Is improvement always a good thing? Alan Clawley poses the question.
Is it true, as David Miliband asserted recently on TV, that it is in the interests of those responsible for making people flee Syria to stop causing the problem? If, as he implies, neither Assad nor ‘Islamic State’ really want anyone to leave the country then they should do whatever is needed to prevent what is now a human calamity. If it is not true, then we must conclude that the expulsion of large numbers of people is a deliberate policy.
We in this country are not strangers to the idea that people who have occupied land for generations may be forcibly removed for some higher purpose, like ‘improvement’, a purpose which those in authority over them deem is incompatible with their remaining. In the Scottish Highlands this was known as The Clearances and is described in horrific detail in John Prebble’s book.
Thousands of crofters were forcibly evicted in the 18th Century to enable absentee landlords to graze sheep on their land. Most emigrated in sailing boats little different from those used to transport slaves, to the empty lands of Canada or Australia to carve out a new life there. Many died from disease or drowned in unseaworthy vessels before reaching land. These clearances were of course driven by the profit motive.
In more recent history, the people who ran our burgeoning Victorian industrial cities, most of whom were industrialists like Birmingham’s Joseph Chamberlain, used somewhat more humane methods to remove people from their land for a higher purpose also described as ‘Improvement’. In driving his Corporation Street through a neighbourhood occupied by hundreds of poor people, Chamberlain didn’t worry too much about where they went. The clearances were justified on health grounds, but the offices that were built in place of hovels, and which still exist today, directly benefited business people who occupied them.
The process was repeated, perhaps a little more humanely, after the Second World War, when Herbert Manzoni oversaw a huge programme of Slum Clearance in Birmingham. Construction companies such as Bryant who built housing schemes like Chelmsley Wood where those fleeing from unhealthy housing conditions were re-housed. Builders made huge profits whilst the residents of the new estates had further to travel to work or had no work at all where they now lived.
The same top-down bureaucratic methods were applied on a global scale by British ministers to determine the partition of Ireland, India and Palestine. These imposed solutions led to bloodshed, the movement of people and seemingly intractable long-term conflict.
Whatever the primary motivation, whether it is to make money or to separate races or religions from each other, solutions imposed by force from on high don’t work in the long run. They can create a class of oppressed persons or refugees who harbour a lifelong grudge against the perpetrators of their misfortune. The conflict is merely displaced with them to another place whilst its resolution in their home country is postponed indefinitely.
David Miliband’s aspiration for a political solution in the homeland of refugees is admirable and correct, but it could take many years before that happens. Many will never return. In the meantime stable and humane countries such as ours must offer a safe refuge to people fleeing for their lives.