Blog Archive

Monday, December 1, 2014

EU Immigration, The East German Stasi, Alan Turing and Enigma, Bicester Village, Autumn

I have argued in many of my blogs that immigration is good for the UK.  With the recent rise of the far right in the shape of UKIP and the response from the Conservatives to move much further right, the immigration debate and the whether we should stay in the EU debate will continue to hot up even further as we approach the General Election in May.  It is with great pleasure on my part that I learned of a serious piece of research by leading migration economists at University College London that has just been published.  There has been no end of nonsense data quoted by the popular press and various idiot politicians in the last couple of years.  At last we have a decent study on the subject from a globally acknowledged academic source.  Migrants coming to the UK from the EU are highly valuable to the economy, paying out significantly more in tax to the government than they receive in the form of state welfare.  The study by the leading migration economists at UCL has revealed that between 2000 and 2011, EU migrants made a net contribution, after any state benefits, of £20bn.  The research reveals that the UK has been especially successful in attracting the most skilled and best qualified EU citizens to work here.  The study, titled ‘The Fiscal Impact of Immigration on the UK’, highlights the growing number of migrants who hold university qualifications: more than 60% of migrants from southern and western Europe hold degrees, and more than 25% from Eastern Europe also have degrees.  In the UK as a whole only 24% of the workforce are holders of degrees.  Britain attracts even more graduates than its closest EU competitor Germany.  Professor Christian Dustmann, a co-author of the study and director of UCL’s centre for research and analysis of migration, said: “A key concern of the public debate on migration is whether immigrants contribute their fair share to the tax and welfare systems. Our new analysis draws a positive picture of the overall fiscal contribution made by recent immigrant cohorts, particularly of immigrants arriving from the EU,” the Guardian reports.  EU migrants to Britain are not only better educated than the UK population, but also receive a lower proportion of state benefits. Between 2000 and 2011, they were 43% less likely to receive welfare. Last Friday, David Cameron finally made his long awaited speech on how he intends to curb EU immigration because despite the obvious benefits, he needs to take a hard line to counter the massive threat from UKIP.  He stopped short of announcing illegal caps on numbers and instead announced that all EU immigrants will need to have lived in the UK for at least 4 years before they can claim any form of benefits. And if they come here and fail to find a job within 6 months they will be ‘required to leave’ or deported.  A couple of things I would like to point out here.  Firstly the deportation bit sounds illegal and discriminatory to me.  Does it apply to the millionaire Frenchman who has bought a house in Knightsbridge to escape the French economy?  Secondly this whole debate has followed the usual colonial British attitude: will these rules apply in reverse to all the Brits living and going abroad to Europe?  Perish the thought.  Unfortunately the public is convinced (thanks Herr Farage) that EU immigration is a huge problem so the sane parties have no choice but to react in this way. There are about 2 million Brits living in other EU countries. I assume these countries will adopt similar rules which means some of these people will no longer be entitled to local benefits and will be repatriated to the UK.  And then the British tax payer will have to pick up the bill for them.  This is all clearly quite bananas!!

We have just celebrated the 25th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin wall.  This prompted me to read a book about the Stasi (Stasiland by Anna Funder) which narrates the stories of a number of victims and officers of the Stasi (the East German secret police) between the dates of 1961 when the Wall went up overnight to its fall in 1989 and the huge impact it had on everyone’s lives in East Berlin. The reach and the activity of the Stasi just a few decades ago is shocking to the modern European.  Just look at these facts:  one tenant in every apartment building was designated as a watchdog reporting to an area representative of the Volkspolizei. Spies reported every relative or friend who stayed the night at another's apartment. Tiny holes were drilled in apartment and hotel room walls through which Stasi agents filmed citizens with special video cameras. Schools, universities, and hospitals were extensively infiltrated. By 1995 some 174,000 inoffizielle Mitarbeiter (Stasi informants) had been identified, almost 2.5% of East Germany's population between the ages of 18 and 60. A former Stasi colonel who served in the counter-intelligence directorate estimated that the figure could be as high as 2 million if occasional informants were included. About one of every 63 East Germans collaborated with the Stasi. By at least one estimate, the Stasi maintained greater surveillance over its own people than any secret police force in history. The Stasi employed one full-time agent for every 166 East Germans.  Tactics employed under Zersetzung generally involved the disruption of the victim's private or family life. This often included psychological attacks such as breaking into homes and subtly manipulating the contents, in a form of gaslighting – moving furniture, altering the timing of an alarm, removing pictures from walls or replacing one variety of tea with another. Other practices included property damage, sabotage of cars, purposely incorrect medical treatment, smear campaigns including sending falsified compromising photos or documents to the victim's family, denunciation, provocation, psychological warfare, psychological subversion, wiretapping, bugging, mysterious phone calls or unnecessary deliveries, even including sending a vibrator to a target's wife. Usually victims had no idea the Stasi were responsible. Many thought they were losing their minds, and mental breakdowns and suicide could result.   Efforts have recently been accelerated in reassembling the files destroyed by the Stasi as the Wall fell.  Some of the restoration  work is very easy due to the number of archives and the failure of shredding machines (in some cases "shredding" meant tearing paper in two by hand and documents could be recovered easily). In 1995, the BStU began reassembling the shredded documents; 13 years later the three dozen archivists commissioned to the projects had only reassembled 327 bags; they are now using computer-assisted data recovery to reassemble the remaining 16,000 bags – estimated at 45 million pages. It is estimated that this task may be completed at a cost of 30 million dollars.  The other thing that I learned and was schocked by was the existence of Hohensch”ßnhausen prison. It is now a museum that you can visit but until 1989 nobody outside a segment of the secret police even knew it existed.  It was blanked off all maps, the people who lived near were not allowed near it, all ‘deliveries’ of prisoners took place in vans disguised as laundry companies or fishmongers and so on.  The place contained tiny prison cells where you could only stand up – sleep deprivation was a favoured torture method, waterproof cells in which prisoners had to stand with water up to their noses, and other much more sophisticated torture devices that I can’t describe.  Who would ever have believed that humans could treat their brothers and sisters like this?  Erich Honecker was the leader of East Germany from 1971 until the fall of the Wall and Erich Mielke was the Head of State Security (Stasi) from 1957 until the fall of the Wall.

Erich Mielke

Erich Honeker

We went to see The Imitation Game which is based on the life of Alan Turing who, with his team, cracked the Enigma code during the Second World War.  Enigma was considered unbreakable and was used by the Nazis throughout the war for their secret communications.  The team was based at Bletchley Park, near Milton Keynes (a city that didn’t exist at the time) and there is little doubt that their work shortened the war by at least two years and saved the lives of about 14 million people.  Those 14 million are people who would have died in a longer war but also those who were saved by the ability of our secret service to access the Nazi communications and use the information to save lives – and to win the war. Winston Churchill said Turing made the single biggest contribution to Allied victory in the war against Nazi Germany and its Axis partners.”  This is quite clearly an extraordinary achievement, probably unique in its scale. However, Turing’s life was tragic; he was a homosexual and at the time that was an offence.  After the war he was prosecuted and instead of a jail sentence agreed to ‘chemical castration’.  The drugs probably dulled or removed his ability to work and he committed suicide a little later.  It is only in recent years that his contribution has been fully recognised – in part due to the secrecy around these events for 50 years (the organisation he worked for was the predecessor to GCHQ in Cheltenham).  Turing is now widely regarded to be the inventor of computer science, of Artificial Intelligence and perhaps even the computer.   Just a fraction of any one of these achievements would make him an outstanding genius but he did them all!  Wow!  Without Turing it is almost certain that we would have lost the war (and be ruled by the Nazis?) as the effectiveness of the Nazi U Boat campaigns sinking all the US ships carrying supplies to the UK means we would have run out of food and have been forced to surrender if the Enigma shipping code had not been cracked in 1942..  Recently he was given a posthumous pardon by the Queen and with this film he is now starting to get the recognition he so deserves.  Some critics say the film was too soft, too Hollywood, too schmaltzy, like a Harry Potter film.  I say it is worth toning down the sex to get a 12 certificate so it is accessible to a wider younger audience.  Let us not forget.

Cinema Poster for the film with Alan Turing played by Benedict Cumberbatch

Colossus, the world's first electronic programmable computer, in 1942 at Bletchley Park
When we first went to Bicester Village is was about half its current size, parking was easy apart from Saturday afternoons and the staff were knowledgeable and very helpful.  Today, it has to a certain extent become a victim of its own success.  Parking is a real challenge much of the time despite the addition of a multi-story car park and several additional car parks adjacent to the centre; at peak times they operate a free park and ride service from a distant car park.  These days the customer service is generally poor as I imagine it must be hard to get staff.  Last Friday on so called ‘Black Friday’ the shops were open until midnight and the crowds were so large that many people reported 4 hours of queuing in their cars to get there and the Police issued an alert to ‘avoid’ the area.  I felt sorry for the local Bicester people just trying to go about their normal business.  Many of the major brands there now have Disney-style ‘snake queues’ as I call them outside their front, so not only do you have to queue to park but once you are in, you have to queue to get into Ralph Lauren, Uggs and many others. What started off as an outlet for the top end brands to sell off their excess last season’s stock has become a major business in its own right with excess stock being produced intentionally to go straight to these outlet stores.  Bicester Village is now a major stop on the tourist circuit with many coach tours stopping here for the day.  A recent addition is a large coach park. The Village itself is beautifully designed, architected and landscaped and always immaculately clean despite the crowds. It is particularly popular with Chinese and other Asians who are in love with the brands and Russians and Middle-Easterners who are very wealthy but still love a ‘bargain’. I was shocked to hear that the large Tesco superstore next door to the Village is likely to be bulldozed shortly to allow for the expansion of Bicester Village.  Clearly a sign of the times?

Queuing outside Raplh Lauren
What it looks like in the adverts
What it feels like when you go there
Autumn is one of my favourite seasons.  I love the colours and there are usually plenty of warm or sunny days.  This year, for the first time in the 20 years we have lived in Oxford, we had a rather special visitor in our garden – a male pheasant.  He was not easy to photograph but I did capture a few shots of him before he left.  We also have a Cotinus bush in our garden which has spectacular golden leaves before they all fall off as we move into winter!

 “Sometimes it is the people no one imagines anything of who do the things that no one can imagine.”  The Imitation Game script.

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