was for the benefit of all, had a debased form, where the rulers governed for their own benefit. These debased forms were tyranny, oligarchy, and democracy: government by what we would now call the ‘lowest common denominator’.

We should not, in any case, confuse Greek compulsory adult, manhood, citizen collective decision making with modern representative democracy. The crucial difference, though, is not the extent of the suffrage, nor the notion of representation, but the duty of all citizens and all representatives to vote for the benefit of all. This principle of non-selfishness is what qualifies (at their best) modern democracies for Aristotle’s term ‘polity’, rather than little more than mob rule.

It is crucial that we recognise the duty ‘the benefit of all’ rather than ‘the benefit of the majority’ or ‘the maximum benefit to the maximum number of people’. It may not always be possible to achieve the benefit of all, but the moment we relax the duty, we open the door for many of the tyrannies the 20th century explored in such detail. I do not wish, at this point, to bow to Godwin’s law (all internet discussions spiral to an appeal to the tyranny of either Hitler or Stalin), or its corollary, the Jacobin terror. However, if we consider the treatment of collaborationist intellectuals in France during De Gaulle’s interim government (excellently discussed by Baert), where people were sentenced to death after a trial lasting less than a day, for purely intellectual crimes, we have to recognise what happens when a democracy relaxes its duty for the benefit of even one or two of its citizens. 1.

Probably everyone reading this article already agrees with this. Please do forgive me for the excursus.

What we perhaps recognise rather more seldom is that the Aristotelian principle of ‘benefit of all’ also helps to set limits around exactly what a democracy can vote on. I have lost count of the number of panels, boards, committees and assemblies I have observed, or sat on over the last thirty years which have attempted to deliberate on things over which they have no authority, or no control. The Oth rule in any constitution—sometimes appended as the final rule—is that no decisions of the executive, or the council, or the board, or whatever it is, can override the law. When this is appended, it is usually in the form of ‘if any decision is subsequently found to be illegal, this does not affect the other parts of a decision’. In my experience, the problem is not decisions subsequently found to be illegal, but decisions which the body knows it doesn’t have the authority to make without having recourse to the courts.

In most cases, a good chair reins the discussion in. I have very seldom had to experience a minuted decision which was outside the scope of the particular body.

However, the ‘-1st’ rule, which should go even before the Oth rule, should be that ‘this body exists to determine the beneficial actions it will take, and for no other purpose’. This does not mean that we should in any way stifle open debate, since open debate is the means by which a body reaches its conclusions, but the only conclusions a corporate body can legitimately take are about its actions in the future. It cannot overturn its actions in the past. It certainly cannot issue pronouncements about what is true, and what is not.

Actually, the action of democracy is even more divorced from our concept of truth even than that. By its nature, democracy must be both transparent, and inscrutable. It must be transparent in that there must be open access to what decisions were made, who was eligible to make them, and whether they voted or not. In British elections, whether or not someone voted is a recorded fact which is made publicly available afterwards. Not everyone is aware of this. In the UK’s parliamentary democracy, which way the representatives vote is also recorded, and all the speeches made available through Hansard. At the same time, democracy must be inscrutable, and here it differs entirely from judicial process.

In a court of law, the jury is called upon by the judge to make the best judgement available based on the evidence and the arguments presented. A higher court may overturn the decision if it finds that the evidence was unsound, or that the jury or judge acted perversely in their decision.

In a democracy, each person makes up their own mind on how to vote. Even in an open ballot, such as when MPs vote, the representative is not required to state why they voted in that way. They may vote based on the evidence, or their conscience, or their party whip, or by drawing Scrabble letters out of a bag, or on the basis of any other reason or non-reason they like. They may be challenged to explain why they voted that way later, and they may decide that it is electorally or personally in their interests to explain, but they are not required to do so. The only exception to this is that they must declare an interest if they stand to gain by voting in a particular direction.

For this reason, no one can ever authoritatively say “the House voted in this way because…”.

This brings us back to where we began. A democratic body, no matter how august, has no authority to determine matters of fact, be they scientific, historical or artistic (it was this notion of artistic fact which was so much at issue in the post-Vichy trials). Not only does the body lack the authority, but its members cannot be required to ‘vote with the facts’. The members will vote any way they want to vote. They should vote for the benefit of all, but future benefit is not amenable to simple factual inquiry. Analysing the way they voted tells us nothing about what is true, only about what effect they believed they would have by casting their vote.

I regret very much that the US Senate has narrowly determined that climate change is not caused by human action. I am much more worried that the US Senate thinks it can be voting about ‘what is true’ at all, even when they do get the answer right.

Show 1 footnote

  1. We should also recognise that too many checks and balances are removed when the press, government and judiciary are all working to essentially the same agenda
Is education failing (or are we just easily shocked by bad statistics?)

Is education failing (or are we just easily shocked by bad statistics?)

Today, being the first day of the final 2015 Ashes tour, the day that GCSE results come out, and the day that the CIPD has claimed that the majority of UK graduates end up in non-graduate jobs, we are faced with the inevitable annual questions of: are exams getting easier, are degrees a waste of time, and would Geoff Boycott’s mother really have hit sixes with a stick of rhubarb? No, I mean it: these really are all the same question.

By the way, congratulations to everyone who is getting results today, even, and perhaps especially to those who did not get what they wanted: it is better to have fought and lost than not have fought at all.

Every year, we are told that something has happened to GCSE and A-level results. Passes have gone up this year and top grades are down. Sometimes top grades are up. Pundits immediately jump to what they do punditry.

By the way, this is an article about how we perceive statistics. I do not intend to offer, except by way of relaying someone else’s conclusions, a panacea for education: after all, just like Nicky Morgan and Michael Gove before her, I am neither a teacher nor a student.

It is a truth almost universally unacknowledged that statistics inevitably go up or down if the sample is large enough. With small samples, they can stay the same for a bit, and then dramatically swing up or down before reverting to what they were before. A very large sample is a bit like the sea: the waves are always going up or down, but, compared to the volume of the sea, they don’t go up or down very much (small comfort if you are in a small boat. A small sample is a bit like a sink full of water. It may remain very still, but the impact of a single event, such as a bar of soap falling into it, will produce dramatic changes.

We should absolutely not be surprised when exam results improve one year. Nor should we be surprised by year on year improvement, or by year on year decline. None of these things actually tell us anything useful about education.

As is well known, GCSE and A-level exams are designed to remain more or less equivalent. Approximately the same proportion of those taking the exams should be getting the top grades, and the exams should be more or less as difficult. These two things are hard to square with each other, hence the gradual rise in results since 1988. This is by sharp contrast with, say, an entrance examination where only an exact number of candidates can succeed irrespective of how many make the attempt, or a professional qualification where a certain level of ability must be shown, else the profession becomes devalued.

All of these are quite different from what appears (at least from comments on news articles, and the articles themselves) to be the popular perception, that exams should be exactly ‘as hard’ from year to year, in some way that is the equivalent of everyone being asked exactly the same questions.

This graph shows the gradual rise in A*-C, equivalent to passes in the old O-levels:


GCSE A*-C 1988-2014, showing a gradual rise

GCSE A*-C 1988-2014

I have seen it argued that GCSE papers are now much easier than they were twenty years ago, and I’ve also seen it argued that they are much harder. 1.

People who argue that they are easier insist that the graph proves they are easier, because the results are improving. People who argue that they are harder do so often on the basis of famously difficult questions, such as the the sweets question this year. I have to say, looking at the sweets question, I don’t recall there being anything remotely as difficult when I took O-level, but that’s hardly evidence.

On the simple reading, we could argue that the exams must be getting easier, because A*-C has gone from below half to above two thirds of candidates, while the total number of candidates is about the same (in other words, it isn’t that students are being put off).

However, that assumes that teachers are not teaching better. I don’t wish to face a rush of teachers from the 1980s with pitch-forks baying for my blood. Nonetheless, in every other walk of life, we expect year on year improvement in a profession. The students may be more or less equivalent from year to year (that’s an assumption we’ll come back to), but teachers are surely pooling their knowledge, looking at examples of best practice, sharpening their understanding of how to teach to a particular syllabus, and so on. Teachers in the UK are graduates (and we’ll come back to that as well), and you would expect them, over time, to work out how the system works, and make the most of it.

The assumption that students are more or less the same is also one we should challenge. Many parents aspire to bring up their children with more opportunities and advantages than they had. Why should anyone be surprised when an entire culture dedicated to this task produces students more able to pass exams? There was a time when verbal reasoning tests were considered a good, fair estimate of a child’s aptitude. Then parents started to do practice papers with their children. Then some parents started to coach their children. Then some parents actually paid for special tuition for their children. This produces the much maligned ‘Glass Floor‘, where middle-class parents do their best to make sure their children are not left behind. I have to say, I was slightly astonished to hear complaints about the Glass Floor, given that this is more or less our society’s definition of ‘good parenting’. However, as a non-parent, I should perhaps forebear to comment.

No person of my generation wants to admit, even in private, that ‘the kids are cleverer now than we were’. We have been brought up with the notion that ‘cleverness’ is a fixed commodity.

This, itself, is an artefact of the way IQ is calculated. Our Intelligence Quotient is not a measure of our intelligence, or even a measure of our ability to do well on verbal and non-verbal reasoning tests, but a statistical measure of how far we deviate from the mean. The mean IQ is defined as 100. There are not enough people on Earth for anyone to have an IQ of 200 (notwithstanding the test that was going round Facebook earlier in the year). This isn’t because the very cleverest person isn’t clever enough, but because there are insufficient people for the IQ metric to produce that result. As the population of the planet grows, the possible outliers get further apart.

People have sometimes told me, in shocked terms, that half the population has an IQ of below 100. By definition, this has to be the case, and it always will be. IQ is not a measure of intelligence, but of population statistics: however clever people get, 100 will always be the average IQ.

Are the kids getting cleverer?

This is the time to talk about the Ashes, and Geoff Boycott’s bat. Anyone who listens to Test Match Special will be used to the marvellously chuntering Geoff Boycott, going on about how much harder it was to bat on uncovered pitches, how much easier it is to stroke the ball to the boundary, and how his mother could have hit particular bowlers, using a stick of rhubarb instead of a bat. Boycott just gets better and better, and is mercilessly teased by his fellow commentators.

Nonetheless, all the things he says are true (apart from the bit about the rhubarb). Bats are better, pitches more consistent, and the level of training and coach provided to top players is beyond anything that could have been imagined when I went to see Boycott playing at Edgbaston in the 1970s.

However, bowlers are also getting better: Shane Warne shocked the cricketing world with his ‘ball of the century‘ to dismiss Gatting in the 1993 Ashes. It was not the first time that a new kind of spin proved destructive, but Warne did not prove to be a one-trick pony, and continued a devastating career long after. After him we had the Doosra. In the mean time, the evolution of reverse-swing and swing bowling in general has made England hard to face on its home territory.

The bowling is getting better, the batsmen have their own advantages. However, there has also been a change in attitude. In the old days, a side scoring 350 on the opening day would not lose. These days, they might well do. Destructive passages of play, inspired by one day internationals and T20, see in-form batsmen knocking up enormous scores in a single session. Equally, a destructive bowler like Broad at Trent Bridge can reduce a side to matchwood.

The human element means that it is still possible to argue that today’s cricketers are not ‘better’ than those of yore. Cricket is a traditional game that revels in its legends, and it always will be.

However, if we look at Formula 1, we can see a steady evolution as cars have changed, unequivocally, beyond all recognition. Indeed, they literally do not look like the cars of the early Grands Prix. Every year the rules are changed, sometimes taking away advantages in engineering that have made the sport too tame. Every year the manufacturers toil to produce better tyres, better engines, more responsive suspension, more reliable gears, and so on.

Formula 1 is actually a fairly good comparison with GCSE. The examiners (equivalent to F1’s organisers) create a course which is to challenge students on their aptitude of students, knowing that their pit crew (teachers, crib notes, parents, etc) are striving to give the students the advantage.

So, if you’ve quickly skimmed this far and want to know ‘does he think the exams are easier or doesn’t he?’, the answer is: it isn’t that simple. To my mind, education is improving—not because of constant government meddling, the inspection regime and the huge amounts of admin that teachers now have to do. Teaching is a profession, and, like all professionals, teachers improve their art collectively. We would be shocked if medical science had not advanced since the 1970s, and yet, somehow, any improvement in grades is attributed to ‘easier exams’. I don’t think that’s the case.

I would also argue that students are benefiting from the rise of the internet. I can now find things on Wikipedia, and check their sources, and come to my own conclusions, that would have taken me four hours in the library 25 years ago. I certainly wouldn’t want to take Wikipedia at face value, but, from my interactions with young authors on Figment.com, I don’t think young people do either. In fact, we have a generation much more likely to question everything.

When I was at school, I genuinely believed what was in the textbooks. It wasn’t until our biology teacher (Mr Rigby, I think, a great man, though if it was Mr Lampard, I beg his forgiveness: he was also an excellent teacher) pointed out that one of the experiments described in the text book did not actually work 2. Our teacher, a real scientist, had not taken it on trust, and had done the experiment himself. I learned more about science from that one occasion than I did from the rest of the course.

Today, young people are told even by games manufacturers to ‘challenge everything’. This was beginning even in the 1980s, and many older people simply put this down to disrespectful youth.

Students still believe some remarkably silly things, are uninformed about some things which are quite basic, and obstinately cling to some things debunked years ago. So, in other words, they are exactly like the rest of us. Because we also inhabit a world where access to information is easier than ever before.

Let’s take a look at the claim that most graduates end up in non-graduate jobs. Actually, the statistics for this were being challenged first thing this morning on the Today Programme. Depending on how you calculate, and what you believe, and where you got your stats from, it can be as low as one-third, or as high as two-thirds. This has prompted the usual ‘lies, damned lies and statistics’, ‘the government is lying to us’ and ‘you can’t believe anything’ comments.

I wish people wouldn’t say things like that. Statistics do not lie. They are, however, easy to dramatise, and just as easy to misinterpret even when the person citing them is not trying to dramatise them.

Let us, for the sake of argument, accept the low figure of one-third. This doesn’t sound as severe as two-thirds of graduates being in non-graduate jobs, but it’s still a significant figure. If we were told that one-third of operations ended in tragedy, we would be outraged; we would have a similar (though less extreme) response to hearing that one-third of government expenditure was waste. Neither of these are true, by the way, before someone goes and makes a meme of them and sends it round Facebook.

The real issue is not in the quality of the statistics, but in exactly what we mean by ‘non-graduate jobs’, and why it should bother us.

The report was published by the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development. Their exact text is:

Our new research reveals that increasing numbers of graduates have outstripped the creation of more high-skilled jobs, and as a result, the UK has too many over-qualified graduates entering non-graduate jobs. This trend has particularly affected occupations where apprenticeships have been important such as construction and manufacturing. The report suggests that graduate over-qualification is a particular problem for the UK, which has 58.8% of graduates in non-graduate jobs, a percentage exceeded only by Greece and Estonia.

This, in itself, perhaps over-simplifies their position. Within the text of the report itself, we read:

As the UK HE sector expanded, more graduates have found themselves working in jobs that in previous generations would have been filled by non-graduates.

They go on to say:

However, as we will argue, this development is not necessarily a problem.

The CIPD points out that management is increasingly a graduate profession, whereas at the start of the 1990s, just one in six were from graduate backgrounds. Indeed, the old jokes about ‘the managers’, when made by technical staff of the Dilbert variety, presupposed that managers were people who were good at management-speak and other workplace-acquired skills, but not especially bright.

Let us leave the CIPD for a moment: the report, which is well worth reading, does not make the kind of shock claims that are being discussed in the media: the CIPD’s own conclusion is that this should neither shock, nor bother us.

The shock and bother, though, is palpable elsewhere. With spiralling tuition fees and the prospect of a much worse loan repayment scheme, the question is being asked, why invest in higher education at all?

Actually, although the route by which people have reached it is perhaps not the best, this is really the core of the question: why education at all?

People in centre politics such as myself have a reverence for education which makes the question near blasphemous. To question the value of education is to abandon everything that England (and later Britain) has stood for since Alfred’s famous letter to Waferth (or Wulfsige, same text). If we allow education to be questioned, we are staring into the abyss of a new dark age.

Ken Robinson, though, takes the bull firmly by the horns (or, perhaps, the book by the covers) in Out of Our Minds. He argues that, traditionally, education existed for its economic benefits. A literate workforce was better than an illiterate one. The things which we taught, tested and measured were the things that would pay their way later in life. Government-funded free education, therefore, must pay dividends to government.

I’ve never been in what the CIPD refers to as a traditional graduate job. First I was a typist (not a graduate job), then I was, for nearly ten years, a full-time charity volunteer (no qualifications required). I then went to do PR for an arts board (not a traditional graduate job), PR and management for a manufacturer (also not), general Communications for the NHS (degree preferred, but not in CIPD terms a traditional management job), and finally run my own business (no qualifications required). Some, particularly commentators on news websites, would argue that this is because I did a ‘general’ degree (English). If only I had chosen a more vocational degree (they say), I would have found work.

This rather misses the CIPD’s point. Vocational degrees, apart from law, medicine and engineering, are the degrees which directly take their graduates into what are traditionally not graduate jobs. What’s more, the more vocational, the less likelihood that you will end up doing what you are studying. I’ve wept for the armies of graphic design graduates that I haven’t been able to employ. From an employer’s perspective, having 98 designers (this actually happened) apply for an officer level job gives you a thrilling field from which to recruit. From the graduate’s perspective, it’s a nightmare.

To return to Robinson for a moment, his argument is that our biggest asset is creativity, and that if we make this the focus of our educational system, society will reap benefits that go far beyond the economic. I tend to agree with him, though I don’t see anyone with a governmental programme to achieve this.

What I do know, though, is that a degree is one of the best steps young people can take toward creativity. Three years with others, exploring new learning, discussing it, playing ideas against each other, sometimes having flaming rows with the physicists about not everything being a branch of physics, broadens the mind in a way which mere investment in the subject itself does not.

If our university system creates plumbers who write novels, managers who create art photography in their spare time, pizza deliverers who drum at festival fringes, taxi drivers who design jewellery and crane-operators who translate obscure French poets, then society has not lost its investment in their education, but gained by it.

The flip-side of graduates doing (traditionally) non-graduate jobs is that more and more jobs are requiring a degree than ever before. This, to me, is the worrying side of the new research. If university entrance becomes like the new 11-plus, sorting people into future ‘haves’ and ‘have-nots’, then we genuinely are headed in a dangerous direction.

For everyone who has had the privilege of a university education, or will have, I believe it is our duty to share what we have received, and include those who—for whatever reason—did not have the same privilege. The rising tide of exam results and the steadily rising affluence of our society over the last fifty years testifies that society has not lost the investment it put into university education. For all those who have benefited, we must remember that what we have freely received must be freely given back.

Show 2 footnotes

  1. I’ve also seen people who claim to have got an A at A-level maths (I only got a B) back in the 70s insist that the BODMAS order of operations was not taught at that time, but that’s a post for another time
  2. It was the one where oxygen produced by a water plant in an inverted test tube is able to relight a glowing splint—it isn’t
Those migrants, what are they like?

Those migrants, what are they like?

Pew Global has released a fascinating set of maps for determining who is migrating to and from your country, and where they are going.

During the recent UK General Election, I took part in three hustings debates. In one of them, one of the candidates answered every question beginning “We all know the problem is immigration”.

But how much immigration is there actually about? Most of the shock figures that appear in well-known tabloids are about numbers arriving, or, even better (from the point of view of shocks), numbers who might well be about to arrive. We almost never hear about people who are leaving.

So, what’s the figure?

According to Pew, in 2013 there were 7.82 million people living in the UK who were born in other countries. However, there were 5 million people born in the UK living in other countries. In other words, net immigration is 2.82 million.

2.82 million sounds rather a lot — this is the problem with any kind of demographic figures: they always sound enormous. But how many is it really?

Well, the UK population is just over 63 million. That means that net immigration is just shy of 4.5%, so less than one person in twenty.

Ipsos Mori, the Royal Statistical Society and King’s College London have taken some delight in surveying people about what they think statistics are, versus what they really are. Kindly, helpfully, and with only a very small amount of appropriate schadenfreude, they have published the results here.

In 2013, the consensus estimate by the British population was that immigration was at 31%. The real figure, is no more than 15% even when hidden and illegal immigrants are factored in. That means that people imagine that total immigration is twice as much as it really is, and the real figure for net immigration (which is what people typically mean when they talk about ‘the problem of immigration’) is only one seventh of that.

Bizarrely, the consensus estimate of British people is that 30% of the population are Black or Asian. The real figure is 11%, or 14% if we include mixed and other non-white ethnic groups. So, despite people going on endlessly about Poles coming to Britain, there’s a persistent imagined view that almost all immigrants are non-white. As it happens, just 5% of the population are Muslims, but on average people think that 24% of the population are Muslims.

Here’s another fact about internationalism. On average, British people believe that 26% of government spending goes on foreign aid. The true figure is 1.1%.

Of Ipsos Mori’s discovered top ten misconceptions, all of them skew people towards believing things in a more right-wing, anti-minority, anti-benefits, Britain-is-on-the-edge-of-a-cataclysm sort of way. Most people think crime is rising, when, in fact, it’s been falling for years. One third of people think we spend more on Job Seekers Allowance than pensions. Actually, we spend 15x as much on pensions. The public thinks that benefit fraud accounts for a quarter of all the money spent on benefits. In fact, it’s 0.7%. Around one in two-hundred girls under sixteen get pregnant each year. The public thinks its twenty-five times that level.

Let’s get back to immigration.

One of the things that people who are desperately concerned about immigration usually say to me at some point in a conversation is “this country is only large enough for a certain number of people”. I recall a leader of one of the political parties saying last year that Britain was the most densely populated country in Europe.

Is it?

The most densely populated country in Europe is Malta, at 1,261 people per square kilometre. Ok, Malta isn’t very big, so let’s move on to the next. This is the Netherlands at 394 people per square kilometre, followed by Belgium at 344 people per square kilometre. The UK is fourth, but the figure is just 246 — a mere two-thirds the density of the Netherlands. Germany is barely less, at 225. Interestingly, the bulk of the wealthiest and most developed countries in Europe are in the top half of the table, with the bulk of the less developed in the lower half.

Ah! Say those who are concerned — Germany, the Netherlands and Belgium may be like that, but who takes in all the asylum seekers, eh?

There is a desperately common (and rather desperate) belief that Britain has a more or less open door policy to asylum seekers, while the rest of Europe sit tightly behind their walls, laughing at the soft-touch Brits.

But what are the facts?

Germany, France and the UK have the largest populations, so, self-evidently, they should be accepting the largest numbers. But what about accepted asylum seekers per inhabitant?

Well, the most welcoming country is Malta, at 348 per 100,000, 2012 figures.

The wider table looks like this:

Country Total number Per 100 000 inhabitants
1 Malta 625 348
2 Sweden 15,290 161
3 Norway 6,125 123
4 Austria 6,000 71
5 Switzerland 4,580 58
6 Belgium 5,880 53
7 Denmark 2,105 38
8 Netherlands 5,920 35
9 Finland 1,840 34
10 Germany 22,165 27
11 United Kingdom 14,570 23
12 France 14,325 22
13 Italy 9,270 15
14 Greece 625 1
15 Spain 565 1

The actual figures — not just the rankings — are worth looking at. By mid-April this year, 1,700 migrants are believed to have died in the Mediterranean alone, which would extrapolate to perhaps 6,800 by the end of the year. Britain welcomed barely more than twice that number in 2012 from the entire world. We are a nation that loves to respond with shock, and, sometimes, donations, when we read about the Mediterranean migrant deaths and the Nepal earthquake, but our doors remain almost entirely closed for those fleeing persecution in fear of their lives. Judging by what we think we give as a nation, compared to what we actually give, we begrudge even the 1½p in the tax pound that goes to international development.

However we look at it, at just one accepted asylum seeker for every five thousand people in the country in 2012, Britain is not being swamped.

So, these migrants, what are they really like? The answer is, they’re a lot like the rest of us, at our best. The University of Oxford has published some helpful data. Most migrants are here to work. They are people who have (to take a phrase from the ’80s) got on their bikes and gone where the work is. They work hard, often in jobs that don’t attract much local talent, largely because they are unappetising, don’t offer much career progression, take a lot of hard work and unsociable hours, and don’t pay particularly well. Many of them, of course, are highly skilled. Without international colleagues, the NHS would collapse tomorrow. Some of them — my wife, who is a Dutch translator, is one of them — are crucial for Britain’s ability to trade with the world.

During the ’80s and ’90s, it was becoming socially unacceptable to be racist. In 2001, all that began to change. Asylum seekers — or ‘bogus asylum seekers’ as they were always described in the tabloids — suddenly became a legitimate target of hatred and derision, not just for tongue-in-cheek journalists, but also for politicians on both sides of the house. Following that, it became acceptable to be racist about East Europeans. In the last year, it seems that all Europeans are now acceptable targets.

Do we really want to go back to the days when racist abuse was shouted openly on any street at someone who looked different, or spoke a different language?

Racism does not just harm the people subjected to it. Even closet racism, kept in check by a veneer of socialisation, makes us meaner people, less able to appreciate the amazing diversity of the world around us, less open to new cultural experiences.

If you are ethnically English, then at least some of your ancestors came to these shores during The Great Migration. Others may have arrived later as Vikings, Normans, or Huguenots. If ethnically Welsh or Scots, they will have arrived some time earlier. But they still arrived.

This, of course, is a common-place, and widely discarded as irrelevant by those who wish to keep Britain for those whose families arrived before 1935, which appears to be the cut-off point in the ‘us versus them’ epistemology.

The actual extent of it, though, is only now being scientifically established.


Genetic study of UK population

Genetic study of UK population

Genetic studies, such as that discussed in the Guardian in March, the map from which is reproduced here, show what a mish-mash we are. Genome analysis gives far more comfort to those who want Scotland, Wales, Devon and Cornwall to secede than those who want to keep the Europeans and others out, or else leave them to their own devices. For those of us living in South and Central England, we are 30% German, 40% French, 11% Danish and a surprising 9% Belgian. Interestingly — and a counter to the secessionists — the genetic evidence suggests that the incoming Angles, Saxons and Jutes in the 5th-7th centuries did not wipe out or displace the original British inhabitants. Instead, they married them, and brought up a nation with a rich, blended, multi-threaded cultural inheritance.

The immigrants are not merely like us. They are us.

Quite literally, migration is in our DNA.


Britain’s issues have not changed, even though the government has

Last week was a terrible week for Liberal Democrats. Let us hope that it was not also a terrible week for liberal democracy. We have a new government which pressed home its claim during the final weeks of the election campaign to provide continuity from the coalition. It must now develop its own conscience if it is to do so.

The key issues facing Britain have not changed. They remain:

  • In a time of return to prosperity, the most vulnerable 20% have seen the least restoration of living standards, while the wealthiest have seen the greatest
  • We live in a representative democracy which is demonstrably not representative, and in danger of losing its right to be called a democracy at all
  • Contrary to all sound evidence, we have developed a national narrative of distrust of immigrants and a willingness to blame them for an implausibly broad range of problems, thereby absolving ourselves of tackling the underlying issues
  • We fail to leverage Britain’s underlying economic strengths, so our manufacturing base continues to slide and we are returning to a reliance on the financial sector which offers easy profits in the short term
  • Our international engagement, both in Europe and on the issue of Climate Change, is faltering, and we are retreating to an island mentality where we expect others to solve the world’s problems.

While an election campaign should help the public to hold government to account, our recent election campaign — and this has been observed by many — has had the character more of appealing to people’s prejudices and fears than offering them a vision of a common good.

Britain’s democratic deficit is now worse than ever. A party that commands half of the votes in Scotland gained all but three of the seats. In Britain as a whole, a party that commands little more than ? of the vote has carte blanche to do whatever it wants for five years, including changing the electoral boundaries to assist its future efforts. Another party which garnered 1/6 of the votes has just one MP. Given that this party represents a large proportion of people who feel disenfranchised and believe that their concerns are not taken seriously by politicians, this bodes ill.

Compared to five years ago, there is a strong consensus across Britain for voting reform. However, the government now in power is firmly committed to preventing it.

We have seen the customary post-election protests in central London, but these are unlikely to have any more impact that previous protests. If anything, they strengthen a government’s resolve to stand on its democratic mandate. However, based on vote share, that mandate is non-existant.

If this were Formula 1, or cricket, or tennis, then the governing body would quickly move to change the rules so that the artefacts of the system could no longer produce a result which was so palpably unjust. Even in football, with all of its much discussed governance problems, there would now be a major outcry. However, since government is its own master, there is no mechanism in Britain for achieving this.

David Cameron’s new cabinet has a slender majority of twelve seats — just one more than John Major had. They face a very significant internal battle over Europe, which is expected to have wide and negative implications for the economy as a whole.

Nonetheless, the task of government is first of all to manage affairs in the best national interest, and only second to pursue its own manifesto commitments. Assuring itself an additional term of office should come a very distant third.

David Cameron made many promises before the election, and wrote ‘personally’ to a large number of voters in key seats to explain why continuity from the coalition was vital. He must now honour his promise of continuity, and work first to tackle the nation’s problems.

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