Friday, 25 March 2016

Put the fences up!

UKIP and the Brexiters have been very adept at conflating the migrant crisis in Europe with the issue of Britain's membership of the EU. Once the floodgates are open at Europe's outer borders, so the argument goes, Britain will be swamped by all sorts of folk from far flung countries.

Whilst this line of argument conveniently overlooks the fact that neither migrants nor asylum seekers (and these are two different groups indeed) won't be able to move about within Europe at will since they have no European Passport and can't gain entry to the UK unless they become citizens of a European country, it obviously resonates with many who feel frightened and worried about unchecked emigration. That moving around in Europe is easier said then done for migrants and asylum seekers does not matter much to the UKIPers.

Within this wildly distorted debate about Europe and migration, it may be useful to reflect on a similar episode in English history that fostered xenophobia and led to calls to uphold border controls. Here is Nicholas Fuller MP on the 'madness to tear down borders' between Scotland and England in 1607:

'One man is owner of two pastures, with one hedge to divide them: the one pasture bare, the other fertile and good. A wise owner will not pull down the hedge quite, but make gates and let them in and out ... if he do, the cattle rush in multitudes and much against their will return ...' (Davies, p.553)

Fuller's intervention proved decisive. The English parliament refused to approve the Instrument of the Union between Scotland and England for another hundred years.

Sunday, 20 March 2016

Grinding poverty

There have always been two different approaches to poverty. Some have seen poverty as a product of financial inequality, to be mitigated by additional resources, mainly welfare payments. Others have seen it as an indicator of insufficient inclusion or access to opportunities, in particular opportunities brought about by work. The first approach is largely driven by indignation about differences of means, whilst the second feeds on philosophies rooted in personal responsibility. The former leader of the Conservative Party, Iain Duncan Smith (IDS), who has resigned from his post as Work and Pensions Secretary on Friday was a believer in the second approach. Having been booted out by his party colleagues from the leadership post in 2003 he re-invented himself as a fighter against poverty and hopelessness. He founded the Centre for Social Justice, visited the Easterhouse Estate in Glasgow and, over the next 8 years, formulated a sophisticated welfare reform strategy. In 2010, being appointed Work and Pensions Secretary in the first Cameron cabinet, he implemented wide-ranging welfare reforms designed to tackled worklessness and poverty of working families. His efforts culminated in the announcement of the National Living Wage last year which will lift income from work beyond the level of means that can be obtained through out of work welfare payments. It crowned a long and distinguished career of a compassionate conservative. Yet, it was not always like this.

Vision for change - IDS at the Easterhouse Estate in Glasgow in 2002.
Foto Murdo MacLeod/The Guardian
Poverty has been an object of political reform ever since the industrial revolution created winners and losers in the world of work. In times of full employment until the 1970s, it was largely seen as a consequence of low wages. As the West was hit by large scale structural unemployment, poverty became a by-product of worklessness as well. Ever since these momentous years in the 1970s, the debate about poverty has centred around sufficient welfare payments to those in need, giving them the means to live a decent life. The watchword was dignity.

However, as it became clear that increasing welfare payments contributed to a fundamental change in people's attitudes towards work, reformers changed tack. They began to argue that, whilst little could be done to change people's willingness to work, the consequences of worklessness could, and should be, mitigated through ever higher welfare payments. In particular, it was argued, children of parents who were out of work required additional resources. The main avenue to eradicate child poverty was increasingly perceived to be higher out of work welfare payments to parents, reinforcing a vicious circle in which parents were incentivised to demonstrate to welfare officers how poor they were to gain access to additional resources. A tragic spiral of low levels of personal responsibility, de-legitimising work as a source of income and welfare as a legitimate replacement for income through employment ensued that eventually led to some British families in receipt of hundreds of thousands of pounds every year. The logic was undeniable. Once need was identified, adequate welfare had to be provided.

IDS was not the first person to challenge this logic, but, looking back, it is hard to imagine today how difficult it once was to articulate a different strategy. The impetus for change however did not come from this country, or from conservative politicians, but from social reformers on the left in the US. They recognised the link between out of work payments, behaviour and increasing welfare needs. In a way, they argued, the missing component in eradicating poverty was personal responsibility. What was needed as a hand up, not a handout, echoing the slogans of radical social reformers in the 19th century.

When coming to office in 1992, President Bill Clinton embarked on fundamental welfare reform, based on the principle of incentivising work. Other countries followed suit, interestingly mainly socialist and social democratic governments. In Britain, significant welfare reform was judged a shot too far within the Blair and Brown Cabinets, although progressive reform minded Labour politicians like James Purnell articulated the need for change.

The resignation of IDS on Friday ended one of the most effective welfare reforms this country has seen since the introduction of the welfare state under Clement Attlee. IDS changed for the better the references for the debate in this country. We now speak of the need to support people to get into work, assess their fitness to work, instead of patting them on the back and sending them home with a welfare cheque. This has undoubtedly created frictions and difficulties. Changes to welfare entitlements have been fiercely resisted by those habituated into a life on the dole and the proponents of the status quo.

However the main parameters of the national debate are now around how to sufficiently incentivise employment. And it is IDS's contribution to have brought about this shift.

Sunday, 6 March 2016

Hieronymus Bosch - chronicle of life and death at the end of the times

Paintings of the late medieval and early modern period are often suffused with symbolism that have increasingly become a barrier to understanding or even simple enjoyment. The works of most painters of that period are populated with biblical references that few of us are still able to decipher. What remains is a feeling of awe in the face of artistic skill, which is nothing short of a decapitation of meaning. That we still visit exhibitions may be testament to our hunger to be entertained and, at times our desire to be tickled by curiosity.

Hieronymus Bosch's painting has never been on top of my list of things to see (Vermeer occupies this place), but curiosity got the better of me recently and I made the journey to Bosch's birthplace which has just curated an extraordinary exhibition of most of his paintings. This is an incredible feat as his paintings are as prized as they are scattered all over the world and most museums are very reluctant to lend fragile pieces that are now about 500 years old. In addition, bringing the paintings of only one single painter together in a kind of retrospective removes his work of the vital historical, artistic and creative context, so these projects can be difficult to pull off. 

Bosch's works however are of enormous radiance and power to overcome any of these difficulties and  his paintings have clearly stood the test of time. In fact, they shine (in part because of the incredible restoration efforts of modern museums) as never before in the recent exhibition of the Noordbrabants Museum in his birthplace s'Hertogenbosch (NL). Seeing them all together in one exhibition is a real joy. Bosch's skills shows up most, however, when contrasted with paintings from his 'workshop' which retains some of the religious themes yet few of the artistic skills. Where his paintings tell stories and show multiple perspectives, depths and spaces, the paintings of some of his students look two dimensional and flat in comparison. 

Wayfarer or Prodigal Son?
Hieronymus Bosch, circa 1500-1510
Much has been made of his phantasmagorical paintings, the depictions of purgatory and hell, yet the exhibition also contains some of Bosch's more secular and mundane work (if that's the word for a world thoroughly defined by religion). That we still know very little and often cannot even agree on what his paintings show is demonstrated by the painting 'The Wayfarer' to the frame of which a previous owner has nailed the title: 'The lost son'. In truth, we have no idea what the painting depicts and some of the titles we give to Bosch's works are not much more than a good guess. 

If the exhibition is a magnificent achievement for the local museum and its curator, it does not steer clear of some grandiose claims, such as celebrating Bosch as a draughtsman in his own right. Whilst his sketches are interesting to see as part of the process of preparing paintings, they are nothing like the works of skilled draughtsmen like Albrecht Duerer, an example of whose work the curators (unhelpfully) included.