On the morning of June 24, Britain awoke to the devastation of a vast political and social earthquake, as, after an unpleasant and divisive campaign, a majority of our nation voted to leave the European Union (EU). The aftershocks and long term consequences of this earthquake are likely to define our politics for a generation.
Upon announcement of the result, the value of Sterling plunged precipitously, initially losing a tenth of its value against the dollar, as the markets responded to radical uncertainty about the future of Britain’s economy. The Prime Minister, David Cameron, quit and a vote of no confidence was submitted against Jeremy Corbyn, the leader of the Labour party. Nicola Sturgeon, Scotland’s first minister, declared that, in light of Scotland’s overwhelming support for Remain, a new vote for Scottish independence should take place. Sinn Fein called for a vote on the reunification of Ireland. In response to Gibraltar’s 95.9% Remain vote, Spain renewed its push for joint sovereignty over the British territory. France’s current border agreement with Britain at Calais was challenged, with potentially significant consequences for the deeply controversial migrant camps there. Meanwhile, over a million people signed a petition advocating for a second referendum and many others for Sadiq Khan, the mayor of London, to declare the city’s independence from the rest of the UK and remain in the EU.
Some sense of the momentous significance of Britain’s decision can be ascertained by reflecting upon the fact that all of the stories that I have just mentioned were relegated to the level of secondary news by the result of the ‘Brexit’ referendum itself and the prospect of Britain’s departure from the EU. Over subsequent days, British politics has descended into utter confusion.
Although a close fought referendum had been predicted by many, few were prepared for a Brexit win, as the predictions and analysis of psephologists and political commentators once again failed adequately to anticipate the result. On the day of the referendum itself, the economic and betting markets and the pollsters were all showing confidence in a Remain win. As polling closed, Nigel Farage, leader of the UK Independence Party (UKIP), even seemed to concede the Leave campaign’s defeat.
Several hours later, however, the spirits of the two camps couldn’t have been more dramatically altered. Those of us who had stayed up all night following the results saw the increasingly ashen and teary faces of Remain supporters, shell-shocked and reeling at the nightmare that was unfolding. Farage—now arguably the most successful outsider politician in recent British history—triumphalistically declared Britain’s ‘Independence Day’. It was, he insisted, ‘a victory for real people, a victory for ordinary people, a victory for decent people,’ one fought against ‘lies, corruption, and deceit’ and achieved ‘without a single bullet being fired’ (a profoundly ill-considered remark to make a week after Jo Cox MP was shot and killed by Thomas Mair, who later gave his name in court as ‘Death to traitors, freedom for Britain’). Farage’s remarks are a window onto the profoundly socially polarizing character of this referendum.
Britain’s Complicated Relationship with the EU
As a member state of the EU, Britain has enjoyed considerable soft power—not least on account of the English language—and an influence within Europe rather exceeding its commitment to the project, all while being buffered from many of the most damaging realities of the union. It has been outside of the common currency of the Euro and outside of the Schengen Area, within which free movement exists.
Never an especially popular member, the response to Britain’s Brexit vote from some European quarters was swift and devastating. In a move some have compared to depositing Britain’s possessions outside on the EU’s pavement, Jean Claude Juncker, the EU Commission President, remarked acerbically, “It’s not an amicable divorce, but it was not exactly a tight affair anyway.” Lord Hill, the UK’s European Commissioner, resigned, further diminishing the UK’s leverage in Brussels. Prime Minister David Cameron has left the invoking of Article 50—the process initiating departure from the EU—to his successor, who won’t replace him for a few months. Indeed, as the referendum was only advisory, there is always some possibility that Brexit will not occur at all. However, an aggressive EU may trigger Article 50 before that time, weakening Britain’s negotiating position. As Britain’s control over its departure diminishes and its two major domestic political parties are in shambles, the prospects of successfully mitigating the economic damage caused by the break-up, perhaps through EFTA/EEA membership, are waning daily. In an enervated EU, riven by resurgent nationalism, high levels of youth unemployment, a polarizing migrant crisis, the cataclysmic failure of fiscal union in countries such as Greece, frustration at German dominance and unilateralism, and widespread disaffection in member nations, treating a departing Britain with an unmerited gentleness might jeopardize its own future.
The repercussions of the Leave vote will be considerable here in the UK. The result provoked an outpouring of venomous and vengeful anger towards Leave voters, widely characterized as hateful and ignorant racist bigots. Family relationships and friendships have been frayed or fractured. Remain supporters drew attention to a spike in Google searches for ‘what is the EU’ after the referendum result, suggesting that Leave supporters voted out of ignorance. Others suggested that Leave supporters didn’t have a clue what they were voting for and that a large number of them now bitterly regret their decision. However, the supposed ‘spike’ only involved a miniscule 1,000 people (and we know nothing about whether they voted or, if they did, which side they supported) and early polling suggested that only 1% of Leave voters were unhappy with the result (although that figure will almost certainly rise as the ramifications of the result become clearer over the coming weeks, months, and years).
This doesn’t mean that there is no sense of betrayal on the Leave side. A number who voted Leave are coming to the awareness of the false promises, misrepresentations, half-truths, lies, and misconceptions employed by Leave campaigners. The claim that Britain sends £350 million a week to the EU—a highly controversial and inaccurate statement—and that that money should be used to fund the NHS was a central assertion of the Leave campaign, and strongly resonated with the British public. The result wasn’t long in before Nigel Farage publicly backtracked on its implied promise. It also quickly became clear that leaving the EU wouldn’t necessarily entail any significant change to levels of immigration and that they could even increase. The fact that, outside of the EU, many less wealthy regions that voted for Leave would in fact be even poorer off, as EU money allocated for regional development would be cut off started to sink in. Britain’s radical regional inequalities of wealth—exacerbated by a Tory government in Westminster—would reassert themselves with a vengeance. In the cold light of morning, I wonder whether dismayed Leave voters will fear that they have cut off their nose to spite their face or whether they were misled by lying Leave politicians.
A Divided Nation
The seismic shock of this referendum has exposed the depth of the rifts within contemporary British society. It has revealed the gulfs that exist between England and the rest of the Union and especially Scotland, between London and the rest of England, between the young and the old, between post-nationalist cosmopolitans and more provincial nationalists, between non-White British and White British, between progressives and social conservatives (see some of the polls here), between intellectuals, experts, and the political class and those who distrust them.
This referendum represented a great deal more than a vote on Britain’s future in the EU. It came to stand for the differences between profoundly polarized visions of what our country means, and what it means to be British or a member of one of the UK nations. It exposed people’s deepest political values, sharply contrasting understandings of the character of the political subject, and visions for Britain’s future identity.
The opposing parties variously characterized themselves and each other—nativist xenophobes versus welcoming liberals; ordinary, real, and decent people versus persons betraying or taking advantage of Britain; enlightened and reasonable people versus uneducated bigots; commonsensical people versus untrustworthy experts. The sacred political values of each side were clearly on display. Both sides have seemed to struggle to understand how the other could support the positions they did without being hateful, evil, stupid, treacherous, misled, or uneducated.
Immigration and the Transformation of Britain
It is impossible truly to understand the Brexit vote without first understanding the significance of the changes wrought by immigration in the UK over the last few decades. The speed and scale of the demographic transformation that immigration has brought to Britain is truly remarkable. Each year, Britain takes in more immigrants than it did in the entire period between 1066 and 1950.
In 1991, London’s population was 79.8% white (White British and other white subgroups). London is now a city whose population is predominantly non-White British (London’s White British population was less than 45% in 2011, down from 58% in 2001) and in large measure composed of people who weren’t even born in the UK (37% born outside of the UK and 24.5% born outside of Europe). Londoners increasingly seem to think of themselves, not as English or even British, but as world citizens. It is not surprising that, in response to the Brexit result, so many have called for independence from the rest of the UK as a city state. Londoners have a far greater affinity with other world cities like New York or Paris than they do with the rest of the UK. As in other globalized cities, native working and middle classes are squeezed out of London, their places increasingly taken over by lower class migrants and a foreign wealthy elite.
Although the effects of immigration are most pronounced in London, they are extensive elsewhere. Throughout the UK, the white population (including non-British white persons) fell from 91% to 86% in the ten years between 2001 and 2011, and the demographic trends have shown little sign of slowing down since then. These rapid demographic changes are especially concentrated in England, where the White British and Irish population fell from 88.3% to 80.8% between 2001 and 2011. Concerns about immigration do not yet have quite the same traction in Scotland (where 92.85% of the population is White British or Irish), in Wales (where 93.7% is White British or Irish), or in Northern Ireland (where over 98.21% of the population is White British or Irish).
Following the collapse of the British Empire, Britain attracted many millions of migrants from Commonwealth countries. The significance of English as an international language has also made Britain an especially attractive location for people from all over the world. The significance of the demographic revolution that immigration has brought to Britain within the past 70 years is immense, yet routinely denied or dissembled on account of its political volatility. Within the ten years between 2001 and 2011, 70% of the population rise was due to immigration.
In many parts of the country where the population is overwhelmingly White British, genetic study has revealed the remarkable stability of their population over at least the last 1400 years (Celtic populations in the British Isles date back over a millennium more). One can still trace the borders of ancient kingdoms in the genetics of regional populations. Before the modern wave of immigration, the Anglo-Saxons were the principal newcomers—the Norman invasion in 1066 didn’t bring about a great demographic change. These unsettling and violent waves of immigration and invasion were generally from ethnic, geographic, cultural, religious, and political near neighbours (for instance, William the Conqueror, who led the Norman invasion, was the first cousin once removed of Edward the Confessor, giving him some claim to the English throne).
The last 70 years have witnessed a demographic upheaval on a scale unprecedented in well over a millennium, which has introduced a remarkable degree of ethnic, cultural, and religious diversity beyond anything witnessed in any previous period of our history. Against the popular political trope of Britain as a nation of immigrants, the reality is that, apart from relatively small trickles of immigration—mostly to London and the South East and largely intra-European immigration of culturally and religious proximate populations—most of the country has been ethnically stable and relatively unchanged for many hundreds of years.
Britain’s rich pre-1950 history of small scale immigration was one in which immigrants typically became part of a pronounced cultural identity, rather than remaining relatively unassimilated. Listing immigrants and children of immigrants such as Hans Holbein, Benjamin Disraeli, Winston Churchill, T.S. Eliot, Isaiah Berlin, George Frederick Handel, and Joseph Conrad, Benjamin Schwarz observes ‘although these figures immensely enhanced English life, they did not make their adopted nation cosmopolitan; their adopted nation made these cosmopolitans English.’ Undoubtedly, many recent immigrants have become undeniably English, yet assimilation and integration have been considerably less successful in the case of more recent waves of immigration (a widespread preference for ‘British’ over ‘English’ as a more attenuated qualifier for identity among recent arrivals on our shores may be one interesting indication of this).
Relatively uncontrolled immigration and exposure to unrestrained market forces are, for many Britons, direct and fundamental challenges to ways of life and a peoplehood that have gradually evolved over hundreds and even thousands of years. The conditions that sustained niche cultural and ethnic environments have collapsed or been dismantled and the change is inexorable, irreversible, far-reaching, and deeply traumatic for many.
Cosmopolitans and Provincials
These demographic changes have heightened a divergence and polarization between cosmopolitan and provincial values. The identities, values, communities, and concerns of cosmopolitans and provincial persons can often take diametrically opposed forms; indeed, there can be a deep antipathy or loathing between these two groups. To the cosmopolitan, hell may be other Britons, with their closed and small-minded commitment to preserving their current ways of life against change. Cosmopolitans frequently speak of Britain’s historic provincial ways with derision, bemoaning their ‘smallness’ and resistance to the exhilarating possibilities of throwing the nation open to the world. The specific forms of the past, the rich historical palimpsest of our nation’s traditions, customs, and history, should be abandoned—or reduced to a mere object of consumption for tourists—as we welcome a future of pure possibility and the vibrant diversity of multiculturalism. Provincials represent the deadweight of a past holding us back, their declining communities resented for their dependence upon the cosmopolitans’ production of the nation’s wealth.
Thinking in terms of individual meritocracy, cosmopolitans often lack sympathy for marginal workers in regions whose jobs and local economies are threatened by globalization and the ‘free movement of labour’. They tend to privilege the imperatives of the market over the stability and endurance of communities. They can presume that provincials’ strong resistance to uncontrolled immigration is simply driven by racism and xenophobia.
Those with a more provincial perspective resent Britain’s cosmopolitan elite for the cultural invisibility and undignified dependency that they feel has been imposed upon them. The cosmopolitan elites privileging of the market has weakened their communities, eroded intangible goods such as solidarity, community, and belonging, and exposed them to radically destabilizing forces over which they are given no control, such as large scale immigration. They are ever more dependent upon and vulnerable to outside agencies. Older people see that, in place of the strong shared culture and tradition of labour in the past, a rootless younger generation is growing up with a deep anomie, cut loose from old solidarities, and living an alienated existence, increasingly defined by consumer goods, the depersonalized realities of mass society, and state dependency. The true wealth of many working class communities—the accumulated social capital of shared ways of life and labour built up over centuries—has been ravaged by the social fragmentation wrought by a market driven society and the mass immigration it encourages.
Any resistance they present to the cosmopolitan values of experts, intellectuals, and politicians will be attributed to stupidity, bigotry, and racism. Hearing mealy-mouthed official responses to racialized crime patterns, they resent the loss of social trust and cohesion that mass immigration has brought to many British towns and cities. The sop of a generous welfare state is not felt sufficient to compensate them for such assaults to their dignity and self-determination, nor is a growing economy—within which they are seldom more than marginal beneficiaries—and plentiful ethnic cuisine adequate palliation for loss of identity.
Cosmopolitans may genuinely like their country, but they don’t usually feel any pronounced loyalty to it. In fact, they can often lament the parochial values of those who do strongly identify with their country and localities. They are well-educated, often successful, seldom remain in any one location for that long, can move between countries for work, and are primarily found in the South East of England. Unlike the 60% of Britain’s population that still lives within 20 miles of where they lived when they were 14, cosmopolitans seldom truly become one of the ‘locals’.
In a recent post, Ross Douthat maintains that these contemporary cosmopolitans may not be as cosmopolitan as they suppose. Rather, they ‘are part of a meritocratic order that transforms difference into similarity, by plucking the best and brightest from everywhere and homogenizing them into the peculiar species that we call “global citizens.”’ This new elite class struggle to relate to people unlike themselves. Although they celebrate ‘diversity’—pointedly including a panoply of races, nationalities, sexualities, religions, and other identities within their caste—this diversity is seldom more than a veneer upon the general socio-economic and ideological uniformity of their class.
The Nation and the Market
Cosmopolitans tend to be post-nationalist supporters of the market state. A market state is a neoliberal entity, which typically maximizes the market choices and autonomy of all persons within it, whether citizens or not. The borders of such a state are largely open and function on little more than an administrative level. Individual opportunity, unrestricted choice, and validated autonomy are core values and, consequently, freedom of movement between nations is prized. The ideal citizen of a market state is a deracinated universal subject, belonging both everywhere and nowhere, all differences reduced to a level of indifference. For the citizen of the market state, the most important matter is the expansion of the conditions for autonomous self-realization and the market that sustains that. The market state neither excites nor demands much in the way of loyalty. The economy and the technocratic structures that secure a realm of radical and relatively unconstrained possibility for the individual are the primary political structures. Progressive values that affirm all individuals in their autonomous choices are sacred.
By contrast, provincial persons typically favour the nation as the political entity (they also have extremely strong attachments to their regions, towns, and neighbourhoods). The borders of the nation protect and project specific communal identities that exceed and enfold individuals within them. Such nations privilege and prioritize some identities over others. They emphasize cultural, historic, ethnic, religious, familial, locational, and social forms of belonging over autonomy. The intergenerational continuities of family and people, tradition, institution, history, and heritage are central to the shared life. Individual choice, autonomy, and agency are curtailed and subordinated to communal belonging.
As they have been defined by deeply rooted situatedness persisting through time, the frictionless movement of peoples is profoundly corrosive of and threatening to such communities. Rather than celebrating the absolute autonomy and the unconstrained possibilities of the individual’s choices, such communities typically celebrate and inculcate very particular ways of life and forms of practice.
The EU is the epitome of a neoliberal political entity, committed to free markets, encouraging the unrestricted movement of undifferentiated labour, and upholding the value of the socially fungible self-defining individual. The maximization and validation of individual autonomy may be a sacred value for contemporary progressivism, but this is not what ultimately drives the neoliberal market politic. Rather, individual autonomy is celebrated because individual autonomy is that which permits the maximization of the reach and strength of the market and the wealth and power of those who most control capital. This is rule by the market, where the interests of the market, and those whose power it extends, triumphs over all else. The weakening of national sovereignty, democratic accountability, and political representation is all part of a larger picture in which bankers and transnational corporations are empowered and the forces that would resist them are enervated.
Heightened individual autonomy also leads to the crumbling of national, regional, local, class, cultural, religious, and other solidarities and loyalties, removing resistance and friction. Broken down by the neoliberal market government, persons are deracinated and homogenized. While cosmopolitans experience this as a liberating and unshackling impulse, provincials experience it as an assault upon their settled ways of life. The ‘growth of the economy’—the great neoliberal imperative—takes priority over the thriving of the community; ‘individual autonomy’ takes priority over social solidarity; the movement of a radically depersonalized, departicularized, and homogenized ‘labour’ takes priority over the rootedness and the preservation of socially dignifying forms of local industry.
The Weaknesses of Cosmopolitan Anthropology
In the UK and elsewhere, recent indiscriminate immigration has frequently been experienced as a very negative and socially fragmenting phenomenon, harming the host culture, with genuine integration never truly occurring. Resistance to undifferentiated and uncontrolled immigration—frequently confused with resistance to immigration as such—is widely attributed to racism, yet such resistance often arises, not primarily from hatred of persons from different countries themselves, but from recognition that such unmanaged immigration has a track record of eroding communal identities that support people’s belonging.
The repeated failure of multiculturalism has exposed the unwelcome truth that, although persons can be displaced and populations atomized, they cannot so easily be homogenized. In our values, behavioural traits, and cultural tendencies, etc. we are products and bearers of histories and identities much greater than our own. Experience has repeatedly demonstrated that, intentionally or not, people tend to take their cultural habits with them.
It is often presumed that persons are essentially blank slates, that old cultures can be shed and new cultures assumed with ease, and that persons and their communities are radically plastic and adaptable to new situations. The reality is not nearly so simple.
There is rich diversity within the families of humanity and a surprising tenacity of the character of peoples and their cultures over time. For a great many millennia, human peoples have adapted to very different situations, to different climates, geographies, environmental challenges, diets, forms of subsistence (e.g. to agriculture or hunting and gathering), modes of settlement, civilization, and social conditions. Peoples and their various cultures have developed over millennia of adaptation, development, and exchange.
The peculiar climactic, geographical, environmental, dietary, civilizational, historical, cultural, religious, and ideological forces that our peoples have both adapted to and developed have all left their subtle traces upon us and exerted a selective and moulding effect upon us. Some of these have been known to us for some time, while certain other forms of human biodiversity are only gradually becoming clear through advancements in the field of genetics: within the genes of each one of us are exciting clues to stories of migration, settlement, invasion, adaptation, and exchange.
The study of anthropology reveals the profound diversity of cultures, and the divergence of human peoples. Much as it fails to account for the differences between the sexes, the anthropology of neoliberalism, formed around the fungible, transactional, and detached individual fails to account for the varying ‘viscosities’ of populations and the significant differences and peculiar affinities between cultures and ethnicities. For instance, immigrants from any of the countries which are largely constituted by the diaspora of the British peoples—the USA, Canada, Australia, New Zealand—typically have a far more natural affinity with and instinct for our country and culture than persons from most other countries, and not merely on account of shared ethnicity and language. Britain’s less committed relationship to Europe has arisen in no small measure from the strength of its bonds with such countries in the Anglosphere.
Britain’s unique geographical situation and historical development means that it tends to relate to the European project quite differently from countries such as Germany or France. The historian and author of the recent critically lauded tome The English and Their History, Robert Tombs, was a striking exception to the overwhelming support for Remain among academics. Tombs argues that on account of our peculiar national character, Brexit may have been inevitable. Rather than regarding a federal Europe as a defence against the recurrence of historical conflict, maintaining a degree of disunity in Europe has generally been in Britain’s national self-interest (as satirized in this classic Yes Minister clip). Furthermore, Tombs maintains that Britain’s tradition of democratic sovereignty contrasts with the greater determination of national policy by an elite in many European nations.
In fact, it is not accidental that neoliberalism is largely a product of North Western European civilizations and peoples, who have been shaped by a unique confluence of environmental, geographic, historical, ideological, religious, and cultural forces to be more receptive to and apt for its forms. For instance, as one example of such a force, historically Western Europe had a distinct and unusual marriage pattern, which set us apart from the rest of the world. Late and non-universal marriage, with lower levels of fertility, and higher levels of exogamy encouraged particular sets of social values, as did the fact that parental choice of partners and consanguineous marriage were increasingly prohibited by the Church, breaking down the power of clannishness. The nuclear family was the prevalent traditional form of marriage in England, in contrast to the many different forms of marriage that were traditional elsewhere in Europe and in the wider world (authoritarian, communitarian, endogamous patriarchal, etc.). Such a form of marriage, especially in the absence of equal inheritance, can encourage a specific form of society with a larger class of professionals.
Marriage forms communal loyalties and a culture of late marriage, high exogamy and intermarriage, and nuclear families will have a peculiarly low viscosity and higher levels of individualism and cosmopolitanism. Failure to take such things into account is one of the weaknesses of liberalism’s ideology. As Schwarz recognizes, the effects of this failure are clearly visible in the poor integration of British Pakistanis, whose low level of integration arises in no small measure from radically contrasting marriage cultures:
Integration into a wider national life is further hindered—and the retention of a deeply foreign culture is further encouraged—by the fact that most Pakistani marriages, even if one spouse is born in Britain, essentially produce first-generation-immigrant children: the one study that measured this phenomenon, conducted in the north England city of Bradford, found that 85 percent of third- and fourth-generation British Pakistani babies had a parent who was born in Pakistan. (Incidentally, that study also found that 63 percent of Pakistani mothers in Bradford had married their cousins, and 37 percent had married first cousins.)
The neoliberal individual is not a human universal but a predominantly Northern European construction, arising in no small measure through the influence of Christianity. Many other human populations are considerably more clannish, both in social form and in ideological principle. They don’t so readily operate in terms of universalized ethical duties such as radical altruism, so unreservedly embrace cosmopolitan identities, or so successfully adopt democratic forms. The confidence of Western neoliberals that populations from all different parts of the world will speedily adapt and conform to the form of our societies arises from the misconception that people are largely blank slates, that cultures are shallow, and that the autonomous transactional cosmopolitan is the natural and universal form of the human subject, rather than a product of a particular cultural and historical context.
The differences between these groups come to expression in fiercely polarized ethical value systems. The ethics of cosmopolitans are ethics of universal benevolence, equality, and altruism. They resist making any distinctions between persons, prioritizing one set of persons over others, and discourage the creation or definition of groups that would in some way exclude or marginalize anyone. The opening up of borders has a profound ethical symbolism for such persons (although it is worth bearing in mind that there are ‘borders’ that the cosmopolitan class often depends upon—house prices, degrees and credentials, school catchment areas or fees, etc.—and that they may be considerably more concerned about the possible removal of these). No human being should be regarded as any more my neighbour than any other. Those who subscribe to such universalized ethics will often be deeply morally engaged with the well-being of completely unrelated persons or creatures, in many cases pointedly siding with other groups against their own group of origin. For the cosmopolitan, the state exists to ensure universal human rights and the equality of all persons within the area it administrates.
By contrast, the ethics of more provincial persons are the ethics of filial love. This love is necessarily particularized, committed to particular people, places, and things over others—and even to the exclusion of others in some cases. Loving one party doesn’t mean you have to hate or be indifferent to others. But it does require that you commit to and prioritize the good and well-being of that party over all others. The particularity of love for one’s family does not prevent one from showing hospitality to the stranger—nor deny the existence of a moral duty towards them—but a person who treats all people exactly as they treat their spouse and family will be seen to have betrayed their kin.
Such filial love cannot be universal or uniformly directed to all. In order truly to love one’s parents, that love must in some sense be exclusive and peculiar to them. In order truly to love one’s spouse, no one else must be allowed to take their place. In order truly to love one’s children, that love must privilege them over all other children (although this need not require the belief that they are objectively more valuable than all others). In order to love one’s neighbour and fellow countryman, you must prioritize their interests over those of outsiders, without thereby being indifferent to the outsider. In order truly to love one’s country, one must prioritize seeking its well-being over that of others, and value it more highly than and favour it over other countries. George Orwell defined this sort of patriotism, in contradistinction from nationalism, as ‘devotion to a particular place and a particular way of life, which one believes to be the best in the world but has no wish to force on other people.’
For this vision, nations are formed by common objects of love. We are united by a shared love for and favouring of our people, our place, the symbols of our sovereignty, our customs and traditions, our institutions, our ways of life, and our heritage. The specificity of these things stubbornly resists universalization. Borders are profoundly important for the ethics of filial love. Borders mark out our land—the object of our love—from that of our neighbours. They mark out our people, the people to whom we have a peculiar and primary duty of love and loyalty, from other peoples. The collapse of borders and cultural specificity is the collapse of the conditions for the nation as a union founded upon common objects of love.
We can appreciate and value the objects of our neighbours’ love and respect and even be stirred by the love that unites them, yet we recognize that we are formed by a different love. Patriotism does not accord value to its country because it has been persuaded that its country is objectively better than all other countries, but rather because filial love is absolutizing. The lover typically knows that the person, people, or place that they love is deeply flawed and far from ideal, but for them there is no other that could take the place of that object. Even the flaws of the objects of our love can be loved, simply because they play a part in making the object of our love what it is.
It should not be difficult to see why these two ethical visions inexorably collide, and why both sides can regard the other as vicious and malign. The ethics of universal benevolence, equality, and altruism directly conflicts with the ethics of filial love. Radical departicularization of our ethical stance is fundamental to universalized ethics, yet this is necessarily the rejection of the ethics of filial love. For the advocate of universalized ethics, the ethics of filial love reeks of bigotry, injustice, inequality, and hatred.
Conversely, the supporter of the ethics of filial love will regard the practitioner of universalized ethics as betraying the duty of love, especially when their radical altruism leads them strongly to favour the outsider and that which is foreign. Those who directly attack or disparage unifying objects of love, as they believe them to be exclusionary or insufficiently inclusive, will seem to be untrustworthy, disloyal, and even treacherous.
It is from such a vantage point that Farage’s statements about ‘real’, ‘ordinary’, and ‘decent’ people derives some of its moral and declamatory force. Many Brits will be deeply uncomfortable at the way such remarks subtly but unmistakably evoke race and ethnicity. There really does seem to be a genuinely ugly racism lurking here, a delegitimization of people who do not conform to Farage’s prejudices. However, while we might rightly resist such racist sentiments, the notion that the settled Anglo-Saxon population is English in any particular and especial way, for instance, is one that many now censor in themselves.
While undoubtedly a sensitive and delicate point, ethnicity is almost invariably at least implicitly a constitutive fact for national identity for those who think in terms of the ethics of filial love, even though many of them may be embarrassed about admitting the fact. In this belief they should not be presumed to exclude those of other ethnicities from such an identity nor be judged to assert sole title to our shared national ecosystem. They are generally recognizing and seeking to protect the peculiar and remarkable bond that has been formed between the long settled ethnic groupings to which they belong in the family of human peoples to the land in which they have been the constant recognizable presence for millennia. Cosmopolitans, not least as persons who are extremely ethnically, racially, and nationally exogamous relative to other groups, find it difficult to understand how such attitudes could not be racist.
In order to sustain universalized ethics, the demands of the bonds of love can be regarded with hostility. This can even excite anger towards our own family, communities, and country, as these are the bonds that provide the most immediate obstacles to universalized ethics: it is in rejecting the force of these bonds that the departicularization of morality required of the universalist is most required. Not only resistant to their unjust claims upon our commitment, loyalty, and love, the universalist can be wilfully destructive of the bonds that constitute them. Universalist ethics can exert a determinedly atomizing force, breaking down solidarities and opposing their claims, in order to assert the individual’s autonomy and undermine the exclusionary and privileging force of constitutive bonds.
Furthermore, the bonds of the ethics of filial love are fundamentally unchosen, and thereby challenge the extreme emphasis upon autonomous self-definition in universalized ethics and in cosmopolitan modes of life. Elevating the givenness of our identities threatens our capacity to be self-realizing and self-determining individuals, shackling us to social bodies that place unjustified and oppressive obligations upon us.
Conservatism Versus Progressivism
The conflict here is largely a conflict between conservatism and progressivism. Damon Linker writes:
Whether or not it’s expressed in explicitly theological terms, progressivism holds out a very specific moral vision of the future. It will be a world beyond particular attachments, beyond ethnic or linguistic or racial or religious or national forms of solidarity. In their place will be the only acceptable form of solidarity: humanitarian universalism.
And this means that the progressive future will even result in the end of politics itself — at least if politics is understood as encompassing more than the jostling of interest groups, bureaucratic administration, and the management of government benefits. Politics in that narrow sense will remain. But politics in Aristotle’s sense — this particular community in this place with this history and heritage, determining its own character for itself, deciding who is and who is not a citizen, who will rule, and in the name of which vision of the good life — that existential form of politics will cease to exist in the progressive future.
Linker draws attention to the significance of Angela Merkel’s opening up of Europe to mass migration of Arabs and Muslims in 2015. It was this moment and its aftermath that really served to galvanize the ethical polarization between these two opposing perspectives. Along with Merkel’s treatment of Greece, it has led a number of people to suggest that she is the person most particularly responsible for the current fracturing of the European project.
Those in favour of humanitarian universalism—the same humanitarian universalism that can encourage interventionist foreign policy in the Arab world—simply saw human beings in need and that was enough. Those more alert to cultural particularity and the ethics of filial love believed that this indiscriminate mass movement of displaced peoples to very different cultures and societies was quite likely a social and demographic disaster in the making. It presented peculiar risks to marginal persons and communities in the host culture, to the migrants themselves, and to the social and political well-being of Europe more generally. The fact that only 53% of immigrants to Sweden in 2003 had found jobs by 2013 and that, on account of such immigration, there are now 123 males to every 100 females aged 16 and 17 in Sweden (a figure probably inflated by immigrants intentionally misreporting their ages), is deeply concerning. A large population of displaced young men with low marriage chances (further decreased by the unlikelihood of extensive intermarriage with the native Swedish population), poor education, limited employment opportunities, and resistant to cultural assimilation is prime material for alienation, crime, and radicalization. Humanitarian universalism does not seem to give much thought to the forms of social pathology that are invited by a failure to reflect upon such demographic realities.
This opposition between conservative and progressive values is very pronounced in the division between Leave and Remain supporters. Leave supporters were generally critical of multiculturalism, social liberalism, globalization, and immigration, and were considerably more likely than Remain supporters to be opposed to feminism and the green movement. The EU is European progressivism’s city set on a hill and it is entirely unsurprising that such a rejection of it should be regarded as a retrograde step and a positioning of the UK on the wrong side of history.
The Role of the University
The Remain side of the referendum had exceedingly large support within the universities, which flattered the prejudice of meritocratic intellectuals who supposed that support for the EU should be attributed to intelligence. The startling consensus in support of the Remain side in academic circles has been troubling to me, even though I supported remaining myself. Support for the EU is such a profound and unquestioned received wisdom in such quarters—something I was once again reminded of when listening to speeches at a friend’s graduation ceremony in Durham recently—that is hard to see beyond it, or to imagine how anyone might see things differently. The modern university is almost invariably a cosmopolitan context and institution, which naturally favours progressive values.
The university is typically defined by openness to different cultures and ideas, a posture that is often praiseworthy. However, this posture is not always conducive to the well-being of rooted communities. Indeed, it is often dependent upon a sort of externalization and attenuation of belief and commitment in ‘culture’ and ‘faith’, things which we might still possess, define, or hold in some measure, but which no longer truly possess, define, or hold us. The superficiality of such ‘identities’—another term commonly exhibiting this externalizing tendency—can be exposed in the efforts expended to prove their congruity with the deeper commitments of progressive orthodoxies, in the common assumption that cultural and religious ‘identities’ can be easily shed or assumed, as if we were merely engaged in a form of live action role playing, and in the cosmopolitan’s reduction of difference to an object of consumption for tourists.
The university lies at the heart of the new cosmopolitan class, being the institution primarily responsible for its reproduction and continuation. In just over 20 years, from 1992 to 2013, university graduates rose from 17% of the population to 38%. The university is no longer primarily for the rigorous formation of academics: the political and socio-economic purposes of the university now eclipses the ostensive internal end of the institution. Unsurprisingly, laments about the rapidly falling academic calibre of graduates are widespread (even as enrolment in university has exploded, the percentage of students obtaining first and upper second class degrees has risen sharply across all subjects).
The university has become the rite of passage for the cosmopolitan class and the means by which it reinforces its meritocratic credentialism. Credentialism enables the university degree to serve as a protectionist measure, preventing those without them from competing for many jobs that do not actually demand skills exclusive or peculiar to university graduates. Participation in the university increasingly depends upon the class privileges of good education, expensive tuition and grooming, and highly involved, university educated parents with the financial resources to fund their children.
The rising social cost of the university must be considered. By transforming an institution that once existed primarily for the rigorous formation a small sub-population of intellectuals into something that increasingly functions as a costly, yet heavily government subsidized, means of reproducing a privileged class, the university has become less effective in and often morally compromised with respect to its core task. It is exceedingly costly in time and money. The meritocracy that it pays lip service to disguises the actual reason for many students’ presence within the institution and, on account of our overvaluation of academic skill, it represents the social devaluation and furthers the economic marginalization of the majority who still do not attend.
Beyond this, the institution of the university systemically uproots a large number of relatively more gifted young people from their local communities. It forms these young people into highly mobile and ambitious servants of the economy. Through assortative mating, these young people tend to marry other cosmopolitans (the gender neutrality and low fertility of the cosmopolitan class exacerbates several of the problems here), rather than within their local communities, intensifying a class divide and the concentration of power in richer and more educated cosmopolitan households. In past generations, these young people would have been much more likely to have been pillars of their local communities, tied to those communities through upbringing, vocational training, marriage, and family, and, by virtue of those ties profoundly and primarily invested in the common good of their locality, rather than in that of an individualistic class of cosmopolitans. The transformation of the university may be an important factor in the growing inequality and mutual alienation of classes that we experience today.
Our Stake in the Nation
These differences of ethical outlook lead to contrasting and typically opposing senses of what it means to have a stake in the nation and in the determination of its destiny. A telling indication of some of these differences could be seen in the anger among many on the Remain side towards older people, who disproportionately supported Brexit. It is, such Remain supporters have contended, a gross injustice that persons who will probably have to live with their decision no more than a couple of decades more should sabotage the futures of young people who will have to live with it for the rest of their lives. Implicit in such statements is the moral intuition that the weight of one’s voice in determining the destiny of our nation should be proportionate to the length of time that one has left to enjoy it.
This is profoundly revealing of a particular notion of a nation and what it means to have a stake in it. The assumption is that the nation entirely belongs to the living and that the nearer one moves to death, the more one must relinquish one’s stake in it. We relate to the nation as if consumers to an object of consumption.
Yet this is an exceedingly tendentious and perhaps rather novel notion of what it means to have a stake in a nation. This notion is one typically dependent in no small measure upon a denial of and resistance to the possibility of human transcendence, the denial that any greater entity, purpose, cause, or value exists that could give meaning to our lives beyond our own subjective pleasure, self-realization, and fulfilment.
Most societies have understood the political bond more in terms of a logic of sacrifice. The nation isn’t merely an object to be consumed, but something that has been forged through past sacrifice and labour, sacrifice and labour whose meaning is fragile and contingent upon our sense of duty in the present to consolidate the labour and be true to the sacrifice. To scorn this duty is to nullify the sacrifice and labour of those who went before us in a shameful and profoundly dishonourable manner. In passing on the nation to us, our forebears entrusted us with securing the meaning of their sacrifices and their labour. Our land and nation—a priceless and sacred bequest—must be preserved and enriched by our own sacrifice and labour and we must, in our own turn, entrust it and the realization of the meaning of our lives to generations yet to be born.
It is such a logic of sacrifice that can be seen in our honouring of the lives of those who laboured, fought, or died for our freedom. Past sacrifices give a particular perceived value to those things for which they sacrificed, perhaps especially to the lives of those who are their descendants. Once again, ethnicity, when it identifies persons as belonging to the historic native British peoples, is rendered a discriminating factor between groups, privileging some inhabitants of our nation over others in a manner deemed ethically intolerable by many.
The instinctive moral force of this logic for many is profound. To such persons, the subjection of the nation to market forces and the associated freedom of movement can seem to be the despising of our birthright for a mess of potage, the dishonouring of past sacrifices. Likewise, compromising national sovereignty, rendered sacred by virtue of the blood historically spilled to protect and assert it, for the sake of current economic and political expediency is sacrilegious.
This notion of nationhood does not absolutely exclude newcomers at all. However, as the nation is formed by common objects of love, faithfulness to past labour and sacrifice, and labour and sacrifice of our own, truly becoming a part of the nation requires a deep commitment and submission to an intergenerational moral project. The love, faithfulness, sacrifice, and labour that are required of the member of the people can take many different forms, as the national project is a variegated and complex one. Resistance to immigration is most pronounced where incoming groups have proved ambivalent or hostile to the moral project of the nation, which is why the immigration of certain Muslim populations has provoked particular concerns.
Once the logic of this notion of nationhood is appreciated, it can be recognized that it is not founded upon any antipathy towards different cultures as such, nor to persons from them. Rather, it is driven by the concern to protect and extend the nation as a unique and particular moral project, and to oppose those who would, by their ambivalence or hostility, undermine or compromise it. Foreigners can be appreciated and admired and their particular national moral projects respected, provided that people feel that their own national moral project can be advanced unthreatened.
Open expression of these concerns is typically heavily stigmatized and censored in contemporary multicultural Britain. I suspect that one of the reasons why the National Health Service has assumed a significant place in our recent national debate is because the NHS represents one of the few ways in which the logic I have described is still permitted to find some voice (speaking about things such as ‘our jobs’ is not so readily tolerated). The NHS is not an abstract value such as tolerance, inclusivity, or diversity, but something that is uniquely ours, a common object of our love, and a product of our historic sacrifices and labour. It assumes a sacred status for this reason and the supposed threat to it from the growing pressure of new immigrants enables people to talk about some of the ways in which they feel that recent immigrants have been parasitic upon and destructive of our national project.
Europe’s Loss of Faith
For the neoliberal market state vision, the state is a formal and administrative entity, guaranteeing and celebrating the autonomy of the individual. The market state does not protect and project the particularities and substantial realities of the unique cultural and historic identities of a specific people and their place, but articulates its values in only the vaguest and most purely formal terms. ‘British values,’ for the neoliberal market statist are the progressive values of tolerance, liberty, equality, diversity, inclusivity, etc. These values all eschew a particular substance or shape to British identity, advocating instead radical indeterminacy and the primacy of unrestricted yet affirmed choice and autonomy as society’s core value.
This same indeterminacy is illustrated in the EU’s failure to provide a robust definition of the fundamental term qualifying its union—‘European’. The distinctiveness of Europe, a peninsula of the Asian continent, is by no means immediately geographically apparent. The particular identity of European civilization has principally arisen historically through such things as its cultural dependence upon a Graeco-Roman patrimony, its existence as Christendom, the ethnic interrelatedness of its peoples, its struggle against hostile external forces such as Islam, the history of the Western Church, its various shared cultural, ideological, institutional, and scientific developments and experiences, and its existence as a realm of cultural interchange.
However, acknowledging these things would curtail the protean autonomy and freedom of the market and the neoliberal subject that grounds the EU’s identity. The EU is built, not upon a substantial and organic shared peoplehood, but upon the sharing of a market. That the accession of a country like Turkey to the EU would be considered is expressive of the EU’s understanding of what Europe means and political union involves.
Cosmopolitanism’s eschewing of a particular European identity, the collapse of Europe’s cultural spirit following two world wars, and the rejection of transcendence in atomized consumerist societies has resulted in the loss of a sense of European civilization as something distinct, worthy of our devoted love, labour, loyalty, faithfulness, and sacrifice. This enervation of spirit is one of the reasons for the deep popular concern in the face of Islamization.
Contemporary Europeans can presume that problems are all ultimately socio-economic, to be addressed with the economic and technocratic solutions of the managerial state. Indeed, this is one of the reasons why Leave voters are so hard for many Remain voters to understand. The fact that people might want something more than the material benefits of personal wealth, a strong local economy, and effective social services—that they might yearn for communities once again animated by spiritual values such as faith, hope, and love—cannot easily be processed within an imaginary that has expelled all such elements. That some people might be so animated by devotion to a meaning that transcends them that they would kill and die is terrifying to a civilization that has largely lost its own faith. Surrounded by the relics of a past that witness to a once forceful conviction, we are reproached and haunted by the faith that has departed us.
The Nation State, Sovereignty, and Democracy
For an alternative vision of peoplehood, by contrast, the state exists to adumbrate and protect the particular and substantial realities of a defined and formed people, a people that has persisted and developed through time. Such a people is differentiated from other peoples, and borders typically serve to control admixtures of people. Borders are existential for the nation, not purely administrative. Borders are that which protect the ‘we’ of the nation, a ‘we’ that represents much more than an agglomeration of individuals, but a uniquely constituted and formed people in their specifically differentiated identities and variegated relations. It is not accidental that, as Ed West has remarked, Leave voters are more likely to speak of ‘our’ country, while Remain voters are more likely to speak of ‘my’ country.
The concern for sovereignty and democracy has been forefront in the minds of Leave voters, both arising from our capacity to say ‘we’. The border can never be an abstraction, but is the basic condition for the definition and differentiation of the nation in its particular existence. Where borders are compromised, our capacity to say ‘we’ is undermined along with them; the alienation of power over our borders has unsurprisingly been a galvanizing issue for Leave voters.
By contrast, there is no pronounced ‘we’ in the market state. Sovereignty only truly registers where there is a particular, differentiated ‘we’, whose differentiation and integrity must be asserted and defended. This isn’t a right wing versus left wing opposition, but the difference between two very different ways of defining the political entity. Leave supporters have regarded the EU as a direct threat to the sovereignty of its member nations, as it denies them the right to determine their own borders and has steadily alienated power from them and their elected representatives, arrogating authority to its own bodies, unanswerable to the people, threatening their national integrity and self-determination. However, cosmopolitans have a post-national consciousness, for which the assertion of a nation’s peoplehood is widely perceived to be threatening. A supra-national, market-oriented body such as the EU liberates them from the shackles of the nation.
Likewise, democracy only exists where there is a demos, a people that can exist as a political unit. The market state is deeply corrosive of democracy, as it steadily undermines and destroys the conditions for the existence of the demos. Whether operating in the abstraction of supra-national agencies, or in the politically stifling immediacy of atomizing consumerism, the market state does not truly engage with or represent the demos. Breaking down the differentiated forms of peoples and encouraging social transience, atomization, and fungibility through radical choice and the rapid circulation of ‘labour’, market statism cuts off democracy at its root. Concern about the corrosion of democracy will primarily be expressed by persons who belong to a well-defined demos.
In place of the demos, the market state emphasizes the deracinated transactional person and the entitled dependent (‘rights’ now being the operative language in articulating the citizen’s relationship with the state). The EU, an inscrutable and Kafkaesque web of bureaucratic agencies, neither represents any demos, nor renders itself accessible, visible, and truly accountable to such a demos. The opacity of the EU to many Britons is indicative of its ambivalence or hostility to democracy. Yet, as the EU advances a neoliberal order that empowers deracinated individuals and advocates an expansive vision of human rights, its anti-democratic character will not be experienced as a problem by many.
The place of technocrats, experts, and intellectuals in maintaining and advancing this order is one of the reasons for the widespread public distrust of them. Such public resistance to experts and intellectuals need not be conceived of as ignorance, stupidity, and irrationality. Technocrats, experts, and intellectuals typically belong to a class of their own, with their own class interests, interests that do not align with those of many others in the population. They are disproportionately cosmopolitans invested in the neoliberal order themselves. Intellectuals and experts do not have a monopoly on reason and people who do not align with them should not thoughtlessly be dismissed as stupid.
Understanding our Differences
I have identified some keys to understanding many of the divides of modern British society revealed by the Brexit vote. My discussion has focused on extreme forms and, as such, is vulnerable to a charge of caricature. The vast majority of the British population are neither pure cosmopolitans nor pure provincials: neither of these two ideal sets of values typically exist without admixture in a given person. Nor is there a pure alignment between provincial values and the Leave campaign or cosmopolitan values and the Remain campaign. I have considerable sympathy for many provincial values, yet supported the Remain cause.
Nevertheless, in cosmopolitanism and provincialism I believe that we identify two competing logics in most British souls and in its society as a whole. While necessarily exaggerated and focused upon extremes, then, I trust that my descriptions have served to pick out real phenomena. Within this tension, I believe that we will discover many of the underlying reasons for the disconnection, mutual alienation, and opposition between the two sides of our current national debate.
I have purposefully endeavoured to offer a charitable representation of provincial values, because I believe that these are peculiarly vulnerable to misrecognition and misrepresentation in our present environment. Despite the poisonous character of nativist xenophobia, there is much that can be celebrated in the uniqueness of a distinct people, even when that distinctness is manifested ethnically. However, in defending provincial values against the harsh charges of cosmopolitans, we should not be blind to how easily and commonly such provincial values have curdled into xenophobic or racist sentiment, nor to the distinct dangers of a logic of sacrifice, which can hold us to the service of past falsehoods and injustices.
Likewise, despite the profound weaknesses and flaws of neoliberalism and certain prevailing forms of cosmopolitanism, it is important to appreciate that certain forms of non-totalizing cosmopolitanism are not without considerable goodness. Christianity has a form of cosmopolitanism at its heart, in its celebration of grace’s capacity to traverse all of the boundaries that divide us, and to bring us together in a communion that transcends without expunging our provincial distinctions. The Apostle Paul united both provincial and cosmopolitan values as one who as a ‘Hebrew of the Hebrews’ was nonetheless able to be ‘all things to all men’.
I do not believe that cosmopolitan and provincial values should be locked into an absolute opposition. Both sets of values pursue and protect genuine goods. The values that enable one community to thrive can harm another community. Perhaps what is needed is greater sensitivity to the diverse values that the well-being of different communities require (for instance, the parochialism that richly serves the rural parish typically fails within the city). Our nation is not homogeneous. Rather, our land sustains very different forms of life, modes of community, and senses of place and we must protect them differently, each according to its peculiar needs.
This requires a responsible exertion of attention and imagination, one that recognizes and respects the sources of our differences and refuses to disenfranchise or demonize groups who experience, practice, or perceive nationhood in manners divergent from our own. The same territory can be rendered in different ‘cartographic’ modes and we must pursue the conditions for reconciliation and coexistence between such differing modes, while tempering each other in our extremes and correcting each other in our faults.
A Lockean account of property rights abetted the disenfranchisement of Native Americans, failing to recognize and honour the particular form of their relationship with the land. So too, the failure empirically to register and conceptually to reckon with the different forms of identity, place, and belonging represented and sustained in the UK has been a means of threatening others’ place and belonging within our country. This has created fundamental hostility between different ways of inhabiting this space, with little attempt at reconciliation or mutual accommodation. Rather than cooperating to form a nation that makes space for and protects different forms of identity, while allowing them to function in a mutually tempering and enriching manner, we have destructively pressed totalizing incompatible visions. The result has been social atomization and resurgent nativism, both of which tendencies have sadly been visible in the recent referendum.
On the eve of the referendum, I sat around the TV with some close friends of mine, each of us deeply invested in the results of the vote. Although they are Canadians and do not hail from Europe, for them the referendum was an indicator of Britain’s degree of openness to outsiders—to people like them—and its favouring of progressive values more generally. They know that Farage’s remarks about real, ordinary, and decent people delegitimizes their place in our nation’s life, irrespective of their love for and commitment to so much about it. When I heard him make that statement, I felt angry on their behalf, and on behalf of all of the others that statement devalued. This morning, as I walked their eight-year-old child to school, he told me that he wasn’t going to go to the Durham Miners’ Gala because he wouldn’t feel safe there on account of his accent.
After returning home, I stayed up all night following the results. At around 5am the next morning, the result of the referendum was declared. Shortly after, I heard my housemate leave her room and I went out to talk to her. She comes from France and was devastated by the outcome. We discussed our deep concern about the result for an hour and a half. During her time in the UK, she fell in love with our country and our people and longs to return. To her the result of the referendum felt like the fraying of a deep personal bond.
The next morning, I drove with her to Newcastle airport, where she was leaving to return to her home. On the way back, I reflected upon the way that Europe and the EU—for all of its immense failings—has come to represent deep friendships for me. In the past five years, I have shared houses—shared homes—with four people from France, a woman from Germany, a woman from Spain, and a man from Corsica (in addition to four Chinese people and a Bruneian Muslim woman). The freedom of movement the EU facilitates has promoted and facilitated threads of friendship that traverse borders and enrich my life. Borders that once represented mutual distrust and enmity no longer stand for our historical antagonisms. Despite my principled opposition to much that the EU represents, I couldn’t deny that Britain felt lonelier after Brexit. While such friendships will survive Brexit, it does introduce a new friction preventing them from occurring and being sustained so easily.
And, thanks in no small part to the EU, Europe also stands for family. I have a brother, sister-in-law, and niece who live in Marseille and another brother, sister-in-law, nephew and niece who live in Hamburg. Recently, prior to England’s match against Russia in Euro 2016, English and Russian football hooligans clashed in the Old Port area of Marseilles, about one hundred yards from where my brother lives. The ugliness of a belligerent nationalism was clearly apparent and I felt ashamed and angry that persons representing my country would treat the city my brother calls home with such violent disrespect. Yet such violence has been a recurring theme in our English national identity.
I was born in the cathedral city of Worcester in the Midlands, but my parents moved to the Republic of Ireland when I was three months old. Until the age of 16, I lived in the small town of Clonmel. From the earliest age I remember, I understood myself to be English. As I grew up in a highly provincial and socially homogeneous Irish context, I felt acutely aware of being out of place, an English Protestant in an overwhelmingly Irish Catholic world and was often bullied on account of that fact.
I came to love Clonmel for what it was, precisely for its provincial character, yet it became increasingly clear to me that my presence as an Englishman in that context would require recognition from me of the horrifying ways in which my people—the people I loved and to which I belonged—had assaulted the peoplehood of the Irish. In appreciating what it meant to be at the receiving end of the belligerence and arrogance of the English—something the Lansdowne Road football riots powerfully symbolized for me—I saw that the peoplehood I loved could be expressed in poisonous and destructive ways and that, in my enjoyment of institutions born out of the Ascendancy, I was a beneficiary of past injustices.
In my life, I have lived in Ireland, Wales, Scotland, and a few locations in England. I expect that most of the rest of my life will be spent on the far side of the Atlantic. I have never felt that I have belonged anywhere, yet I possess a hunger for locality uncharacteristic of the cosmopolitan, a yearning for a rootedness I can never possess. I peer through the window of locality and provincial identity, my nose pressed up against its glass. I inhabit England and am English, but am a vagabond and an exile in my own land. What I love is ultimately inaccessible to me, yet that love defines me. I consume locality, but cannot really produce it. I have lived in Durham for many years, and continue to struggle to escape the state of being a tourist—consuming the ephemeral surfaces of the place—to become a pilgrim who engages with and moves through its depths.
Growing up in a second culture, I, like my brothers, struggle to relate fully to provincial, single culture, people. I do not find it at all surprising that all of us have married or are intending to marry outside of our culture. Although I love my country, it is more of a romantic than a filial love.
The book that perhaps defined my childhood imaginary more than any other, The Wind in the Willows, is an intensely English story, a tale of wanderlust and the delight of travel, the quest for shelter, the hunger for home, and the magnetic power of places touched by transcendence. These varied threads of longing depicted by Kenneth Graham has always resonated with and given expression to my own need for place and my inability to be a cosmopolitan, despite my love for travel.
Even though I may not be able truly to inhabit it for myself, the unique place that is England has a profound and inspiring meaning, albeit one always at risk of becoming an idol. Through it, occasionally, as in a golden shard of light piercing a stained glass pane, I can espy a better, a transfigured, country, C.S. Lewis’ ‘England within England’, that ‘inner England in which no good thing is destroyed.’ There may have been no stronger earthly love in my life. Yet being to some manner dispossessed of place—being a stranger and a pilgrim—may be a necessary condition for my Christian seeking of a homeland. England, for all of its goodness, can never be that.
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