The Calais crisis, the tail end of a migration of people displaced by war and other geographic misfortune, is not a crisis of demography whatsoever; it is a crisis of Britain’s rectitude. It is a crisis that asks us to remember. To remember the Foreign Protestants Naturalization Act of 1708 in which two perspectives were voiced about the fifty thousand Walloons and Huguenots fleeing French persecution: that a ‘conflux of aliens’ was dangerous to our insular isle or that ‘the increase of people is a means of advancing the wealth and strength of a nation.’ It asks us to remember the Continental Jewry fleeing fascisms and Nazism, being met by Daily Mail reports of ‘German Jews Pouring into this Country’. It asks us to remember the atrocity of the Évian Conference, when Adolf Hitler made his position clear:
I can only hope and expect that the other world, which has such deep sympathy for these criminals [Jews], will at least be generous enough to convert this sympathy into practical aid. We, on our part, are ready to put all these criminals at the disposal of these countries, for all I care, even on luxury ships
We refused this chance to avoid his die Endlösung der Judenfrage, in which two thirds of the Jewish population of Europe were brutally annihilated. This moment also asks us to remember our European ancestors’ indignation on seeing Théodore Géricault’s The Raft of the Medusa. More than anything, however, it asks us to remember the spiritual values that define the best of Britain. How Celtic Christianity was persuaded at St. Hilda of Whitby’s famous Synod to embrace the Universalist current and telos of their faith. It asks us to place no value on a nation-state built from the ruins of Roman Conquest, the subjugation of Norman Conquest and the self-mutilating treachery of Dutch Conquest.
The monstrous Hitler once called us out on our hypocrisy. Today, other monsters are calling us hypocrites, those who recall apartheid not with horror, but the sickly nostalgia of the aristocrat. They accuse us of doing what we would not permit of them; we should never allow monsters to indict us. The question, again, is simple: will Perfidious Albion keep to its duplicitous script or live up to its proclaimed toleration? In truth the world is changing, there will be more people coming; we have both the imagination and resources to unite with Europe and embrace a shared humanity, but we also have a long record of ethical infantilisation.
At its height our empire, the largest in human history, covered nearly a quarter of the Earth’s landmass, ‘the empire on which the sun never sets.’ Such was the appetite for conquest retained by our aristocratic conquerors. They polluted the religious truths of the Venerable Bede who ended his Historia ecclesiastica gentis Anglorum, the foundational text of our current culture, with the ominous ‘What the result of this will be the future will show.’ He was right to strike a cautious note, even though he was far from witnessing 1066 or 1381 or 1688. Alain Badiou is not a philosopher with whom I broadly agree, but he sees the real threat facing Europe is not the bogeyman influx, but a sterility that breeds nihilism:
Let foreigners teach us at least to become foreign to ourselves, to project ourselves sufficiently out of ourselves to no longer be captive to this long Western and white history that has come to an end, and from which nothing more can be expanded than sterility and war.
At the Synod of Whitby Britain once learnt to be foreign to itself, but can it accomplish that feat again? Currently it looks unlikely that we can be saved from our errors, but it looked bleak for Augustine of Canterbury too, landing on the coasts of a land of bitterly feuding kingdoms in which tribal identity mattered more than neighbourliness.