As Britain prepares to leave the European Union, we would do well to consider our alliances, especially as other more malignant Empires loom on the horizon.
We need to talk about empires.
As today we begin the complex process of untangling ourselves from the European Union, this is more important than ever.
Integral to the movement for leaving the EU has been the strong desire for national sovereignty and the rejection of a perceived European empire. Britain’s laws and borders remain, in the final analysis, under the control of the British people.
At the same time, I think we might be losing sight of the foreign-policy implications of Brexit. An important part of striking out on this new path is the relationships we will have with other nations. And I’m not sure we’re talking about this nearly enough as much as we should.
Even in the month of January, as we prepare to leave the EU, we have already seen the importance of Britain’s cultural and military alliances emerge twice.
First of all, there was the US killing of Gen Soleimani in Iran. Amid rumours that the UK wasn’t consulted prior to the attack, serious questions were asked of the state of the Special Relationship.
Even as post-Brexit Britain celebrates its freedom, then, it cannot escape the urgency of its global relationships.
Because while the nation-state rises, empires aren’t going anywhere.
Who, in the end, will we call our neighbours? Countries that share our values or countries that do not?
The Rise of the Nation-State
Since the referendum result, there has been a fairly understandable focus in the UK on our relationship to ourselves.
We’ve begun to consider how the different parts of the UK relate to one another. And this is no bad thing.
This internal focus is largely the result of the fact that the nation-state has risen once more to the fore of Western politics.
2016, with the EU Referendum and the election of Donald Trump, was a cataclysmic year for national sovereignty. Of course, there have been a wave of national populist movements both preceding and following Brexit and Trump. But these two moments constitute a watershed which signalled that a profound change in the geopolitical landscape was afoot.
Among other things, the Brexit vote heralded a victory for the Somewheres. The Brexit vote was a revolt of those who benefited the least from globalisation against those who have benefited the most.
Rather than longing for imperial greatness, a majority of English Leave voters don’t even care if the Union breaks up. Leavers are not generally keen on foreign intervention, either; if anything, as Tom Holland put it, they’d just like to go back to the Shire and smoke pipe-weed.
There are legitimate fears that an empire without borders has already overrode national sovereignty and the freedom of nation states to determine their own course. The Brexit project is the rejection of a new world order and the full embrace of the free nation-state.
A World of Empires
At the same time, I’m wary of the fact that we might be ignoring the rise of other empires that are far more dangerous.
For all that the nation-state has been making a come-back, we still live in a world of empires.
Assuming that we are never going to get rid of empires, shouldn’t we seek to ally with like-minded powers against the rise of such dangerous regimes? My fear here is that in focussing purely on freeing ourselves from the European project (or, as some would see it, empire), we are naively blindfolding ourselves to other empires with extremely malignant and despotic designs.
A Modest Proposal
Very few Leavers are talking about this, however. British parliamentary sovereignty appears to trump any concerns over the rise of the Chinese empire.
And this does make sense. After all, Brexit is about focussing on levelling up all of Britain. On reaching out to those left-behind places. In post Brexit-Britain, the national takes prominence. As Danny Kruger put it so well in his maiden speech this week, “our first loyalties are to the people we live among”.
But we can’t forget our global ties, particularly to other long-standing allies who share our values.
Ultimately, I happen to think that these two points are not mutually exclusive—we can uphold national sovereignty by exiting the EU while still actively seeking out partnership with those states who stand for democracy and freedom.
There are two important questions here, though, that must be faced with open-eyed realism:
1) First, will other like-minded nations always want to interact with us?
The Huawei debacle has imperilled our relationship with an important ally. In Global Britain, we must not risk losing friends over the need for short-term, pragmatic, economic and technological gains.
2) In the wake of rancorous debate over our state as a nation, will our government give enough consideration to issues of foreign policy and our alliances with other nations around the world?
I welcome the swift actions taken by the government to level up all parts of the UK. At the same time, if we are to become Small Britannia, with a strong commitment to building a better Britain, we risk overlooking the part we can play in having a positive global influence.
I am not primarily talking here about being an economic powerhouse, as important as that is. Sadly, in those instances when politicians do consider “Global Britain”, it is invariably in economic terms. To only think about our role in global markets is short-sighted. After all, man cannot live on spreadsheets alone.
Nor, when I mention global influence, am I talking about intervening militarily at every possible juncture, as necessary as that is in certain scenarios.
I am speaking rather of the role of persuasion. In reducing our global influence to the military or markets, we lose sight of the various forms of soft-power that we possess. What of the cultural heritage which we can humbly but firmly offer to those willing to engage with us? I believe that when invited, we have a duty to convince others of the virtue of the values we have tried and tested over hundreds of years and which now form the bedrock of our constitutional democracy—the rule of law, the universality of human rights and the accountability of parliament. While we far from perfectly embody these values, we have a lot to offer.
Something good and important will be lost if we do not consider how we support those (for instance, in Hong Kong), who seek similar freedoms under totalitarian imperial regimes.
National interest and global influence often represent competing priorities but they need not always be mutually exclusive alternatives. While the balance is rightly shifting towards the national, in post-Brexit Britain we must not lose sight of our role in the world, and those in it that we would call our neighbours.
Epiphany, the great Universalist feast of the church, is as good a point as any to to re-consider the defining cultural issue of our day: the relationship between national and international identity.
Late January finds us racing through the season of Epiphany, the great “universalist” feast of the church.
For those unfamiliar with it, Epiphany is the point in the liturgical calendar at which the Western Church celebrates the coming of the magi to the baby Jesus. Those unacquainted with the ins and outs of the story will know the moment immortalised as it is in the carol, We Three Kings Of Orient Are.
At Epiphany, learned astrologers “from the east” enter the Christmas story, breaking into what has up until now been a parochial and particular narrative, taking place in backwater Bethlehem of Roman Judea. The magi have come to represent the brightest and best minds of their day. These great scholars of the Gentile world make the long trek before offering the fruits of their learning at the feet of the King of Israel. At Epiphany, the universal and the particular collide.
Epiphany is therefore an appropriate juncture at which to re-consider the local and international scope of the Christian faith.
At the first Epiphany, the relationship between national identity and global identity loomed large.
Plus ça change. As then, so also now the relationship between the national and the international remains the key issue of our time. As David Goodhart has put it, in Britain the split between those who were brought up in and committed to a particular place (the Somewheres) and those whose ties stretch beyond the limits of a specific geographical locale to encompass the globe (the Anywheres) is the defining cultural divide of our age.
For these British Isles, the 2016 EU referendum forced us to come face-to-face with the Somewhere v Anywhere question in important and sometimes uncomfortable ways.
To whom do we belong? The question is as blunt as this.
Epiphany seems a natural point at which to consider this stark question head-on.
What might the Christian say in response?
A False Choice
Discussions surrounding national and global identity have been uncomfortable because of the terms in which the EU Referendum was presented to us. As Graham Tomlin has noted, the choice in the Referendum was, broadly speaking, between an exclusive love of the local (one’s fellow countrymen and women) and an exclusive love of the universal.
We can imagine the love to which Christ calls his followers as a set of water ripples that move outwards from the point of impact.
At the immediate centre of the ripple effect are those we have a duty of care towards—our own selves, our family and friends. This is the love of the local, the love of those close knit ties of family and loved ones. It is beautifully expressed by the conservative intellectual Sir Roger Scruton, who died this month, as oikaphilia, the love of home, the love of this particular placeand the people within it. This is a love for our streets, neighbourhoods and nation.
Yet if we love only those “like us”, our love is defective. As Jesus puts it, “if you love those who are like you, what credit do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do that?” In other words, in only loving your own, how are you different from those around you?
For Jesus’s command “to love our neighbours” is also the call to love those who are not like us, those we involuntarily bump into each day.
It is also a command to love our enemies, those who intentionally make life difficult for us. This is an ethic that flies in the face of its day, where goodness was derived through comparing one’s actions to “ordinary decent folk”.
Jesus’s love command shows up the exclusive choice between national and transnational identities for what it is—a false choice.
Nationalist and Globalist Idolatry and Disdain
A love for the local and a love for the universal are, in themselves, natural, good and beautiful impulses.
They can also spill over in some unhealthy and damaging ways, however.
As I see it, those of us who love the nation and those of us who favour a more global identity have both committed the sins of idolatry and prideful disdain.
What do I mean by this?
Put crudely, nationalist idolatry and globalist idolatry can be defined as attributing all sense of worth, identity and meaning in the nation-state or some transnational alliance. The disdain that follows on from this is the scornful attitude that hardens our hearts to the views of those we disagree with. Expressions of idolatry and disdain in recent years, and there have been quite a few, have been committed by those on both sides of this divide.
We need reminding, to return to my point above, that Christ doesn’t call us to exclusively choose between the love of those like us and those not like us (or the love of near and the love of far, if you will). The love of the “one from afar” does not lessen the need, the duty even, to care for the one who lives near. And the reverse is equally true.
Those who voted for Brexit rightly feel a sense of disappointment, when some of those who voted to Remain treat them as objects of scorn, derision and disdain for loving these British Isles.
There is no inconsistency here if we start to think about our rootedness in, and love for, a specific community — our community — as being the basis for our love of others; its grounding, rather than its contradiction. I may love my children more than yours. But it is precisely because I love my children as I do that I understand and value the love that you have for yours.
Likewise, my patriotism, my pride and commitment to the historical and cultural specificity of my own community, is not a denunciation of other people’s. It is the reason I appreciate why others will want to do the same. This too is love. Perhaps it is too much eros and not enough agape for some. But it is love, nonetheless.
Fraser is essentially saying that love expresses itself as the universal throughthe particular.
Love, if it is to maintain any semblance of coherence, sense or meaning, must always be particular. This is where the “citizen of the world” identity can run fall into utopian idealism (utopia, of course, literally meaning “not a place”). A universal love of man easily becomes abstract and void of meaning if it loses the particularity of place. As Doestoevsky put it so well, “The more I love humanity in general the less I love man in particular”.
At the same time, those who voted to remain in the EU can rightly feel a sense of sadness when some of those on the side of Leave ridicule them for valuing their connectedness with those from outside these British Isles.
So, if we agree that our love either for the nation or for a transnational entity sometimes require keeping in check, then how can this be achieved?
A Way Forward: Finding a Home in the Church
Readers of this blog won’t be surprised to find me offering the Christian tradition as a possible way through this complex problem. The Christian faith offers a resource or map for re-orientation, allowing us to see where we are and how, with the help of past thinkers, we might get back on track.
As I see it, the Christian faith has the tools to avoid the twin excesses of nationalist and globalist idolatry while also acknowledging that our desire for a universal and national sense of belonging can find meaningful expression.
The Christian tradition avoids these excesses by sublimating (not erasing!) all identities to Christ. “There is neither Jew nor Greek”, as Paul would have it. Geographical identity, while of great significance, is no longer of ultimate significance.
The Christian faith, when done right, can transcend and re-orient our nationalist and globalist impulses with the challenge of an ultimate identity marker—”in Christ”. When we come to see our identity “in Christ” as all-important, national or international identity take their rightful place.
As followers of Christ, each of us will feel different levels of affinity to the local, the national and the international. Our ultimate sense of belonging, though, is in Christ. All other identities are ultimately penultimate.
At the same time, the Christian tradition also acknowledges our need to be rooted to a place or, as the case may be, our difficulty with finding roots in a particular community (on this latter point, I’d recommend the honest blog-reflections of my friend Aneurin, here). In fact, it is precisely because it acknowledges our desire for a community that is local and universal that the Christian faith can offer a cogent and compelling way forward.
On the one hand, we belong to the church universal (or the “church catholic” as the creeds put it). As one Old Testament scholar has put it, we worship a global God, not a minor local deity. On the other hand, we also worship in a particular church congregation that belongs to a particular place. In the church, then, the universal and the local can meet in a beautiful exchange.
That particularity and universalism are, so to speak, written into the DNA of Christianity should be both a comfort and a challenge to both sides of the debate.
The universality of the church comforts Anywheres and challenges Somewheres with the reminder that we belong to a universal body that spans across space and time.
The particularity of the church congregation is a comfort to Somewheres and a challenge to Anywheres because it reminds us that while the Church is indifferent to geography as an identity marker, the place of the local still matters greatly.
Ultimately, the Christian identity has the potential to re-orient our loves, defanging any overweening sense of national pride while also avoiding an abstract universalism by rooting us in a particular locale. We find ourselves in communities “both diverse and yet together, indifferent to ethnicity yet also rooted in the specifics of place”.
At Epiphany, then, let us heed the reminder that in the church, somewheres and anywheres can together find a home.
Here is my review of four of the biggest events that happened in 2019.
1. Climate Activism
2019 saw the issue of the climate rise to the forefront of UK politics in a major way.
Of course, it had been there throughout the decade in election manifestoes and government policy.
But I think it’s fair to say that 2019 brought with it a more vocal, more active set of actors on the environmental scene.
The most vocal of the climate activist protest groups was Extinction Rebellion who called for the UK parliament to accept that the globe is facing a climate emergency. “The Truth”, as ER see it, is that we are on the brink of a mass extinction.
Among their demands are for the government to recognise this emergency, and, in light of it, to reduce carbon emissions to zero by 2025 (a mere 5 years from now).
Foremost among the climate protest movements was the now-famous, teenage Swedish activist Greta Thunberg. This unlikely hero projected herself to fame by leading and inspiring waves of young protesters across the globe to take to the streets on Fridays. One of the moments of the year was her impassioned speech before the UN Climate Action Summit, in which she levelled her frustration and anger at the inaction of world leaders.
Let me begin with what I take to be the positives from the climate activist movements in the UK.
We need to acknowledge that we are in a significant period when it comes to our future as a planet. Just have a read of the 2018 Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report on Global Warming and you’ll see what I mean. When it comes to climate activists, more specifically, there is a fearlessness and a desire to tell the truth regardless of how horrific it appears. I find that impulse brave and commendable (even if I disagree with the 2025 target that is being proclaimed).
At the same time, the ER movement has not taken enough care both in terms of the claims it has made and the means by which it seeks to achieve its ends. This is a movement that has, frankly, overstretched itself.
Let’s start with its methods.
This is a movement that has frequently employed questionable means to meet its ends.
I found this out personally over the Summer. Bus routes were not operational due to the protests resulting in tube stations filling to the brim. Faced with no other choice, I taxi’d across town.
Disruption to major producers of fossil fuels, I can at least understand, even be sympathetic towards. But to obstruct the lives of ordinary citizens (sometimes with tragic results) doesn’t induce my sympathy. To be quite honest, and I know others that I have read and spoken with with feel similarly, it can induce the opposite.
All of this might be excusable if we were facing imminent death. In fact, one would have to applaud ER for its consistency—faced with global mass extinction, the least we could do is endure a bit of mild discomfort to our daily consumption, a scaling-back to our ordinary travel habits, right?
Except, we aren’t.
Which takes us back to to that crucial IPCC Report. Full disclosure: I am not a climate scientist. But I trust this report. It represents an international consensus of expert climate scientists. Importantly, it advises that governments seek to reduce carbon emissions to zero by 2050.
The report finds that limiting global warming to 1.5°C would require “rapid and far-reaching” transitions in land, energy, industry, buildings, transport, and cities. Global net human-caused emissions of carbon dioxide (CO2) would need to fall by about 45 percent from 2010 levels by 2030, reaching ‘net zero’ around 2050. This means that any remaining emissions would need to be balanced by removing CO2 from the air.
IPCC, Summary for Policymakers of IPCC Special Report on Global Warming of 1.5°C approved by governments (Oct 2018)
Some people, of course, get off on hellfire. But it can frighten or alienate more than it energises. So when we look at what Thunberg claims and compare it with what we know of the science of climate change, we have to conclude that she exaggerates.
Most importantly, and as Peter Franklin has argued, we need to begin discussing solutions. More to the point, we need to start discussing realistic, economically sustainable ways of reducing our carbon emissions. William Hague has compiled a list which will be required reading for policy-makers
Fast-forward to the end of October (a lot happened in between of course–May finally stood down, Boris Johnson won the leadership race, faced a series of parliamentary defeats, moved for parliament to be suspended, successfully got a new deal) and we faced a Christmas (or Advent?) Election.
The results were persuasive (at least as far as England was concerned). Johnson got his “stonking majority” and with it the largest Conservative majority since 1987. Labour crumbled, and nowhere more so than in the northern heartlands. You can read more about that important election night, here.
What I want to dwell on, though, is the fact that this election represents a re-alignment of British politics. As Matthew Goodwin, David Goodhart and others have argued, the Conservatives skilfully read the public mood which, in general, leans slightly left on economics and slightly right on issues of culture.
What it means to lean left on economics is fairly transparent; a commitment to public spending on NHS and the various components that make up the safety net of the welfare state.
The meaning of “leaning right” on culture is less apparent. Cultural conservatism doesn’t equate to Victorian social mores, or an illiberal backlash in terms of civil liberties and freedom of choice.
In fact, both assumptions unhelpfully conflate social conservatism and cultural conservatism. Peter Franklin helpfully distinguishes between them in this way:
social conservatism concerns matters of personal responsibility, while cultural conservatism concerns matters of collective identity — i.e. the former is about behaviour and the latter about belonging.
On social matters, most would agree that each individual is deserving of fair and equal treatment, irrespective of their race, sex or sexual orientation. As Matt Singh points out,
on the specifics, there are points where reasonable, non-bigoted people disagree. Besides the prioritisation there’s the question of what equality means in practice (is that formulation racist, is that advert sexist, and so on), to what extent equality has or hasn’t been achieved, what (more) should be done to achieve it, what happens when the interests of different protected groups conflict, and so on.
Leaning right on culture is similarly nuanced. It often constitutes not a resistance to change but a desire for a slower pace of change. On immigration, to take one issue of culture, this is not a drawing up of the drawbridges, but a plea for a system that takes greater care as to who enters one’s borders with a view to limiting the number of people that do.
The 2019 General Election resulted in an emphatic victory for those who lean right on culture.
One of things this means moving forward is the need for bridge figures on the (cultural) left and the (cultural) right. From personal conversations with those on the cultural and social left, I sense that it is important for those who are culturally right to assure the socially left that we will not be witnessing a backlash against hard-fought civil liberties for minorities. How one acts when in power is absolutely key, here. And the burden lies with those in the political ascendancy to offer important assurances in this regard.
With the cultural and social left, on the other hand, what is required is a greater attentiveness to the trends that have got us to where we are as a nation, and careful consideration of the nuances of the positions of those who have voted differently.
What 2019 (and the three or four years previous to it) have shown us is that issues of culture and belonging urgently require discussion. So far, we have as a nation collectively flunked this test. But there is still the distinct possibility of rapprochement. Conversations across difference are difficult, but the alternative—bitter division—is far worse.
2019 was, as far as I can remember, the year that the transgender debate came to my attention.
I first became aware of the issue when noticing trans women’s presence in women sports (I suspect that sports is the entry point into the issue for many men). I was and am persuaded by the evidence (see, for a start, here and here) showing that even with hormonal treatment, men who transition to become women possess a variety of advantages that come from the skeleton as shaped at puberty. I fully expect this issue will be one that is discussed at the 2020 Tokyo Olympic Games.
At this point, I won’t comment any further, except to say this: the problem isn’t in Forstater’s assertion of biological reality (which seems so obvious as to be banal). Rather the problem, as I see it, lies in arbitrary, erroneous and harmful gender stereotypes promulgated and perpetuated by those on the Petersonian right and the trans-activist left.
Or, as former Olympic athlete Sharron Davies, more positively puts it:
“Whereas gender today is a social construct, an ideology, a feeling, totally changeable, I believe we cannot change sex but can live happily expressing ourselves outside of any stereotypes.”
Objective reality not only took a hit on the issue of biological sex. Donald Trump, a man who has endowed us with phrases like “fake news”, is on trial for requesting a probe into Democratic Presidential nominee, Joe Biden from Ukrainian President Vladimir Zelensky (in return offering him a state visit to Washington).
My take on the whole issue is that Trump appears to have well overstepped the boundaries of his office. Whether that constitutes an impeachable offence will obviously be a matter for the Congress. So far, the House has ruled in favour of impeachment. An overall positive impeachment verdict looks extremely unlikely, however, as the Republican controlled Senate looks set to vote against it sometime in early 2020. With this is mind, the Democrats would do best to reflect on how they might go about winning the hearts and minds of Trump voters ahead of November 5th.
To the many evangelicals who continue to support Mr. Trump in spite of his blackened moral record, we might say this: Remember who you are and whom you serve. Consider how your justification of Mr. Trump influences your witness to your Lord and Savior. Consider what an unbelieving world will say if you continue to brush off Mr. Trump’s immoral words and behavior in the cause of political expediency. If we don’t reverse course now, will anyone take anything we say about justice and righteousness with any seriousness for decades to come? Can we say with a straight face that abortion is a great evil that cannot be tolerated and, with the same straight face, say that the bent and broken character of our nation’s leader doesn’t really matter in the end?
The response from Trump was swift and revealing. Christianity Today was branded a “far left” periodical. “They would rather a radical left non-believer who wants to take away your religion and your guns”. The President’s reference to “your religion” was, I thought, chilling.
The response from Trump-supporting evangelicals was yet more revealing. Franklin Graham, son of Billy Graham (a founder of the journal) and hardline Trump supporter, revealed that his father had, in fact, voted for Trump. The very thing Galli had warned evangelical leaders of—the uncritical hitching of the evangelical wagon to that of the Trump administration—was playing out before us.
As Tim Costello of the Australian-based, Centre for Public Christianity notes, “the burning question is, does faith shape one’s politics or does politics capture and determine one’s faith?”
None of this is to deny that Trump has achieved important domestic and foreign policy objectives—his tough stance on China, to take just one example, is admirable and has proven effective so far. To fail to grant that Trump has scored some important victories for, among other things, the US economy and religious freedom is to be severely unbalanced in judgment.
What I find most disconcerting, however, is the uncritical support “rendered” to Trump by the leaders of the evangelical churches in the States. To fail to even feel even a twinge of inner conflict about the character of President Trump is to be equally unbalanced in judgment.
As Mike Bird puts it, such an ideology—such a Trumpology—is lamentable indeed
because it presents a God with partisan mercy, who expects men and women to ignore their moral compasses, to call the wicked good and the good wicked, in order to keep themselves positioned in the court of earthly power.
Resolved to support my wife as she completes her doctorate and starts a new job in the first half of this year.
Resolved to develop habits of prayer, worship and scriptural reflection through Common Worship (MP/EP) and the Lectionary (using Bruner’s Commentary on Matthew for Year A). Resolved to encounter the beauty and strangeness of scripture through reading in Greek and Hebrew as much as possible, and reading and singing Psalms in metre (resources like those from John Bell,Ian White, the Free Church Psalter and the KJV translation in the Book of Common Prayer). In terms of prayer, resolved to remember the nations of the world and the church universal (I’ll probably use resources from OpenDoors and Operation World). Resolved to continue to invest in the local church through attending services in which corporate confession, Word and Sacrament feature as well as participating in prayer and discussion groups.
When it comes to current affairs, resolved to spend more time reading substantial news and comment pieces from major sources (Unherd and The Times) and to support these organisations in their endeavours. Conversely, resolved to spend less time on click bait and Twitter by using the latter for uploading blog posts and answering queries.
Resolved to keep up my use of foreign languages through the use of a mobile application (Russian so as to communicate with family and Hebrew, Latin and Greek for study). I’ll probably use AnkiMobile.
Resolved to read a good mix of fiction and non-fiction. On the former, prioritising British and Russian and for the latter, works relevant to this blog (particularly focussing this year on empire and national identity). I’ll be using GoodReads to track my reading habits.
Resolved to blog at least every other week as far as is possible.
Resolved to volunteer with a local organisation and so invest in local community.
Resolved to endeavour to develop and grow friendships near and afar.
Resolved to make every effort to publish my thesis.
Resolved to support free debate and inquiry in society by attending events like those put on by the Cambridge Union.