TAKE OUR COUNTRY BACK?' I'D RATHER TAKE IT FORWARD

However many votes the United Kingdom Independence party win in tomorrow’s European elections, what Britain has witnessed in the past few weeks is a battle between the future and the past.

The reason many politicians and journalists have struggled to characterise Ukip and understand its appeal is because it is not just another political party. It is a cry of pain for a lost England.

However ugly some of the comments from some of its candidates have been, a debate about whether or not Ukip is a racist party misses a more fundamental point. Race is not the core issue. It is nostalgia.

The answer to this can be neither imitation nor a few policy tweaks here and there, for you cannot fight nostalgia with either.

Whatever the protestations of the chancellor in his CBI speech today, the Tories have abdicated leadership and, to some degree, imitated Ukip. Driven by fear of Ukip (and some of their own backbenchers), they have placed a huge question mark over the UK’s membership of the European Union, access to our country’s biggest export market and our place as the most successful source of inward investment in Europe by making a referendum on withdrawal from the EU the centrepiece of their policy. It is so important to them that the prime minister has said he would resign if he did not get the chance to keep doing the damage this is doing.

And on immigration every signal they have sent out is that this is bad for Britain and an evil to be lessened wherever possible. One result is that, for the first time in thirty years, the number of foreign students applying to UK universities is falling.

Pause on that. As a direct result of government policy, the numbers of the best and the brightest young people in the world who want to study in the UK – and pay fees to our world-leading universities – is going down. The only people cheering this are universities in the United States and other countries that will now educate these young people and build lifelong ties with them.

So to be clear, fear and imitation from the Conservatives has led to policies which are damaging to the UK’s interests. The chancellor should acknowledge that rather than accusing Labour – which has been determined to keep Britain’s place as an outward looking nation – of placing a question mark over Britain’s reputation as a good place to invest and to create jobs.

But if imitation is a blind alley, what is the better response? It has to be rooted in understanding how the world has changed and how the task of politics must be to shape a better future, not fight over who offers a better yesterday.

The sense of loss that drives support for Ukip is not always irrational. Nostalgia certainly paints a rosier picture of the past than the reality. After all, how many young British women would want to trade their life chances and choices today with those of their grandmothers in the 1950s? The good old days were often not that good. Opportunities are far greater today for many people than they were in the past.

Yet for some parts of the country, and some parts of the community, the past did seem better economically. In parts of Britain’s former industrial heartlands this is keenly felt. There were more highly-paid jobs available in some areas and there was less competition for them.

Understanding this is important in responding to the sense of loss it fosters. But acknowledging the loss is not, in itself, enough of a response. Leadership has to be about more than empathy. It must be about shaping the future, and doing so in a way that people can buy into.  And this is where the response to Ukip should come.

We have to be honest about what is driving change. At the heart of the whole debate about immigration, Europe and the sense of loss are the changes wrought by globalisation. People, capital and goods all move around more than they used to. Barring some global catastrophe, that will continue to be the case. There may be some reshoring. Changes in energy markets like new sources of gas may chance the calculus on where it makes sense to do manufacturing and exports. But the speed and scale of movement of people and investment is unlikely to change.

The old barriers which stopped movement in the past – the cold war, twentieth century technology, levels of global poverty far higher than today – have either diminished or disappeared. And we should be clear – their removal was a good thing. Recreating new barriers with the same effects is neither a likely nor a desirable future.

This means the UK – and many other developed countries in the world today – are much more diverse than they were. This effect will continue. It is what the future looks like. The removal of barriers to movement, be they political or economic, has made the world a smaller place. This does bring disruption and sometimes disconcerting change to local communities but it also brings energy, dynamism and creativity. A big proportion of the businesses started in Silicon Valley are started by immigrants. That is true of entrepreneurship in the UK too. Cut ourselves off from talent and we cut ourselves off from ideas, innovation and job creation too.

The way forward is to resolve to have the best education system in the world, one that offers opportunity to children from every background, one that will not stand for talent being unused and lives unfulfilled because people are cut off from the chances this world brings.

Our national mission should not be to ‘take our country back’. I would rather take our country forward.

So we are faced with a choice – make the most of the world or shrink from it. It has never been Britain’s way in the past to turn inwards. Our island nation has always reached out and tried to be at the forefront of change. The task for progressives is to make sure change works for people, that we break down the barriers that hold people back and enable more people to take advantage of a faster moving and more diverse world. Defeating the agenda set by Ukip has to start with an understanding that, more than anything, this is a battle between the future and the past.

This article first appeared in Progress Online on 21 May. http://www.progressonline.org.uk/2014/05/21/take-our-country-back-id-rather-take-it-forward/

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