In the 1990s, many great minds heralded the death of the nation state. The combined forces of globalisation, supra-national institutions, multi-culturalism and the internet meant hard borders looked like a thing of the past. The differences between us seemed to be shrinking and the future looked fluid.
But that is not the path that history chose.
The vote to leave the EU was an assertion of national sovereignty. ‘Take back control’, an anthemic rallying cry for the nation state of the United Kingdom. And at the heart of the debate was the idea of the border.
The happy future of the UK depends on how we construct our borders. When I talk about borders, I don’t just mean the lines that divide one nation from another. I mean the invisible borders that criss-cross their way across our society. We don’t have a map to show these divisions, but if we did it would show them carving up hospitals, playgrounds and living rooms. This is the modern nation state – in-country borders that are as important as the borders that separate us from our foreign neighbours.
Just as borders between nations can create conflict, so too our in-country borders are fault lines of division, discrimination and marginalisation. These are the borders we have spent decades constructing. And now we must interrogate why we need them, how we police them and whether they belong in a fair, tolerant and compassionate country.
If we don’t, we will isolate, marginalise and demonise whole communities. We will create a two-tier system of rights protection that lets the idea of statehood and nationality dictate who is deserving and who is undeserving. And in doing that we will all lose our humanity. Denying some people their basic rights and freedoms is like putting arsenic in the water – it poisons everything.
Politics in recent years has moved the border deeper incountry than ever before, driven by a mission to build a ‘hostile environment’ for undocumented migrants. In September 2016, for example, a question was added to the termly school census asking parents to declare their children’s nationality and country of birth. Agreements have been signed between various government departments to facilitate information sharing on education attendance and patient health, meaning many migrant families are too frightened to send their kids to school or to seek vital healthcare, and compromising doctor-patient confidentiality.
Perhaps the hardest of our borders is the one that circles our immigration detention centres. In these prison-like buildings, near airports or on the outskirts of cities, we incarcerate 30,000 migrants every year. They are detained on the say-so of the Home Office, with no authorisation by a judge. They are not serving a sentence of imprisonment for any crime. There is no time limit on how long they will be locked up – some are there for years.
But now we have a great opportunity. As we redefine our nationhood we can work to create a country that is open, vibrant, resilient and diverse – and we can show the world that our borders are not constructed to further an ideology of isolationism and discrimination.
Migration has helped us flourish – whether it’s the cuisine from every corner of the globe now available on every high street, the world class players in our football teams or the fact that migrants contribute an estimated £1.30 for every £1 that they take from the public purse. As the world’s borders have relaxed, the UK has been enriched by the contributions of luminous immigrants, from Nobel prize winning scientists like James Watson, artists like Sir Anish Kapoor and writers like Inua Ellams, not to mention our very own Prince Philip. And there are countless thousands others who contribute in myriad ways. This is what happens when you build bridges rather than borders.
James Baldwin wrote that “not everything that is faced can be changed, but nothing can be changed if it is not faced.” As we look to the future of these islands, we must face the borders that we have constructed on our shores. We must build a nation state that is fit for a modern world.
And there is every reason to be optimistic. Doctors and nurses are petitioning the Government to protect patient data and let them care for migrants and citizens alike. Parents are boycotting the school census. Journalists, campaigners, lawyers and migrants are shining a light on the injustice of immigration detention. People are joining organisations like Liberty and making their voices heard. Across the country, activism is going mainstream.
And contrary to what some might have you believe, people in this country don’t hate migrants. Research conducted by British Future found that most people in the UK have an empathetic, humanitarian response when they think about refugees. When people say they want to take back control it’s because they think our immigration system is dysfunctional and Government targets are pipe dreams. It’s not because they don’t like migrants or think they deserve to be treated with anything less than dignity and respect.
The politicians work for us and we can demand that they put compassion, dignity and tolerance at the heart of our politics. There are steps that we can take to make our country a safer, happier, more inclusive place – we can sign up to a national strategy for integrating refugees, put a time limit on indefinite immigration detention, reaffirm our commitment to the international human rights framework, and allay fears that this island is becoming too crowded by addressing the strain on housing and public services.
If the delays and disarray in the immigration system are addressed, people will start to trust that it is operating fairly. If we celebrate the schemes up and down the country that have been set up to help refugees then we can replicate them, and we can redouble efforts to reunite refugees with their families. We can lift the ban on asylum seekers being allowed to work so that they can contribute to our economy and integrate into our communities, and we can provide better English language teaching.
It was once said that you should judge a society by how it treats its prisoners. At this moment in history, we will be judged by how we treat our migrants. Now is the time for every one of us to look at how we live our lives – to look at our communities, our families, our work places and our politics, and to face the borders that we have allowed to be constructed around us. Our challenge now is to tear them down; to stand in other people’s shoes, celebrate difference, practise empathy and cleave to the values of fairness, freedom and dignity. If we can do that, we can make this nation state a great one.