The Unforgivable Sin

BY EFFIE DEANS

There is some speculation that Russia might be about to invade Ukraine again. The Red Army might be about to repeat its “liberation” of “Little Russia” bringing it back to the Motherland whether it likes it or not. In such a case a large number of Ukrainians might decide to flee westwards. Would they be stuck behind a barbed wire fence in tents trying to cross the Polish border?

If President Macron took his Napoleon complex one step too far and crowned himself emperor and masses of French people decided to flee across the Channel in rubber dinghies how would the British respond? Would we propose as a solution to this problem that they should be sent to Albania? Would we indeed pay Mr Macron millions to stop his people fleeing? Britain has been happy to rescue fleeing French Huguenots who had a well-founded fear of persecution after being massacred on St. Bartholomew’s Day 1572. We were happy to give homes to those French nobles who escaped the guillotine and we gave a base to Charles de Gaulle and the Free French though we got little thanks for it.

The response to people wishing to come to Britain is entirely different depending on where they are from. Britain absorbed millions of EU citizens with minimal difficulty. If we had to resettle a few hundred thousand Ukrainians we would do so and barely notice. Why then are we bothered about Belarus flying in people from Syria and Iraq? Why care about upwards of one thousand people a day arriving in rubber dinghies from France?

There is a fundamental lack of honesty about this. The reason we would not be that bothered if French refugees turned up on the South Coast or if Ukrainians had to flee here from the Red Army is that twenty years from now the children of these people would be indistinguishable from the rest of us. The descendants of the Huguenots may have French names, but in all other respects they are no different from those French who arrived with the Norman Conquest. Likewise, the children of Ukrainians would be like the children of those Poles who arrived here some decades ago. There would be no stories about them blowing themselves up in a taxi, nor would there be any stories about them complaining about the racist treatment they had received in Britain. There would in fact be no stories at all.

The attitude we have towards refugees or migrants is entirely dependent on who they are. If Australia suddenly became too hot for its inhabitants, there is no doubt whatsoever that our government would offer large numbers of Australians the chance to come somewhere cold, wet and miserable. We would do so because we’d recognise that apart from an accent there is little to distinguish an Australian from a Brit. But when there was a war in Syria our government did it’s very best to minimise the number of Syrians who came here. Were these Syrians not equally people in need?

We are dishonest too about our duty to our fellow human beings. Our first duty is to our families, our second duty is to our fellow citizens, but our duty to the rest of the world depends entirely on whether they are people we know and like. If we really wanted to treat every human being equally, we would abolish all borders and pool the world’s money so that everyone got his share, but unfortunately this would involve a rather drastic cut in our standard of living and the gradual dilution of whatever national identity we feel.

Beyond mere abstraction we don’t think that everyone is born equal. We care more about a hurricane in Florida than we do about a far more devastating cyclone in Bangladesh. We care more about Covid deaths in Britain than we do about Malaria deaths in Africa. We are territorial and tribal and want to keep our green and pleasant land for ourselves, our families and our friends. This is no doubt deplorable, but it also the reason why we defend our territory and why we have a country to defend at all.

Racism has become the unforgivable sin. A remark allegedly made in private ten or twenty years ago will mean that this cricketer will lose his job and struggle to get another. We all know that certain words would lead to our instant dismissal so we don’t use them in public if we are sensible. But this does not change how people think.

In a Yorkshire town which is racially divided, what do the inhabitants think about each other? Most people probably try to get along with those they meet. It’s easier than conflict. But many in each community decide to live in streets where there are only people like them. There may not be the same history of armed struggle, but this is a division similar to that in Northern Ireland.

In private which of these residents from either community has never had a racist thought about the other? In conversations in these homes prejudice will be expressed. You can’t go out with her. You can’t be friends with him. These people have no morals. Those people don’t fit in. These people smell. Both communities would probably prefer to live in a town, indeed a country, where only people who looked like them lived and where everyone believed the same things. If that were not the case they would not be living in separate streets.

Prejudice is part of being human. It is not limited to white cricketers. It is something that all of us feel including the Government when it has a different policy about migration from European countries and from the Middle East. If we were completely lacking in racism, we would be flying planes to Iraq and Syria to save them the trouble of sitting on the Polish border or risking their lives in dinghies. But we don’t, because we prefer Britain as it is, we think it has changed too much already and we don’t want to add to the risk that already exists.

The unforgivable sin is universal if we could look into everyone heart and private thoughts. We are careful about what we say in public, but when we hear about a Christian suicide bomber who converted we rather doubt the sincerity of the conversion not least because the concept of a Christian martyr is of someone who is put to death for his beliefs, not someone who puts anyone else to death for their beliefs.

Azeem Rafiq was the victim of prejudice, but it is the same prejudice shared by nearly all of us who would prefer that those in rubber dinghies did not cross the Channel and that those on the Polish border did not make it through and especially did not make it here. We can either be honest about this or continue hiding our prejudice under a bushel.

If as a Christian ten-year-old I had been taken to live in Pakistan, I would have been part of a tiny minority. It is doubtful that I would have been allowed to play cricket. I might have found that some people didn’t want to be friends with me or marry me, because of my religion. I would perhaps have learned various insulting words that are used about Christians. One of them might have been the word Kafir, which comes from the Arabic. Perhaps I would have also heard insulting words about white people. It would have been deplorable no doubt, but I would just have had to accept it. There wouldn’t have been much point complaining.

We must do all we can to treat whoever lives in Britain politely and with respect. But let us at least be honest about this. Each of us has prejudice, because it is part of what makes us human beings. Since time began, we have divided ourselves into groups based on features such as language, religion and appearance. It is for this reason that we have countries and peoples who distinguish themselves from other peoples.  It is only because we discriminated against those who were not in our group that we remained this people and this country rather than merged with everyone else.

Everyone commits the unforgivable sin. The accuser is equally the accused, who also has written and thought things that he ought not. Better by far if we forgave each other for being human.

The excellent Effie Deans writes at Lily of St. Leonard’s here.