I am grateful to my wife for drawing attention to this article by Giles Fraser, ‘why won’t Remainers talk about family?’ , even if reading it did take me back to my days marking essays by adolescents whose ardour outstripped their capacity for reasoned argument: having conceived a notion, and decided that it must be right, they proceeded by astonishing leaps and bounds to alter and even invent the facts to suit their case.
Up here in Scotland we are rather a backward lot: we live far from London, so don’t get to see The Evening Standard, and we have forgotten who George Osborne is, so clearly we are out of touch with current trends, but it still came as something of a shock to learn that in voting Remain in 2016 (which our entire country, every council area, did) we were actually signing up to George Osborne’s neo-liberal project to destroy the family and community life by stockpiling our elderly relatives in care-home warehouses staffed by foreign nationals in order to persuade them that a quick trip to Dignitas would be a better option for everyone but especially the heartless uncaring young – ‘rootless Ronin’ as the writer quaintly calls them – who are abandoning their communities in droves in order to earn lots of money for themselves as far away from home as possible.
But no less a person than Evan Davis tells us that the author is ‘one of the most fluent critics of the remainer world view’, so there must be something in it, surely? Granted, ‘fluent’ is faint praise – nonsense can be fluent, after all – but what I have difficulty recognising is the ‘remainer world view’ that Fraser presents. In fact, the real insight he provides is how the Brexit worldview has evolved to cope with mounting evidence from every side that their chosen path will be disastrous.
Take that headline, for a start – what is the evidence that Remainers ‘won’t talk about family?’ The sole ground Fraser puts forward for this extraordinary assertion is that one person who supports Remain once wrote a newspaper article that failed to mention ‘family’ – possibly because it was about something else. Writing in The Independent, Luciana Berger (recently in the news for leaving Labour to sit as an independent MP) said that Brexit would be a disaster for the social care sector because with the number of older people needing care set to double by 2040, there could ‘28,000 fewer workers in the social care sector in England five years after leaving the EU’.
Fraser’s gripe with this article is not with the figures Berger quotes nor with the argument she makes but rather with the fact that it was not about something else: his complaint is that ‘never once in the piece did she mention the word family’ and that ‘the only way the piece related to family life and the mutual care that this has traditionally implied is through the idea that caring for a family member equals “lost earnings”’.
Without having the article to hand (it is unfortunate that Fraser gives no more detailed information about it than that it was written last year) it is difficult to judge how appropriate it would have been for the writer to make any mention of family or family life in a piece that was evidently about the impact of Brexit on the social care sector, nor how fair is Fraser’s implication that Berger sees caring for a family member solely in terms of lost earnings (unfortunately, in quoting the text he omits the words that connect the statement about there being fewer workers to the statement about loss of earnings). In any case, to proceed from the fact that someone didn’t write an article the way you wanted to the conclusion that ‘Remainers won’t talk about family’ is something of a leap.
It would appear that, confronted with yet another well-supported argument that Brexit will be a disaster for Britain in yet another sector and finding himself unable to to answer it (and it is noteworthy that he makes no attempt to deny any part of Berger’s argument), Fraser resorts instead to complaining about the way things are – ‘but people shouldn’t put their parents in care homes!’ – and takes off from there on an extraordinary fugue – in the sense of a flight from an unbearable reality – which concludes with the preposterous claim that ‘Remain is all about ever new opportunities for the rich. Brexit seeks a reclamation of something we have lost. The ability to stay put and care for each other.’
This is a most extraordinary piece of repackaging: all the privations that Brexit will bring are to be welcomed because we didn’t want to be rich anyway: it’s better to be poor and have your freedom (cue clip of Mel Gibson in Braveheart). But perhaps it is more like the Black Knight in Monty Python and the Holy Grail who insists that he will fight on – ‘it’s just a flesh wound!’ – as his various extremities are successively lopped off. With each new damning proof of the folly of Brexit, defiance becomes the only available recourse.
The Black Knight with his refusal to accept defeat could be seen as a parody of the ‘Dunkirk Spirit’ so often evoked in relation to Brexit, with its bizarre implication that our entirely self-imposed choice to leave a democratic federation that has maintained peace and prosperity in Europe for over half a century can somehow be equated with a near-miraculous hairsbreadth escape from military rout by the forces of a megalomanic dictator – with actual guns, tanks and aeroplanes – intent on destroying all that we hold most dear.
Confronted with mounting evidence that Brexit will make us poorer and our lives harder, possibly for years to come, the Brexiter’s preferred response now seems to be the famous riposte of Londoners to the Blitz – ‘we can take it!’ – conveniently overlooking the fact that in this case, we have backed ourselves against the wall – no-one is pushing us – and the impending destruction will not be the work of enemy bombers but something we have wrought ourselves.
It is worth looking in detail at the picture Fraser paints, in the first instance to ask whether it bears any resemblance to reality, and then to consider whether all this is just a muddled rant or if it might be something more sinister.
The article is short on evidence and argument but long on anecdote and windy rhetoric; what passes for reasoning does not bear examination. Anecdotes are not evidence, but they have their place, provided they furnish a pithy illustration of some key point in the same way that an apposite quotation can, or a clever cartoon. Unfortunately, Fraser’s do not do this. His first makes a distressing human situation –the sad reversal of roles where the adult child must now look after the most intimate needs of a demented and incontinent parent – the occasion for a finger-wagging lesson on filial piety: ‘we don’t ask for state help in changing our children’s nappies, so why should we expect it in caring for our parents?’
Leaving aside the fact that there is a network of health visitors and midwives to give support to new parents, there are some serious flaws in Fraser’s anecdotal argument. Caring for a grown adult who has suffered a loss of mental and physical capacity is not much like looking after a baby: quite apart from the emotional demands, it can be physically taxing and even dangerous; even those who do have both time and means to devote to caring for a parent in decline are often forced to the reluctant conclusion that they simply are not equal to the task – they may well be elderly themselves and not in the best of health.
But for Fraser, ‘Children have a responsibility to look after their parents…It is the daughter of the elderly gentleman that should be wiping his bottom. This sort of thing is not something to subcontract.’ What are we to make of this? Are you only meeting your filial responsibility if you do it in person? Ought society not to have deemed it a common good to develop a state-supported system of social care?
Fraser’s ‘argument’ consists mainly in objecting to the way things are now then blaming it all on Remainers and, by implication, the European Union. It is worth noting that the principles of the European Union (including the famous ‘principle of subsidiarity’ that power should be exercised, not from the top, but at the lowest level capable of doing so) are drawn to a very large extent from Catholic social teaching, which sits rather oddly with Fraser’s portrayal of it as a heartless neoliberal capitalist scheme to destroy family and community values.
Fraser goes on, ‘Ideally, then, people should live close to their parents and also have some time availability to care for them. But instead, many have cast off their care to the state or to carers who may have themselves left their own families in another country to come and care for those that we won’t.’
Setting aside (once again) the lack of evidence that Fraser produces for his assertions, there are two points to be made here. One is the implication that just as we should stay in our community and care for our own, so those who presently do it should return to theirs and do likewise. That has a somewhat sinister ring to my ear – ‘they should all go home’ – and takes no account of the fact that the reason many of them are here is precisely to earn enough to support their families because the opportunity does not exist where they come from. The second point is one that Fraser goes on to develop in the next stage of his rant, the skewed idea that we have somehow developed the mechanism of social care primarily to free ourselves from responsibility, to allow us to shirk our duty and go off and earn money for ouselves.
This is illustrated by Fraser’s second anecdote, which is worth quoting in full, if only to appreciate the extraordinary leap he makes from it to the conclusions that he draws: ‘My GP friend also told me another story. Just before Christmas he did a home visit to an elderly woman, living on her own, but surrounded by Christmas cards. She proudly told him how well her kids had done, showing him the cards sent by her children living all round the world. “I never see them very much now” she explained. She was on her own for Christmas. They might Skype.’
Here is the lesson he draws: ‘This is what happens when that much over praised value of social mobility becomes the way we think about dealing with social inequality. Social mobility is very much a young person’s value, of course. Get on. Get out of your community. Find a job anywhere you please. Undo the ties that bind you. The world is your oyster.’
There seems to be a serious confusion here between ‘social mobility’ and, well, ‘mobility’, in particular moving to get work (is there a nod to Norman Tebbit there, perhaps, and his father getting on his bike to look for a job?). If a joiner or an electrician leaves his home town to work in the oil industry or on an overseas construction project as a joiner or electrician, that is not social mobility. Social mobility is a movement (generally upward) in social class or social status. It may be bound up with a change of occupation and might be facilitated by increased earning power but the commonest agent in my lifetime and perhaps still is education, which is not without its dislocating effects, as documented in Willy Russell’s admirable play, Educating Rita, or by Seamus Heaney in these lines from Clearances, a sonnet sequence dedicated to his mother:
Fear of affectation made her affect
Inadequacy whenever it came to
Pronouncing words ‘beyond her’. Bertold Brek.
She’d manage something hampered and askew
Every time, as if she might betray
The hampered and inadequate by too
Well-adjusted a vocabulary.
With more challenge than pride, she’d tell me, ‘You
Know all them things.’ So I governed my tongue
In front of her, a genuinely well-
Adjusted adequate betrayal
Of what I knew better. I’d naw and aye
And decently relapse into the wrong
Grammar which kept us allied and at bay.
But we must not expect such perceptive observation from Fraser:
‘This is the philosophy that preaches freedom of movement, the Remainers’ golden cow. [Golden Cow?? Does he mean Golden Calf? Sacred Cow? Golden Goose?] And it is this same philosophy that encourages bright working-class children to leave their communities to become rootless Rōnin, loyal to nothing but the capitalist dream of individual acquisition and self-advancement.’
(I do wonder if Fraser is familiar with the history of the working class and in particular the industrial revolution, with the flight from the land to the teeming cities, the Irish navvies coming to build canals then railways and hydroelectric plants, or the great transatlantic migrations from Europe to the New World: but then I don’t suppose he could blame any of that on George Osborne or the EU, and besides, aren’t those the good old days he wants us to get back to?)
Poor bright young working-class people! there is, it appears, no good reason for leaving home, and it is doubly shameful to do so in the hope of earning money or bettering yourself. You should stick around waiting for your parents to dement so that you can be on hand to wipe their bums. Nowhere does Fraser address the possibility that people might leave home because they have to, from economic necessity, and not because they want to; that they might do so precisely in order to support their families better than they can by remaining at home. Indeed, in a striking confusion of cause and effect, he attributes the decline of communities to young people leaving them, rather than vice versa:
‘robbed of their most go-ahead young people, working class communities become ghost towns of hopelessness.’
That is just nonsense. It is because so many communiuties have become ghost towns through economic decline that young people have to leave.
Fraser, like many who espouse the Brexit position, does not like the turn the modern world has taken. Well, as Philip Marlowe might say, I’m not too keen on it myself: I lie awake at nights grieving about it. For instance, the impoverishing effect of the banking crisis of 2008 has exacerbated the demographic imbalance created by the very success of modern medicine and the welfare state, so creating tension between young and old, the dwindling tax-base of younger people who must support a burgeoning older population in a pensioned retirement that they themselves are unlikely to enjoy; but I do not see that these undoubted ills of modern society can be blamed entirely on the European Union, nor that they can be cured by Brexit – save perhaps that the elderly might start dying sooner.
But Fraser thinks they can. In that, he epitomises the Brexit position: he attributes a general dissatisfaction, an unfocused resentment – ‘fings ain’t what they used to be’ – to a specific and visible cause: it’s all the fault of that European Union and those Remainers (one of the most paradoxical aspects of his argument is that Remainers are simultaneously characterised as a homogeneous group who think and behave in the same way and as self-seeking individualists who have rejected all community values).
Some of the leaps and non sequiturs he makes in pursuing his case are breathtaking:
‘Always on the move, always hot desking. Short-term contracts. Laptops and mobiles – even the tools of modern workplace remind us that work no longer has any need of place. [do they? really?] All this is a philosophy that could not have been better designed to spread misery and unhappiness.’
All what? one may ask – and what is the connection between the first part of this paragraph and the concluding sentence? Perhaps these things will get clearer if we read on –
‘Human beings need roots for their emotional and psychological flourishing. They need long-term, face-to-face relationships; they need chatting in the local post office; they need a sense of shared identity, shared values, mutual commitment. No amount of economic growth is worth sacrificing all this for.’
– or perhaps not. It is not mere pedantry to point out that one of the distinguishing characteristics of human beings, as indeed all animals, is that they do not, in fact, need roots; when we use that term metaphorically, it emphasises that we can form deep and lasting attachments for particular places that persist no matter where in the world we happen to be: the exile draws spiritual and emotional sustenance from his homeland perhaps even more than the one who stays at home. And apart from the curiously specific ‘chatting in the local post office’– not, I confess, a human need I had been aware of, myself – none of the others is necessarily tied to place as Fraser seems to want to claim. The notion that you somehow have to stay in the community where you were born or grew up in order to have ‘long-term, face-to-face relationships’ or to develop ‘a sense of shared identity, shared values, mutual commitment’ is just nonsense. It is certainly true that human relations are more important than economic growth, but they are not incompatible with it: you can have both.
I have quoted part of the final paragraph of this section already; here it is in full: ‘Because robbed of their most go-ahead young people, working class communities become ghost towns of hopelessness. And care homes for the elderly become ways to warehouse those who cannot be persuaded to make the trip to Dignitas.’
What is the word ‘And’ doing here? Does Fraser really believe that a direct consequence of young working class people leaving their communities is that ‘care homes for the elderly become ways to warehouse those who cannot be persuaded to make the trip to Dignitas’? On what is this entirely fanciful notion based? Does he offer a single shred of evidence to support it? Or is it perhaps just something he wants to be true?
The most striking part of the article comes at the end, and initially it seems a pleasant surprise – unexpectedly, in an argument from a Brexiter, Muslims are held up as a positive example: ‘We were eating in a Pakistani restaurant in Tooting. All around us extended Muslim families were sitting together, children and the elderly, aunts and uncles. It was a buzzy hub of a homogeneous society – the sort of society that the West sometimes criticises for being inward looking. “They must integrate!” comes the familiar line, which, in effect, means they should disperse, learn the values of progressive individualism.’
I find Fraser’s illustration problematic and, on a deeper level, disturbing. From its position in the article – it is the penultimate paragraph – this is evidently the vision to which he wants us to aspire, that ‘something we have lost’ which Brexit seeks to reclaim, ‘the ability to stay put and care for each other.’
Leaving aside the questionable accuracy of his implication – having family gatherings in restaurants is not, in my experience, a practice reserved to muslims – let us ask what the example is that he wants us to follow, that he hopes Brexit will bring. In describing the extended muslim family as ‘a buzzy hub of a homogeneous society – the sort of society that the West sometimes criticises for being inward looking’ Fraser seems to imply (unwarrantably, I would suggest) that there is a muslim monoculture and that ‘the West’, rather than condemning it, should imitate it.
I do not think that he means we should all, post-Brexit, convert to Islam: instead, he wants British society to be a monoculture, as he mistakenly supposes muslims to be and equally mistakenly imagines that Britain once was (I am a Scots catholic of Irish extraction who was born in a council house in Clydebank and went to Edinburgh university; I was raised in Perth, went to school in Dundee, raised a family in Edinburgh and Inverness – what community do I belong to?).
This monoculture should be built on ‘staying put and caring for each other.’ I have nothing against caring for each other, but the implications of that ‘staying put’ are rather sinister: we should all stay where we belong and look after our own. By implication, those who don’t belong here should go back to where they do and look after themselves, leaving us to do the same. The sentiments are chillingly similar to those expressed in these posters, which have recently been appearing in Italy –
[The text is, from the top, ‘births at an all-time low’ ‘Italy needs daughters, not gay marriage and immigrants’ the hashtag is ‘income for mothers’]
Is that the vision of ‘the something we have lost’ that leaving the EU will reclaim?