The Pandemic X Brexit: A World with Hard Borders?

As we see the imposition of hard borders within the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland for the first time since the Acts of Union in 1707, the cosmopolitan dream of a world without borders appears to be slipping away.

The European Union, once an organization eager to push for the dismantling of borders and promote the free movement of people, goods and services, is also beginning to appear lukewarm on this concept. Brexit and the Northern Ireland border could have been the cause of this unravelling, but they are not. The pandemic seems to have been more successful, with its ability to make visible national borders, impose quarantines and reassert the nation-state as the main management and administration unit.

But herein lies the problem. The economic consequences of imposed immobility can only be mitigated by consumption, which seems to be the only way to keep once thriving economies away from the brink of disaster. Governments, notably the UK, has kept encouraging us to shop, buy from local businesses, eat take-aways. Which also means that rather than allowing customers to face empty shelves and ring cash registers empty, many EU countries (and the UK) have been temporarily relaxing their pandemic transborder mobility rules for labourers willing to travel to pick up fresh produce in the fields, or stack boxes in distribution centres.

In Germany, the likely demise of the asparagus in the absence of Romanian pickers became a national issue. Last April, Cluj Airport in North West Romania displayed chaotic scenes as 2,000 asparagus and strawberry pickers boarded chartered planes bound for Germany in one day only. In May, Martin Hofstätter, a private entrepreneur from Northern Italy, also rented private jets to bring Romanian workers for his vineyards. The UK followed.

Throughout the autumn and in the run-up to Christmas, packing and distribution warehouses along the M6 corridor continued their aggressive recruitment campaigns, with Romanian warehouse operatives arriving in droves, without being tested or even offered quarantine advice. As discussions in Facebook groups attest, this type of work is still recruiting, despite other industries collapsing.

As we now enter into another UK lockdown and with further restrictions imposed throughout Europe, the case of preferential mobility during the pandemic raises certain issues.

On an optimistic note, it makes the plight of casual labourers visible. These once tolerated subjects of negative media campaigns and poor European cousins, have now become valued key workers. It has taken a massive crisis and a huge personal risk, but it has happened.

An alternative interpretation could be that the EU (and the UK) are continuing their duplicitous policies regarding desirable versus undesirable migrants, those who are welcome to avail themselves of mobility rights, and those who are kept away; exploited or deported when necessary.

Of course, this can also be considered a form of neocolonialism, with the possible complicity of the colonized. Why did the Romanian government allow workers to travel to countries with higher infection rates to solve someone else’s labour shortages?

Whichever interpretation you prefer, the cosmopolitan dream of equal recognition, fruitful cultural exchange and free movement for all is still slipping away.

Dr Remus Gabriel Anghel is Senior Researcher at the Romanian Institute for Research on National Minorities, Cluj-Napoca, Romania.

Dr Ruxandra Trandafoiu is ISR Research Fellow and Reader in Communication, Edge Hill University, UK.

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Some Thoughts on the Crisis of National Identity

Even in a small national state like our own, it would be more accurate to talk about identities rather than posit the notion of a single all-encompassing identity. This multiplicity of identities is formed by an interaction of class, region and culture. George Orwell’s comment that one rarely hears an educated accent north of Watford (The Road to Wigan Pier) brings together two of these elements as expressed by an Old-Etonian Southerner.

As a student I had the misfortune to work in the kitchen of a Pontin’s holiday camp. During a lull in the proceeding which we loosely referred to as ‘cooking’ two of my Liverpudlian colleagues improvised a banner and marched around singing The Sash My Father Wore, an Orange Order marching song. As an East Anglian this Protestant bigotry was entirely alien to my cultural identity, and yet we were all English.

Crises of identities are also nothing new, in the early part of the 20th century there was a belief among opinion formers, including Fabian socialists, that the ‘racial stock’ of the nation was in physical and mental decline. This sense of crisis was in part stimulated by the revelation, at the turn of the 19th century, that 40% of those volunteering for military service were medically unfit. Marie Stopes, the birth-control campaigner was, in part, motivated by a desire to control the excessive fertility of the lower orders.

In the 1980s Baroness Thatcher of Finchley, as she became, promoted the idea that the British were entrepreneurial, individualistic and, after the Falklands conflict, neo-imperialistic. The blighted areas of the old heavy industries did not feature in this presentation. Before Thatcher, Macmillan declared ‘You’ve never had it so good’ conjuring up a late 1950s narrative of consumerist prosperity. Harold Wilson attempted to create a narrative of modernity and youth, a Britain forged in ‘the white heat of the technological revolution’. These centrally driven presentations of British identity were always only true for a limited number; the homeless depicted in Cathy Come Home (directed by Ken Loach, 1966) did not dwell amongst the shiny new possessions of consumerist prosperity.

What appears to have happened in our own time, a product of the polarisation over Brexit, is the failure to generate a single overarching notion of national identity. In the absence of a strong central narrative of identity political leaders have opted for Populism. The essence of this approach is not to give leadership, but to give expression to the anger and frustrations that exist within many communities. Populists do not lead, they follow, and they frame slogans that their target audiences can add a multitude of meanings to. ‘Take Back Control’ can mean whatever you want it to. So, as someone once asked: What is to be Done?  It does seem that this is a political issue. Clear political leadership is required by politicians who are not afraid to challenge bigotry and racism, who are not afraid to counter pose reason to the irrationality that seems to be growing around the world. Will it happen? Surely at some point, it must!

Dr Roger Spalding is Senior Lecturer and Programme Leader for History at Edge Hill University.

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The Club of 5: Can former PMs really shape the debate?

In my favourite political sitcom, The Thick of It, defenestrated opposition leader Nicola Murray tells spin doctor Malcolm Tucker to take her seriously because she is now “a grandee”.   “You’re not a grandee… you’re a blandee” he replies. Tucker doesn’t want to listen to any of her advice.  She is, as far as he is concerned, well and truly past it.

It seems a little unfair to expect politicians out of office to just keep their mouths shut though.  They have, or feel they have, a balance of insight plus the leisure to reflect on it.  And these few days have seen former prime ministers from Major to May weighing in on the topic of international law.  And while David Cameron struck me as rather reluctant to make a pronouncement, John Major and Tony Blair, chomping at the bit, launched into print in a joint article.

The former premiers, and a more emotive collective noun would be very useful at this point, were giving their views on the Internal Market Bill, a piece of legislation acknowledged to be breaking international law.  The Bill is part of the Government’s arrangements ahead of the final Brexit day.  It is being speeded through the Commons.  There’s usually a gap between stages.  In this case committee follows second reading with haste.

But what effect do the opinions of former Prime Ministers have on those who have a vote?  The only one of the five who can actually take action is Theresa May, with her vote in the Commons.  That must mean the others believe or hope their words will prove persuasive.

This, in my view, is a major mistake.

Aristotle tells us that to be persuasive you need logos, ethos and pathos.  That means you have to have the logical argument; the audience needs to be receptive to you and you need to be the right person to deliver the message. We can’t deny that the former Prime Ministers have the arguments.  They have enough experience in law making to deploy them.  They can use the practical implications of breaking international law as well as the moral points.  But how receptive will the audience be, and do they make good messengers?

Former Prime Ministers are known by the audience of Parliamentarians as politicians who shared their workplace.  And in the world of politics dislike, distrust and jealousy tend to rear their head.  For an MP, having spent five years being snubbed by David Cameron will I want to listen to him?  And didn’t Tony Blair push through policies I fundamentally disagreed with?

While the media will find these ex premiers good copy, they are less helpful when persuasion is needed at Westminster.  And when what’s needed is someone with the ability to have a quiet word, to get people together in a committee room, to drop by in the tea room, they simply are not there. We now know that the Government had a decent majority in Monday’s vote. To defeat the government opponents and rebels will need less noise and more nuance

Paula Keaveney is programme leader for Politics at Edge Hill University


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