On the rare occasions when someone asks me what my nationality is (as supposed to where I am from), I tell them I am British. I am British because, while I and my immediate family have all been born in England, my heritage is not so limited. I have family links to almost every part of the British Isles, from Thames ship-builders, to Irish lords who lost their title in the early 18th century. And more than that, I believe that, after a millennium of inter-mingling, it is very hard to maintain that the culture of any part of the United Kingdom is not bound up with the other constituent parts. We are a community, and I feel a part of that community. Granted, I don’t feel it strongly enough to die for my country, but I do feel it strongly enough to serve my community.
Communities matter. Identity matters. I would never seek to deny that (and have written before about the value added to our community by immigration). Something of the cultural wealth of our shared community is captured in this beautiful and eloquent post by my friend James. But what it fails to do is consider the limits of that community.
Communities are formed when their members contribute to their shared goals, when people support and care for each other. As such communities are inherently inward looking, and this is natural. Of course I want to help my friends, because they are dear to me. If I did not want to help them, they would not, by most definitions, really be my friends. Yet such an introspective view can be problematic too. Any group, unless it is universal, necessarily means some people are excluded and when groups become to close knit and inwards-looking, these exclusions can create real problems. The most commonly cited problem with the Freemason movement is that members will do anything for their own, without respect to justice or merit. There was a time when it would be very hard to advance a career in certain fields without being a member of the local lodge. Likewise, when migrant communities function as a state within a state, problems arise. Ex-pat communities can be incredibly obnoxious. A common fear cited by some people on the right wing of the British political spectrum is that immigrants, and particularly Muslim immigrants, function outside of the British legal and political system, with their own schools and laws. While this is certainly an exaggeration, it has roots in a real problem.
You see, favouritism, even if born from love and affection, which are undoubtedly positive emotions, can be very negative. Every conflict in history has depended on the creation of an us vs. them dichotomy, whether between competing empires, faiths, ideologies or races.
As I said, it is natural for people to favour their communities, because of bonds of mutual indebtedness. Our government has a duty to its citizens, because they contribute taxes, elect the government and share in civil society. But in fulfilling its obligations to the electorate, it risks creating an us and a them. Indeed, governments specifically cultivate this perspective for their benefit (some would argue this policy is currently being pursued). Preventing such a division is reason enough, without even considering the abstract benefits which it creates, to support foreign aid spending, diplomacy and our involvement in international unions such as the EU and UN.
Still, I can’t help thinking that, compared to their efforts at home, this external action is small beer. For practical reasons it makes sense to target resources within the limited scope of the state, but if this to be done, it seems to me unethical to deny anyone the chance to share in them. I can barely stomachthe Government’s recent decision, to support only children in need in Syria, and not those closer to home. We have as much of a duty to those on our doorstep as those on another continent, and it is immoral to deny people, particularly unaccompanied children, the chance to share in our community because we believe they are someone else’s problem, or because we are worried that more people will follow in their wake. If more people do follow, that is surely a sign that we are getting something right!
Communities only avoid being exclusionary by radical inclusion. By saying that ALL are welcome. By flinging wide the doors and inviting everyone in. Not everyone will choose to come in. Some will love being out of doors, many will want to remain in their own communities. None the less, from a purely moral perspective, there is no reason to deny anyone the chance to become part of our community. To contribute their taxes, an in return share our public services. Put simply, borders should delineate only government’s primary sphere of action. They should be seen as permeable membranes, not maximum security walls. We must accept this, or face the reality of fences, riot police and never-ending conflict.