A funny thing happened yesterday while I was travelling to Manchester. I was looking forward to what was ultimately a disappointing Kiltschko vs Haye fight on a number of levels when I heard a fella sat across from me (as he later put in his own words) "open fire" about his inability to find gainful employment. An ex-soldier who had served in Afghanistan (an engagement that largely involved poking our noses into other people's business - but we'll do that another night), the target of his frustration was not Muslims or Blacks, but the million or so Poles believed to be working and residing in the Uk at this moment in time. Now I've heard lots said about Polish plumbers and the stories of their hard work for a modest reward causing widespread unemployment amongst the 'indigenous population' (yes I hate that phrase too). However, never before had I encountered this level of unmoderated bitterness fired at Eastern Europeans in the same way as you might expect from a more vicious racist towards Muslims in particular.
This was a large part of what I found fascinating - he didn't seem like a natural racist. His reasons for disliking the Poles as much as he did would appear to centre around what you or I might consider positive attributes - a strong work ethic and the willingness to do jobs that many people born here would see as 'beneath them'. For a decade or so, the scapegoat of racial politics has been based on culture more than anything, with the entire Muslim population demonised by those looking for an enemy within on the basis of the lunacy of a minority. The EDL, the 'long-awaited' successor to Combat 18, has drawn support not on the basis of a detailed critique of policy, or analysis into cause and effect, but has really served as little more than a fight club for boot boys who have a dislike for Islam and/or its followers.
I walked away from this monologue (it didn't quite qualify as a conversation) wondering if the "they steal our jobs" line was about to re-emerge as the dominant thread in the politics of hatred. It's certainly easier in times of economic struggle to make a rational case as to why a minority group coming in from overseas represent a problem, and a threat to the life chances to those who were born here. History has shown us that extremism and the arguments of those who preach it invariably meet a more sympathetic ear when there are large numbers blind to where there next paycheck is coming from. After all, it is human nature when ones immediate fortunes look bleak to blame an external force beyond their control, be it politicians, a large minority population or whatever. There is almost invariably more merit looking in the first direction than there will ever be in the second.
As someone who is broadly pro-immigration (and those who share this view will know it is neither an easy or popular one to take), I'd normally dismiss the argument I heard as bigoted and ignorant gibberish. After all, what I've found in my experience is that the "stealing our jobs" mantra is most aggressively pushed by those who have no intention of working themselves. I'd love to see a venn diagram between general racism and prejudice in society and the terminally idle or unemployable, for the overlap would probably be quite revealing. However, there were two points which made me stop and at ponder what I was listening to - 1) as an ex-soldier, this willingness to lay his life on the line deserves immediate respect, regardless of whether you agreed with his take on current affairs or not and 2) it was quite clear that he had an undeniable urge to work - "give me the shittest job in the world, as long as a fucking Pole doesn't come and take it off me". Hardly a member of the terminally idle then...
He tells me that the Poles are "fucking everywhere" and in a sense he's right. I've certainly encountered more in the last five years than I had in the rest of my existence put together, and I'm sure this is not an uncommon experience. What I would add is that you're most likely to come across a Polish immigrant when buying something, or when a job involving hard work needs doing. Something my new friend and I would agree on is that the vast majority of them work bloody hard, pay their dues and represent no harm or bother to anybody.
When Poland joined the EU in 2007, the unemployment rate in the Uk stood at just under a million, or 4.7% of those deemed able to work amongst the general population. Statistics from 2007 suggest that 80% of the jobs created in Labour's first decade went to immigrants, and it is easy to see how this snippet can form a central thread in any argument for 'locking the doors'. I'd suggest that the real tragedy of this statistic is not all those nasty, horrible foreigners coming over here to work on building sites and pick potatoes, but that circa 900,000 unemployed appears to represent something like full employment in Britain today. The reality is that last time the economy was generating jobs on any decent scale in the early 2000s (the government also loaded a million people into the public sector, with hideous consequences), the official figure of JSA claimants hovered at around 5 per cent, or just under a million people.
If we measure full employment against only those who are both capable of and willing to work (ie excluding the idle, unemployable and phoney sick) then I have no issue believing that a figure around the 750,000 mark takes care of the first two categories, with the third covered by a substantial portion of the 3 million Britons who are all said to be disabled in some way. With the benefit of hindsight, perhaps further restrictions could have been applied to the number of Poles able to come here in the first few years, but in truth the numbers of people both able and willing to work who found themselves unable to do so was relatively small in 2004. In a MORI poll conducted around that time, the percentage of people who regarded unemployment as the biggest issue of the day was in single figures - contrast that with over 80 per cent who believed it to be the clincher at various points in the 1980s.
We needed an influx of hard-working immigrants in 2004, just as we did in the 1950s and at various points in our history. Those who travel here from overseas tend not to be overcome by a sense of entitlement, something which appears to have crept into the psyche of a growing number of people who were born here. Their willingness to do jobs which 'indigenous' Brits see as beneath them, allied to any skill that they might possess, makes them an attractive proposition for employers, of whom many have made this distinction when asked why they 'prefer' foreign workers. I appreciate that most will probably disagree with this analysis, but personally I want these people to stay here and am glad they came in the first instance. Those who were unfortunate enough to lose their jobs in the recession and are having difficulty finding new work have my sympathy, for this situation is the fault of politicians whose interference in the economy caused it to implode. That is the direction in which any justifiable bile should be aimed.
I came away from this encounter with three conclusions - firstly it re-enforced my view that we badly need our economy to start generating growth and jobs again. This sounds like an easy thing to say, but in truth the measures involved would not necessarily be popular. Getting out of the face of small business in particular, cutting taxes on enterprise and personal income while removing counter-productive measures like the minimum wage will at least give us a fighting chance of creating a climate in which there is work out there if you really want it - I appreciate that the Libertarian mantra of self-reliance is just idle chatter if there are no actual jobs out there. Soldiers returning home need something to come back to after a short period of re-adjustment. Those just released from prison require the real prospect of going straight and earning a legitimate living. Young people more than anything need to get onto the first rung of the employment ladder, even if that initial step is not a particularly well-rewarded one.
Which brings me onto the next point - our society desparately fails our teenagers on a number of levels. Schools boast of record results yet continue to turn out masses of 16 year olds with no skills to speak of and little hope beyond a prolonged period on the dole. Then the state presents what remains with the false choice between a university education and a life that can more or less be written off. Many of those that carry on in education until they turn 21 find that the land of milk and honey is not there to meet them on the other side as they were promised, while saddling themselves with debt that has bought them little of value. In the long run, this culture we appear to have of telling people they can be whatever they want to be invariably does more harm than good.
I was talking music with a pal of mine last night, and we both appear to have stopped writing and playing live, at least for now. I put it to my friend that "hey I was never much good live anyway" and he smiled, nodded and answered, "not really". After a pause, he then added, "well it's not helpful to give someone misleading advice, is it?". Of course it isn't - it was never much more than a semi-serious bit of fun, but the point is that by telling someone they have the ability to be a rockstar, an astronaut or whatever, despite there being clear evidence that the feat is beyond them, you are ultimately doing the individual a disservice. Leading someone down the road of false hope is remarkably easy when you won't be the one having to console them at the end of their failed trek. A feeling of being lied to is bound to lead to a sense of false expectation, entitlement, resentment or all of the above. Far better to be realistic with a young person while reminding them that the time to improve themselves remains on their side.
Finally, on the anti-Polish rant itself - I'm certainly not about to join in, and there does seem to be a contradiction at work here. Someone pushing the case for slamming the gate shut at Dover cannot simultaneously argue that "they come over here to take advantage of our welfare system" while then stating their angst at immigrants "stealing our jobs". There is clearly a great deal of appetite in this country for saying "no more", at least for a few years whilst abiding by the clumsy rhetoric of "British jobs for British workers". Successive governments have attempted to ride the two horses of understanding the nett benefits of immigration while also pandering to populism. As is usually the case, politicians ditching any sense of instinct in order to juggle two balls end up dropping both, leaving all sides of the argument with the sense that they favour the opposing one.
In short, government is a large part of the problem on immigration just as you'll find that it is on so many issues. Politicians who understand the need for people to come here from overseas and contribute should do so clearly, and have the balls to face down those who look for scapegoats or attempt to racialise the issue. When the political mainstream "talks tough" on immigration I tend to find that nobody believes a word of it anyway. As is often the case, they would come out of the situation with a lot more credit by expressing an honestly held view, even if it was not a popular or easily electable one. As for the Poles, well last time I checked they didn't borrow the country up to its eyeballs in debt, or authorise a profligate spending spree that left us amongst the worst placed to recover from the economic turmoil of 2008. None of the current mess is the fault of anyone from Katowice, Lodz or Warsaw, and anyone suggesting otherwise is letting the charlatans who almost bankrupted us off the hook. Blaming the government is easy, but for once the easiest path is actually the right one.