Monthly Archives: February 2015

National heritage, birthplaces and racism in democratic society

Last week The Huffington Post and The Daily Mail ran stories about the potential for marginal seats in the upcoming general election to be decided by voters not born in the UK.

The articles raise the issue of disenfranchisement from the political parties on behalf of non-UK-born citizens. However, to my mind, the headlines promote the concept of these groups being something unusual, alien or unfair in the voting system. The stories raise issues of national heritage and birthplace.

The stories have made me think about the nature of birthplaces. I feel an affinity with my own birthplace, I suppose, but when I try to explore this affinity it is difficult to define. I don’t visit the hospital where I was born. I consider the Forest of Dean to be my birthplace, but I never lived in the same town in which my birth took place. Why does my birth in a hospital somehow extend to a sense of belonging to places adjacent? Why does it extend to being West Country, English, or British? These boundaries are not indigenous to space; they are constructed by us.

The Ancient Athenians considered themselves to be born from a union of gods and the earth of the city, an autochthonous origin. These beliefs made for wonderful mythological tales, but they also created a strong sense of nationalism and contributed no doubt to both the political and physical isolationism of ancient Athens as well as their imperial arrogance. These things resonate, I feel, with the kind of imperialist xenophobic discourses offered by UKIP (and the desperate bandwagonning of mainstream centrist parties) who attribute some peculiar values to the concept of Britishness or nationality in general.

From an archaeological perspective we might see the notion of birthplace as defining our natures as a type of environmental determinism. This sort of positivistic approach to the nature of people and society leaves out the subjective aspects of humanity, the meanings that we create and recreate constantly as part of our lived experience.

For me, it is the being and doing in a place that creates real connection. This is what constructs heritage. There are of course intangible heritages which we associate with having been born in a particular place, but in what contexts are these valuable?

It seems to me that the stories linked above are aiming to displace the intangible meanings of our birthplaces; to miscontextualise them in fact. The knowledges that we gain from these birthplace meanings are not determinants of the legitimacy of our right to vote or the quality of the votes themselves. Our nation-based birthplaces are relevant to our voting system only insofar as our genders, ages and skin colour are. The intended absence of prejudice against them is a manifestation of the intended (idealised) equality of our system.

Each of these things is an important aspect of our personal and social heritages. The stories above do little to assuage the potential exclusion felt by non-UK-born voters; the headlines play upon the suggestion of their democratic illegitimacy and an outdated notion of an autochthonous British heritage. The heritage of democracy, which we create today with the aim of equal say and liberty, becomes sullied by the implication that the votes of UK-born citizens should carry more weight. I think that these headlines highlight the latent racism and peculiar sense of geographic superiority in our society. What do you think?