November 22 2023

The Nation State

The Nation State

Multi-culturalism has failed, according to the Home Secretary. Delivering a speech this week to the American Enterprise Institution, a hard right think tank based in Washington DC, Braverman laid out her political anti-philosophy. There was no positive vision in this speech – which also served as part of Braverman’s leadership pitch to the firmly right-wing membership of the Conservative Party, should Sunak lose next year’s general election – but a screed against what Braverman fears Britain is becoming under the pressure of ‘uncontrolled and illegal migration’.

According to this narrative, the national and cultural identities of the European nation states are being eroded by the swell of refugees washing up on European shores. Rather than slowly blending into and enriching the cultural character of Europe, new arrivals are juxtaposing themselves against it. They are asserting the right of their culture to be transplanted into British soil, existing as an alternative to British cultural norms rather than merging with and becoming a part of British culture.

Given Braverman’s background, the implication is that this is not what refugees and migrants used to do. Her vision is one of migrant assimilation, where pre-existing social shibboleths and cultural touchstones are absorbed by society’s newest members. This, perhaps, is what Braverman thinks her family did. Her parents, the Fernandes, made their way from Kenya and Mauritius to London in the 1960s, with Braverman born in 1980. She grew up in Harrow and was christened Sue-Ellen (after a character from Dallas), attending state and fee-paying schools nearby before studying at the University of Cambridge and at the Sorbonne Paris. Her mother (a Hindu Tamil from Mauritius) worked as a nurse before becoming involved in local politics, while her father (a Goan Christian from India) worked at a housing association. Superficially, nothing could be more representative of aspirational middle-class Britain.

But even migrants and refugees who strive to slip into British cultural waters with barely a ripple, like the Fernandes, will affect and shape their new society. The inevitable consequence of any migration is diversity and difference, whether it be in skin colour, in language, in food, or in norms and cultural behaviours. Couple this with globalisation, where even people who live their entire lives with their feet on British soil are exposed to the world and its variegated values, and the norms and culture of any society will change and evolve in faster and more novel ways.

Braverman’s conclusion is that the emergence of multi-culturalism has meant that the accepting society ‘places no demands on the incomer to integrate’. Other cultures are welcomed and given the space to bloom, but rather than enriching fundamental British values, these new migrants try to distinguish themselves and their values, remaining separate and distinct.

It is easy to dismiss this as bigotry and hypocrisy, as many have reasonably done. But setting this aside, what makes analysing Braverman’s philosophy more difficult is the absence of any tangible evidence. She begins her speech with concrete figures, discussing the sudden arrival of thousands of migrants on the beach at Lampedusa, in Italy, before pointing to the exponential increases in migration that Europe has seen this century from parts of the developing world. However, from here, she descends into rhetoric and hypotheticals. There has been ‘too much, too quick’, with the – in her view, inevitable – consequence that ‘what [culture] was there…will disappear’.

Throughout her speech, there is little explaining why there is too much immigration, and even less explaining why such levels of immigration are eroding British values and culture (which she barely, if ever, defines). Tangible, discrete examples are almost totally absent. This makes it near impossible to evaluate the claim she eventually comes to, where she tries to leap from a questionable ‘is’ to an even more dubious ‘ought’. There is too much immigration, therefore we ought to amend the Refugee Convention. Somehow, Braverman thinks that if we amend the Refugee Convention (by which she principally seems to mean amending it so as to exclude Britain from abiding by it) we will solve the immediate migrant crisis.

Few others agree. In a world where authoritarian politicians rail against the liberal tenets of international law and the overreaching of its institutions, no one else has turned their ire on the Refuge Convention. Erdoğan in Turkey, Duda in Poland, and Orbán in Hungary, three autocratic, anti-liberal leaders of countries that border war-zones and receive a surfeit of refugees, have said nothing against the Convention. Enacted as part of the new liberal world order in 1951, the Convention sought to protect the rights of refugees and to negate the risk of atrocities like those committed by the Nazis in WWII from ever happening again. If there is reason to reform the Convention (which is doubtful, not least since Braverman’s primary concern with homosexuality goes to domestic interpretation rather than the Convention’s text), it should be done in a measured and mature way that reflects its integral role in the modern international order. Not by being hung up as red meat by a proto-fascist British Home Secretary in order to win plaudits on the right of her party.

What Braverman also assumes is that it is the refugees and the illegal entrants that are changing Britain’s culture. Reduce the number of refugees and keep Britain British, so the logic goes. Such logic is self-evidently moronic. Refugees make up a disproportionately tiny percentage of the people entering Britain each year. Even if they are from countries with values at complete odds from the UK’s, they are too statistically insignificant to have any real impact- to say nothing of the fact they are unlikely to be the most ardent proselytisers for the cultural values that forced them to flee for their lives.

Speeches like this one are continued examples of the Tories’ determination to create rods for their own back. There are few success stories in Conservative-governed Britain, and yet some sado-masochistic nature draws Conservative ministers back again and again to the most irrelevant issues that make them look nothing but incompetent. The small boats and the comparatively infinitesimal number of refugees Britain receives are not and were not an issue with the public until the government stood on the cliffs, pointing at the occasional boat on the horizon and yelling ‘there’. But having done so without a plan or with the wherewithal to create one, the only option is to construct ever more fanciful solutions or look to ever more absurd. Speeches like Braverman’s aren’t given in the hope of changing the world for the better, but in the hope they’ll keep the Tories in power for the worse.