Friday, 22 February 2019

Family values and Brexit: a reply to Giles Fraser




Professor Steve Peers, Unversity of Essex

“Why won’t Remainers talk about family?” shrieks the smearing, ad hominem clickbait – otherwise known as an article by cleric Giles Fraser. The answer is that of course we do: for instance, I’ve discussed family issues and Brexit many times on Twitter and as editor of this blog, and Chris Kendall is one of many people who’ve discussed Brexit and their own family.

Where to begin with this article? It’s an incoherent argument for extreme social conservatism which starts out with a stereotype of Polish and Spanish carers – yet ends with the contrary trope that “Remain is all about ever new opportunities for the rich”. Who knew caring paid so well?

Fraser’s argument – such as it is – is that children should look after their parents as they get older. To that end, interspersed with three random anecdotes, he criticises “that much over praised value of social mobility”.  The problem is people leaving their communities, in particular in the form of free movement within the EU. But furthermore “it is this same philosophy that encourages bright working-class children to leave their communities to become rootless Rōnin”. I was the first Peers in a thousand generations to be able to go to university. And it seems Fraser would like me to be the last.  

In his view, “No amount of economic growth is worth sacrificing all this for”, because “robbed of their most go-ahead young people, working class communities become ghost towns of hopelessness. And this nirvana of social immobility takes a very familiar form: “It is the daughter of the elderly gentleman that should be wiping his bottom”. The rich man in his castle; the poor woman at her picket fence.

The blindingly obvious omission here is that EU membership enhances family reunion for those who exercise the right to free movement. There’s a right of admission for spouses, children under 21 or dependent, and dependent parents or parents-in-law. This literally matches the extended family in one of Fraser’s anecdotes (and see the actually relevant anecdote of how free movement can facilitate care for elderly parents here). The EU withdrawal agreement would preserve this position in a limited form, but the position would be more difficult for families in the no deal outcome that Fraser says he longs for. As for future relationships, while some people will still move between the UK and EU, family reunion rights will be more restrictive, not less. With friends like Fraser, family values don’t need any enemies.

Indeed, we might well ask “Why won’t Leavers talk about family reunion?” – if we were willing to indulge in the sort of smearing over-generalisation that characterises Fraser’s piece. In fact, some Leavers support liberal rules in immigration in general, and in family reunion in particular. But so far, it seems like Leave’s liberals have lost this argument.

As for the issues Fraser does discuss, it’s easy to shrug about the unimportance of economic growth when it doesn’t affect you.  In fact, one obvious reason for family breakdown, social problems and working class communities becoming ghost towns is the loss of good jobs. But Fraser seems not have noticed that Brexit is being driven by people who welcomed the contraction of manufacturing in the 1980s, and endorse Patrick Minford, an economist who argues that Brexit should “mostly eliminate” manufacturing. In its place, Minford argues that people should take up jobs in design, marketing and law. But Fraser rejects the notion that anyone should leave their community, and criticises the ambition of anyone who would seek such jobs.  

It’s that poverty of ambition which is most striking about Fraser’s piece. Of course, it’s hard to reconcile paid work with frail parents, as several people have pointed out in response to him. (See Twitter comments here and here).  But the desire to travel to (and maybe live in) new places, or to do better paid work, is intrinsic for many people. Far from opposing their children’s success, many parents aspire for them to do as well as they can in life. It’s hard to see how “Global Britain” could work without people still moving to and from the country. Brexit was sold as a future of sunlit uplands; Fraser seeks instead to recreate a past of narrowed horizons.

In fact, Britain’s past is all about movement to other countries: yes, to colonise, but also to trade, explore, and convert. Fraser’s Christianity would be the religion of a handful of villages in Israel and Palestine if Christians had not gone forth and proselytised. Not that he makes much of a case to convert: it’s an aimless sermon from a joyless priest. Instead of forgiveness and compassion, we get sneering and division. It would certainly take a miracle to transform this reheated “citizens of nowhere” shtick into a coherent and convincing argument.

Photo credit: parentsinapinch.com

16 comments:

  1. Substituting 'those who believe in the welfare state' for 'Remainers' makes the same point. And I'm sure that for 'family' he means 'women'.

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  2. I get the impression that the Reverend Fraser would secretly love to be declared the bastard offspring of Nietsche and Ayn Rand : instead, he shows himself to be the illicit heir of Father Jack from Craggy Island. Very good article, Steve, a clear & conclusive takedown.

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  3. Giles Fraser. Born in Aldershot, does he practice what he preaches in London?

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  4. You lost me at this: "shrieks the smearing". Why are so many remainers so intolerant of different views, that they must immediately insult them. It's bigotry to have such intolerance of other views. Particularly depressing to read such intolerance from a professor. Dear god!

    For the record, Giles comments were thought provoking, interesting and most rational people would calmly agree with some of it, not with others.

    You need to recognise however, the clear financial split in terms of who voted for brexit. Wealthier people overwhelmingly voted Remain. Me personally, i earn an average wage and am from a working class background. My own mother used to live 2 miles away, but as a single woman, she cannot afford a reasonable 2 bedroom property (landlords get far more letting out to two individuals). She now lives 15 miles from me. This stuff does impact on peoples lives, and that needs to be recognised far more respectfully from people like you.

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    1. Sorry, the headline was literally a smear on all Remainers. Notice that in contrast, I specifically said not all Leavers share Fraser's views. I have no problem with cogent arguments for Brexit, but this one was absurd, for the reasons I set out. And a bad habit by the cultural right is to describe all criticism as 'intolerance'. Get over yourself already. I haven't called for him to be prosecuted, I just disagree. And your simplified account of the vote ignores the Leave vote in the Home Counties on the one hand, and the Remain vote in inner city London and Liverpool on the other.

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    2. I am sorry, but how is the fact that your mother had to move further away related to the EU? Is it EU's fault that too?
      Fraser article touches some points dear to me, as I am a bloody foreigner and I have left my mother alone (a widow) in Italy to seek a better and more fulfilling job here in UK. So I know how does it feel to be away and to think about when she we will become older. He is deeply wrong when he says that we should stick to our roots: we are not trees. And if any, I have chosen to have my roots here, where I have met my French girlfriend.
      My kids will be British as much as Italian and French.
      I have no respect for retrogrades such as Fraser, and no respect for those Leavers that are not able to put them in our shoes.

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  5. How on earth does that nutter get chosen to present on Radio 4? With the stooges repeatedly planted in the audience on BBC question time, use of IEA spokespeople etc, you'd think the BBC had been hijacked

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  6. Of course brexit impacts people's lives. In all kinds of ways. But how has belonging to the EU meant that private landlords would rather rent out two flats than one? Thats down to capitalism and a lack of government funded affordable housing. This is what makes me so angry. And sad. Britons are punishing themselves for tne failure of their governments and not membership of the EU. Oh, neither i or my parents want me to wipe their bottoms, i will always be their child, and despite being their daughter they would rather i cared for my autistic son while continuing my job as a head of year in a sixth form college.

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  7. “it is this same philosophy that encourages bright working-class children to leave their communities to become rootless Rōnin”
    – Well, my parents encouraged me to go to university. I grew up on council estates in a northern city (which voted 2/3 for Leave), where I was bullied relentlessly at school for being the weird girl who loved books and museums and art. Which apparently meant I was a "posh bitch" and "snobby cow". I was variously used as a punch-bag and/or ostracised by my peer-group. Community? Don't make me laugh. (My Asperger's wasn't diagnosed until middle-age.) I found my community at university, and via the internet – people who share the same interests and passions for history, for art, for literature – not people with whom I have nothing in common but a postcode.

    I came back when my father was dying, but professional carers were needed: physically and emotionally, I couldn't have managed on my own. (Does Giles not consider that some adult children might have disabilities, or be physically incapable of managing a frail full-sized adult? It's a skilled job.) I'm still here, essentially because it's cheaper than Glasgow and easier to get to mainland Europe. I'll fight to my last breath against Brexit, because culturally, intellectually and imaginatively, I am European, and sharing a fellow-citizenship with friends on the mainland and with the historical and literary figures I love matters more to me than nationalistic fixations.

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    1. I so agree with your comments, and will always consider myself a European too. It is outrageous to have these rights stripped from us.

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  8. His article was just another symptom really of Brexit's increasingly apparent characteristics - a sullen resentfulness and joyless insularity, a rejection of modernity in favour of some blissful imaginary past, and a relentless refusal to recognise reality or complexity. A pox on it and all who fantasise about it.

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  9. Very good article. Fraser has let his own social conservatism go to his head. He sees Unherd as a new 'bully pulpit' from which he can denounce those who fail to share his values. He idealises close families, utterly unaware of the tensions in such families. His wish to limit the education of children from working class families seems also very retrograde. Presumably for him, it would have been better had Roy Porter remained a shopkeeper like his father, rather than becoming a great medical historian. Don't rise 'above your station'?

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  10. I was lucky to have self-educated parents who supported their children into higher education or their choice of career (two of which careers are to say the least precarious). My wife was born into a conservative family in provincial Italy. She had a stultifying childhood, and couldn't wait to escape. Most of our Italian friends locally are very fond of their families, but nearly all of them say they feel freer here than they do at home; and that is largely because there is much less pressure to conform. Shortly after moving from southern Italy to a town in County Durham one of our friends went to explore the local Morrisons. She was surprised to see another shopper wandering the aisles in dressing gown and pyjamas. She was even more surprised when she realised that nobody was reacting to this - in her home town there would have been loud and probably unkind comments. She told me she thought it was wonderful to live in a place where people left you to do your own thing. My work as an interpreter also brings me into contact with people from the Maghreb, including clever and ambitious women who struggle to escape the pressure of family expectations to be dutiful wives and mothers. I see from his biography that Fraser has absolutely no first-hand experience of working-class life or of living in a community where family is more important than the individual. Braying asses with no experience or expertise are the curse of English public life.

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  11. "But Fraser seems not have noticed that Brexit is being driven by people who welcomed the contraction of manufacturing in the 1980s, and endorse Patrick Minford, an economist who argues that Brexit should “mostly eliminate” manufacturing."

    This is misleading. The economics profession since the 1980s has largely supported the decimation of manufacturing or has been indifferent to it (largely based on classical neo-classical theory, such as comparative advantage). As far as I know only Mark Rawthorn at Oxford, a Marxist, warned of the consequences during the 1990s and 2000s Also most of the profession supported free capital and free trade (and therefore deregulation). Both are related to the demise of the manufacturing sector, and of course, with capital, to the financial crisis. There were economists in the 1980s who were aware of the dangers, but these were driven out during the Thatcher years and are not the type of economists (new-Keynesians, New-Classicalists) that dominate the profession today.

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    1. Your reply is misleading. Most economists forecast that Brexit would damage the UK economy, whereas Minford argues the opposite, shrugging off his own forecasts as regards the manufacturing impact.

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