This is probably my favourite poem. I find myself referring to it more and more often. It speaks so sharply to our fears of immigrants, paedophiles, terrorists, EU bureaucrats, bankers and so much more. I have freely translated it for you.
WAITING FOR THE BARBARIANS
- What are we all waiting for, gathered here in the market?
The Barbarians are due to arrive today.
- Why, within the Senate, is there such paralysis?
Why do the Senators just sit, instead of legislating?
Because the Barbarians are due today.
What laws could Senators now pass?
When the Barbarians arrive, they’ll do the legislating.
- Why did our Emperor get up so early
And now sits at the City’s gate
Enthroned, ceremonial, crowned?
Because the Barbarians are due today.
And our own Emperor awaits to welcome
their chief. Indeed he has prepared,
in order to present to him, papyrus scrolls
with titles grand, impressive appellations.
- Why are our consuls and officials out
today, in red, embroidered togas
why are they wearing bracelets, amethyst-studded
and rings with splendid, shining emeralds
why do they reach for priceless canes
carved from exquisite gold and silver?
Because the Barbarians are due today;
And such things tend to dazzle them.
- And why are our worthy orators not here, as always,
Making their speeches, eloquent, telling it like they used to?
Because the Barbarians are due today;
and they get really bored of rhetoric and babble.
- Why is there suddenly such unease
and such confusion? (How serious all faces have become).
Why are the streets and squares now empty,
and everyone walks to their home, all looking very pensive?
Because it’s nightfall, but no Barbarians did arrive.
And border guards are back, and made reports
that say: Barbarians are no longer.
And now what shall become of us, with no Barbarians?
Those brutes have always been a sort of answer.
K. P. Kavafis
Today I came across the picture of a sculpture. I had a profoundly emotional reaction to it. A friend posted the following on Facebook, under the title “Miscarriage”.
Curious about it, I looked it up. I found out that the artist is a young Slovakian man by the name of Martin Hudáček, a devout Christian, and that the sculpture is actually an anti-abortion piece called “Memorial for Unborn Children”. My reaction to it changed fundamentally.
Was my initial reaction to it more valid than the later one? Are they both? Is my reaction to a piece what matters or is it the artist’s intention?
The only factors truly central to the current immigration debate are not based either on relevant evidence or ideology. First, Ukip are doing increasingly well in the polls, causing the Conservative Party to have a full-on identity crisis; and, second, there is a realisation that migrant-bashing is an incredibly useful tool in the armoury of a coalition which appears not to have any policy aims, other than clinging on to power past the next election; a fact nakedly revealed by recent u-turns on “green crap” and state interventionism in the payday lending market.
Fear of immigration has become the golden key which unlocks difficult areas of social policy; just like paedophiles and terrorists have in matters of civil liberties. We would never accept a committee of do-gooders in 10 Downing Street deciding which website ought to be filtered and which not, but for the justification of child pornography. There would have been rioting at the idea that out own government gave permission to US intelligence to read all our email correspondence, but for the spectre of bearded men with explosives.
The relationship between immigration and welfare is similarly cynical. Secretaries of state sit in conference rooms with their special advisors, trying to figure out an “immigration angle” that will allow them access to a service they wish to dismantle, abolish or privatise. This could not be clearer. Why else would Jeremy Hunt devote such a significant slice of his energy to sorting out “health tourism” when it is entirely perceived, rather than real? But here’s the thing – he uses that fiction to introduce the idea that access to health is not a universal right, in a way that the public find palatable, but the net result is very real: the principle of “free at the point of delivery”, shredded; every GP surgery and hospital equipped with a cash register, an accountant and a tariff of what each service costs. Guess what happens next.
“Why should my taxes pay for services to foreigners?”, goes the familiar cris-de-coeur. Your taxes don’t, is the short answer. Every set of data shows that, as a group, the taxes of EU citizens working here pay for the services that they use and then they pay for some that others use, on top.
It is not so long ago, that all three main parties were shaking the pompoms of enlargement with the enthusiasm of a Glee cast member. We were told this would give the UK access to lucrative new Eastern European markets. Did they all miss the bit which granted the citizens of those countries access to our labour market? It was hardly in fine print. Now that the time has finally come, draconian measures are being introduced to punish people who have gained the legal right to be here, in direct exchange for granting access to their countries’ wealth for our companies. And all major political parties broadly agree that this is sensible.
Even Nick Clegg, the ultimate turncoat, agrees. I would love to be a fly on the wall while he explains the logic behind these measures to his Dutch mother and Spanish wife. No thought is given to the potential havoc this creates for the people already here and the millions of Brits living and working in the EU. When I found myself sleeping rough for a short period some years ago, I had already been paying full tax in this country for more than fifteen years and had never claimed a thing. Under current proposals, I would be packed off and deported from the country that has been my home, to a country in which I have never existed as an adult. According to which principle of equity or fairness is this permissible?
But then, this isn’t about equity or fairness. It isn’t even about immigration. While all this goes on, we continue to encourage foreign investors to gobble up London property; we send delegations to China and India to explain new, streamlined visa procedures for rich business leaders; we spend public money to defend in court the rights of foreign financiers to an obscene bonus; we continue, even, to support further EU enlargement to Turkey, creating the lucrative markets of the future, while fully aware that when it comes to the actual people, we’re not so keen. This is about rich against poor and corporations against individual rights. It is about subtly eroding the universal welfare principle into a contributory one. Separating people into those deserving and those not. Guess what happens next.
So, feel free to wave the union flag while supporting this most un-British notion that some citizens’ rights are less important than yours. You may hope that, once you have accepted the odious principle that wealthy people have a better claim to their aspirations than poor people, birthright will shield from its extension. But make no mistake – in a country where the gap between rich and poor has never risen so fast, where corporation tax is due to become equal to VAT next year, where your earnings continue to fall in real terms while those at the top cream the profit and hide it in Caribbean isles with impunity – the idea that what stands between you and the life you want for yourself and your family is next year’s hypothetical Bulgarian migrant, is the biggest confidence trick the establishment has ever pulled.
The toxic debate on tackling all these “tourisms” is based on mostly anecdotal, and occasionally fictional, data. See here and here for examples. The measures being put forward are rooted in purely political, rather than policy reasons.
Here is my own anecdotal evidence. Attach to it whatever value you wish.
My good friend Mona is from Basildon. She has lived in Greece for just under 20 years – most of her adult life. She has never paid tax in the UK. She has been registered with the GP practice close to her parents’ home since before she left. She combines her one trip every year to visit her folks with general check-ups, gynaecological exams, assorted scans and, on three occasions, giving birth to her lovely children in the UK. She enjoys this on top of being entitled (quite rightly) to ambulance, emergency and any health services she wishes back in Greece. Her children will also enjoy all those dual services, by virtue of their in-uterus holiday/birth over here. I personally know dozens of people who do what Mona does.
I have lived in the UK for just over 20 years – most of my adult life. I would be asked to prove eligibility under the rules being proposed, at considerable stress, expense and wasted time for both me and the practice. And, yes, the considerable embarrassement of being picked on in public. Do you think Mona from Basildon will ever be asked to prove eligibility to receive healthcare entitlement in the UK? Of course not. She doesn’t have olive skin and an accent.
And this is why the proposed rules on “health tourism” are discriminatory and, possibly, illegal.
The following piece was first published in the New Statesman on 6 March 2013
I get extremely annoyed at governments pontificating on how poor people can help themselves. “Tough Love” involves two concepts; moving from a place of understanding and compassion while setting realistic boundaries. It does not come from a cold hard place of judgement and superiority. Politicians appear to get off on “tough”, while ignoring the “love” aspect. Practically every sentence uttered on the subject betrays a total lack of understanding, based as it is on the assumption that all one needs to escape the poverty trap is a get-up-and-go attitude.
Contrast measures such as the 45p top rate of tax with the demise of tax credits, the capping of benefits with the refusal to cap grotesque bonuses, the imposition of a bedroom tax with the refusal to consider a mansion tax, and a pattern of medieval disconnect between the ruling class and the reality of peoples’ lives emerges.
I was homeless from January 2009 to April 2010. Through a combination of circumstances – a landlord not returning a deposit, a spell of illness, a bad break-up, a change of job – I ended up destitute. I couldn’t claim benefits, as I was working. I was turned down for help with housing as I lacked a “sufficient local connection”. I slept in a smelly sleeping bag in a rat-infested cupboard of the office in which I worked.
I had always espoused socialist sensibilities. I had always been sympathetic to those less fortunate than me. But the basic economic concept of Scarcity was academic construct rather than unforgiving reality. The fact is that I had never truly understood poverty until that January day. I thought it was having little in the fridge or raiding the jar for coppers at the end of the month or not being able to afford basic things for your home. Then I experienced having no fridge, no jar, no home, nothing.
The overwhelming shame and self-recrimination that went with my feelings of failure, meant that most of my friends were unaware of my situation. The few to whom I did reveal it, would invite me round to see me, but really to feed me. I would appear at their door without a bottle of wine; their birthday parties with no card. Soon we settled into a silently negotiated truce of avoiding each other.
Being poor is very expensive; it sucks you underwater and holds you there. Working in central London means you have the non-choice of crippling travel costs or overpriced bedsits. Small local shops are more expensive than big drive-to supermarkets. Electricity and gas meters are dearer than direct debits. Payday loans attract interest a hundred times higher than personal bank loans. Six bad pairs of shoes that fall apart after a month cost twice as much as one good pair that will last for years.
During my homelessness, I showered at the public facilities in King’s Cross station at £3.50 (later rising to £5) a pop. I saved 20p coins all week and took my clothes to an expensive launderette on a Sunday. I estimate I spent around £2,000 on such basic hygiene during that time; much more than I needed for a deposit and first month’s rent. But I had no choice. I couldn’t afford for work to catch on. I woke up at six every morning, went out through a side alley, showered, shaved, dressed and came back pretending to “open up” for people waiting outside the building. Dissembling was my full time job; being ashamed my hobby.
I find nothing more disingenuous than rich MPs or celebrities experimenting on television to see whether they can live on a weekly amount of X or Y and conclude “gosh it’s very hard, but doable”. Such meaningless exercises ignore the cumulative effect of poverty; they never start from a position of empty food cupboards, looming debt, threadbare clothes and shoes with holes in them. They ignore the devastating financial effect that a visit to the dentist or a child’s birthday or one late charge can have. They also ignore the fundamental psychological difference of “I know this will be over in a week” as opposed to “this may never end; this may just get worse”.
Whenever the “poshboy” or “cabinet of millionaires” charge is levelled at the government, voices rise in defence; even intelligent voices: this is unfair, it’s class war, ad hominem, their background does not invalidate their views. They miss a fundamental point. An individual view on solutions to any particular problem is not invalidated by the bearer’s background. However, lack of understanding of the problem can render it ill-informed. It is not a war on accountants to say that they are not the best placed group to make medical decisions. If homogeneity of background means that a group collectively lacks experience in a particular matter, then it is perfectly reasonable to suggest that it is not the right caucus for solving the problem.
Talking of a difficult period in her life, a friend recently said: “Things wear out and you can’t afford to replace them. You wear out and there is nothing to replace.” Poverty is another country. It exists like an alternate reality in parallel with the rest of society. With time, humility and openness, empathy may develop. But let us not kid ourselves – an MP can visit poor estates from a position of comfortable plenty; all the visits in the world cannot replicate the experience of living in such hopelessness. He is merely a rich tourist on a depressing safari in a queer land.
The poor are no longer content to die romantically of tuberculosis, while the kindly rich visit to offer broth and advice on thrift. Their lives cannot continue to be reduced to Jane Austen novelettes. If the government is serious about solving the problem, they must be listened to and understood.
We started from a ruling regarding a single defendant and whether she had to remove her face veil while giving evidence, behind a screen. What everyone seemed to ignore at the time was that the judge didn’t simply wake up one morning and decide to make a general pronouncement in a vacuum. Instead, he was asked to balance competing interests. This is critical. One side raised the point that allowing it would prejudice their case. The other side, that it was the defendant’s right. The judge heard argument from both, including relevant precedent, and came to a view.
Two days later everyone was arguing a mutated general point. Nothing to do with defendants. Every single news outlet was asking whether one would be happy to be treated by doctors wearing Niqabs. Nobody asked how many such doctors there are or, indeed, if there are any. An entire country embroiled in a potentially entirely theoretical debate.
A few weeks have passed and now the question is about the face veil worn in any institutional situations – from schools to banks. By divorcing debate from specificity, we have opened out the discussion to accommodate a portion of the population’s fixation and irrational fear of all things Islam. Theoretical solutions to perceived, but not necessarily existing, problems. Meanwhile, Royal Mail and Lloyds Bank are being sold, George Osborne is using state money to protect Bankers’ bonuses and the NHS is being increasingly picked on like a carcass.