#16: National borders were supposed to be temporary

In Britain, the first border controls were put in place with the Aliens Act of 1793, as a drastic measure to prevent French republicans from crossing the Channel and fomenting revolution. A few years later the perceived danger had passed and the controls were lifted.

It’s hard to imagine border control as a temporary emergency measure today, but that’s exactly how it was originally conceived. Lasting border controls only came to Britain just over a hundred years ago with the 1905 Aliens Act. Some of you might have known grandparents and great-grandparents to whom passports, borders, and immigration were quite novel.

Although not explicit in its wording, it was well known that the 1905 Act was drafted to deal with the “problem” of immigrant Jews, who were fleeing violent pogroms in Russia that killed thousands. The law was, and remains, in essence racist. The same is true for similar ground-breaking border control laws in the US (the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882) and Australia (the White Australia Policy started in 1901).

Following these early racists forays, borders really took off after the First and Second World Wars, with the rise of the nation state. Henceforth, for reasons of geopolitical organisation and economic exploitation, every corner of the earth must have a sovereign master, demarcated with borders from its neighbour. New nation states appeared overnight, defined only by lines drawn on a map. Where on earth was Palestine, where Israel? Where was India, where Pakistan? They were all invented and the borders often arbitrarily drawn by fallible administrators thousands of miles away.

The Oxford English Dictionary defines a nation state as:

an independent political state formed from a people who share a common national identity (historically, culturally, or ethnically)

This sounds reasonable at first pass, but the idea that a state-sized territory could have a “common national identity” is ludicrous. It’s estimated that at the time of the French revolution in 1789 only about ten percent of the population of France spoke fluent French. France has taken hundreds of years to evolve anything even close to a national identity, and is still riven by historical, cultural and ethnic divisions. So I’m sure you can already see the problems we might run into if, by any chance, those unlucky administrators happened to draw borders in inauspicious places (i.e. almost anywhere).

After the Second World War, entire populations were uprooted and marched a thousand miles, as between India and Pakistan, as earlier between Greece and Turkey. In other places, the fall out was not nearly so “civilised” as population exchange. Rwanda, Palestine, Israel, Armenia, Turkey, Iran, Iraq: scarcely a single new nation state survived birth without bloodshed.

You could confidently argue that this calamitous squeezing of round pegs into square borders is the original cause of the continuing civil wars in Sudan, Syria, Iraq, and Libya. Even the civil conflicts between privileged and non-privileged in South Africa, Brazil, the United States and elsewhere could be said to be overspill from the decision that each arbitrary parcel of land shall have a sovereign and centralised supreme government, quite regardless of history, culture and ethnicity.

I make these historical observations to show that permanent borders, just like any unexamined habit, were once freely chosen as one solution among many possible solutions to a specific problem. That problem was how best to manage our human affairs in an increasingly connected world.

In the course of a generation, military conflict went from cavalry charges between aristocrats to atomic weapons dropped by flying machines. That’s a radical shift in warfare, one which quite possibly demanded we find an equally radical new way of organising ourselves.

You could even argue that borders and the nation state have been a decent, if crude, solution to that problem. Many millions of people, particularly those in Europe and the US, have been living side-by-side in relative peace since the Second World War. And, considering how that conflict ended, with the devastation of Nagasaki and Hiroshima, things could be much worse than they are.

But my point remains: there is no natural law that commands we live with borders. There are people still alive today who remember a time when borders were not necessarily the way we resolved the problems, both real and perceived, of two tribes butting up against each other. I’m worried that we, as a society, are no longer interested in whether or not this current solution actually works, and no longer asking ourselves whether there is some better alternative out there.

The world has changed again, just as radically as it did a hundred years ago, and we must ask ourselves whether solutions chosen in 1905 are still functional.

Protection against terrorism is often put forward as an unanswerable reason for border control. But the tighter we close our borders, it seems, the more terrorist attacks we attract. Terrorism is no longer the threat of republican revolutionaries crossing the Channel from Ireland or France; the biggest terrorist threat the UK faces today is from its own population. There have been seven successful terrorist attacks in the UK since 2005. Every single one was plotted by British nationals, apart from one: Ukrainian far right terrorist Pavlo Lapshyn who murdered a Muslim pensioner and tried to bomb three mosques in the Midlands in 2013. Borders will not prevent terrorism if that terror is perpetrated by UK citizens.

It also doesn’t follow that borders could hope to prevent terrorists who do travel. Organisations such al Al-Qaeda and ISIS have amply demonstrated that they have the resources to work around any feasible border control, including the rather obvious tactic of putting “cleanskins” on, say, a cheap EasyJet flight from Egypt. That doesn’t mean we should give up on trying to prevent terrorist slaughter, but it does mean that we should change our strategy.

Border control is a hopelessly inefficient and expensive means of solving the problem. It didn’t work for the Ming Dynasty of China who lost their Empire when the Manchus were allowed to cross the Great Wall, it didn’t work for the French Maginot Line, easily sidestepped by the Nazis, and it isn’t working for the Israelis who, despite their military supremacy, are losing a quite different battle of demography with Arab Palestinians.

In a world where we are all increasingly connected through a global web of fibre optic cables, and where corporations and ideologies operate on a transnational scale without impediment, is the crude restriction of the free movement of people really still our best option?


Further Reading

Aliens Act 1905: ‘LongView: The Aliens Act 1905’. audioBoom. Accessed 3 October 2016. https://audioboom.com/boos/2995294-longview-the-aliens-act-1905.

Chinese Exclusion Act (1882): ‘Open Collections Program: Immigration to the US, Chinese Exclusion Act (1882)’. Accessed 3 October 2016. http://ocp.hul.harvard.edu/immigration/exclusion.html.

White Australia Policy (1901): ‘White Australia Policy | Britannica.com’. Accessed 3 October 2016. https://www.britannica.com/event/White-Australia-Policy.

See also the excellent website, Open Borders: Lee, John. ‘Tearing down Chesterton’s Fence: The Bigotry of Border Controls’. Open Borders: The Case, 5 May 2015. http://openborders.info/blog/tearing-chestertons-fence-bigotry-border-controls/.

Grimes, William. ‘The Story of French By Jean-Benoît Nadeau and Julie Barlow – Books – Review’. The New York Times, 29 November 2006. http://www.nytimes.com/2006/11/29/books/29grim.html.

‘Mosque Bomber Pavlo Lapshyn given Life for Murder’. BBC News, 25 October 2013, sec. Birmingham & Black Country. http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-england-birmingham-24675040.

What do you think?