A Sense of Belonging

By Dummett, Michael | New Statesman (1996), May 7, 2001 | Go to article overview

A Sense of Belonging


Dummett, Michael, New Statesman (1996)


Is there a real danger that Britain will become a foreign land and the British a mongrel race?

Michael Dummett, the distinguished philosopher, disentangles the issues

On what principles should a government base its immigration policies? What makes a nation? To what extent do the inhabitants of a nation have the right not to be submerged? On what kind of identity should a state be founded? Unless we can answer these questions, British government policies will continue, as they were for most of the 20th century - since the Aliens Act of 1905, designed principally to keep out European Jews - to be based on the unworthy principle of pandering to prejudice and to be formed with the sole aim of gaining votes.

Let us start with the question of identity, to which there are many answers. Israel, for instance, identifies itself as a Jewish state, and on this ground operates the law of return, under which anyone who qualifies as a Jew is guaranteed admission and settlement. All people of demonstrably German ancestry, no matter how remote, such as those who emigrated to Russia generations ago, are assured of admission to the German homeland. Other states exclude those who do not share the identity it ascribes to itself: the white Australia policy used to refuse admission to anyone other than those of white European descent, while the constitution of Malawi denies citizenship to anyone not of black sub-Saharan race.

The identity of a state may also be founded upon a particular religion. This is true of those countries that designate themselves "Islamic republics", and it was true of almost all European countries during the Middle Ages and for some centuries afterwards: they proclaimed themselves to be christian kingdoms - after the schism, to be Catholic or Orthodox, after the Reformation, to be Catholic, Orthodox or Protestant. They took for granted their right, when they wished, to expel Muslims or Jews. Modern Israel is a mixed case. Under the law of return, one must prove birth from a Jewish mother: the criterion is racial. Failure to practise the Jewish religion, or even overt renunciation of it, is no bar, but the criterion is nevertheless in part religious, because adherence to any other religion is held to invalidate the claim for admission.

Language may also be seen as essential to a state's identity. Mussolini endeavoured to suppress the use of French or German by the inhabitants of Italy, despite the numbers who spoke these as first languages. In our own day, Turkish governments have forbidden the use of the Kurdish language. In both cases, even schoolchildren have been prohibited from using their mother tongues, not just in classrooms, but in playgrounds.

A self-governing nation needs an identity; and this identity will always be informed to an extent by its history. But what is "its" history? The way in which English history has been taught in England provides one answer to this. The teaching is traditionally imperialistic and triumphalist, but in one respect it has been admirable: it has been taught as the history of a land, not of a people. It used to begin with the Romans; after the Romans left, they were ignored in favour of the Britons left behind. The Angles, Jutes, Saxons, Danes and Normans all sprang into existence when they invaded the land; no one cared what they were doing before that. Few English schoolchildren ever grasp the extent of Canute's realm or even hear that other Normans conquered Sicily. This contrasts notably with the way history is taught in Turkey, where the primary emphasis is on the history of the Turkish people, from their origins in central Asia long before the conquest of Asia Minor.

But the identity of a state cannot be grounded solely in the territory over which its dominion extends. If it is not to be grounded in a common ethnicity, religion or language, it must be grounded in shared ideals, a shared vision of the society it is striving to create. …

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