How To Make Britain (Really) Great Again – And America Too
Comedian Trevor Noah, host of the hugely popular US TV Daily Show, has had a few things to say recently about how Britain has responded to rising immigration. He has come across a lot of people who have been expressing to him along these lines why they voted for Brexit:
'This b***y country is going to the dogs and we want Britain back... These immigrants they come over here and they are up to no good. I wish they would go back to where they came from... I hate them because they don't even try to be British. They come here they bring their own culture, their own food and they try to take over the whole place.'
His response: 'Well, that sounds British to me.'
Noah was born in South Africa and the African experience of British colonialism means some of the anti-immigration rhetoric around immigration sounds like poetic justice. The British colonised a good part of the world; our was 'the empire on which the sun never sets'. We imposed our culture, food, rules and dress code on the world as we 'civilised the savages'. We extolled the wonders of our way of life and so perhaps it is little wonder that people want to come to the so-called best place on earth, the greatest of all the countries in the world – Great Britain. Certainly we should not be surprised that when they need to escape poverty or terror or life-threatening atrocities, for many their first choice is to go somewhere where they at least understand something of the language and culture, a host country that is long overdue a return visit.
It is not only in our colonial history that we exported our message of greatness. We have continued to do so. We export our British culture to the world through our movies, our broadcasting and our literature. We boast about our royal family, our health service, our education systems, our progressive views and our economy. Is it any wonder that many people want to come here? And why should we be surprised, when they not only admire these benefits as tourists, but seek to enjoy them as refugees and residents?
Of course, many of our much-prided national treasures are not really ours to claim in the first place. The Europeans gave us our language, the Romans brought us infrastructure, and the Irish facilitated the expansion of the Victorian economy. Fish and chips were introduced into Britain by Jewish refugees from Portugal and Spain. Chicken tikka masala, another invention by immigrants, has been voted Britain's favourite food. Our cosmopolitan cities reflect global community at its best.
Perhaps we forget all this as we fearfully consider the next wave of immigration – not only how much Britain has benefited from immigration in the past, but how the world has suffered as a result. Recently Indian academic Shashi Thashoor, the former UN under-secretary and member of India's Parliament, was interviewed by John Snow on Channel 4 News. He lamented British 'historical amnesia about what the [British] empire entailed. British children are not being taught about how the UK financed the industrial revolution from the deprivation of its colonies'. He explained that 'Britain came to one of the richest countries in the world [India] in the early 18th century and reduced it, after 200 years of plunder, to one of the poorest.'
As Britain seeks to make trade deals after the Brexit vote, I suspect our colonial past may come back to haunt us. I can imagine a difficult conversation when British diplomats try to make trade deals with our former colonies, asking for a good deal when the colonial past is still freshly remembered. As we are forced to renegotiate our position in the world, where will be the good will?
At the same time the US is redefining its place in the world too. President Donald Trump has issued a new executive order to ban travel for people from six predominantly Muslim countries. The New York Times described it as 'the most significant hardening of immigration policy in generations'. He has also slashed the overseas aid budget and reduced the US's commitment to reducing climate change. Instead he has increased military spending and focused on jobs for Americans. The strategy of 'America First' at the expense of its neighbourly commitments to the world in an attempt to make a nation 'great' is seriously flawed.
While these changes take place across the Atlantic the UK seems to be trying the same tactics. We have now closed our borders to unaccompanied refugee children by voting to close the Dubs route for lone vulnerable asylum-seeking children to have safe passage into the UK. Lord Dubs, who himself was a refugee in World War II fleeing the Nazi persecution and extermination of Jews, campaigned for the UK to help our fair share of the children displaced and orphaned by wars around the world. The government has closed his scheme after only 350 of the expected 3,000 children have arrived, despite many Conservative MPs calling on the government to show compassion.
Can Britain be great again? There are skeletons in the cupboard of our history but there is great treasure in our heritage too. One of our finest moments was the willingness to receive 10,000 vulnerable children fleeing the Nazis in 1939. Some have balked at the connection between lone child refugees fleeing ISIS, people traffickers and bombs and children fleeing the Nazis. Some MPs have described those who speak in these terms as 'sentimentalists'. But it was Prime Minister David Cameron who first made the connection, calling Britain's response to the refugee crisis 'a modern-day Kindertransport'.
I believe Britain can be great again not through closing borders to the vulnerable but through great hospitality and great compassion to those in greatest need.
Jesus had something to say about what makes for something truly great. He said 'Greater love has no one than this, to lay down one's life for one's friends' ( John 15:13). I wonder if that could apply nationally? Making a nation great is more than just looking after the welfare of its citizens. It's helping those citizens demonstrate sacrificial compassion on behalf of others.
Dr Krish Kandiah is the founding director of Home for Good. His latest book, 'Paradoxology: Why Christianity was never meant to be simple' is published by IVP USA.