small is beautiful
Foreign Affairs

Sovereignty: why is it good for Kashmir and Hong Kong, but bad for the UK?

News from Hong Kong and Kashmir has continued to dominate the news, and then the Labour Shadow Chancellor and Deputy Leader John McDonnell sowed a degree of discontent in the ranks by suggesting that his party might be better disposed toward a second referendum on Scottish independence. These political disputes have an important underlying question in common: are peoples better off with self-determination, or are they (to borrow the phrase of those who prefer a macro-European supranational solution for the UK) better together?

Many of us sense this is the preferred cultural mindset of our national broadcasters at the BBC and Channel 4 in matters relating to the EU, yet as they report on the similarly integrationist ambitions of the Chinese and Indian governments, confidence in the virtue of enforced collective identity seems to weaken. In short, they seem to sympathise with the cultural, political and religious separatism in those more distant instances, but are less enthusiastic about independence when asserted by the 17.4 million voters who formed the majority in the 2016 referendum.

In the case of Scottish independence, the BBC and C4 positions appears to be a tad conflicted, with seeming respect for a poll (even one ironically split 52:48) which simultaneously seeks to assert greater autonomy while surrendering increasingly more power to the unelected presidents and commissioners in Brussels. Not only is this incongruity never seriously probed at interview, but no question is ever been asked about how the SNP would manage a ‘hard border’ with England which, it is seemingly unquestioningly accepted, is ‘unsolvable’ in the case of the Irish Republic.

As one listens to the global news coverage, there appears to be little of the rhetoric about ‘Little Hong Kongers’ or ‘Little Kashmiris’ when protestors there express fears of being culturally overwhelmed by mainland Chinese or Indians arriving in significant numbers, thereby altering the cultural, political or religious character of either region.

One does not have to probe either case for long to encounter familiar attitudes. When I was in Hong Kong earlier in the year, I was hearing that they preferred the mores of the former colonial power “because they are better”. These included not only the big-ticket principles of a free press and independent judiciary, but everyday customs such as queuing and not spitting or defecating in the streets. I had seen neither in Hong Kong or China, but they were cited as genuine fears of change, and doubtless if either concern had been expressed in England they would have attracted allegations of ‘hate speech’.

In their reporting on Kashmir, the BBC cites similarly familiar anxieties about potential newcomers adversely changing the region by diluting its religious character and culture, with an escalation of community tensions as a legitimate cause for concern. None of these expressions of anxiety were accompanied by descriptions of ‘xenophobia’, ‘racism’ or ‘bigotry’ which so often accompany similar sentiments expressed by Nigel Farage and Donald Trump. This is interesting. Some might call it a double standard.

It was especially intriguing when a BBC contributor to the discussion on Kashmir called upon both the British Government and President Trump to become actively involved; in the former case citing Britain’s 70-year-old decisions at the point of partition as warranting re-engagement with the problem. Now, knowing little about the matter, I may be missing something important here, but wasn’t the whole point of de-colonialisation acknowledgement of the fact that indigenous peoples are better able to manage their own affairs? Does there not come a point after every divorce when folks have to paddle their own canoe – if that is not too offensive a post-colonial metaphor? I hope not, but these days one can never be sure.

As for Donald Trump’s proposed involvement, I am even more sceptical. I know that Britain benefitted from being ejected from the United States of America by turning its global attentions to the Indian sub-continent and beyond, and the United States benefitted royally in return. Economically, George Washington did us Brits a distinct favour, but I do not see that this imposes any responsibility upon the 46th President to become engaged. He was elected to limit US forays overseas, often in response to campaigns of the left against earlier overseas presidential interventions. It would be ironic were Trump to do so: he would effectively be acceding to a request to sustain the religious, political and cultural integrity of the Kashmiri state while continuously facing vituperative criticism whenever he seeks to suggest that newcomers to regions like California or Texas might reasonably be expected to moderate their enthusiasm to make it ‘just like home’.

This raises some difficult questions. Are there reasonable limits to the acceptance of diversity? If a country’s identity is rooted in its religious character or its historical and cultural distinctiveness, to what extent can and should newcomers respect those roots? If it is reasonable for Kashmir, Pakistan, Poland, Japan or Saudi Arabia to retain their respective religious and cultural identities, why not Israel? If the USA and France are secular republics where respect for a flag and adherence to a constitution are key unifying loyalties, is it really unreasonable to suggest that if you choose to burn the flag or plot to overthrow the constitution and economic system which make the USA (or the UK) a destination of choice for so many of the huddled masses, you might be happier living.. you know.. elsewhere?

Those preferring large-scale governmental solutions either via a command economy or a highly integrated trading bloc ought perhaps to ask themselves how severely they can complain if China prematurely asserts the rights we conceded to them in the 1984/5 Sino-British Joint Declaration. Are we not simply seeing the unlovely consequences of a can kicked down the road which has bounced back early?

If a bigger, more powerful Europe is good, but at the price of southern states suffering economic privation and dreadful youth unemployment to better sustain the needs of the dominant German economy, will our  ‘big-picture’ advocates have clean consciences as Hong Kong residents suffer trying to resist integration into their greater cultural neighbour making similar macro-level arguments? At least the Sino-British treaty was honest about the direction of travel. Hong Kong was warned that unaccountable Big Brother was coming, whereas the UK voters of 1975 were assured that their fears of eroded sovereignty were an unjustified, though some warned that it would all end in tears.

If pro-EU supporters were consistent, perhaps they ought to be insisting that Hong Kong residents should get “on the right side of history”, accept the inevitable and surrender their narrow nationalist mindsets, because the surrender of self-determination is a price worth paying in a world where big is best, isn’t it? Such advocates approved the one-way ratchet towards “ever closer union” under a presidency that is not founded on direct universal suffrage, and a parliament which is subject to an unelected technocratic bureaucracy. If such marginalisation of local democracy and autonomy is acceptable for the UK according to so many of our elite, why not require Hong Kong to surrender to the inevitable equally quietly?

A similar argument for consistency might be floated in the case of the India/Kashmir problem. The extensive will of the Indian people to have common standards surely looks a little less unreasonable viewed through this prism. Those who have plotted to utilise every cunning constitutional ruse to keep the UK in the EU have shown scant regard for local opinion here, so why should Kashmir not be fully annexed for similar reasons? If a greater, more integrated Europe is good, against the wishes of a majority of UK voters, why should the grievances of Kashmiris integrated into a greater India find favour here?

I don’t like these arguments, but there is an unpleasant underlying logic to them once one begins sidelining the democratic imperative. It is a truly slippery slope.

The EU project was always one of “ever closer union”. The objective is political and economic unity, total regulatory alignment, and diplomatic/defence fusion. The Indian Government lived for a significant time with the anomalous notion of Kashmiri autonomy but has now decided to abolish the constitutionally guaranteed special status of the state of Jammu and Kashmir. The Chinese Government flirted with the idea of “one nation, two systems” but is slowly withdrawing from that reassuring and reconciling formula. In each case, the ideology which has prevailed is that ‘large is beautiful’.

Some of us will recall a time when EF Schumacher’s book Small is Beautiful had widespread intellectual traction. It argued not so much for small scale but “appropriate scale”, recognising that while certain enterprises may be best undertaken at a macro level, it was nevertheless preferable for most decisions to be made at the lowest possible level – subsidiarity. As with politics, so with ordinary people. I cannot help but sense that when individuals, faith communities, and many other cultural associations were small-scale with a personalised relationships between people of diverse backgrounds, it was harder to write off entire swathes of humanity as unacceptably ‘other’. At its simplest level, I suspect that more good is done by a pot of curry passed over the garden fence than the collective wisdom of any number of ‘woke’ bureaucratic diversity coordinators.

Striking the balance between grand plans, universal principles, and everyday life for ordinary peoples is not easy. Perhaps we need to stop thinking so grandly about geo-politics and return to prioritising good behaviour closer to home. Jesus did not teach ‘small is beautiful’ as such, but when he taught us the ‘good neighbour’ principle, I suspect he was closer to Schumacher’s thinking than he was to the grandiose plans being developed in Brussels, Delhi and Beijing.