Giles Fraser: If there must be fences, let there be gates

27 July 2011

HAVING discovered that I had lost my passport the morning of the flight, and not having any other form of photo ID, I managed to get on a plane to Belfast using my Lambeth Palace library card as ID. Why not? I was not going abroad. Except that Belfast can often feel a bit like abroad to a Londoner like me who gets anxious outside Zones 1 and 2.

The marching season may have concluded a few weeks ago, but the bunting was still very much in evidence. Down the road from my hotel, the Orange Lodge was fes­tooned with flags expressing support for the union and the UVF. In the pub, men with short haircuts and tattoos enjoyed the unexpectedly clement weather.

“These are my people,” my mate Mick proclaimed — a surprising expression of solidarity from a London-based playwright who had left Belfast years ago. But, here, solidarity is everything. Even the tattoos are expressions of belonging, rather than decorations. It is in places such as this that you really feel the force of a word like com­munity.

The philosophical question raised by Belfast cannot be properly weighed until you appreciate what is so great about this place. Strong communities are emotionally and spiritually rewarding. The support that people give each other is re­markable. And this is just as true whether the colours on the pub wall are orange or green.

But, as the political/religious divide rightly indicates, these won­derful communities are premised upon a form of common identity that has very definite edges, and a strong sense of who is in and who is not. Belfast is a place of wonderful friendliness, and a place of fences and barriers. The two are not uncon­nected.

For me, the essence of the whole Big Society debate — whether red Tory or blue Labour — is whether it is possible to articulate a flourishing form of community that is also able to accommodate a certain degree of diversity. In other words, community without fences.

Lord Glasman, the Blue Labour guru, has recently found himself in trouble with Labour top brass for suggesting that a flourish­ing com­munity may need to be premised upon greater immigration controls, i.e. more fences. The argu­ment is that a society that is too diverse is one in which communities of common identity are eroded and re­placed by an indifferent in­dividual­ism that helps no one.

I get the argument. But the moral pull of liberal individualism remains strong; for I still (just about) choose diversity over solidarity. Yet what I really want seems almost impossible. I want both.

The Revd Dr Giles Fraser is Canon Chancellor of St Paul’s Cathedral.

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