More Lessons In Patriotism From An American Border Town

 

Open Borders zealots and anti-immigration hawks could yet come to a pragmatic compromise that works for all, if only they stopped viewing the immigration debate as a zero-sum, existential war. This Texas town shows the potential fruits of such compromise.

One of the nicest things about having moved from Britain to the United States is the fact that I now live in a place where patriotism is not (yet) a dirty word. Going about daily life here, every day one is reminded in a handful of small but significant ways that people are proud of their country, and proud to be American. Not in an overt sense – rarely does the sentiment even have to be articulated – but more in the matter-of-fact way that certain rituals, symbols or expressions form part of the backdrop of daily life.

I have never been one to seek out tub-thumping, bombastic nationalism, and readily concede the dangers of moving too far in that direction. However, there is an equal and opposite effect moving in the opposite direction toward an overt hostility toward patriotism which is every bit as corrosive and harmful to society as unbridled nationalism. Britain is a chronic – perhaps even terminal – patient in this regard.

One of the main areas of pushback from the British Left whenever somebody dares to suggest that they might consider making their peace with patriotism rather than continually striving to publicly repudiate it is that the expression of love for one’s home country is somehow off-putting to or exclusionary of new (or old) immigrants. This, of course, is highly presumptuous and indeed offensive to many immigrants, who chose to make Britain their home precisely because they see and value those qualities in our country which our political and intellectual elites often scorn or overlook.

This is one of those occasions where Open Borders leftists are their own worst enemy. If they were at all savvy, they would realize that encouraging assimilation of new immigrants into their new home country is one of the most important means by which public opposition to immigration can be reduced in the long term. But so hell-bent are they on promoting supranationalism and eroding the nation state by any means possible that their own zealousness creates or exacerbates the very anti-immigration public pushback which now so upsets and confuses them.

Open Borders leftists and pragmatic conservatives in the UK might be able to find common ground around a policy of promoting a strong national identity and unapologetically affirming small-L liberal British values, and encouraging immigrants to embrace that identity in concert with their own. But with the progressive left so in thrall to the Cult of Social Justice and Identity Politics, many of their activists and leaders are unable to get beyond the “celebrating diversity” part to focus on the deeper attachments which must unite us if we are to avoid complete national disintegration.

Yet every day we see examples of immigrant and border communities doing this work – forging this melting pot – by necessity, in the absence of any leadership from above. Less so in Britain, but very much so here in the United States, the original melting pot.

Earlier this summer I wrote at length about my experiences spending my first 4th of July in Texas as a permanent resident of the United States. I remarked on how a heavily-Hispanic border town – one thrust unwillingly into the limelight as a result of the Trump administration’s child migrant detention policy, no less – seemed to effortlessly demonstrate the kind of simple, unifying patriotism which those on the far right claim to be impossible and those on the identity politics left view as a deeply undesirable concession to colonialism and white privilege.

And now the town of McAllen, Texas serves up another fine example of the way in which simple patriotic rituals help to unify people who hail from diverse racial and cultural backgrounds.

From ValleyCentral, the website of the local CBS affiliate:

McALLEN – A packed house filled the McAllen Memorial High School Gymnasium to watch a district match-up between the Mustangs and crosstown rivals McAllen High School on Sept. 18.

Fans roared as introductions were made for each player, but, when it was time to stand an honor the flag with the playing of the national anthem, nothing played. A few laughs and some awkward silence later, a small choir began to form in the far corner of the gymnasium. Soon enough, the entire gym was stressing their vocal chords in the tune of the Star Spangled Banner.

You need to watch the video to get the full effect – see the link above.

Again, this is a town not ten miles from the border with Mexico, a town which is heavily Hispanic, where many families have links to Mexico, Central or South America and where people take rightful pride in their cultural heritage – see the Mariachi singers in the video above, performing the Star Spangled Banner before another McAllen school sports game a few years ago. But it is also a town where these identities slot naturally and effortlessly into a greater, unifying American identity – E Pluribus Unum.

Before the naysayers retort that this is an alien culture and ritual which may work in America but which would never be suitable for Britain, it is worth remembering that a few decades ago it would not necessarily have been uncommon for the national anthem to be played at all manner of events, from village fairs to movie screenings to sports events besides the FA Cup Final.

This is not a call to return to some straight-laced, black-and-white conservative fantasy about the good old days – Britain has certainly developed and improved in countless ways since the days when BBC television shut down at midnight to a chorus of God Save the Queen, and by no means should we seek to wind the clock back, even if it were possible. But how much better still could Britain be if we had tried harder to hold on to some of these unifying symbols of shared identity at the same time as we welcomed new waves of immigrants to the country, with all the richness and diversity they rightly bring with them? How much more of a cohesive society at ease with itself might we now be?

If we continue in our current state of zero-sum open warfare between the open borders brigade and the anti-immigration faction then we will fight to a stalemate and the worst of both worlds – a continuation of the status quo, with all its attendant corrosive effects on our political debate and societal cohesion.

But alternatively, if both sides were just to give a little – the progressive left to call a time out on their ceaseless efforts to undermine the nation state and denigrate patriotism, and the populist right to accept that it is neither feasible nor desirable to return to pre-2000s levels of net migration – then we could try to work toward a compromise. We could achieve what is perhaps the optimal scenario – a cohort of new arrivals into Britain who come with the intention of either becoming British citizens themselves or at least partaking meaningfully in our culture and civic life, rather than defiantly remaining, say, Spaniards in London or Pakistanis in Rotherham.

This might not be an insurmountable task, if only we had political leaders who actually dared to lead rather than pander and follow the most extreme elements of their activist bases. Absent such leadership, however, it is nothing more than wishful thinking.

 

McHi McAllen High School game - national anthem - Mariachi Oro

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For A Proud New Immigrant, Independence Day Offers Much To Celebrate

City of McAllen Texas - 90th annual Independence Day celebration - presented by HEB

Some reflections on my first Fourth of July spent as a permanent resident of the United States of America

Today I spent my first Fourth of July, my first Independence Day, as a permanent resident of the United States of America. After receiving my long-awaited US green card I finally came to call America my home when I landed in Los Angeles on 25th May, and since that time have been staying with my wife’s family in the Rio Grande Valley of Texas while I wait for law school to begin in September. So now here I am, a British expat living in America on the day when everyone around me celebrates casting off the yoke of the British Crown.

We live in a time when it is fashionable (among some circles) to imagine that immigrants in general are persecuted and threatened to an unprecedented degree – largely thanks to a deliberate, concerted effort by many politicians and journalists to erase any distinction between legal and illegal immigrants, economic migrants and refugees, otherwise law-abiding illegal aliens and determined criminals. And spurred on by this delusion, many American politicians, particularly those of the Left, are presently burnishing their reputations (or in some cases their presidential aspirations) by claiming to speak for me and others who, like me, were not born in the United States.

From these liberal saviors, I learn that I am presently under attack; that I apparently feel despised, devalued, belittled and threatened, both by the elected head of state, those who support him and indeed anyone who does not support tearing down the entire immigration system and even the concept of national borders itself. All this I must feel deep in my subconscious, because as a mixed-race man who has travelled through some thirteen of these United States (many of them staunchly Republican states in the Midwest) I have known nothing but friendliness and an abiding, sometimes overwhelming hospitality. But clearly the liberal saviors know best, and in reality I live my life in permanent fear of verbal abuse, physical assault or deportation, even though I don’t realise it.

My point is not to relitigate the immigration debate here, or to point out the calculated cynicism of portraying arguably overzealous action against illegal immigrants as some kind of assault on all immigrants or a betrayal of America’s founding values. I write these words simply to put on record that I and millions of my fellow immigrants seek to make our home in the United States (legally or illegally) because we believe this to be a good country and a shining city on a hill, not the newly-opened fascist hellmouth which many decent Americans have been wrongly deceived into viewing their own country.

One thing which conservatives seem to “get” instinctively while those on the Left struggle to understand is that America is and always has been greater than the sum of her contemporary government. We see the same phenomenon in my native Britain, where many on the Left denigrate their homeland endlessly and are confounded that anyone might admire the United Kingdom, simply because they themselves take exception to the present Conservative government, or to the 2016 referendum’s decision to leave the European Union. And here in America I hear from many people, including some of my own left-leaning friends, that they see little good about the United States at present. When attempting to justify this statement, most point to the Trump administration’s perceived treatment of minorities and immigrants. More than one have confessed to me that they feel unable to celebrate their country’s Independence Day as a consequence.

To them and all those who feel similarly, I can only say: not in my name. Do not think less of your country or refuse to celebrate her independence thinking that you are acting in solidarity with me or any other immigrant, legal or illegal. We choose to come to this country believing it to be inherently good, not fundamentally bad. Ignore the buzzword-laden screeds of academics and activists steeped in toxic and divisive identity politics, who never tire of claiming that contemporary America is built on white supremacy and that systemic racism is a feature, not a bug, in this country’s basic source code. They could not be more wrong.

We immigrants understand that America is flawed like every other country, but is also a work in progress toward a noble goal which few other countries even bother to write down and set as a target, let alone strive to achieve – the creation of a country whose government is predicated on the belief that all men are created equal, and free. We immigrants understand that perhaps unique among nations, America is rooted in an idea, not an ethnicity or landmass, and that this idea will persevere and survive a demagogic authoritarian president just as it has survived the suave technocrats and neoconservative nation-builders who came before.

For the record: I opposed Donald Trump during his presidential campaign and have long realised the danger posed by an authoritarian executive branch aided by a supine Republican Congress. These dangers are not to be underestimated, and indeed are the very reason why the Founding Fathers sought to build separation of powers and the checks and balances of strong, rival institutions into the fabric of American government. I am also on record opposing Donald Trump’s often racism-tinged rhetoric, his grievous temperamental flaws and the harsh manner of his administration’s crackdown on illegal immigration and asylum processing. I have frequently written that at a time when advanced Western countries must adapt to the future, a leader who explicitly promises to make America great *again* and roll the clock back economically is a huge step in the wrong direction. Indeed, there are few people I would want to see in the Oval Office less than Donald J. Trump.

And yet here I am, a newly-minted green card holder and immigrant to the United States, because I know that this country is far bigger than the shrinking moral and intellectual footprint of the American presidency. I mourned Donald Trump’s election victory and fear for some of the near-term consequences of electing such a man as leader, but not for a second did I question my desire to emigrate and leave Britain, my beloved home, for the United States.

Shortly after having left London back in March, I wrote a piece attempting to explain why this is the case:

America may not be the country it once was in terms of the richness and profundity of its civic life (though this is not to dismiss the great and necessary advances in civil rights and equality) since many of its greatest thinkers left the stage, but it is a darn sight healthier than contemporary Britain.

Interventionism versus non-interventionism? That debate burns more brightly in America because it is the United States which must do the bulk of intervening in an age of parsimonious European retrenchment. Healthcare reform? The American system may exist primarily to make Britain’s NHS look good by comparison, but at least radical healthcare reform is possible in the United States, unlike Britain where NHS worship is a mandatory religion for those in power. Education? The federal system and greater role for local government in America means that far more experimentation with new policies and technologies can take place than in Britain, where “postcode lotteries” are feared and policy competition is severely limited. The benefits and costs of laissez-faire social liberalism? Nearly all of the most thoughtful writing can be found in American journals, not the incestuous British publications.

And in conclusion:

I will never stop following or writing about British politics, and this blog continues. Britain is my homeland, a place towards which I will always retain a deep attachment and where I will undoubtedly spend some future years raising a family – and indeed, one of the unique selling points of this blog – I hope – is my ability to provide a familiar Brit’s perspective on American politics and a (nearly) American perspective on British politics, which would make unplugging from the debate quite counterproductive to my work.

But since Britain has repeatedly shown itself to be disinterested in domestic or global leadership of any kind, my focus will naturally gravitate more toward the politics of my new adopted home, a country which despite its many dysfunctions still retains that optimism and self-belief that matters debated and decisions made in America can shape the world for the better.

Coming from another economically advanced country, it was not the prospect of a higher standard of living which led me to America – it was the kaleidoscopic culture, the endless variety, the sheer vastness of geography and opportunity, the freedom and (as someone interested in public policy) the fact that ideas and policies debated in America still matter and have the potential to shape the world for the better. How much more of an incentive is it then to come from a poorer country, where in addition to gaining the civil liberties and rights guaranteed under the Constitution one also stands to become immeasurably wealthier? And we immigrants are supposed to lose sight of these blessings and require additional support and encouragement because of an intemperate tweet or malicious statement from the temporary custodian of one of the three branches of American government?

I remember the interview for my green card at the US embassy in London like it was yesterday. Overprepared and unreasonably nervous, carrying far more supporting documentation and evidence than the already-onerous consular list required, I arrived early and sat on a park bench with my rosary in hand, under the statue of President Eisenhower, waiting to be admitted to the stentorious Eero Saarinen-designed embassy building (now replaced with a nondescript glass cube south of the River Thames). After a short wait I was called to hand in my documents, have my fingerprints taken and pay the remaining (significant) fees which legal immigrants are required to pay, and then waited again for the interview itself. The interview took place at a counter window much like a bank, and was over within five minutes and the answering of a few basic questions. I seem to remember asking the consular officer more than once to confirm that my application had been approved after he told me that I was “good to go”, so elated was I to be in possession of the immigrant visa I have wanted for well over half my life.

Of course, going through the process also made me very aware that it is not so easy or straightforward for everyone who wants to come to the United States. I applied for and received my green card through marriage to a US citizen; others without existing family ties, capital to invest or lucrative high-skilled jobs lined up often find it much harder, even impossible, to immigrate legally. I have sympathy for many of those who come to the United States illegally or overstay their time-limited visas, and can certainly envision myself in a similar position were my own circumstances different. Furthermore, some people now in the United States illegally live lives of otherwise-model citizenship which put many natural-born Americans and legal immigrants to shame.

That being said, the rule of law must be defended if it is to have meaning and authority, and a nation without borders is no nation at all. Uncontrolled flows of human migration can be economically disruptive and culturally destabilising, and it is in no way extremist to point out that not everybody who wants to emigrate to America can be allowed to do so. I would love to see sensible immigration form enacted, with protected status given to the many millions presently here illegally (all of whom cannot be deported without enormous economic damage and social unrest) in exchange for serious improvements in border security and enforcement, and a genuine effort to have a democratically responsive immigration policy reflective of the balance of public opinion. I abhor the ideologues on both sides, the open borders fanatics who seem to be taking over the Democratic Party and the unrealistic zero-tolerance hardline conservatives who scupper any effort at compromise.

To those who see the election of Donald Trump as some kind of negative turning point in America’s attitude toward immigration or immigrants, I would counsel that this belief stems largely from the arrogance of having assumed that there was a prior consensus when in reality there were a multitude of voices and opinions, ranging from genuine racists and xenophobes at one extreme through those opposed to uncontrolled mass immigration or those who simply believe that the rule of law and national borders ought to mean something in the reasonable center. One can perhaps argue that it is a shame that these more cautious or negative voices are now being heard and getting a hearing from the White House, but they are not new and they did not begin with Donald Trump. Opposition to illegal immigration is rooted in the successive failure of politicians to reform a broken immigration system – Donald Trump’s demagoguery on the subject is little more than the political cowardice and lack of ambition of past administrations personified.

Here in McAllen, Texas there are lessons to be learned for Trump supporters and devout open borders leftists alike. Here is a thriving town and region strongly shaped by immigration from Mexico and central Americas, which frequently displays the full richness of that cultural inheritance, but which at the same time remains resolutely and unashamedly American. Here you may well hear Mariachi music at Sunday Mass or read bilingual or Spanish language advertisements in the newspaper, hear Tejano music on the local radio or see clothes stores selling Quinceañera dresses, but the same people who consume these services also recite the Pledge of Allegiance at school, stand for the national anthem at sports games, serve in the US military or local police force and gather with family and friends to barbecue, watch fireworks and celebrate their country’s Independence Day.

In this town I have heard white girls singing along to Selena, watched people of all ethnicities gorge themselves on some of the best Tex-Mex and Mexican food to be had, and witnessed an elderly Hispanic veteran point to Donald Trump’s autobiography in the bargain bin at Sam’s Club and tell me with fervor in his voice that “this man is going to save America”. People do not fit into the neat, pure little categories created by the partisan extremists fuelling our ongoing, self-destructive culture war. America contains multitudes, and so do individual Americans.

These are not contradictions for most people here. The cognitive dissonance only exists for Trumpian hardliners who struggle to accept any Hispanic influence or cultural accommodation on the one hand, and open borders extremists who tend to hate the very idea of the nation state (or at least the United States) and who think that assimilation into the host culture is some kind of betrayal or prima facie evidence of white supremacist oppression. And on and on these two sides go, the ugly extremes dominating our politics and cultural discourse, while the broad mass of ordinary Americans simply want to get on with their lives.

I have spent this Fourth of July celebrating the independence of the country I now call home, and I have done so in a border town which is happy, prosperous and (from everything my inquisitive eye has observed) largely at ease with itself. Some 84 percent of McAllen’s residents have Hispanic or Latino heritage. Many on the progressive Left assume that all such people presently feel under siege with their American-ness called into question (or at least believe that such people should feel this way based on their own reaction to the Trump presidency), while some on the Trumpian Right would perhaps rather these people not be here at all. Yet here they are, getting on with their lives, attending the Fourth of July Parade and watching the municipal firework display. Here we all are, all of us legal immigrants, happy and grateful to be in this wonderful country, and in zero need of liberal saviors from the Democratic Party or anywhere else.

Many of us would rather that Donald Trump were not president, just as many natural-born Americans would doubtless also prefer. But none of the things which attracted us immigrants to this great land died when Donald Trump took the presidential oath of office, and with diligence and appropriately deployed Constitutional checks on executive power, all of those wonderful blessings will remain when President Trump’s successor eventually takes over.

If anywhere ought logically to be riven asunder by the Trump presidency, it would be border towns like McAllen, Texas. Yet it is not so – the town continues to prosper and people remain civil toward one another, as you would expect from well-raised Texans. The lesson I have learned from the past seven weeks living here is that we are nowhere near as divided as politicians and the agenda-driven media, with their cynical motivations, would have us believe. Partisan differences may be everything to politicians, television journalists and cable news talking heads, but they do not form an impermeable wall of cultural separation among the people in this town.

Yes, there is a culture war in progress with significant social stakes for both sides. Yes, Trump’s proposed border wall is incredibly unpopular here, and Texan Senator Ted Cruz was (with some justification) made to feel quite unpopular when he stopped in town for a rare campaign visit last Fourth of July. But if it was his goal, Donald Trump has not yet succeeded in bringing about a dystopian future where brown-skinned, Latino heritage or immigrant people feel generally unwelcome or less American. The divisive efforts of the Alt-Right and the Identity Politics Left, while dominating our cultural discourse, have not succeeded in driving people apart in communities like McAllen, Texas.

And this I find to be incredibly heartening. Today I witnessed a crowd of people which appeared to be majority Hispanic or Latino happily and proudly taking part in the town’s Fourth of July parade, celebrating their country as though it were the most natural and unremarkable thing in the world – which of course it is. I waited in line at the grocery store in front of a family who had immigrated from India and were buying patriotic cakes decorated with red, white and blue frosting. And my American family didn’t kick me out when I cheekily played “God Save the Queen” and King George III’s song “You’ll Be Back” (from the musical “Hamilton”) on my iPhone at our barbecue.

Lord knows that America has its flaws – every country does, most of them far graver than the problems which exist here. But while Donald Trump’s presidency is a justifiable concern for many people, America has not suddenly become newly hostile to immigrants. This country was built by immigrants, and many first and recent-generation immigrants number among its most engaged citizens and loyal defenders.

From Washington state and California through Colorado, Kansas, Arkansas, Oklahoma and Missouri to Illinois, Ohio and New York, I have seen the soul of the country I now call home, and here in Texas I have been carefully taking America’s pulse these past weeks. And I simply do not find the unwelcoming dystopian nightmare that many on the Left insist now prevails.

And so today I give heartfelt thanks for the United States of America and celebrate her independence, even if some pessimistic, misguided people who had the great fortune to be born and grow up with the great blessing of American citizenship sadly feel unable to join me.

 

US Flag - Fourth Of July Cake - Independence Day - Baking - Let Freedom Ring

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Update From The Road, Part 2

Sydney Opera House - steps and sails in the sunlight - SJH

A political union which might actually work

As day 57 of our slow-motion American migration (by way of Southeast Asia and Australasia) draws to a close, I thought it was about time for another brief update from the road.

After a frenetic, exhilarating time in Singapore (don’t go there without visiting  Liao Fan Hong Kong Soya Sauce Chicken Rice and Noodle, the cheapest Michelin-starred lunch you will ever eat, clocking in at about $1.50 USD) and an alternately wonderful and frustrating couple of weeks in Bali, we finally made it to Australia. We began in Melbourne, which the coffee snob in me enjoyed very much and which generally validates everything you read about Melbourne being one of the most liveable cities in the world, and then flew up to Sydney for five days, and now on to Cairns. I write this evening from the dining table in our motel room in Port Douglas.

Country highlights thus far would have to include the Great Ocean Road heading north from Melbourne, with its views of the majestic coastline and powerful sea. Also the private wildlife tour we took out of Sydney, in which we spotted a variety of birds, koalas, wombats, kangaroos, wallabies, a couple of (thankfully) baby huntsman spiders and a vain search for a platypus. My highlight, though, has to be the Sydney Opera House. This marvel was of course bound to tick all of my boxes as a classical music and opera-loving architecture geek, and the behind-the-scenes tour was fascinating. The sweeping beauty of the modernist architecture and the ingenuity of its construction make the building fully deserving of its status as a UNESCO world heritage site. It is the kind of building which, having beholden it, makes one feel sad that one can never again encounter it for the first time. Sadly there were no performances of interest scheduled while we were in town, but visiting the building was pleasure enough on this trip.

What a fantastic place is Australia. Those who know me personally probably grew tired of my pre-trip jokes about how I fully expected one or other of the many terrifying creatures which inhabit Australia to kill me, but the truth is that I have been very taken with this country since arriving a couple of weeks ago. The similarities to Britain are, as you might expect, almost too numerous to list, though there are also important and valuable differences too.

The spoken English and many of the idioms used here are of course easily recognisable and understandable by most Brits – we attended a show at the Sydney Comedy Festival a few nights ago, and while my wife (a Texan) struggled in some places to follow along, I was able to do so without effort. Much of the free-to-air television seems to consist of either old British shows from the 1990s (lots of Inspector Morse) or reality TV format exports, while the shorter store opening hours – many stores seem to shut up shop not long after 6pm, even in the cities – also resemble Britain prior to New Labour, circa 1996. Many UK businesses and brands have a visible presence here. The food is also very similar to that of Britain. Neither country really have a national cuisine as such; Australians may claim to produce superior meat pies or fish and chips, but after extensive personal research I can confirm that in reality it is pretty much a draw on that front.

We had the pleasure of visiting friends from London who moved to Sydney for work a couple of years ago, and it was interesting to hear anecdotes revealing their positive and negative experiences. Both found it very easy to make the transition from working in London to working in Sydney, not just because working culture is similar in the two cities but primarily because the general culture is so similar. Australians tend to be a little more direct and confrontational where necessary – much less British passive aggressiveness here – and in parts of Sydney there is a kind of health and body-obsessed vanity which those who know such things compare to the culture in Los Angeles, but overall there are few impediments save financial cost and homesickness which would stop any Brit from packing up and transporting their lives to Australia with relative ease. Well, aside from the points-based immigration system, of course.

All of which naturally led me to think about culture, national identity and the argument from Remainers in Britain that the UK has so much in common with our European friends and allies that a supranational political union is harmless at worst, and most likely deeply desirable. One need only spend half a day in Australia to realise that if there was to be a culturally viable supranational political union it would be between countries like Britain and Australia, with their deeply rooted shared history and multilayered cultural connections, than our closest geographic neighbours, dear and valued friends though they are.

The language barrier is the obvious issue, though far from the only one. For a supranational political union to work, there has to be a cohesive and willing demos to give the political institutions legitimacy – or at least a desire among the people to forge such a multinational demos and meld themselves into it. Without a shared language, this is an almost impossible task. Even conversational or business knowledge of another language can be insufficient to forge the kind of understanding and close relationships needed on a wide scale for people to see themselves as a single body. Being able to order food in a restaurant or even participate in a business meeting in a second language is often not enough, particularly when so few are likely to do the latter relative to total population size.

Rage against human nature all you want, but successful political systems and settlements are those which work with human nature rather than against it – capitalism being the prime example, harnessing individual self-interest and leveraging it in the ultimate service of the greater good. Supranational political union without consultation and consent is as doomed to failure as socialism, as both demand that human nature subordinate itself totally and unquestioningly to Utopian political theory.

If supranational political union is the goal – and to be clear, I’m not necessarily advocating this – it would be most likely to work where countries already share a language, a similar system of government and laws, numerous cultural references and deep links at all levels of society, not just between post-national elites. In other words, between countries like Britain and Australia (and most likely New Zealand and Canada too, though I shall have to confirm this as the grand tour winds its way toward America).

Those who say that Britain is so culturally aligned with Europe that we inevitably and rightfully belong in the EU’s political union find themselves not only delusional but also caught in a pincer movement by cold, hard reality. On one hand, there is the stubborn fact that ties of history, language and culture bind us much more strongly to the Commonwealth Anglosphere than to Spain or Germany, and on the other hand there is the fact that while “citizen of the world” post-national elites and knowledge workers may increasingly share a common culture and tastes, this emerging culture is itself global, not parochially European. A digital marketing executive from Bangkok or a hipster from Melbourne is likely to have as much in common with their British counterparts than mainland European, and in the latter’s case

I am presently reading “The People vs Democracy” by Yascha Mounk, himself no populist rabble-rouser, and even Mounk admits:

After a few months of living in England, I began to recognize that the differences between British and German culture were much deeper than I had imagined. They were also more wide-ranging. Far from being confined to food or language, they extended to humor and temperament, to personal outlook and collective values.

After college, when I spent more time in Italy, and then in France, I came to the same conclusion all over again. The residents of various European countries were much more attached to their national cultures, and much more resistant to thinking of themselves primarily as Europeans, than I had wanted to believe.

Again, Mounk is no Brexit apologist or excuse-maker for populism, but unlike many Remainers in Britain he is at least willing to change his assessment based on cold, hard reality and observance of human nature. EU defenders seem more determined than ever to ignore such qualitative facts, seemingly because unlike warnings of forthcoming economic doom, vital cultural issues cannot be so easily added up in an Excel spreadsheet and then pasted into an alarmist infographic to be shared on social media.

The furious insistence that Britain is culturally European and thus destined for political union centred in Brussels is primarily an elite phenomenon, and therefore a marginal viewpoint. If one has the money and inclination to ski in France or cycle in Italy every year, one is far more likely to perceive closer ties and similarities between Britain and Europe than exist on the macro level – and I say this as someone who has travelled a fair deal in Europe including four consecutive summer vacations in Santorini, Greece. While I love the Greek people and their culture, and readily acknowledge many similarities and crossovers with my own, I am deluding myself if I tell myself and others that the shared culture of Britain and Greece is more or equally capable of supporting political union than the shared cultural heritage of Britain and Australia.

For the final time, this is not to suggest that Britain and Australia do form such a union, or that the wildest dreams of the CANZUK fanclub be pursued – there is no real economic case, only a slender geopolitical one and very little mainstream interest for such a radical move in any of the concerned countries. The point is merely that if a political union were to be attempted, its chances of success would be infinitely higher among the Commonwealth Anglosphere than it is among the far more heterogenous countries of Europe.

And yet this does not stop the Remainers, with their endless tropes about the dangers of “going it alone” in the world and the evil “British exceptionalism” which leads us to believe we are somehow “better” than our continental European allies. They would struggle manfully against human nature right to the bitter end, furiously clinging to their dream of a supranational European government and political union, all the while ignoring the only kind of deep political union which might potentially work.

Brexiteers are often accused of a pig-headed refusal to engage with facts and deal with empirical reality, a charge which is frankly often deserved in the case of truculent leading hard Brexiteers who haven’t made the first effort to properly acquaint themselves with the details (or even the basics) of international trade and regulation, or who see Brexit not as a constitutional or technocratic challenge/opportunity but rather as nothing more than an exciting new front in their ongoing culture war.

But having now spent time in Australia and witnessed the degree to which cultural similarities with Britain are of such an entirely different (and higher) order than exists between the UK and most EU member states, I see that there is far greater pig-headed stubbornness on the other side – a stubbornness which is far less forgivable since its bearers love to portray themselves as highly educated disciples of reason, and have persisted in their delusion for so much longer.

 

Sydney Harbour Bridge at dusk - SJH

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No, Jesus Would Not Demand Open Borders

Immigrants are all Gods children - Christian immigration protest

Those who make a Christian case for open borders and uncontrolled mass immigration do not apply the same altruism they demand of society to their own personal lives, and neither would tearing down national borders improve the common good. Those who use their faith (or even more cynically, the faith of others) as a bludgeon to agitate for open borders do so based on a deliberately superficial reading of Christianity, in which Jesus is little more than an easy-going aging hippie, or a benevolent Santa Claus figure

The Windrush scandal – in which British permanent residents and citizens, either naturalised immigrants or descendants of immigrants, were wrongly targeted for deportation because of bureaucratic incompetence and the eagerness of a fawning, rootless government to appear tough on immigration – has pushed the issue of immigration back up the list of top voter priorities in the United Kingdom.

At times like this, it is customary for cynical and opportunistic voices on the Left to exploit developments in order to agitate for their broader goal of open borders (or at least something perilously close to open borders – few left wing politicians are now willing to publicly articulate any restriction on immigration or sanction for immigration law violations which they actually support). And so it was this time, with a parade of Labour and other left-wing politicians effectively making the preposterous case that bureaucratic callousness with regard to the affected Windrush immigrants means that the government has now morally forfeited the right to control the borders at all.

Unfortunately, these voices are often also joined by left-wing Christians who waste no time extrapolating from one appalling example of Big Government callousness to press entirely tangential arguments about a more permissive immigration system. The Church of England’s own Migration policy subsite rather deceptively makes mention only of asylum and refugee issues, utterly ignoring the dominant economic migrant subgroup. One can only assume that this is because the CofE knows as well as the rest of us that pretending that the great migration wave consists entirely of the former type and not the latter is more likely to generate sympathy and lead to pressure for looser immigration policy.

As the depth of the government’s failure and mismanagement with regard to Windrush immigrants became evident, social media was swiftly flooded with tweets and sentiments suggesting that any attempt by politicians or civic leaders to dissuade or expel illegal immigrants – people entirely unconnected with the Windrush scandal – from maintaining unlawful residence in the United Kingdom is prima facie evidence of a missing or defective conscience:

 

Even Martyn Eden, political editor of Premier Christianity magazine, equivocates:

Some will see this affair as reflecting an underlying racism in British culture. Given that the density of population in the UK is 268 people per square kilometre, second only to Holland in the EU, a case can be made for limiting immigration, but the Brexit campaign certainly showed evidence of a xenophobic hostility to foreigners.

Our duty to love our neighbours regardless of their racial and family backgrounds, following Jesus’ teaching and example, will shape how Christians understand and respond to this distressing and shameful episode in our national life.

This mirrors the vague, evasive wooliness and anti Brexit bigotry which swathes of the Church of England (including all the senior hierarchy) displayed so prominently during the 2016 EU referendum campaign and its aftermath (see here, here, here and here).

Recently, Pope Francis has made noises (in the form of an apostolic exhortation) deeply suggestive that he believes open borders to be “pro-life” and the correct starting point for any Christian view of immigration:

102. We often hear it said that, with respect to relativism and the flaws of our present world, the situation of migrants, for example, is a lesser issue. Some Catholics consider it a secondary issue compared to the “grave” bioethical questions. That a politician looking for votes might say such a thing is understandable, but not a Christian, for whom the only proper attitude is to stand in the shoes of those brothers and sisters of ours who risk their lives to offer a future to their children. Can we not realize that this is exactly what Jesus demands of us, when he tells us that in welcoming the stranger we welcome him (cf. Mt 25:35)? Saint Benedict did so readily, and though it might have “complicated” the life of his monks, he ordered that all guests who knocked at the monastery door be welcomed “like Christ”,[85] with a gesture of veneration;[86] the poor and pilgrims were to be met with “the greatest care and solicitude”.[87]

We see exactly the same climate in the United States, where the progressive wing of the Church is enthusiastically embracing the concept of “sanctuary cities” and taking an increasingly extreme position against any kind of immigration enforcement. The argument usually goes along the lines of that advanced here by Michael Clark in Sojourners:

I currently live in Houston, Texas, the nation’s fourth largest city and most diverse metropolitan area. We’re a city with no racial or ethnic majority, where nearly 1 in 4 people were born outside the U.S. We’re also home to 400,000 undocumented immigrants, earning us the label “sanctuary city” from some.

[..] but Houston’s status as a sanctuary city requires a response from everyday residents, nearly three quarters of whom claim to be Christians. Will Christians make a sanctuary in our city?

Before we put our defenses up (They’re here illegally! They’re taking our jobs! They need to come in the right way!), let us remember that our allegiance is not primarily to this nation. Jesus himself said, “My kingdom is not of this world” (John 18:36). Paul reminds us that “our citizenship is in heaven” (Philippians 3:20), and though we are to respect earthly authority (Romans 13:1), when push comes to shove, “we must obey God rather than men” (Acts 5:29).

Will we be a sanctuary in the tradition of the early church? Will we heed God’s commandment: “the stranger who resides with you shall be to you as the native among you, and you shall love him as yourself, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt” (Leviticus 19:34)?

Will Christ say to us, “I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison [or an immigration detention center] and you came to visit me”?

Let us remember his words, “Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me” (Matthew 25:40).

This is manipulative schmaltz of the worst kind. All of it. Anybody can harvest quotes from the Bible to build a case that Christian compassion involves rolling over and doing whatever a particular activist wants at that moment in time. But what we lack in this argument (and we see this over and over again in Christian arguments for mass immigration or open borders) is any acknowledgement that the immediate benefit to one new incoming migrant is not the only important consideration at stake.

When Jesus performed miracles there was no tradeoff, with one individual newly afflicted by the disease which Jesus cured in another, or the alleviated suffering of one person displaced onto somebody else. Nobody died because Lazarus was raised from the dead. Those who were healed at Gennesaret by touching Jesus’ cloak were not offset by a similar number who were struck down in their place. Uncontrolled mass immigration does not work like this. While there is a clear personal benefit to each marginal unskilled migrant  (and we are talking economic migrants here, remember, not refugees) allowed into a developed country, there are offsetting costs to be considered, too.

Sometimes these costs are tangible and quantifiable, such as the additional burden on infrastructure, services and the welfare state. Other times these costs are uncertain and appear only in the form of risk (such as risk to public order or national security). But the net effect is that the “good” done by letting in unlimited numbers of unskilled migrants from poor countries is offset by a commensurate cost. And this cost is no less important or worthy of consideration just because it is diffused across society as a whole rather than concentrated on one individual.

Rod Dreher makes a similar point in religious terms, rebutting the idea that Christian hospitality must be open-ended to the point of self-destruction:

This is why St. Benedict’s rule of hospitality is not open-ended. Monks will certainly welcome guests as if they were Christ, but that welcome does not imply that visitors have the right to stay in the monastery for as long as they like. What’s more, monks cannot welcome guests who, whether by their behavior or their sheer numbers, prevent a monastery from fulfilling its purpose. No stranger has a right to expect the monks to abandon their way of life to accommodate his desires. It’s simply dishonest and manipulative for the Pope to invoke St. Benedict’s example in this way. One likes to think that even Pope Francis would not expect a monastery to fling its gates open and house as many migrants as want to set up camp there, indefinitely.

We know that these negative costs of open borders will be incurred, and that they will be borne by society at large. So why is it more Christ-like to prioritise one over the other? Welcoming the stranger is absolutely the right thing to do when there are no offsetting costs to that act of charity, but what if welcoming the stranger causes a completely innocent third party to suffer harm? What we see, though, is many Christians prioritising the needs of the former over the latter. And in a way this is understandable – the benefit to the migrant is obvious, easy to measure and enjoyable to bestow, while the cost to society is diffuse, sometimes intangible and only detectable on the macro level, not at the individual level. Choosing the tangible and immediate over the intangible and time-delayed is a natural human instinct, albeit a harmful one in this instance.

So perhaps the real question we should be asking ourselves is this: does Jesus want us to think purely from with hearts, or does He also want us to engage our brains?

Viewed this way, the emotionally incontinent “Jesus would let in all the migrants” line of argument is becoming increasingly tiresome and threadbare. Maybe He would, and maybe not – perhaps instead He would work miracles to improve the broken and dysfunctional countries which feed mass migration in the first place, rather than feeding an urban leftist’s fetish for infinite diversity. Presuming that Jesus would opt for the immediate solution, the easy answer, the quick fix, grant the superficial human desire rather than the deeper human need, is to fundamentally misunderstand how Jesus’ ministry unfolded. Claiming that Jesus would advocate open borders is to subscribe to an incredibly two-dimensional, aging hippie version of Jesus, one which reduces the Son of God to little more than a genial Santa Claus figure.

If – as the Christian open borders activists insist when it comes to welcoming strangers – we sought to emulate Jesus’ dealings with and instructions to his contemporaries in our geopolitical dealings then the world would be a very different, and likely much darker place. Nazism and Soviet Communism were not defeated through pacifism, after all. And if we were to take Jesus’ instructions to his immediate disciples and contemporaries as granular instruction for twenty-first century life we would forever be forsaking all material goods, leaving our families to pursue nomadic and ascetic lives of service and chasing after muggers offering them the few personal effects they haven’t already stolen from us. I know of very few Christians who meet – or even seek to meet – this standard, not because they are selfish and evil but because it is generally understood by everyone (except the far Left) that a one-time charitable binge or government wealth expropriation exercise is not a sustainable long-term solution to poverty and want. Dropping everything and working for the immediate benefit of the person in front of us is not necessarily in the interest of millions of other deserving people beyond our vision. Sadly, our loaves and fish do not miraculously multiply; ultimately, we can only improve the common good by teaching the five thousand how to bake and fish for themselves.

It is also very telling that the “Jesus would let them all come in” brigade only seem to want to apply His teachings so far as they can be twisted to support open borders. The activists who go to protests chanting “no human being is illegal”, the often-wealthy coastal leftists who support unconditional amnesty for all and the establishment media who make a point of proudly failing to distinguish between legal and immigration, very few of them would open their New York or San Francisco homes to those cities’ many homeless, share their shiny new Tesla car to help a poor family do the school run every day or hand over their iPhone X to whomever demanded it. Yes, some profess a willingness to pay a higher marginal tax rate themselves in order to fund more plentiful public services, but that is about as far as it goes – keeping the needy firmly at arm’s length. Otherwise, their “generosity” actually consists of nothing more than calling for the government to tear down borders and disregard immigration law, and loudly screaming that anyone who expresses doubt about this reckless course of action is a racist.

But the costs of unskilled immigration (for the kind of mass immigration entailed by open borders would inevitably be of the unskilled kind) tend not to impact the wealthy enclaves where the cognitive, financial and social elites live, falling instead on far less privileged groups and communities. Many of those calling for open borders or more immigration in the name of Jesus also conveniently stand to get cheaper maids, gardeners and cleaners as a result, or live in neighbourhoods where the principle consequence of immigration is a wonderful explosion of diversity in art, culture and food. They are not the ones who typically rely on increasingly stretched public services, compete for low wage jobs or live in areas of higher crime or social tension. Nestled within gated communities or exclusive neighbourhoods, many will be insulated from the kind of widespread social unrest which the implementation of open borders would quickly deliver.

These activists are, in effect, disguising their naked self interest as generosity, benefiting economically and making themselves feel good and progressive while pushing nearly all of the negative externalities of mass immigration onto others. Jesus, let us remember, said nothing about giving away one’s neighbour’s possessions – the whole point is supposed to be one of personal devotion and sacrifice. The Jesus 4 Open Borders crowd, on the other hand, seek largely to give away something which is not theirs, promising to bear a cost which in actual fact they have every intention of palming off onto people further down the social ladder. How very Christian.

Ultimately, if the Jesus 4 Open Borders brigade are to maintain intellectual integrity while holding to their extremist stance they must concede that the policy they want, if retroactively applied decades or centuries ago, would mean that human development would be far less advanced today than is currently the case and that net human suffering might well be significantly higher. They must also concede that if the policy were implemented today, there will be an unknowable but significant opportunity cost in terms of curtailed future human progress and relief of suffering. They must admit that one or other or both of these seismic and overwhelmingly negative changes would be a price worth paying to achieve their particular conception of social justice.

Why? Because the nation state forms the bedrock of our current prosperity and the stability of the world order, and open borders are an all-out assault on the concept of the nation state. Humanity is not homogeneous – some cultures and value systems are objectively superior to others, and even in the case of immigration between broadly similar countries, human nature is such that too fast a rate of immigration creates political resentment and the potential for societal unrest. Implementing open borders in this age, when access to information is so widespread and fast modes of transport so ubiquitous, would immediately trigger a wave of migration from poor and dysfunctional countries that make the present global migration crisis look like a slow trickle.

While immigration activists love to tout the many economic benefits that immigration brings, and rightly so, they generally neglect to point out that there is often a (significant) time lag between the marginal new immigrant arriving and local housing and infrastructure expanding in proportion to service the increased population. In fact, unless deliberate steps are taken by local and national populations, that increase might never happen at all. Even in the best case where the marginal immigrant is a net fiscal contributor, this does not instantly make the freeway a fraction of an inch wider or add a few thousandths of a new bed to the local hospital. This necessary growth in service provision requires political direction and civic planning, and must often be commenced in advance, long before the tax revenue stream from the new immigrant comes online (thus requiring deficit spending in the interim).

Now imagine a situation where developed countries receive greatly inflated numbers of new immigrants who are not in a position to be immediate positive fiscal contributors due to language, cultural or educational barriers which may also hinder quick and easy assimilation into the host country’s culture. Not only do housing and infrastructure continue to lag behind demand, now social tensions are also likely to spike, leading to scenes which make recent anti-immigration protests look like a model of peaceful, reasoned civility. We may well be looking a riots. Martial law. Deepening social division, violence and even deaths.

This kind of environment is not one in which great prosperity is easily created. Unless open borders were implemented everywhere in a coordinated way there would likely be a brain drain of the most educated and productive native citizens (many of whom had likely cheered on open borders while possessing the ability to skip out of town the moment their Utopian fantasy turned into a nightmare) to other more sensible developed countries with functional immigration systems, leading to a self-perpetuating spiral of decline among those advanced Western countries (and it is always Western countries – activists are not demanding that Japan drop its exclusionary immigration practices) which decided to throw open their borders.

In short, one does not have to play the tape forward very far to realise that there are alarmingly few steps between implementing a policy decision which makes woke, “no human being is illegal”, Jesus 4 Open Borders activists feel warm and virtuous on the inside and a situation where everything that makes their country an attractive destination for mass immigration in the first place is utterly snuffed out. Open borders is the kind of rash, ill-considered “Jesus, take the wheel!” policy proposal which its most ardent advocates would never replicate in any other area of their lives.

But of course, none of this matters. Christian immigration activists can adopt the “good-hearted” open borders position at zero cost to themselves, knowing that fully open borders (and the chaos that would be unleashed) will never plausibly be implemented. Campaigning for open borders is an opportunity to appear compassionate without having to either dip one’s hand into one’s pocket or seriously risk the unravelling of one’s present, privileged existence. And rather than wrestling with the far more thorny questions of why so many countries remain so dysfunctional and deeply unattractive to their own citizens, and driving solutions to help those countries help themselves, many Christians can opt instead to abdicate the intellectual work and simply shroud themselves in moral outrage that evil Western governments don’t let anyone and everyone breeze into the country.

As John Zmirak writes in Quadrant Magazine:

When we inflict such radical changes on our society, we should ask ourselves whether we are being faithful stewards of the prosperous, free societies for which our ancestors struggled, fought and sometimes died. Perhaps instead we are squandering our inheritance, for the sake of that happy frisson we experience when we do or say something supporting “openness”, “tolerance”, and “social justice”. We are purchasing approval from our fellow upper-middle-class citizens, with social capital stolen from our children and grandchildren. We are feathering our own cosy nests, while making life even more wretched for our own nations’ native poor—whose ancestors did fight and die, alongside ours, for their descendants’ stakes in the nation. We are stealing the precious gifts of freedom and order from our least-advantaged fellow citizens—the blue-collar workers, the unemployed, the troubled war veterans—in order to salve our confused consciences, and feed our self-esteem.

In the case of mass migration, Christian outrage would be far better directed at the fact that all too often, the West ignores or downplays pressing questions relating to the root cause and does little to help solve the drivers of continued poverty and instability in much of the world, often actively contributing to the problem rather than helping, be it though haphazard military interventions or discriminatory trade policies. This criticism would be absolutely justified, though the solutions are nowhere near as simple as clamouring for open borders.

It may not fit quite so neatly on a protest placard, but I am personally inclined to believe that the more Christian thing is to wrestle with these difficult questions and to make intelligent national and personal self-sacrifice in targeted areas to improve the lot of poor and unstable countries, while pressing for an immigration system which is fair and non-discriminatory to applicants and seeking to find the optimal “sweet spot” where the benefits and costs of immigration, however defined (and it should be an expansive measure) break even.

I’m no theologian, but something tells me that a well-considered policy which diligently aims to deal with the root drivers of mass migration is both superior and more authentically Christian than a rash, emotion-driven and deeply harmful policy whose primary benefit is to make overwhelmingly privileged, first world activists feel better about themselves.

 

Update: A thoughtful and balanced Christian reflection on the proper response to mass migration, written by Luke Bretherton in 2014, can be read here.

Update 2: See also this very thoughtful piece by Stephen Kneale of the Building Jerusalem blog.

Update 3: This is an excellent reflection from Fr. Alexander Lucie-Smith, published late last year in the Catholic Herald, concluding:

When it comes to welcoming the stranger, the wise must look to the future, and ask what the long term effects will be. What happens to the stranger five, ten, or twenty years down the line? This is the real question. Does the stranger return home? Does the stranger assimilate? Does the stranger live as what the Bible calls a “sojourner”, a resident alien who is not assimilated? Is it a violation of their human rights to ask new arrivals to assimilate?

[..] my impression is not that the Catholic Church has not got a firm teaching on immigration, but rather that the Church has not yet worked out the implications of what welcoming the stranger means. “Welcoming the stranger” sounds like a good principle, but what does it mean in practice? It would be an excellent idea for the Universal Church to hold some sort of synod on this matter. Then the American and European bishops could hear from bishops whose countries have welcomed large numbers of refugees and migrants, such as Kenya, South Africa, and in particular, Jordan and Lebanon. The latter is an important case study, as the huge influx of Palestinians into the country after 1948 and 1967 is generally regarded as one of the contributing factors to the country’s destabilisation and descent into 17 years of savage civil war. Even today Jordan and Lebanon are under huge pressure thanks to the effects of the Syrian conflict.

As for border controls, annoying as they are for first world travellers as well, these have to stay. Every country needs to know who is coming in, who is going out, as this information is useful in the matter of governing the territory. For in immigration matters the greatest of virtues is prudence, which must work hand in hand with justice and charity.

 

Who would Jesus deport - protest placard - Christian immigration debate - open borders

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Why I Am Glad To Be Leaving Britain

Statue of Liberty

[As I continue to wend my way through Southeast Asia en route from London to my new home in the United States, below are some reflections on leaving Britain which have been percolating in my mind. Regular political commentary to resume once our travel itinerary calms down a bit and I reach a country with more reliable internet connectivity.]

I’d like to say that it has been a pleasure…

Britain will always be home to me. I will never renounce my citizenship, even though I will proudly take American citizenship and become a joint citizen of the other country to which I feel love and loyalty when I become eligible to do so. But speaking strictly from the perspective of someone who thinks about policy and writes about politics more than is probably healthy, I’m very glad to be escaping Britain for America at this particular juncture.

Not because of Brexit. I hear the keyboards of fifty Twitter wags clattering to life in my mind right now: “Ha, look at this die-hard Brexiteer who wanted out of the EU so badly but now won’t live in the apocalyptic hellscape he has bequeathed us”. Save the wisecracks, this has nothing to do with Brexit (though Brexit certainly shines an unforgiving light on the institutional and intellectual rot which makes me glad to move across the Atlantic).

I’m happy to be leaving Britain because we have become a small, petty and insular country. Not because of Brexit; we have been gradually becoming so for years prior, helped in large part by our EU membership, the stultifying centrist Westminster consensus and decades of bland technocratic government. The smallness I refer to has nothing to do with military or diplomatic power, though there are certainly warning signs in both these areas. It has nothing to do with our immediate economic prospects, since growth continues and the fundamentals of our economy are no more or less wobbly than they were prior to the EU referendum. It has nothing to do with the rise of other powerful countries or Britain’s supposed isolation outside the comforting embrace of supranational European political union.

The smallness afflicting Britain is a smallness of aspiration, of confidence, of purpose. It is the gradual draining away of any self-belief among those who run, report or comment on this country that decisions made here could actually matter, or influence human events and progress in a significantly beneficial way. It is the even more alarming realisation that the people with the potential intelligence and vision to help Britain recover our place as a visionary leader among countries increasingly self-select out of political life for reasons which are as obvious as they are tragic.

Why climb the greasy pole in a broken party system which rewards group conformity over ideological consistency or necessary pragmatism? Why inch one’s way up from town councillor to county councillor to MP’s bag carrier to ministerial SpAd to junior MP to parliamentary private secretary to junior minister to Cabinet minister to prime minister, compromising one’s ideas every step of the way, when one can have a far more fulfilling career in every respect working in the private sector, and have a more lasting and profound influence on humanity in the process?

For a couple of years now I have been writing about the great challenges facing Britain and the world in the new period of discontinuity which we are entering – an era when the old political settlement with its associated policies neither solve the new challenges we face nor command widespread public support any longer. The last such period of discontinuity in British politics took place in the late 1970s, when a sclerotic economy and over-powerful vested interests (particularly the trades union) were gradually choking the life out of Britain. Back then, we responded with the Thatcherite revolution, which for all its faults (and yes, those faults were real) revitalised our economy and rolled back the worst excesses of the socialist post-war consensus.

This new period of discontinuity is different, with new challenges in the form of globalisation, outsourcing, automation, mass migration and uncertainty over the role and long-term survival prospects for the nation state. These are problems which affect nearly every advanced economy, and which most countries are currently sidestepping or delaying their day of reckoning to some extent. Brexit offered Britain the golden opportunity to be not a helpless canary in the coalmine but rather an innovative testing laboratory and beacon to the world, confronting some of these challenges head on, breaking open political taboos and experimenting with heretofore unconsidered policy alternatives to meet the challenges we face. Britain could have seized this opportunity to genuinely lead the way for the first time in the post-war era, certainly in my lifetime.

This opportunity has been squandered, and the squandering is both tragic and unforgivable. In the 1970s there was enough intellectual life left in Britain for new policy ideas to germinate in places like the Centre for Policy Studies, then-revolutionary think tanks who brought in outside talent and evaluated ideas based on their innate worth rather than the connectedness or insider reputation of the individual putting them forward. That’s how the famous Stepping Stones Report came to be written in 1977, which Margaret Thatcher then took with her into Downing Street in 1979 and used as a blueprint for many of the policies and reforms which ultimately saved Britain from seemingly inevitable national decline.

In 2018, there is nobody left to do this kind of radical, disruptive work. Some of the same think tanks and organisations still exist (in name), but to a large extent they are rusted out old shells of their former selves, living on past glories and eking an existence by flattering government ministers or acting as a mouthpiece for existing party policymaking theatre rather than doing anything genuinely revolutionary or independent.

When I proposed a new Stepping Stones Report for 2022, a document which would seek to identify and classify all of the issues and threats facing modern Britain in order to discover their interlinkages and arrive at a suite of mutually-supporting policies to tackle and overcome them, I received a few polite and non-committal words or emails from various MPs and think tanks, and then no more. On one occasion I was cordially thanked and then told that there is “nothing in particular for you to do at this time”. You see, I am from outside the inner Westminster bubble so it is inconceivable that I might have stumbled upon a good idea or have anything whatsoever to contribute to government policy.

A few fruitless efforts at gaining the attention of influential figures within the Conservative Party made it abundantly clear that while normal people like me are good for stuffing envelopes or knocking doors to get out the Tory vote, best leave the policymaking and strategic thinking to those inside the bubble. And so the Conservative Party’s effort to make policy continues to throw up random half-baked ideas to solve the housing crisis, the productivity crisis, the migration crisis, the healthcare crisis, the education crisis and the so-called crisis of capitalism (many of these ideas lifted straight from the Miliband playbook) without any attempt to consider how these challenges might be linked or best be solved in conjunction with one another. A few genuinely heroic Tory MPs – George Freeman, Nick Boles and Robert Halfon, to name the most active – are engaged in serious work attempting to reimagine conservative policy for the 21st century, but they are receiving precious little air cover from CCHQ or Downing Street.

Things are no better on the other side of the aisle, where Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party is permanently one anti-Semitic tweet away from total self-destruction. This blog celebrated Corbyn’s victory in the Labour leadership contests of 2015 and 2016, not out of any admiration for or agreement with his policies but because he represented a bold step away from the suffocating centrist consensus whose policies overlook so many Britons and which has been hugely resistant to change. And there have on occasions been genuinely encouraging signs of intellectual life within Labour, such as with Corbyn’s proposed National Education Service – a horribly statist idea, but one which at least sought to recognise the limitations of our present system and try something different rather than continuing to shoot for the middle.

However, much of the political backing behind Jeremy Corbyn – Momentum in particular – is anything but modern or forward thinking, offering nothing so much as reheated 1970s statism. Worse, it comes infected with rabid and widespread anti-Semitism which the leadership ignores in order to avoid offending certain other fellow ideological travellers at home and abroad. Such has been the infighting that one can scarcely discern a Corbynite platform more nuanced than raising taxes and renationalising industry. Meanwhile, the displaced Labour centrists, full of entitlement and utterly lacking in introspection as to how their moral and intellectual failures led to this nadir, have done precious little policy thinking of their own and when given the chance to displace Corbyn in 2016 were so concerned for their own precious political careers that none of the remaining big beasts would stand, leaving it to the malodorous Owen Smith.

Ah, but what about the smaller parties? Well, UKIP has collapsed into now inevitable (if once avoidable) irrelevance, the Green Party continue to wage their ostentatiously anti-prosperity agenda and the Liberal Democrats have become nothing more than a futile Stop Brexit Party (and even on this ground they are challenged by new upstart anti-Brexit parties such as Renew). If there are signs of intellectual life or political courage to be found on the political periphery they have escaped my attention.

Look at education, healthcare, housing, automation and AI. Britain isn’t even currently aspiring to emulate best practice in (or achieve parity with) other countries, let alone pioneer new policy solutions which might see us leapfrog our competition and point the way for other nations. Take just education as an example, where technology could be revolutionising our current conception of school, opening up new possibilities for remote learning and real-time interaction with experts and other classes across distance and borders, and research in the social sciences has long hammered home the importance of proactive parental involvement in order to inculcate success at an early age. Where is the new technology in our classrooms? Where is the digital learning strategy? Where is the government promoting more responsible parenting?

Instead of these necessary endeavours to face up to policy failure and change direction, we either indulge in vainglorious British exceptionalism and imagine that the world has nothing to teach us (see the Tory Right’s insistence on a hard Brexit and our national obsession with the NHS, according to its hagiographers the world’s only compassionate universal healthcare service) or else resignedly believe that we are so feeble a country that there can be no hope in striking out on our own to road-test new ideas. How pathetic. How cowardly. What a betrayal of the next generation. How utterly, utterly small.

None of this is to say that things are significantly better in the United States. Lord knows that my new adopted home has not got everything all figured out just yet; America is also idling in neutral to a large degree, an unpredictable and vastly underqualified new president at the helm, his own worst enemy, and an opposition party which has sold its soul to the false god of identity politics rather than offering any uniting, uplifting alternate platform. But at least the big issues are still debated in America, however crudely may sometimes be the case.

As I wrote last year when lamenting the decline in British political rhetoric:

Maybe part of the reason that there are no great contemporary British political speeches reflects our diminished status in the world, no longer a superpower or the pre-eminent actor in world affairs. Lofty words are easier to reach for when one reasonably expects that they might reshape the world.

Despite having every opportunity to take the lead, Britain seems determined to be a follower – either cowering fearfully within the EU or attempting to roll back the clock to a time when economic integration, regulatory alignment and international just-in-time supply chains didn’t make a mockery of the Tory Right’s hard Brexit fantasies. We even import our social movements these days, with British universities racing to copy their American counterparts in capitulating to the censorious cult of identity politics and organisations like Black Lives Matter UK springing up despite lacking any of the context or triggers which prompted the formation of the original.

I have very little desire to spend my time engaged in the minutiae of political debate in a country which stubbornly refuses to lift its gaze above its own navel, whose activists have enough spare time on their hands to worry about non-issues or capriciously import social movements from abroad yet no time to agitate for universal reform, true egalitarianism or issues which do not immediately benefit their own wallets. America may not be the country it once was in terms of the richness and profundity of its civic life (though this is not to dismiss the great and necessary advances in civil rights and equality) since many of its greatest thinkers left the stage, but it is a darn sight healthier than contemporary Britain.

Interventionism versus non-interventionism? That debate burns more brightly in America because it is the United States which must do the bulk of intervening in an age of parsimonious European retrenchment. Healthcare reform? The American system may exist primarily to make Britain’s NHS look good by comparison, but at least radical healthcare reform is possible in the United States, unlike Britain where NHS worship is a mandatory religion for those in power. Education? The federal system and greater role for local government in America means that far more experimentation with new policies and technologies can take place than in Britain, where “postcode lotteries” are feared and policy competition is severely limited. The benefits and costs of laissez-faire social liberalism? Nearly all of the most thoughtful writing can be found in American journals, not the incestuous British publications.

Only on the question of national identity and societal cohesiveness is the political debate more interesting and pressing in the UK and Europe than in the United States, and even then only because years of bad and arrogantly-imposed policy have bequeathed Europe with significant subpopulations which feel little loyalty to or affinity with the countries which give them life and liberty, thus making it an existential issue. It is now fashionable among many elites to bemoan the decline of liberal democratic values, yet there is precious little introspection as to how policies which deliberately undermine the nation state and erode a common sense of identity accepting of liberal values might have played a part in their demise.

America is presently less far down this destructive path, and thus freer from the risk of the kind of societal unrest and breakdown which would make other policy experimentation impossible. In other words, if you don’t have to continually fight to justify your country’s existence (either from plotting euro-federalists on one side or unintegrated subpopulations and post-patriotic citizens of the world on the other) then one can comfortably think about other policy concerns, but if national survival underpinning essential liberal values is not assured then everything else becomes largely irrelevant.

So why this long, somewhat bitter screed as I depart the United Kingdom? After all, in the grand scheme of things I don’t matter at all. I’m not a genius, a policy wunderkind or a charismatic future political leader, so me quitting these shores to make my mark in the United States is no great loss for Britain. But if even people like me survey the state of British politics and civic life and feel overwhelmed by a feeling of resigned ennui, how must those individuals blessed with real talent and inspiration feel? You think they are going to stick around to watch Owen Jones, Ian Dunt and EU Supergirl slog it out with Nigel Farage, Jacob Rees-Mogg and Liam Fox, or feel compelled to step forward and offer their leadership skills to a country which itself has no desire to lead?

Britain can survive me flouncing off across the Atlantic; indeed, the country may well be much the better for it. But the pathetic state of British politics and civic life that I have described here is not only repulsive to me; it alienates talent and discourages innovation at nearly every level.

When British politics becomes little more than a technocratic debate about making the trains run on time or ensuring by national decree that hospital waiting times hit a certain target, we are thinking far too small.

When British political debate is more about desperately ignoring obvious truths (the unsustainability of the NHS, the failure of unmitigated multiculturalism, our broken welfare state) than tackling those problems head-on, we are being far too cowardly.

And when the desire and capacity of British elites to confront and overcome 21st century challenges gives way to a sense of resigned powerlessness and a petulant impatience for somebody else to do the difficult work, I can’t muster much sorrow to be taking a step away from that dismal stage.

I will never stop following or writing about British politics, and this blog continues. Britain is my homeland, a place towards which I will always retain a deep attachment and where I will undoubtedly spend some future years raising a family – and indeed, one of the unique selling points of this blog – I hope – is my ability to provide a familiar Brit’s perspective on American politics and a (nearly) American perspective on British politics, which would make unplugging from the debate quite counterproductive to my work.

But since Britain has repeatedly shown itself to be disinterested in domestic or global leadership of any kind, my focus will naturally gravitate more toward the politics of my new adopted home, a country which despite its many dysfunctions still retains that optimism and self-belief that matters debated and decisions made in America can shape the world for the better.

And Lord knows I am looking forward to that change of scenery.

 

Sign at Plymouh Rock - landing place of the pilgrims - 1620

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