Saturday 27 January 2024

Can Humza Yousaf become Miss Scotland?

The story of the Japanese beauty contest won by someone born in Ukraine who moved to Japan as a child is on the one hand trivial, but on the other important as a means of thinking about concepts like nationality and what it is to be a country. Some Japanese people apparently have objected to a white European becoming Miss Japan as their concept of what it is to be Japanese is based on ethnicity.

This modern Miss Japan is a Japanese citizen. She speaks Japanese exactly like every other Japanese person. Why should she not therefore be Miss Japan? It should not matter at all that she was born in Ukraine to Ukrainian parents?

In Britain since the 1950s we have developed the idea that being British is not about where you were born or where your parents come from. Rikki Sunak is English, Humza Yousaf is Scottish. They are both British citizens no more and no less than anyone else.

When the United Kingdom was a country where nearly every British citizen was white it was undoubtedly the case that people thought their Britishness or indeed their Scottishness was a matter of their family having inhabited this island as far back as they could trace. But to continue with this way of thinking when millions of British citizens are descended from people born elsewhere would be to have two classes of people. One would be ethnically British, the other would only be a British citizen. This would be divisive and untenable.

Japan remains as homogeneous as the UK was prior to the 1950s. If sufficient people arrive in Japan from elsewhere, they too will find that an ethnic concept of being Japanese becomes untenable and divisive.

But however, much we may deplore the concept of nationality as ethnicity it is more widespread than Japan.

My husband was born in the Soviet Union in a place that until 1939 had been in Poland. His family always considered themselves to be Poles and spoke Polish at home although it was forbidden. Eventually with the fall of the Soviet Union he was able to obtain Polish citizenship based on his family being Polish. He was ethnically a Pole even if he was a Soviet citizen.

It was just this concept of being Polish which enabled the Polish people to retain a common identity even when Poland ceased to exist between 1795 and 1918. Without it they would have forgotten their language, customs and religion and would have disappeared.

The Polish nationalism that kept them rebelling often hopelessly while ruled by others and which forged Poland from the collapse of three empires was based on the Polish people having a common identity, ancestry and ethnicity.

Japan was able to absorb aspects of American culture after the Second World War and become thoroughly modern, but unlike Western Europe the demographics of Japan have remained essentially the same. If twenty or thirty percent of the Japanese population had instead come from elsewhere in the world then the concept of what it is to be Japanese would have changed radically. There might be Japanese cities where the majority did not speak Japanese. The nature of Japanese society and its culture would have changed beyond recognition. It is precisely because they do not wish this to happen that the Japanese retain a concept of themselves that excludes someone whose parents are Ukrainian.

We are hopelessly muddled about ethnicity. We retain the concept of people being native Americans, indigenous people descended from the inhabitants of the continent prior to the arrival of Europeans. But we reject the concept of native Europeans. If you look at a list of ethnic groups you will find Romanians and Poles, but other European peoples are missing.

We have a concept of colonisation that criticises British people for colonising somewhere like Bangladesh, but how many white Christians from Britain live in Bangladesh today? Incomparably more people of Bangladeshi origin live in Britain than ever went to what is now Bangladesh during the British empire.

In Britain we have been left with no alternative but to ditch the concept of ethnicity, but people still segregate themselves according to their ancestry and being a British citizen gradually becomes no more than a flag of convenience.

It is necessary to ditch the concept of ethnicity in a country where people are from everywhere, but in the end, we ditch the concept of country too. There comes a point when there are British citizens from every country in the world where we simply have no justification morally for preventing more from coming here.

If large numbers of Indians are already British, what grounds do we have for discriminating against these Indians who also want to be British, but have the misfortune not to be able to obtain a visa and instead have to arrive by dinghy? We have no grounds. To do so would be racist.  

If your family could come to Britain Mr Sunak, why can’t mine? Was it just you that you came at the right time, or had some other good fortune? Why indeed? To refuse the request looks awfully like using a ladder then kicking it away for the next poor person who wants to climb upwards.

This is to erase the concept of a border and also to erase the concept of citizenship. There can be no such thing as the British people if they are from everywhere. There can be nothing that unites them. There can be no reason for them to fight for their country let alone die for it anymore than if they were the crew of a tanker registered in a place none of them had visited.

This is the direction that western Europe is travelling in. If you continue the levels of migration that we have had in the past decades then the concept of France, or Belgium or Germany will become meaningless. Europe too will disappear into Asia and our present society will disappear just as the society that built Stone Henge and Scara Bray disappeared with the arrival of the Celts.

There is probably no stopping this. But if you are in your thirties and give birth to a child, that child will probably see the disappearance of all that you take for granted.

This makes the arguments in Scotland about Scottish nationalism and independence peculiarly missing the point. We are moving towards the end of the nation state, in which case going to inordinate lengths to distinguish yourself from England which ceased to be a country in 1707 is obtuse even bizarre.

If someone of Ukrainian origin can become Miss Japan it may well be a sign of progress, just as it is a sign of progress here that Rishi Sunak can become Prime minister and Humza Yousaf First Minister, but it makes Scottish nationalism and the goal of the SNP completely pointless. In a world where everyone can be Scottish just by arriving here, then the concept of a Scottish people that is in any way distinct from people living anywhere else becomes redundant. It won’t last longer than your baby’s lifetime it may not last longer than the box the Scottish government gave you to make itself different from England.

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