Britain is, quite famously, an island. Across Europe, xenophobes can put up fences on their borders; spending millions on razor wire to slice up some of the world's most destitute people – but here, our wall was built by God and geography, leaving us to stew in our own smug liberalism, letting us pretend that it was our great national fortitude that saved us from the Nazis instead of miles of open water, culturing that parochial, bounded little mentality that makes Britain such a generally miserable place in which to live.
Not any more. The sea might have been enough of a barrier for Elizabeth I or Winston Churchill; it's not enough for Theresa May. Instead, the government is putting £1.9 million into a four-metre high concrete "Great Wall of Calais" to replace one kilometre of the wire fence that already surrounds the highway to the ferry terminal and Britain. There will be flowers planted up its inside face, so it looks nice from the road, so you can zoom along in a tunnelled floral paradise, entirely impervious to the wretchedness outside. You can make Donald Trump comparisons if you want – plenty have – but for all the malice and ludicrousness of Trump's big beautiful wall, at least he's proposing something that actually stretches along an entire border. Our wall is different; even if you accept the monstrous rationale behind the thing, it's still utterly pointless.
The Great Wall of Calais will do absolutely nothing to stop migrants in the Jungle refugee camp from entering Britain. As I've seen myself, the road that passes by the camp is already lined by chilly, austere, totalitarian-seeming fences, topped with barbed wire and expertly designed to be unscaleable by the camp's residents. I've also seen the cuts and scars on the hands of migrants who've managed to climb over the thing, many of them multiple times. Given that the camp is not a prison, it's impossible to prevent people from getting onto the road without closing the road itself: if the wall stretches for a kilometre along its length, migrants just need to walk a little further. If the entire road is made inaccessible, people who have travelled halfway across the world to make a better life for themselves should be able to make it to Dunkirk or Le Havre or one of the many other ferry ports on the English Channel. But even this doesn't matter: with stringent British security checks both in the freight terminal and on the other side in Dover, very few of the migrants in the Jungle ever make it to Britain by walking into the road and jumping on the backs of lorries. Those who do cross successfully are usually transported by dedicated people smugglers, and our shiny new wall will do absolutely nothing to prevent that. And in any case, the French government is already planning to demolish the Calais camp entirely and disperse its residents throughout the country, leaving our great British-funded barrier alone and useless with nobody to repel.
The wall isn't just a mean-spirited, divisive, ugly idea; it's the stupidest idea imaginable: a solution that won't work for a problem that doesn't really exist. A more total waste of two million pounds is hard to imagine. Unless, of course, the wall isn't really being built to wreck the ambitions of the migrants, stuck by the foot of its blank condemnation, but being built for us, stuck on the other side.
This is, in part, a piece of gestural politics: a phatic wall, a meta-wall, a wall whose job isn't to keep anyone out but to simply be what it is. The right wing has spent years trying to present a fairly miserable collection of tents and shanties on a former landfill outside of Calais as an existential threat to Britain's safety and security. They want us to believe that if we let the tiny proportion of migrants who actually want to live in Britain (usually because they speak the language or because they have family here; in other words because they want to integrate) enter the country, it will open the gates to sudden and inexplicable millions. In a situation like this, the wall is a signal, a sop to the migration-obsessed, a comforting pat to let them know that the government is on their side.
We've been here before. Earlier this year, the government announced plans to scrap the Human Rights Act and replace it with a "British Bill of Rights". What's not mentioned so often is that the HRA only reproduces the European Declaration on Human Rights into British law, meaning that human rights cases can be seen in domestic courts rather than having to be decided by the European Court of Human Rights (which is unconnected with the EU) in Strasbourg. All those instances of "human rights madness", usually centred on the deportation of terror suspects and reported on in full frothing apoplexies by some sectors of the press, will be unaffected; they'll just be in the hands of more unelected Eurocrats. (What might change is the requirement for public bodies below the state itself, like local councils of police forces, to comply with human rights law – without an HRA there probably wouldn't have been any Hillsborough inquiry, for instance.) Here and in Calais, the current government seems to be far less interested in actually doing what its voters want than appearing to do what they want; it's not even brave enough to do significant evil, but just gestures vaguely in that direction.
But there's something more: it's been the state pushing for this stuff all along, creating the public demand that its gestures fulfil. The Great Wall of Calais does also have a practical purpose; it's just not the one that's advertised. As so many people have pointed out, the post-Cold War era, in which the entire planet has been reconfigured into one vast, open, interlinked supply chain, has also seen the creation of more walls and more boundaries than ever before. There are fences across European borders, between Latin and German America, between settlers and Palestinians, between richer and poorer residents of the same cities and sometimes even the same buildings. In some cases, this glut of wall-building came long before the vast mass migrations of the last few years; a border has a logic of its own, one that has nothing to do with defensibility and entirely precedes the person trying to cross it.
Ours is a time of mass abjection, a corpse-world full of Julia Kristeva's sense of "a border that has encroached on everything". Britain especially. We're a nation of timid, reclusive perverts for whom the sea is never enough; we need to reproduce our moatedness indefinitely, to build our home-castles in tinier and tinier spaces. Open tracts are always suspicious; new town squares are broken up by long rows of benches to prevent parties or demonstrations, antiphrastically known as "antisocial behaviour". That big useless wall in France is just an anchor, something to cement in our suspicion and our loneliness, to keep it in concrete blocks forever.
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