Can Dual Citizens Be Good Citizens?

British citizenship ceremony 2

What does it mean to be a dual citizen in the Age of Brexit?

Following my recent blog post lamenting our society’s devalued and transactional concept of citizenship in the Age of Brexit, I was asked by a reader to write a companion piece on the topic of dual citizenship, a form of recourse which may ultimately be taken up by many EU residents currently living in Britain.

The request was as follows:

Brexit has caused (we are told) applications for passports from people who already hold passports – that is, people who are citizens of one European country seeking to become a citizen of a second country too.

This apparently includes UK citizens applying for Irish passports (without abandoning their UK passports) and people from continental countries who live in Britain applying for a British passport too (presumably this means going through the naturalisation process?). One wonders how many people who announce that they are planning to do it actually do – but it is evidently happening.

It is questionable why people should be able to be dual citizens if they live in democracies and are free to travel and work abroad. The ability to claim benefits in a second country seems to be one impetus. But it can cause people costs, like two tax liabilities. Some countries do not allow their citizens to take another citizenship without renouncing their existing one, but there seem to be many countries which are happy to agree to dual citizenship.

Your article of 12 September explains well how citizenship is becoming a sort of transaction – benefits for taxes, and no longer an allegiance to a nation. The large increase in people obtaining (why not triple?) citizenship could further undermine the significance and value of being a citizen of a country.

My reader seems to build on my assertion that citizenship is increasingly seen (particularly by educated, globally mobile elites) as very much a transactional affair with perks received in exchange for taxes paid, and extrapolates that dual citizenship is necessarily a further dilution of the bond between citizen and nation state.

This is a tricky subject for me to discuss, primarily because I will ultimately be emigrating to the United States with my Texan wife (who is herself currently in the process of applying for British citizenship). Therefore, to rail against the concept of dual citizenship would be hypocritical, while approving too strongly might be seen as merely attempting to justify my own personal circumstances. All I can do when setting out my views, therefore, is to make people aware of this potential bias and lay out my thinking on the matter as it currently stands.

In short, I do not believe that dual citizenship is either inherently good or inherently bad. Though there is undoubtedly a correlation between those who hold dual citizenship and the kind of fleet-footed “Citizens of the World” who feel that they have transcended national identity altogether, it is perfectly possible in my mind for somebody who holds dual citizenship to be a model citizen of both countries, while somebody without an international lifestyle can just as easily be a terrible citizen of the only country they call home.

Therefore, I don’t think it is a question of whether dual citizenship as a concept is right or wrong. The more interesting question to me is what makes somebody a good citizen of their home or adopted country, and what makes somebody a bad or negligent citizen.

One could probably define this a thousand different ways, but for immigrants seeking to naturalise as dual citizens surely it includes a mixture of more tangible qualities (being economically active, law-abiding, involved in the community) and intangible qualities (genuine interest in and acceptance of the country’s culture and values). Immigration authorities typically only look at the tangible aspects – what else could they do? – but while this scrutiny can reveal whether somebody is likely to be an economic burden or a danger to society, it is the intangible (and largely immeasurable) qualities which really determine whether or not somebody will make a good citizen.

From my own experience, I have loved the idea of America since I was an early teenager, and the reality of America just as much, ever since first experiencing the country in my late teens. The architecture, the art, the (classical) music, the landscape and the sheer optimism of America captivated me well before I was politically aware, and the Constitution, federal system and that strange but compelling contradiction between individualism and great community-mindedness equally appealed to me as I came to understand them.

America is a country that I feel I know well. Not just in the sense that frequent holidaymakers might be able to direct somebody to their favourite restaurant in New York City, or the way that US-based foreign correspondents come to know the political and cultural elites with whom they rub shoulders, but at a much deeper level.

I have visited and worked in towns and cities across that great land, from New York to Chicago to Kansas City to Austin to San Antonio to Seattle, and many smaller places in between. I have seen and savoured some of the best of urban and rural living in America, from hearing the New York Philharmonic play John Adams, riding a stranger’s horse in Colorado and experiencing the Catholic Mass with Mariachi music in my wife’s south Texas hometown to eating fried food on sticks at the Illinois State Fair. I have spoken with people from the most left-leaning liberals to the strictest social conservatives and found nearly everyone to be unfailingly polite and welcoming – though a couple of men I once conversed with at a hotel bar in Arkansas were none to happy that America had a black president (they used a different word).

I have seen (some of) the best of America, and glimpsed the darker side, too. And so when the day finally comes that I raise my hand and take the oath of allegiance to the Constitution and laws of the United States of America I will be aligning myself with a country that I know and love, for all its greatness and its imperfections.

I will not become an American to join a closed community of fellow British expats, clustered together in one locale and unwilling to integrate with American society. I will not become an American to try to make the United States more like Britain. I will not become an American because the taxes are lower (though they are), or because I think I can get more from the welfare system (I certainly won’t). I will not become an American merely because the United States is a temporary work posting, a brief stopover as part of a transnational career. No, I will become an American because I will one day make that place my home and want to share that bond of citizenship and fraternity with my fellow citizens; because I want to participate in American democracy and every facet of civic life open to citizens.

But even as I do so, I will not lose affection for the United Kingdom, my homeland. I will remain connected to Britain not only through ties of family and friends, but because I am proud to be British and have been an engaged citizen of this country for so long, politically and culturally. When my wife and I have children we may well want them to spend some years growing up in London so that they know the rich culture that is also their inheritance. Far be it from me to brag about myself, but as an abstract ideal for the model dual citizen this would seem like a decent enough template.

But the diluting effect of loyalties mentioned by my reader is undoubtedly a real phenomenon. I would think it highly unlikely that anybody could maintain such strong connections as the number of countries and citizenships involved ticks upward. I have to tread carefully here, because I have a number of dear and longstanding friends who hold multiple citizenships, and uncontestably have strong attachments to and affection for each country in question. One cannot make judgments about individuals from population trends, or infer population trends from observing individuals, but at a macro level I think it is generally the case that deep attachment to a nation state decreases as the number of citizenships in play increases.

The degree to which the cultures in question differ from one another probably also determines whether it is possible to form a deep bond to multiple countries. I would imagine that growing up in a Middle Eastern theocracy would make it at least somewhat harder to form deep bonds of attachment to a country with Western values and culture while maintaining undiminished affection and loyalty to one’s homeland, though there are undoubtedly many such dual citizens who do not experience (or at least overcame) any cognitive dissonance in this regard.

Many residents holding a particularly high number of citizenships are likely to have acquired at least one from birth or through their parents, and may have very little connection to the culture of that country if they grew up without living there. I know several people who hold Spanish citizenship through birth, though the closest connection they have with Spain is having occasionally vacationed there as a child. Does this make them bad citizens? I wouldn’t necessarily say so, since their citizenship is passive – they do not live in Spain or participate in Spain’s democratic process, and so their effect on Spain is neither positive or negative.

And of course there are particularly mobile members of the economic elite who often tend to have more in common with elites from other developed countries than with their less affluent neighbours. Benjamin Schwarz is the latest to pick up on this particular trend, over at The American Conservative:

Reflecting and exacerbating the cultural divide, these cities have increasingly become culturally homogenous echo-chambers. The consumption patterns and cultural and political attitudes of, say, London, central Paris, the westside of Los Angeles, the northside of Chicago, Manhattan, Seattle, Northwest D.C., Toronto, and San Francisco resemble each other more than they do their outlying districts and suburbs.

As befits these engines of global capitalism, these cities and their inhabitants are pulling away with growing momentum from their native countries and cultures. Untethered from their localities, they are being transformed into an archipelago of analogous islands.

Again, does this mean that a well-travelled, prosperous knowledge worker with an international career cannot be a good and conscientious member of his or her community and country? Of course not. But it seems highly likely that people who are rooted Somewhere will have a greater sense of belonging and loyalty to their country than people who are rooted Anywhere. This is not intended as a moral judgment, but simply a statement of probability.

This hypothesis was proved in the EU referendum, where the vast majority of the foreign-born Anywheres living in Britain were strongly for remaining in the European Union and dumbfounded to the point of trauma at the vote for Brexit. For example, many Americans living in London simply couldn’t understand why Britain would want to secede from a supranational political union in the name of nation state democracy, even though their own country would never in a million years submit to the same kind of incursions on sovereignty inflicted by the European Union. In this regard at least they clearly have more in common with the transnational elite than the majority of citizens of their own country (or Britain, as it turns out).

In all of this, I feel like something of an outsider. I have enjoyed an international career myself, will one day be a dual citizen and in most ways am very much part of the “elite” that I spend an increasing amount of time thinking and writing about. My wife and I live in West Hampstead, an area of London which voted overwhelmingly for Remain in the referendum, and in which French is probably the second-most common language heard on the high street. We have become snobs about good coffee, visit food trucks on the weekend and (God help us) occasionally shop at Whole Foods.

Yet I am not at one with the hive mind of my demographic, which leans strongly toward the pro-European, trendy Left. I don’t think that this makes me any better or worse than people who hold the prevailing views of my social circle, but whether by the circumstances of my childhood or some quirk of the brain I do seem to be able to empathise with those who fall outside my demographic or otherwise think differently. I see the condescending, insular selfishness of the centre-leftist metropolitan worldview even as I personally benefit from many of the resulting policies.

This is probably why my stance on dual citizenship is nuanced to the point of sounding tortured. But since the ability to empathise with people of all circumstances is to my mind an essential part of being a good citizen, to this extent I do consider myself a better citizen (though by no means a better person) than those who hold the typical pro-EU, metro-leftist worldview.

Personally, I feel rooted emotionally and circumstantially to only two countries – Britain and America. There are other countries which I know well, love and respect. I have enormous affection for France, from the scruffy Pas-de-Calais to the trendy Marais district of Paris. I know and like the French culture and character. But I do not feel French, nor would I, even if I were to take a job in France for a number of years. If I were ever to take French citizenship it would only be the result of a need to formally codify my status there for administrative reasons, or because I wanted to participate in the democracy of my host nation. It would very much be the more transactional approach to citizenship that my reader decries. By contrast, I already feel part-American – the only thing which lags behind is the paperwork.

Others may enjoy the rare ability to feel real, abiding love for multiple countries, to hold six or seven passports and be willing to fight and die for each represented flag, if necessary. I am not one of those people, and as a tenuous member of the so-called elite I can report that very few of them cross my path. Therefore I think it almost self-evident that there is a negative correlation between citizenships held and deep attachment to each – but it is a trend with many many outliers, and one cannot prejudge anybody based on this factor alone.

So is it possible for dual citizens to be good citizens of both countries? Yes, of course – or at least I hope so, for my sake. But the qualities that make a good citizen cannot be measured or screened for during the immigration and naturalisation process (even attempting to do so would veer into draconian thought-policing of the worst kind), and so we are left struggling to promote the concept of citizenship to a group of people many of whom have lost faith in the very concept. But just as one hopes that people take the institution of marriage seriously while simultaneously recognising that many people will not do so, so one must accept that some people will become citizens of a new country thinking only of the benefits and not the obligations.

At present, many of those who oppose Brexit – both British citizens and EU residents – declare themselves “Citizens of the World”, meaningless phrase though it is, as a way of signifying their disdain for what they see as an insular and parochial worldview.

But as I wrote last year:

In my experience, self-described citizens of the world have tended to describe their outlook in terms of what they get from the bargain rather than what they contribute in return. They call themselves citizens if the world because being so affords them opportunities and privileges – the chance to travel, network and do business. Very few people speak of being citizens of the world because of what they give back in terms of charity, cultural richness or human knowledge, yet all of the people that I would consider to have been true citizens of the world – people like Leonard Bernstein or Ernest Hemingway – fall into this latter, rarer category.

If the former, more parasitic attitude is what comes to represent dual citizenship then I have no desire to be associated with it. But it need not be like this. Dual citizens can be among the very best citizens of a country, holding a deep appreciation for their new home that many natural born citizens lack or take for granted, while also bringing with them the best values and traditions of their homelands.

And these people we should welcome with wide-open arms.

 

Dual citizenship - US and British passports

Support Semi-Partisan Politics with a one-time or recurring donation:

Agree with this article? Violently disagree? Scroll down to leave a comment.

Follow Semi-Partisan Politics on TwitterFacebook and Medium.

Advertisements

Citizenship And The Nation State Remain Relevant, Despite The Efforts Of Their Detractors

Katy Perry - Treaty of Westphalia - Nation States

There’s life in the humble nation state yet

As the backlash against Brexit grows ever stronger and the Cult of Social Justice and Identity Politics eats away at our national fabric from within, there are many legitimate reasons to fear for the future of patriotism, citizenship and even the nation state itself.

However, there are also a few reasons for optimism, and Rebecca Lowe Coulson sets some of them out in Conservative Home. But first she paraphrases the question that many people are now asking about the continued relevance of the concept of citizenship:

In an increasingly globalised world, however — in which the Westphalian order of nation states is regularly criticised as inward-looking — citizenship is repeatedly denounced as an outdated representation of division and exclusion. It hardly seems necessary to comment that such denouncements typically come from the privileged, within the most economically and politically secure nations. And that, like those Britons angered at the imminent loss of their EU citizenship after Brexit, few “global citizens” seem keen to give up the privileges of their current national citizenships.

Of course, what many of those citizenship-snubbers truly want (like most of the rest of us) is for their own privileges to be extended to those living in less secure places. It is undeniable that great global imbalances remain, even though living standards continue to rise across the world. But then, the question should not be whether the concept of citizenship precludes opportunities in the sense that being a member of one state can be highly preferable to being a member of another, but whether it is still the case that one’s rights and opportunities are best protected and afforded through membership of an individuated state. In a world in which secure states increasingly offer extensive rights to non-citizen inhabitants, aCitind less secure states need more substantial upheaval and help than an improved understanding of the intricacies of membership rules, is the concept of citizenship relevant?

Coulson Lowe then goes on to explain exactly why the concept of citizenship remains relevant, and will not be undermined despite the best efforts of those who see the nation state as an obstacle to be overcome rather than a crucial guarantor of rights:

We all remember how, in her 2016 Conservative Party conference speech, Theresa May said that “citizens of the world” were “citizens of nowhere”. The comment has become symbolic of an approach for which she has been widely criticised: an approach seen both as arrogant, and as attempting to appeal to those on the further right of her party.

At the time, I felt her tone mistaken, in that I would have preferred a use of language implying greater keenness to heal, or at least address pressing divisions within the country. General criticisms of the comment often overlook the argument May was setting out, however. The words came within a section about the “spirit of citizenship”, and read, in full: “But if you believe you’re a citizen of the world, you’re a citizen of nowhere. You don’t understand what the very word ‘citizen’ means”. Surely, it is that forgotten second sentence that is key, here. And that the point May was in the midst of making was about the importance of “respecting the bonds and obligations that make our society work”.

The state, and the society that exists within it, still matters profoundly to those people who aren’t happy with the countries they call home .. Official membership of such societies is conferred in different ways: from the automatic rights of familial lineage to the successful passing of a test. But the standard way of gaining the citizenship of a state is by being born and growing up in it. For those of us fortunate to count somewhere like Britain or Australia as that place, it can be easy to take for granted the relative privileges this affords us.

Yet most of us see that the uncertainties and risks of life make it expedient for us to live together in societies, and that, as social creatures, it is natural for us to want to do so, over and above that expediency. The advancements of the past centuries — in communication, travel, science, military capabilities, commerce, and on — have made it impractical for societies to remain limited to the family groups, villages, or cities they once were. The continuation of that advancement does not mean that our embrace of the nation state must also become outdated, however. For simple reasons of functionality — not to mention the more complex, such as those related to culture or national identity — it is hard to see how bigger blocs or idealist internationalist approaches could work.

This is what many on the Left fail (or are unwilling) to grasp. The Westphalian concept of statehood and sovereignty (combined with 19th century concepts of nationalism) survive the test of time because they work with the grain of human nature rather than against it. Rather than pretending against all available evidence that somebody from country A has as much in common with someone from country Z as their next door neighbour, the system of nation states is a tacit admission that the human instinct to be part of a social communities mean that harmony is best achieved when systems of government are aligned with societal boundaries. And indeed, when there is a mismatch between government and society, nation states have often split and reformed in response.

But the bigger blocs and non-state actors championed by the nation state’s detractors will not become a viable replacement in the foreseeable future, precisely because an entity’s democratic legitimacy and popular support are derived from having a demos which identifies as a cohesive whole and consents to being governed at that level.

The United States works as a country because US citizens see themselves as American first and foremost, and not Californian, Texan, Iowan, Alaskan or North Carolinian. The United Kingdom survived the 2014 Scottish Independence referendum because a majority of Scots (just about) considered themselves British as well as Scottish, if not more so.

Supranational blocs do not command this sense of loyalty or commonality among the people they nominally represent, as the European Union discovered with Brexit and will continue to discover as member states chafe against one-size-fits-all dictation from Brussels. Brexit occurred because the European Union’s drive for ever-closer union and a grander role on the world stage was plain for all to see, and the majority of voters who consider themselves more British than European wanted no part of it.

The “if you build it they will come” approach – where ideological zealots construct all the trappings of a supranational state in the hope or arrogant expectation that a common demos and sense of shared purpose will follow on automatically – has been proven to be nothing more than wishful thinking.

And this is a good thing, because as Rebecca Lowe Coulson correctly observes, supranational and non-state actors have generally proven themselves far less able to effect change than unilateral, bilateral or multilateral efforts by nation states with common purpose. The very nature of trying to shoehorn the competing national interests and priorities of multiple countries into a “common” foreign, fiscal or defence policy gives rise to resentment, suboptimal outcomes (such as stratospheric youth unemployment in Southern Europe) and inevitable net losers.

And yet the myth persists – amplified by bitter Remainers and much of the corrupted civil liberties lobby – that cooperation between countries is only possible under the umbrella of supranational government, and that these non-state actors are somehow a better guarantor of individual liberties than nation states themselves.

Take this hysterical email recently sent out by “civil liberties” organisation Liberty:

Yesterday we took another huge step towards our withdrawal from the European Union as the Government published the Repeal Bill.

If the Bill passes in its current state, people in the UK will lose rights after we leave the EU. It’s that simple and the stakes are that high.

The vote to leave the European Union was not a vote to abandon our human rights.

Yet the Repeal Bill includes worryingly broad powers for ministers to alter laws without parliamentary scrutiny and contains no guaranteed protections for human rights. Worse, it takes away the protections of the Charter of Fundamental Rights without ensuring that we will continue to protect all of those rights in the UK after Brexit.

Every single right we have now needs to stay on our statute books – from those contained in the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights, to equality protections we’ve gained from our membership.

Liberty – and other groups who are content for British citizens to have “rights” imposed on them from above rather than argue for and win them at a domestic level – see supranational organisations as a convenient bypass for national democracy. If the stupid British people are too dumb to vote for more employment protections and other government treats, this line of thinking goes, then advocacy groups who know better should just go over their heads to the EU. This is profoundly undemocratic, but more than that it only affirms the dangerous idea that our rights should be granted by government (at any level) rather than being innate and inalienable.

This is utterly wrong, as I explained back in 2015:

The new, emerging institutions which will replace them are being designed behind closed doors by small groups of mostly unelected people, as well as the most influential agents of all – wealthy corporations and their lobbyists. We have almost no idea, let alone influence, over what they are building together because instead of scrutinising them we spend our time arguing over the mansion tax or the NHS or high speed railways, which are mere distractions in the long run.

The liberties and freedoms we hold dear today can very easily slip away if we do not jealously guard them. By contrast, power is generally won back by the people from elites and powerful interests at a very heavy price – just consider Britain’s own history, or the American fight for independence from our Crown.

The yawning gap in the argument of those who would do away with the nation state is how they intend to preserve democracy in its absence (assuming they even care to do so). Even many of the EU’s loudest cheerleaders concede that the current institutions are profoundly undemocratic and unresponsive to popular priorities or concerns – this tends to be expressed through an exasperated “of course the EU needs reform!”, sandwiched between odes of love and loyalty to the very same entity, as we witnessed countless times during the EU referendum.

But what that reform actually looks like, nobody can say. Or at least, those few tangible visions for a future EU which do exist are so unmoored from reality as to be little more than idle curiosities – see former Greek finance minister Yanis Varoufakis’ DiEM25, which contends both that the European Union can be persuaded to undertake meaningful reforms (ha!), and that this reformed EU should then amplify left-wing priorities to the exclusion of all others (how very democratic).

If you want to do away with the concept of the nation state or actively agitate for its demise then I think you have a responsibility to state clearly and unambiguously what you would have in its place before pushing us all into the undiscovered country. Yet the assorted citizens of the world, so anguished by Brexit, refuse to come up with an answer – at least not one which they are willing to utter in public.

The European Union is not a static entity – it is an explicitly and unapologetically political project moving relentlessly (if erratically) toward the clear goal of ever-closer union. If this is not their preferred outcome for Britain and all other nation states (and few pro-EU types will admit that this is what they want) then it is incumbent on them to offer an alternative goal with a politically viable means of achieving it.

And until they do so, the assorted enemies of the nation state do not really deserve a hearing.

Treaty of Westphalia

Support Semi-Partisan Politics with a one-time or recurring donation:

Agree with this article? Violently disagree? Scroll down to leave a comment.

Follow Semi-Partisan Politics on TwitterFacebook and Medium.

Lack Of Empathy For Opposing Political Views Threatens Social Cohesion

Bob Geldof - EU Referendum - Brexit- Fisherman boat protest

The inability of the political and professional classes to comprehend or respect the political opinions of those from other backgrounds is nearly as grave a threat to our social cohesion as unchecked multiculturalism

There is a whole bucketload of truth in this piece by Michael Merrick, which should make uncomfortable reading not only for metro-leftist, pro-EU types, but even those of us in the so-called professional classes who do not subscribe to majority opinion.

Merrick discusses the differing prevailing cultural and political norms which exist among working class people (generally more conservative) and those in the urban professional classes (much more progressive), and the difficulty of bridging the gulf of misunderstanding between the two. This is particularly relevant when it is almost exclusively the professional classes who are charged with setting public policy, despite often having no real empathy with those whom they seek to reform or re-educate.

Merrick writes:

It is a long established truth that graduates tend to be much more liberal than their non-graduate compatriots. Indeed, since the referendum, plenty on the Remain have been quick to point out the education gap between Leave voters and themselves. The observation is innocent enough, though it too often contains all the smirk and subtext of that teacher from my youth.

Thus the graduate professions take on a particular character, with norms of outlook, of worldview, indeed of morality. The moral compass of the liberal outlook is distinct from the conservative, and these things split broadly over class, which correlates with level of education; these tribes value different things, draw lines in different places. But when the deck is stacked so heavily toward one over the other, the chances of any effort to comprehend the difference diminish whilst self-certainty proliferates. And liberals, contrary to assumption, tend to be as intolerant as conservatives, who have a broader moral outlook, though less understanding of the conservative viewpoint than the other way round. In a profession which is graduate dominated, and with graduate-level education so tightly correlated with liberal outlook, so we might see the roots of an important disconnect. Conformity to the norms of the in-group becomes the mark of the sophisticated, the cultured, the educated. And transgression comes at a cost.

As such, if you arrive from a working-class background shaped by these subversive norms, the graduate professions are not always a comfortable place to be. You must grow accustomed to the objects of derision and mockery being people like your family, those you grew up with, those you know and love. Whilst the derision might be delivered in the abstract – against a general viewpoint or unidentified Other – the barbs are felt personally. The word bigot, or any of its linguistic manifestations, is chucked about casually, but it hits specific targets, especially when it addresses a common viewpoint amongst those who comprise your upbringing. Those ‘xenophobes’ and ‘racists’ who voted Leave, for example, are not disembodied, theoretical people, but those who you know to be nothing of the sort, such as grandparents, who were always so loving and kind, and parents, who have lived a life of service to others, friends, who are decent and hardworking, the folks who live next door, the lady who you see at Church each week, the priest who baptised your kids. It becomes personal, and it jars.

But with public affirmation of in-group norms comes prestige –  in the echo chamber of social media, there is status to be acquired through the sassy, the rude, the downright spiteful to working-class folk with more conservative views, on immigration, perhaps, or crime, or Brexit. An army of followers giddily RT and ‘Like’ such comments, as if their articulacy were evidence of their truth and justification for their prejudice. Thus the motes are plucked out whilst the beams remain – the cultured despisers find in their intellectual superiority a justification of their presumed existential superiority, too.

This truth tends to sail over the heads of people who currently exist and always remained largely in the same social class and culture in which they were raised – how would they know any different? But Merrick, who gained access to the professional classes after being the first in his family to get a degree, is better placed to notice the gulf of incomprehension and unwillingness to empathise with the other side, having occupied both sides of the divide at various times.

And this can have a real impact in terms of public policy, as Merrick notes:

In our schools, this has real consequences – as I have explored here and here – creating a representation vacuum as a class of Anywheres seek to educate a generation of SomewheresPioneers against Settlers, with the former holding all the power and believing professional success consists in educating the latter out of the values and culture of their upbringing. Pupils from a socially conservative background, which often (not always) overlaps with a working-class (or religious) background, will at times find themselves at odds with the ethical and moral paradigms of those who educate them, a culture chasm always framed as simply a matter of education (or the absence of it). And so the cycle starts over, an abiding tension between home and school, since in this case to be educated is to leave behind what you hear and are taught at home.

But some do choose home. Not because of a lack of learning but because of a refusal to shed heritage and home as the participation fee. If we want to talk about why working-class kids are alienated from education, we could do worse than start a conversation there. That those who agitate so fiercely for social justice, and write and speak so piously about the disenfranchisement of the working class, should choose to studiously ignore this particular deficit, and indeed locate their own virtue in the perpetuation of it, tells us a lot about the intractability of the culture clash we accommodate.

“Anywheres seeking to educate a generation of somewheres” – that phrase resonates, particularly as the self-described Citizens of the World tend to assume that the only thing preventing others from embracing their worldview is their lower level of education.

I actually see a lot of myself in what Merrick writes. I wouldn’t know whether to describe my upbringing as working class or middle class. Income-wise, being in a single parent family on benefits, living in Harlow, we were very much working class. But thanks to other branches of the family that worked in professional or academic circles, I wouldn’t say that my social upbringing was that of the typical working class. I should also note that my accent was never the standard estuary accent typical to Essex, but rather that of my wider family – and in Britain, accent does so much to demarcate one’s class status.

I certainly remember being both aware and very ashamed of being poor when I was young, and keenly noticed the difference in lifestyle between many of my schoolfriends who came from working families – their Sky television versus our black and white television set, for example. To be clear, I wanted for nothing when I was a child and had a great upbringing rich in love and family and culture. But a child notices these things, and it is silly to deny that they influence one’s development.

And so, when I was accepted into Cambridge University I was probably overly keen to embrace the distinctly more upper middle-class lifestyle and tastes enjoyed by my peers – not that I ever fell properly into the working class mould because of our extended family, but because I was keen to explore new horizons which had previously been somewhat limited. I enjoyed being on the Entertainments Committee of the Cambridge Union Society and wearing black tie to the weekly debates featuring famous names from British political and cultural life. I admit that I enjoyed having transcended the town, the culture and many of the people with whom I had grown up.

This continued into my professional life. Living with other young professionals starting their careers in London, I was happy to make jokes about chavs, or otherwise look down on those from less educated and less wealthy circumstances. I would sometimes crack jokes about Harlow and the people there (despite the fact that I had, and continue to have, friends living in Harlow to this day). I remember attending one fancy dress party in a chav costume, which I thought to be terribly clever at the time.

In fact, it has probably only been in the past five years, since I started blogging (and consequently reading and thinking a lot more about various issues) that I realise the deliberate nature of what I was doing as an adolescent and a young graduate – and how insufferable I must have been to so many people from my earlier life during that time. And it is only now, in the aftermath of the EU referendum and the enormous establishment hissy fit which continues to this day in response to the outcome, that I fully understand what Michael Merrick is saying and identify very much with his experience.

I have always felt that the best people to analyse or give commentary on a situation are those who have held both sides of an argument at one time or another, or been on different sides of an important wedge issue. Why listen to somebody like Owen Jones analyse politics, when he was raised to hate the Tories and simply continued on the same uninterrupted intellectual trajectory his whole life, the only difference being that he can now use longer words and quote academic sources sympathetic to his position? There is no personal growth there, nor any real empathy for the other side (the possession of which is the only real acid test of one’s own political philosophy) and consequently no real attempt to engage with ideological opponents. That’s not being an intellectual, it’s being a partisan shill.

Similarly on Brexit, why listen to some millennial writer who has only grown up knowing life inside the EU and accepting its unquestioned brilliance all the days of her life? What can such a person really add to the national conversation besides a whole heap of confirmation bias and sanctimony?

Now, I would never claim to be better than Owen Jones or Generic Millennial Remainiac Writer. But I can at least plausibly claim to have had my feet on both sides of the political and cultural divide at various times, having grown up holding the typical youthful left-wing opinions and then made a gradual move toward the libertarian or conservatarian Right. And even more so having been a staunch euro-federalist in my university days, to the extent that I hung an EU flag on my dorm room wall and sometimes insufferably wore an EU flag lapel pin, to rediscovering the vital importance of the nation state and becoming an avowed Brexiteer over the past five years.

Generally I find that the most productive exchanges take place with people who have not simply percolated in likeminded groupthink for their entire careers, but who have either personal experience of occupying the other side of the argument or at least made a sincere effort to reach out in good faith to those who disagree.

I was a socialist in my youth, and know many of the old arguments inside and out – but crucially, I also know through personal experience that many of those who still hold socialist views are good and decent people. I was a pro-European in my youth and know the entire case for European political integration backwards and forwards, yet despite having reversed my position 180 degrees I know that many of those who still hold these views are intelligent and honourable people. I hope that this knowledge of the opposing viewpoint and acknowledgement of the decency of those with whom I disagree adds a bit of depth to my better pieces of writing.

Unfortunately, this attempt to bridge the chasm of cultural and political difference is almost nonexistent among the political class – on both sides. Rising star Labour MP Jess Phillips openly admits to being “raised in no uncertain terms to hate Tories“, a fact which shines through in many of her speeches and television appearances. And the inability of many of those in the Conservative Party and the centrist, machine politics wing of the Labour Party to empathise with working class people is self-evident – a particularly shameful indictment of the Labour centrists, who now openly scorn a large swathe of their political base.

And this failure to empathise with different people has real world effects, like when David Cameron went marching off to Brussels to conduct his faux renegotiation with the EU despite never really having stopped to ask what the British people wanted out of it, and today’s Conservative government pursuing an idiotic and damaging approach to Brexit on the assumption that immigration is the overriding factor for most people when post-referendum polls (and a few conversations with actual Brexiteers) reveal concerns about sovereignty and democracy to have been the primary driver of Brexit.

We currently have a political class who at best arrogantly think they can channel working class opinion without ever really stopping to consult the people they think they are ventriloquising, and at worst simply don’t care at all about what a whole swathe of the population thinks and believes.

More worryingly, it takes an immense effort to overcome this gulf of misunderstanding – in my case it took over five years, and that’s despite having occupied both sides of the debate at different times, such is the zealotry of a convert to professional class norms – and the political class generally show zero aptitude for that kind of introspection.

Michael Merrick has done a great job of diagnosing the problem, but right now I fail to see a ready solution. The gulf of incomprehension is likely to get wider before it narrows.

BRITAIN-EU-POLITICS-BREXIT

Support Semi-Partisan Politics with a one-time or recurring donation:

Agree with this article? Violently disagree? Scroll down to leave a comment.

Follow Semi-Partisan Politics on TwitterFacebook and Medium.