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The dichotomy of allegiance
It is now close to forty years since I waved goodbye to my native country from the deck of the "Empress of France" as she sailed away from Liverpool. Many immigrants from the U.K. say that they have never had any doubts or misgivings about their decision to leave and start a new life in a strange country, but I have to say that I am not one of them. Probably because my initial plan had been to spend only a year or so in Canada and then go on to Australia and eventually back to England.
Keeping my options open for so long has made me an ambivalent immigrant. I still feel a powerful pull when I see a British film or TV series, set in the picturesque surroundings of a cathedral town, or in the mature English countryside with copper beech hedgerows and centuries old brick walls that positvely glow. It still makes my day to read some article in an American magazine that implicitly or explicitly admires some aspect of British culture which they concede that they cannot match; the theatre, ballet, music, British playwrights and authors, the gardens of the stately homes, the BBC, an almost clean sweep of the Hollywood Academy Award Oscars, or whatever it may be.
I still get a lump in my throat when after an all-night trans-atlantic crossing, we finally make landfall and I look down from thirty five thousand feet and see the beaches of Cornwall, Devon, or Wales stretching into the distance, and then the many familiar landmarks bathed in the early morning sunlight as we start down the glide path to Gatwick or Heathrow. I remember for the first few years, each time we landed I would look round the cabin at all the native Canadians chattering away in non-British accents and think that just for a couple of weeks (or whatever) they, and not I, would be the strangers in a strange land, because I had come home.
It is always interesting during those visits if Krista comes along (as she has many many times now since the first time when she was eighteen months old) People in shops are obviously intrigued and sometimes quite non-plussed when she addresses me as "Dad" in her Canadian accent, after they have already heard me speaking. ("... that your daughter then.... American is she?...but you're English aren't you?..."). With a Quebecoise Mother and a British Father, she has experienced more at first hand about the traditions of the two founding races than most Canadians ever will. To a small extent she has (inevitably of course) inherited the problems of an immigrant, an extended family divided by three thousand miles of ocean. The plus side is that after a lifetime of visits to the U.K., through childhood and teenage years to adulthood, she is equally at home in either country.
By the same token I cringe in embarrassment and disgust over the antics of the young Royals, soccer hooliganism, and things like the sanction-busting activities of British companies in South Africa during the Apartheid era. It was sad to visit England during the Thatcher period, when the idealogical antipathy toward anything to do with the public sector was at its most virulent. I remember taking the train to London on the same line that I used to travel daily to school and university, and seeing the once smart, neat little suburban railway stations that I remembered so well, looking shoddy and derelict for lack of the money even to put on a lick of paint and trim the grass embankments.
I have come to terms with the unavoidable fact that I am now something of a stranger in both countries and when in either one, tend to be critical of it while extolling the virtues of the other. If for example we were to live in England permanently, I know that I would soon be missing aspects of life in Canada which have come to mean a great deal to me. For a start the Canadian climate is much drier with more sunny days, it is very rare indeed to have overcast weather with intermittent driving rain for weeks on end, as is too often the case in England.
I would greatlly miss cross-country skiing through the woods of the Gatineau Park across the river from Ottawa, on a warm sunny day in early spring, over still deep but receding snow cover, with the thaw taking hold and dozens of little streams starting to come to life, making mini-waterfalls at the edges of still frozen beaver ponds. I would miss watching the afterglow of a summer sunset through a mix of pine and silver birch trees, highlighted by the reflections from the surface of one the many lakes in the varied and beautiful settings provided by the granites of the precambrian shield, in what I call "Hiawatha Country". I would miss the magical transformation of the winter landscape in the first three weeks of May, from still frozen lakes, skeletal trees and brown grass, to trees bursting with chlorophyl-green leaves, and grassy parklands ablaze with tulips and daffodils.
The transformations in Canada and England in four decades
Both countries have changed immeasurably since 1957, as of course most countries do over a forty year time span. There are the predictable changes and the more fundamental ones. A typical example in the first category is illustrated by a visit to one of the Ontario Liquor Commission outlets. Gone is the "Liquor Permit" and the prison-like stone buildings with all the bottles out of sight behind the stone counters, and the aura of mortal sin which seemed to be associated with them. The modern replacement welcomes one into an attractively designed setting, with all the bottles laid out on the shelves by country of origin. People are free to browse around and ask for help from polite and attentive staff. Small shopping carts are even available for the more thirsty clientele and after making a selection, all one has to do is to wheel the loot up to the checkout counter and pay with a credit card.
In England meanwhile the old order changeth, long gone now are shillings and pence, no one now under thirty would have been old enough to have used them. gone too are the red telephone boxes and their telephones with button "A" and button "B". There are no more blue "police boxes", (except in the T.V. series "Dr. Who") where citizens in distress could phone directly to a police station. The country is now carpeted in motorways and practically every town has a Macdonalds, although the golden arches are a little less prominent than they are in Canada. My home town of Banstead, which had only a quaint little afternoon tea shop with wooden tables and chairs when I left, now has Indian and Chinese food takeouts ("take-aways" in England). England has produced its own fast food chains, one of which is Wimpeys. It is unknown in Canada, but oddly enough I found a Wimpey Bar in Cairo of all places. Cultural resistance to Yankee imperialism in England is fierce and active, thank God, while in Canada it has, regrettably, all but disappeared.
The most breath-taking Macdonalds I ever saw was not in either Canada or England, but in Budapest. It was housed in a magnificent old building on one of the grand boulevards which run through the centre of that historic city. It had ceilings forty feet high and windows to match. The place positivley reeked of Austro-Hungarian grandeur with chandeliers and marble everyhwere. In the midst of all this nineteenth century elegence I sat and watched young Hungarian families in blue jeans with babies and prams and fractious two year olds, munching their way through onion rings, french fries, hot dogs and hamburgers, just like young families from any western country. Actually it was not as incongruous as it sounds. The familiar little tables and fixed seats were set out on a mezzanine floor amid luxuriant potted plants, with sunlight pouring in from the magnificent windows and glinting from the chandeliers. The kitchens were one floor down (via a grand marble staircase) and hence did not intrude into the sort of grand hotel atmosphere.
The more fundamental changes have to do with the significant shift in ethnic balance that both Canada and England have had to accommodate in a relatively short time. In the England of 1957 the population was almost one hundred percent homogeneous, there having been no significant immigration for a millenium. By the mid 60's a flood of immigrants from the Carribean and the Indian sub-continent was causing very serious backlash problems which led to full scale race riots in places like Birmingham and parts of London. At the time I found it impossible to believe that such things could be happening in England, that bastion of solidarity and stability which I had left only a few years earlier. More recently there have been similar upheavals in Canada, with massive influxes of immigrants from Africa and Asia being funnelled into cities like Ottawa, Vancouver and Toronto, over a time span of only a few years. Backlash reactions have been inevitable, exacerbated in too many cases by the need to provide indefinite state support for the new arrivals, when residents are already paying punitive income and municipal taxes to keep soaring deficits under control.
The other major shift for Canada has been the one which has moved it away from the traditions and customs of the Mother country. In the 50's there were for example quite a significant number of British cars, the 24th of May was still celebrated as "Empire Day" or "Victoria Day", general elections in Britain were covered in detail by the Candian press, and the Union Jack was still the de facto flag for want of a better one. Diefenbaker was the last Canadian Prime Minister to stand firm on ties to Britain and since then there has been a gradual slide toward even closer cultural and econmic integration with America. This slide was made a matter of policy by the Mulroney government with the implementation of the Canada-U.S.A. free trade agreement, something which was rammed through Parliament with very little public debate, let alone a referendum, which would have been appropriate on such a watershed issue. The extension of this by the Americans to include Mexico (with not ever a wimper of dissent from the Canadian government) has now locked Canada firmly into this continental trading block.
On the other side of the Atlantic the European Common Market and now the European Union has been a major challenge for Britain. I was very opposed to the idea of Britain joining the Common Market in 1971 and I still feel that it has been taken to the cleaners in terms of the punitive contributions which were demanded (and given) for membership in the first few years. Just as the two North American free trade agreements have hastened the cutting of ties between Canada and Britain, so have the events in Europe hastened the breakup of the old Commonwealth and the trading relationships that existed between its members. New Zealand for example has been particularly hard hit by the European regulations that effectively forbid Britain to maintain its traditional import of agricultural products from New Zealand.
If a common European currency is implemented which now (1995) seems more than likely, then it will be only a matter of time before member nations will become much like the Provinces of Canada, or the States of America. They will have effectively surrendered their sovereignty to the European Parliament. That is about the only issue which Margaret Thatcher got right.
The role of governments in science and technology
In recent years there has been a marked swing to the right of the political spectrum in both Britain and Canda, as far as the functions of goverments are concerned. Thatcher started the ball rolling and North Amerca has followed. When I look back for example on my own career in the Canadian Public Service, I am amazed to think how relatively easy it was in the nineteen sixties, to make the case for the resources to undertake a relatively ambitious, expensive, high-risk project like the airborne gamma ray spectrometry one was, and how impossible it would be even to consider such a venture in the present environment. Admittedly not all projects are as successful as that one was, but nothing ventured - nothing won, The present Canadian policy of almost total abdication from any sort of government role in science, will continue to erode the already endangered scientific critical mass that the country still has.
The founder and Chairman of the Sony Corporation once observed that countries that do not have an indigenous scientific and technological base, will eventually fall under the economic dominance of those that do. Examples of this powerful truth crop up practically every week as Canada is regularly black mailed by the Americans. One day it is a threat to prohibit their Canadian branch plants from exporting to Cuba, to force Canada to fall into line with their absurd policy of maintaining an embargo against Cuba. Another day it is putting the economic screws on to prevent Canada from attempting to limit American content in cable TV fare. What Next?
I fully expect that as population pressures grow in densely populated third world countries, where water is scarce and the land arrid and unproductive, that the exodus from them will continue. The official line (in Canada at least), that everything will go smoothly with an active multicultural policy is in my view wildly optimistic. History shows that every species in the animal kingdom is wary and suspicious of members of a different one and that harmonious coexistence is the exception rather than the rule. The different species of humankind are frequently defined not so much by race as culture. The obvious examples being Yugoslavia, where the fault line is Muslim versus Christian; Northern Ireland, where (almost unbelievably) the great divide is the difference between two almost identical sects of the Christian faith; the eternal strife between the Arabs and Israelis (both semites); and the slaughter in Rwanda triggered by tribal enmities between the minority Tutsis and the majority Hutus, again both of the same race.
Global Free Trade
In my judgement the indiscriminate, global application of the GATT principles of free trade will benefit only the international conglomerates. They will juggle their operations to take advantage of whichever national workforce is most competitive at any given moment in terms of skills, wages, and the costs of benefits like health care. National governments (including those of the industrial nations) will have no option but to bid for manufacturing plants to keep their populations employed and therefore in the global game. The multinationals will thus have the power to manipulate and if necessary bring down governments by bestowing or witholding these plants according to the criteria just mentioned.
We have already seen an example of the shape of things to come with the spat over the location of a Hoover plant in 1994. Scotland offered irresistable inducements for the company to move its plant from France. The French were furious and accused the U.K. of poaching jobs from them. There was a revealing comment by some official in the U.K. Ministry of trade, who put his finger right on it when he said: "The problem is, we no longer have the indigenous capacity to make anything here any more - not even vacuum cleaners". That indeed is the problem.
In times gone by the major industrialised nations were where they were because they had the capacity to manufacture practically everything they needed. It may not have been the most efficient way to operate, but at least their populations were reasonably self sufficient and reasonably fully employed. Of course there were tariff barriers to keep out cheaper versions of the same products from countries which had lower standards of living, to have dismantled them would have been to say to the workers: "O.K. you must now lower your living standards to those of the poorest nation making these products if you want to keep your jobs, because the population at large is voting with its collective wallet for the cheaper imports". This is now of course exactly what is happening, as the GATT agreements reqire the removal of national tariff barriers. Who benefits? The multinationals obviously, which of course includes some merchant banks and other financial institutions.
Economic Growth and unemployment
One would think that it would be reasonably obvious that if the population of a country is essentially static, then its annual consumption is likely to remain about the same, with imports and exports balancing off. Such a country would thus run a neutral trade account with the rest of the world, with neither a deficit or a surplus. If such a country has an annual economic growth of say three percent and its net consumption still remains about the same, then clearly that country is either exporting the surplus production, or destroying it in some way. If it attempts to export the surplus over the long term (as Japan has been doing for many years now) then it runs a net trade surplus and becomes an international pariah, as Japan now is in the eyes of both the Europeans and the Americans.
The idea of zero econonic growth is of course anathama to almost all politicians, because it means that a large part of the population is unemployed. Why is this? Mainly because of the ruthlessly competitive downsizing of branch-plant workforces, which is happening world-wide as the trans-national conglomerates cherry-pick locations for their operations on a global basis, thanks to unfettered free trade. As a result, most of the consumer wealth can be produced with a fraction of the labour (and wages) that was formerly required. The only way to generate anything even approaching full employment is somehow to arrange to produce more each year than was produced the previous year, whether or not there is any market for it. Since the end of the second World War, a legitimate way to do this has been to maintain a flourishing Defence industry in most Western countries. An enormous number of people are employed in making all sorts of weaponry which is periodically declared obsolete and consigned to the scrap heap. There has never been any problem in getting national legislative bodies to approve these on-going expenditures, because to question them would almost always have been construed as upatriotic.
For a while, a more sane alternative for keeping unemployment down was adopted in America in the form of the space effort, although the original impetus was all along driven by perceived national security considerations. The manned moon mission and all the support activities that went with it, was an exciting and non-threatening way to spend money and keep people fed and watered. Immensely expensive hardware was assembled and then hurled into orbit, never to be seen again. Unfortunately, it was not considered unpatriotic to question the huge expenditures involved and they frequently were, until eventually they were drastically cut back, to be replaced by the more conventional and harder-to-defeat defence appropriations. All of this spending was of course (and still is) a form of state subsidy or state intervention on a massive scale which the Western nations in general and the Americans in particular profess to deplore. Just how massive that support had been became apparent when the Soviet Union finally collapsed in the late 80's.
For years during the cold war era, there were ritual hand- wringings about the crushing burden of defence spending, and how wonderful it would be if the cold war would end and all of that money could be declared a "peace dividend". As we all now know, the winding down of defence spending produced nothing of the sort. What did happen was that there was major economic dislocation with substantial increases in unemployment in all the major industrial countries, and particularly those of the eastern block. It seems one of those self-evident truths that if the basic wealth in a particular nation is being produced largely by automation of one form or another, then it is no longer necessary for everyone in it to work for eight hours a day, five days a week in order to qualify for an appropriate share of that wealth. Furthermore if a large segment of the population is excluded from the loop so to speak, then they will not have any money to buy the wealth (cars, washing machines, electronics) that the machines are producing.
The current situation is that we have fewer and fewer people, working longer and longer hours for less and less, in the all consuming drive to be competitive with some work force on the other side of the world, which is where the manufacturing plants will go if the non-negotiable demands of their multi-national owners are not met. Taken to its logical conclusion, one could see the day when only one worker with an oil can will keep the robots running in all the automated manufacturing plants. His salary will be several billion dollars annually, or whatever it takes to pay the income tax to provide the welfare necessary to feed and water all the other workers in the population, leaving him with just enough to eat. No one will be able to afford to buy any of the products, which accumulate month after month in warehouses, and there will be a world wide economic depression.
The Penny is beginning to drop
There is finally some evidence to suggest that not everyone thinks that continued economic growth is a sine-qua-non for prosperity. In recent times the American Federal Reserve has deliberately intervened to limit economic growth in that country by raising interest rates. Ostensibly the reason is to keep inflation under control, but the effect is indeed to limit economic growth. As a result of this we have the rather unusual spectacle of the stock markets world-wide, actually dropping when there is any sign of an increase in economic growth in America, for fear that this might herald a further increase in interest rates. As a result of this policy, the stock and bond markets of the major industrialised nations have been practically flat for more than a year.
One might be forgiven for thinking that investors and business generally would be encouraged by having the holy grail of fincancial stability in international markets finally within their grasp. Not so, there is no money to be made in stock markets that do not move, so companies are at a loss to know what to do with their profits. Hence the invention of fincancial instruments like derivatives, which amplify the smallest fluctuations of the stock and bond markets in order to inject a little volatility into the scene, so that investors can make money again. The trouble is that big organsiations that don't understand them, like Barings merchant bank, California's Orange County and the pharmaceutical giant Glaxo, get taken to the cleaners.
Not all industrialists and bankers are so greedy or so stupid that they have not seen the writing on the wall. There have been encouraging signs, particularly from Europe, that the message is getting through. The Europeans for example refused point blank to yield to American demands to end tariff protection for their farmers. Their position was that it was better to pay them to produce too much food, than to have nine million of them descending destitute on the urban centres, which would then have to feed and water them from a different taxpayer pocket than the national subsidy one. The net result would still be the same financially, but far far worse socially.
There seems to be an awareness also by world leaders that a global solution will be needed to deal with the problem of wealth distribution, as automation and other forms of technological revolution create more and more of it with less and less labour. When we hear terms like "the economy is recovering", we have to define whose economy we are talking about by determining who are the beneficiaries of the recovery. Traditionally "the economy" has meant something that is measured by the state of the stock market, not the economies of average middle class citizens. Nowadays there are increasing references to terms like "jobless recovery", implying that people are much more discerning in sorting out the winners and the losers in the cycle of ups and downs. Even some of the diehard Milton Friedman variety of economists and bankers, are starting to realise that maximising productivity and profits can ultimately be self defeating.
My personal view is that as the wealth-producing capability is increased by automation, the work week should get shorter for the same remuneration. If that does not happen and it results simply in more people on the dole, then one has to ask who are the beneficiaries of the increased productivity which automation makes possible. The answer is not far to seek, our old friends the multi-nationals obviously. Under the current economic system of virtually unbridled free enterprise, the executives who run them are absolutely bound to do whatever produces the biggest short term profit for their shareholders, there being no room for even medium-term policies involving enlightened self interest. This bottom-line driven short-termism is bound to result in widening gaps between the haves and have-nots in all the countries in which they operate, (both the well-off and the less well-off), with the increasing risk of strikes, civil disobedience, or riots triggered off by unrelated irritants, such as the one in Los Angeles resulting from the Rodney King beating.
It is quite possible, even likely, that many executives of multinational firms are well aware of the ultimately self- defeating strategies which the free market imposes on them, and would actually prefer to institute policies designed to foster longterm global prosperity (and hence ensure their own survival), rather than concentrating solely on the bottom-line. Under the present economic regime however the sanctity of the bottom-line is so entrenched that there is little likelihood of any radical top-down reform within the forseeable future. The only opposing forces by and large are those of the environmental and social activists, who sometimes manage to put enough pressure on legislators to rein in some of the more undesirable practices of the free market.
There is I believe a way out of this dilemma for most western nations at least. National goverments could agree among themselves at economic summit meetings and the like, to create say two additional national bank holidays each year, until a four day week arrived more or less by stealth. Most countries now have about six already, so that at the rate of two more a year, it would take a little more than twenty years to produce a four-day work week. If this happened in all countries where multi-national companies have significant operations, then they would not be able to play one off against the other, as they now do with such shameless finesse. The result would be something approaching the desired objective; the same number of people working fewer hours with the same remuneration to produce the necessary wealth without over production and the need for economic growth to sustain the employment levels.
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