Reparations for historical wrongs can’t be fair

I attended an online session recently in which some academics were making a principled argument for reparations for slavery and colonialism.  The argument is simple enough.  Both slavery and colonialism did terrible things.  People are still suffering as a result.  The countries that perpetrated those wrongs should pay reparations to redress the balance.

I understand why people want to make this argument.  There have been historical wrongs, and there is continuing disavantage as a result.  I also think that they are profoundly muddled.  There is no possible way for reparations to be done fairly.

My objections rest on four points of concern.  The first question to consider is remoteness.  Do people merit compensation for something that has been done, not to them, but to their ancestors?  To what extent are people responsible for the sins of their parents? Their grandparents? The seventh generation?  This isn’t some obscure philosophical point.  Jamaica has asked Britain to compensate them for slavery – which was substantially abolished in the colony in 1834 (some time after the 1807s abolition in Britain).  Many of the wrongs that have been done to indigenous peoples date from the long nineteenth century.  Some of them happened centuries ago.  African slavers sold their compatriots into slavery in the New World.  Should their descendants be paying compensation to their descendants in the USA?  Where does this end? Where do we draw the line?

Second: who is liable?  If the issue is viewed collectively, the implication is that anyone who has become part of the collective becomes liable for that collective’s past actions.  One of the characteristic features of colonial powers is that often they brought in people from the lands they had colonised.  That’s how populations  of people of South Asian or Afro-Caribbean descent developed in the UK, and Muslims in France or Russia.  If “Britain” is treated collectively for the purposes of reparations, those reparations will come, not from the concealed coffers of perpetrators, but from a population that according to the 2021 census includes fully a quarter of people who do not identify as ‘white’ and English, Scottish, Welsh,  Northern Irish or “British”. About one in six people were not born in the UK.  Should the Windrush generation, and those with a Caribbean heritage,  pay reparations to Jamaica?  Because that’s an inherent part of what Jamaica’s demands for reparations would entail.

The third problem concerns injustice.  Human history everywhere has been marred by oppression.   The East India Company, the Highland clearances, the Irish famine, the treatment of the poor, the dispossession of indigenous peoples, the pogroms, the wars, the genocides – there’s no end to it, and nowhere to stop. The ancestors of the vast majority of people, in almost any country you can name, have been the victims of oppression. It follows from that that any historic reparations will have to be made by or on behalf of the of people who have been the victims of oppression as well as people inheriting from the oppressors – and the inheritors of victims will be in the majority.  This isn’t a bit of “what aboutery”; if it was just that, a partial redress it could still help to correct some illegitimate disadvantage. The problem is much more fundamental.  There is hardly anywhere in the world where the current distribution has not been influenced by injustice, oppression,  exploitation or denial of rights: most of humanity have been treated badly for most of history.  No measures can be taken that are not also in effect measures taken against people whose ancestors have also been the victims of injustice.

Fourth, past wrongs are a poor guide to present injustices. Consider some of the large-scale forced migrations that have taken place in the course of the twentieth century: the partition of India, which displaced twenty million people and almost certainly led to a million deaths; the displacement and exchange of up to 20 million people in Germany, Poland and Ukraine in the period immediately following the Second World War; the mass expulsion and displacement of 1.6 million Greeks and Turks.  We tend to ignore much of this, although it is all relatively recent, either because it is considered less important than other historical wrongs (which should be a source of moral outrage), or  because so much has been done to improve the lives of their children and grandchildren.  If some groups are suffering injustice now, that is surely the responsibility of those who are responsible for addressing that injustice now – and that is a matter for contemporary governments, the people who have the power to redress that injustice now.  The alternative, of course, is to address one form of disadadvantage in the hope that it will reduce other related problems.  If so, what distinction should we draw between people who are the inheritors of historic injustice, people who are migrants from poor countries, and people who are poor now because of indequate incomes?  And what on earth makes us think that we have the knowledge, moral authority, competence or technical capacity to make such distinctions?

There are, then, four fundamental objections to the argument for reparations.

  • People can’t be held morally responsible for the actions of their distant ancestors, either individually or collectively.
  • We cannot fairly distinguish people who are liable from those who are not liable.
  • We cannot fairly take account of historical injustice, as opposed to injustice now.
  • We cannot unmake the history of the world.

There is every reason to argue that people who are treated badly should be treated better.   Wherever people are disadvantaged, there is a case to redress the balance, but that case is based in disadvantage now, not the ill-treatment of the past.  The world is as it is; what matters is what we do next.



Kim Long: 24 hours

Councillor Kim Long has agreed I can share her full thread with you, but asked me to include links to donate to two causes:  the Refugee Survival Trust and Positive Action in Housing.  Here’s what she wrote on Twitter, minus only a couple of (understandably furious) swear words.

RIGHT. i am so angry. We have established that Trump is a monster, yes? Let’s talk about my past 24 hours and what that says about our esteemed UK government.

So Tuesday night i got a call from a church minister in a total panic because one of her congregation had recieved a letter, out of nowhere, saying her she had 24 hours to vacate her accommodation because her asylum support was being stopped. Her support (a whole £35/week) plus accomodation, was being immediately removed because they did not believe she was destitute. One of their reasons was she had toys (handmedowns from a kind neighbour) & money in her account – money she had recieved from the home office.  So because she could not prove her destitution according to their insane criteria they decided to MAKE HER AND HER 4 KIDS HOMELESS AND DESTITUTE. With 24 HOURS notice. Before her 3 days to appeal rights were even close to up.The letter had no email address, no phone number, no way of contacting except to send said appeal by POST. Which would be impossible within 24 hours. She was advised to FAX an appeal to a number NOT ON THE LETTER. A FAX. I have never even TOUCHED a fax machine.

So there she was, out of her mind with worry. Oh yes also she’s a single parent, she has an 8 year old, a 5 yo who is severely autistic (& so incredibly sensitive to disruption) & twin toddlers (omg). She has also survived horrific domestic violence, sexual assault, & abuse. (As an interlude i need to say how in awe i am of this lady, her strength and courage and parenting skills are just out of this world. She used to run her own small business, she is articulate and clever and hospitable and kind. It was a pleasure to spend my day with her) … anyway i went to her home yesterday morning, to try to work out a support plan, so that if Serco showed up there was Cllr observing their behaviour, and so that if they were made homeless i could ensure immediate social work support.

let’s pause here to observe that Glasgow City Council would be picking up the bill if the Home Office made this family homeless. The UK government is literally pushing people through the cracks + local authorities are financially penalised for not being so inhumane – let us also observe that if there were no kids involved the council would not be able to give her accomodation. Also if she was (now) fleeing domestic abuse she would not be able to go to a shelter because she is not eligible for housing benefits. Yes, things are that bad.

So – long day of emails and phone calls and then a wonderful lady from her church was there to watch most of the kids while i took this lady & kid to @GovanCP , who were just incredible. They met us, applied for an emergency grant, gave £ for food + an appt for the next day.We went home with cake from the foodbank 😁 & via aldi for essentials. Lady has been through hell but thanks to the support she’ll now receive to fight for her £ to be reinstated, thinks she will be able to sleep. Meanwhile locks were unchanged, nobody showed. Scare tactics.

So that was yesterday. And THEN on my way home today i met our neighbour who was frantic that he’s not seen me around (i’ve been away) – what if i had moved and he had nobody? He is also an asylum seeker & is living in limbo, waiting for news that his case is being looked at. He has been living with toothache for maybe 7 weeks because he is waiting for a form from the Home Office to give him access to dental treatment. He was recently given a card to say he was allowed to work, but now they have sent him a new one saying he is not allowed to.

He is bored. Fed up. Hungry. His wife is the same – he tells me they have nothing to do but quarrel because they are under so much pressure. They have a kid – the cutest, smartest, daughter, who comes to ours to play with/terrorise our cat & laugh at our music choices.  Today he said he is struggling with school holidays. “There are free things to do – but what if, when we’re out, we see someone with a lolly? Or she wants some candy? How can i say i can’t afford it? I feel so ashamed. So perhaps it’s better for her to be inside & not see.”

And then he said that while we were away they had their big interview with the Home Office. (They had first been summoned months ago, went through sleepness nights, showed up, to find the wrong interpreter provided. Interview postponed – back home. More waiting.) So last week they went back again. He was grilled for 8.5 hours, with 1 hour break & one further 15 mins. His wife had 6.5 hours. No kids allowed, but no childcare. They questioned every minute detail. He was so exhausted when he got home he didn’t speak for 2 days. And then – after he explained the danger they fled from, after he explained that as both religious and cultural minorities they could not possibly be safe in their country of origin – he said that he had also brought his daughter away because of the threat of FGM. We were standing in the sunlight but suddenly the world went grey as i realised the gorgeous kid who made me a birthday card last month would have been mutilated as soon as she hit puberty – could still face this if they are put on a plane. And then – i don’t know if i can type this because i am shaking – the interviewers said:”But 98% of the people in your country do FGM. Why is this a problem?”It took me several minutes to understand. UK HOME OFFICE AGENTS ASKED HIM WHY HAVING HIS DAUGHTER CUT WAS AN ISSUE.

This is our UK government. This is what they are doing to people – people who live in your close, whose kids are pals with your kids, people who are just trying to live their lives and survive.

This has been ONE DAY.

Kim’s requests for donations again:  they were the Refugee Survival Trust and Positive Action in Housing.

How our government is dealing with refugees

It’s being reported that Serco, which is responsible for providing accommodation for asylum seekers, has given 300 people in Glasgow warning of immediate eviction. Eviction from residential property without notice used to be illegal, but in 1999 the Labour government amended the Protection from Eviction Act to exempt accommodation provided on these terms.  Govan Law Centre has starting legal proceedings based on Scottish common law.

3rd August.  I’ve amended the original post because Kim Long has given me permission to include her full comments on her recent work with her constituents.

The Big Questions

I was part yesterday of a studio discussion for “The Big Questions”, a Sunday morning TV programme. I’d been asked along to say something about Universal Basic Income, which was being put forward by Guy Standing and Glasgow councillor Matt Kerr. Other questions considered in the programme (each question gets twenty minutes) were about Scotland’s voice in Brexit, where I did get my oar in, and reparations for slavery, where I didn’t.  (There’s a hilarious take on the programme’s format here – I went in the full knowledge that it was going to be tough.)  The programme is on Iplayer for a little while.

I’ve said plenty about both Basic Income and Brexit on this blog, so let me fill a gap by saying where I stand on reparations for slavery.  While there’s no doubt about the depth of the historical injustice, I don’t think we can rewrite thousands of years of world history to rectify it.  I come from a long line of refugees.  I can’t accept the principle that I should be compensated for the injustice they suffered; I’ve done nothing to justify that.  (That also means, by the way, that I think the UN’s current position on hereditary refugee status is nonsense; if they’re right, I should be thought of as a refugee from three other countries.)  When my great grand father, grandfather and father came to Britain, the first in the 1880s and the others in the 1940s, they didn’t come to join a slave-traders’ club; they came to one of the few countries that had stood against slavery and oppression.  Britain has things to be ashamed of, sure enough, but it’s also got something to be proud of.

Stopping in-work benefits for EU workers

It’s been widely reported (for example, in the Times, the Mail and the Sun) that Theresa May has plans to restrict in-work benefits to EU workers, putting them on the same footing as non-EU claimants.  I’ve been puzzling about what this means.  The only benefits specifically mentioned in the reported briefings are Tax Credits, which in any case are supposed to be being replaced by Universal Credit.  In most cases non-EU migrants are entitled to benefits as long as they meet the various tests – residence, presence or habitual residence,  depending on which benefit we’re talking about.  So, for example, to be entitled to Child Tax Credit, Working Tax Credit or Child Benefit a non-EEA migrant is expected to have lived in the UK for three months.  Refugees and family members don’t have the three month test; but both EU and UK citizens returning from abroad, who are not working, are subject to the  test.  If Ms May was saying only that there’s to be a three-month residence requirement for everyone, she wouldn’t need to wait for Brexit; it would be compatible with EU law now.

The main restriction that actively affects non-EU migrants is something quite different:  the restriction of the terms of entry on their visa, where they undertake not to be dependent on public funds and are threatened with deportation if they do.    Treating EU migrants in the same way could only happen after Brexit.  It would mean that the issue is not mainly about benefit law at all, but about the way that Britain deals with foreign citizens.  It’s only workable if we have a straightforward way of identifying who is, and who is not, a migrant, and a clear record of the terms of entry.  That could affect millions of people.

Free movement demands planning: both the EU and the UK government have muddied the water on managing immigration

David Cameron has just been to an EU summit to say that the EU must accept the restriction of free movement of labour; it’s not going to happen.  I was reluctant, during the referendum campaign, to engage in debates on the subject of immigration:  every attempt to intervene on the other side only reinforced the idea that the EU referendum was really about ‘controlling our borders’.  The debate was misconceived in three ways.  First, the UK does ‘control its borders’.  In an open society, however, people cross back and forward across borders all the time, and they are routinely checked.  Routinely, of course, means not very thoroughly, but doing it thoroughly to everyone passing a border is unthinkable.   Border controls can in theory contribute to immigration control – in theory – but, as the experience of the USA shows, this is neither practical nor effective.  All it shows, not very reliably, is that some visitors overstay.

Second, what is done at the border is of very limited relevance to the control of immigration.   An ‘immigrant’ is not just a visitor; it is someone who comes to settle, which implies living, working and participate in another society.  While the UK controls visits, it does remarkably little about immigration as such, with a signal lack of intervention in employment in particular and policies for housing and urban planning that are substantially laissez-faire.

Third, restricting the flow of migration is not the same as controlling the numbers.  Restrictions limit potential numbers, because it restricts the flow, but it does not actually bring them under control.  There is no fixed quota or number that might be achieved (let alone a figure for ‘net migration’, which depends on other factors beyond the government’s control. )  The situation is made more complex because there are several different kinds of circumstances where people come to settle.  The principal categories are economic migrants (workers and families), family reunion, asylum seekers and refugees, and students. (There were 437,000 overseas students in 2014/15, including 125,000 from other EU countries.  Education is more than a service industry, but it counts as one of our major exports.)

There is a problem with migration, but it is not the problem that the UK government has been talking about. The problem is that once migration happens, as it does all the time, there needs to be some adjustment to it.  Both the UK government, and the institutions of the EU, are in the grip of a market based ideology which thinks that ‘free movement’ of money, goods, services and people is the same thing as unfettered movement.  Markets have to be structured,  regulated and facilitated.  Where they have negative effects, those need to be managed and compensated for.  When the EU was set up, the main concern was the impact of trade and specialisation on employment, and the Social Funds were set up to deal with that.  But now, the neo-liberals are in the ascendant, both in the UK and in the EU.   When it comes to the movement of people, there is no mechanism for management, at the level of the EU, the national government or local government.

Jobs need to be in places where people can live.  There have to be houses, schools, roads.  That means either that jobs are directed to those places, or that places have to be built and developed to go where the jobs are.  I prefer the first of those options, but that’s not crucial to this argument.  The point is that there is no inconsistency between the free movement of people – a fundamental principle of the European Union – and  planning to meet population change.  On the contrary, free movement depends on such planning.  If EU rules are obstructing free movement, because they prevent planning happening, they need to be changed.  But I suspect that the problem rests, not in the rules as such, as the assumption that the principle of free movement renders everyone helpless.

Benefits for migrants

A House of Commons briefing paper details the extent to which working-age migrants from different countries are receiving benefits from the UK welfare state.  The quick answer is: to a very small extent.   Migrants are  less likely than British-born citizens to receive benefits in work, and much less likely to receive benefits out of work.  There is nothing in the figures to support the contention that the benefits system is under pressure from migrants.

The Migration Observatory at Oxford has also recently published a report on the minimum income requirement for non-EEA nationals.  They were asked to review at what level of income people wouldn’t be dependent on benefits: it’s not a meaningful question, because benefits don’t work that way.   The report cites a finding that the UK already has the most restrictive policies of 38 high-income countries.


A petition for sanctuary for refugees

I signed a petition yesterday: No more drownings.  I don’t agree wholeheartedly with its terms, because it doesn’t go far enough: I think we should be offering a safe and permanent sanctuary to refugees, as Germany has now agreed to do, and the idea that it is somehow difficult to find eligible refugees is beyond parody.   The UK’s failure to respond to a mortal crisis is a disgrace.

We should let more migrants in

bildThe ‘crisis’ at Calais may be small beer by comparison with the issues in Hungary, Greece and Italy, but clearly it has implications for both the British and the French government.  My sympathies, I should declare,  are with the migrants.  I come from a long line of refugees – my father left France in 1940; I am the first male member of my family not to have to leave his country in five generations.  Some of the arguments that are being made about the ‘swarm’ of migrants are preposterous.  They should not be trying to enter the country illegally.  What options do they have to enter legally?  They should apply in their own countries through the proper channels.   So …  what do the proper channels in Syria look like?   They come with no identity papers.  A standard part of fleeing the country is that you dump papers so that you won’t be sent back to die.   The Guardian cites the UN special representative on migration:  “Many of those in Calais are refugees, just as the Jewish people were in 1939.”

The people at Calais have come from very different places – some from war zones, some from chaotic regimes, others from very poor parts of the world.   Some of them have a strong case for asylum; others may not; but the authorities in Britain and France don’t seem to be doing anything to differentiate them. The first duties fall on France, which is behaving disgracefully.  Where people are stateless, France has a legal duty to receive them.  When they are seeking asylum, France has a duty to process the application and admit them if the claim is justified.   Where there are unaccompanied children, France should be intervening to provide care.  Where a person has no case to remain, there is no justification for leaving that person to settle in a makeshift camp in Calais.   The second set of duties fall on Britain.  Britain has not yet accepted a proportionate share of people seeking refuge in the EU.  It is using border controls to make up for the inadequacy of its domestic arrangements:  people could not live and work illegally in the UK  if we applied the same rules about residence, housing occupancy and employment that are applied in most of the EU.  And, of course, once someone gains the status of a French citizen, they are legally entitled to seek work in Britain.  We might as well take them now.

4th September, 2015:  I have added a clip from the German newspaper, Bild, published on 31st August.  It refers to ‘the shirkers of Europe’ and the strapline is, ‘they help far fewer refugees than they could’.   

'A new policy on immigration and benefits, every week'

Lynton Crosby is advising the Conservative party on its electoral strategy.  Several newspapers and blogs this morning have reported, with some bemused scepticism, this from the Mail on Sunday:

Mr Crosby is said to have given orders that the party must produce ‘a new policy to curb immigrants and benefits’ every week.

This is poisonous, but I’m going to leave that aside for the while, and consider the issue solely from the perspective of the Conservative party.  This approach hasn’t worked in previous elections, notably the 2005 election where Crosby advised a campaign led by Michael Howard. It is bad electoral politics: it preaches to the converted, it alienates millions of others, and it does not offer any advantage to potential voters who aren’t already persuaded.

More simply, this is no way to make policy.  It has to lead to a flurry of competing proposals – scores of them, if this carries on for the next year.   It has to be done in a hurry, which means that mistakes will be made about facts, figures and assessments of impact- it’s happened repeatedly with policies like the benefits cap or Housing Benefit, and most recently with the farcical misrepresentaton of Romanian and Bulgarian immigration.   More is worse, as the Conservatives would have been keen to advise us in the days when there were some conservatives in the party.  A ‘policy a week’ is not a policy at all.