• In a globalised world national identity can no longer be defined by the boundaries of a country. (Getty Images)Source: Getty Images
In a globalised world, can national identity still be defined by the borders of a country?
Sushi Das

28 Jun 2016 - 1:32 PM  UPDATED 28 Jun 2016 - 2:26 PM

Nationalism is football hooliganism writ large. And hooliganism wreaks havoc. Certainly in Britain there is intense anxiety and questioning over the way populist xenophobes such as Nigel Farage used English nationalism to leverage the Brexit vote. There is real fear, even among some who voted to leave the EU, over the havoc that is unfolding.

Fanning the flames of nationalism hasn’t been all that hard in a country where many feel they have lost control over their borders.

They feel exiled in their own country because they believe their economic security is compromised by a European Union that has failed them and incoming hordes of foreigners. What lies below the anger, fear and yes, hate, is a crisis of national identity in Britain.

But this identity crisis is nothing new. It’s been going on since post-WWII immigration began. Ever since migrants with foreign faces from Commonwealth countries landed, the country has been trying, in one way or another, to rebuild its national identity too.

When the “other” arrives on your shores you ask: “Who are they?” But this question cannot be answered until you first ask: “Who am I?”

These questions are asked, not just in Britain but elsewhere too. I am British, Indian and Australian and in each of these countries national identity is a topic hotly debated. Australia Day prompts questions about what it means to be Australian. Under the Hindu nationalist Modi Government in India, many people are asking what it means to be Indian.

The world is shrinking

Rapid global advances in technology have brought us closer to people in other countries through the internet. It’s generally accepted as a good thing for economic and social reasons.

We can know what is happening on the other side of the world in an instant. We can see and hear people in other countries in real time. Facebook, Twitter, Skype, Whatsapp and whatever else are not going away.

But at the same time, fear of foreigners has prompted sovereign nations to become increasingly protective over geographical borders. This visceral fear manifests in extraordinary ways across the globe: whether it’s Britain’s rejection of the EU, Australia’s callous policy of offshore processing of asylum seekers, or the Trumpist Right’s crude appeal to those who want a literal wall on the US border with Mexico, fear lies just below the surface.

Somewhere between globalism and localism people have decided they want to connect with other people around the world, they just don’t want them to physically come and stay in their country. Wherever national identity is debated, latent racism bubbles to the surface.

Online bigots in Britain are openly targeting non-white British people who supported the Remain campaign through tweets telling them to "go home". Foreigner-blaming is rampant. Commentators fearful of this ugly development are even speculating about the end of globalisation.

But all countries are shaped and re-shaped by migrants. Britain has been influenced by migrants from the West Indies, India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Ireland and Poland most recently, just to name a few.

Any country that is not confident of its cultural identity will feel threatened by a foreign influx.

Australia has been shaped by successive waves of migrants from across the world. Even India’s ancient culture was shaped by migrants from Central Asia thousands of years ago. How far back do you want to go?

National identity is not set in stone. It cannot be lost and then found as if we can go rummaging around in the back of a drawer where we think we left it ages ago.

Building walls, pushing away asylum seekers and turning your back on a trading bloc will not protect or re-establish national identity. How long will it take to learn this?

Any country that is not confident of its cultural identity will feel threatened by a foreign influx. A nation that doubts its cultural resilience in the face of perceived dilution by other cultures, will inevitably feel threatened by immigrants who have different customs and values and who insist on keeping them.

Bear in mind that immigrants themselves are also fearful of losing their identity when they move to a new country.

Identity changes

National identity is a fluid concept that must be forged as we go along - if indeed we must have it at all. As long as we see it as fixed and unchanging we will run into trouble.

Governments have a duty to present immigration as a benefit to their society where immigration policies are broadly generous but technically rigorous, and where numbers are carefully controlled but the language is overwhelmingly positive.

The Brexit vote also shows us that governments have a responsibility to quickly and vigorously slap down those who seek to stoke the fires of nationalism for personal or political gain, whether they are within or without the reigning party.

Sushi Das is a journalist and author. Follow her on Twitter: sushidas1

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