A very British inheritance: the ‘Othering’ tendency


Britain's PM Theresa May gives her speech on the final day of the annual Conservative Party Conference in Birmingham, on 5 October 2016. © REUTERS/Dareen Staples

A ‘need to keep the empire intact’ triggered Hadrian’s Wall in AD112. Nearly 2,000 years later, the UK is keeping up this nationalistic legacy by funding the masonry at Calais.

Our ancestors were keen on defining the ‘Other’. Ancient literature often drew clear dividing lines between ‘Us’ and ‘Them’; Hadrian’s Wall was explicit in its mission to ‘separate Romans from the barbarians’. It looks like the tendency caught on.

Modern day Britain saw an ominously xenophobic streak through Brexit’s approach and aftermath. Just yesterday, Theresa May opened the door to resentful, undisguised nationalism saying, ‘If you’re a citizen of the world, you’re really a citizen of nowhere. You don’t understand what citizenship means.’

Now, climactically, our very own wall is in construction.

The government announced its plan to build a 13ft-high 'Great Wall of Calais' last month as a tool to stop asylum seekers reaching the UK. Building began on 20 September and continues against the wishes of the port's conservative mayor, Natacha Bouchart. Her concerns – that it would risk lives and aggravate the locals' living environment of razor-wire and fencing – have fallen on deaf ears, since this week the local administration overruled her injunction trying to halt the project.

Migrants pass by a road sign as they leave the northern area of the camp called the 'Jungle' in Calais.

If President Hollande is serious about relocating all refugees at the port town to elsewhere in France, why spend months and money building this wall? While no doubt puffing out a few flag-waving Brits’ chests, the venture has deflated the Treasury’s chest by a reported £1.9 million.

And the more walls going up, the more millennials feeling down. Plenty of surveys suggest unprecedented levels of despair, after all. We know these mounting barriers will do nothing to solve the continents-wide crisis of people fleeing conflict, poverty and whatever other hells they need to leave behind. We know it’ll fail even in its own narrow-minded aim to block out those seeking asylum.

Yet for many it is a tick next to the government’s to-do list box for addressing its view of the refugee problem. Each brick reaffirms the British tradition of calmly carrying on – without troubling oneself about our scapegoats or ‘barbarians’.

The population of the Calais 'Jungle' rose 60 per cent since May. But president Hollande announced plans to dismantle the camp, and the UK started building a wall to keep asylum seekers away.

I learned about Hadrian and his wall during my Classics degree. Before university my classical education amounted to a few favourite myths and ‘Gladiator’. My state school thought the degree covered music. Oxford taught me Latin from scratch and fed me insights into the era.

My four years at university felt like a new, wider way of seeing the world – and I never lost a sense of extreme good luck for having made it there. Many of my incredibly deserving friends hadn’t. I paid £12,000 for the privilege but last week saw this fee potentially swelling to £37,000.

I had hoped such walls – in the metaphorical sense – were starting to fall into disrepair. Instead they seem to be piling up. Universities mustn’t settle back into a place strictly for ‘Us’ – the ones who write the books, not us universally. I strained myself from a young age to get there, but for £37,000? I couldn’t.

Of course, Calais and Oxford are worlds apart. I’ve been to the refugee camp at Calais twice and the desperation there is beyond belief. Light-years lie between the urgency and scale of these respective barriers to be quashed.

Recently, though, I was mulling this over with professor Tim Whitmarsh, whose words almost felt broad enough for both worlds: ‘Those who believe in democracy should be very wary of builders of walls, both literal and figurative,’ he commented. ‘Ancient Greek democracies were founded on the idea of shared public space.

‘Walls, by their very nature, create and enforce divisions, whether in Calais, Belfast, Jerusalem or Berlin.’

The near-tribal temperament of some corners in 21st century Britain is no secret. ‘Us’. ‘Them’. I was studying ancient history, I had thought, while researching ‘Othering’ in the library. Zero marks. There was nothing ancient about these attitudes. What I saw was a tendency that’s making a full-blown comeback into politics, brick by brick by brick.