This coming Monday, 19 September, is the feast day of Saint Theodore of Tarsus (602-690), one of my political heroes. Born in modern-day , he fled the approaching Muslim army and ended up as archbishop of Canterbury, where, among other things, he invented the parish system. If localism has a patron saint, he is a Turkish immigrant. For the parish system became not just the basic unit of ecclesiastical government, but also, for centuries, our basic unit of social togetherness. The whole idea of a priest and a parish was the very infrastructure of local community. With the shop and the pub, it came to define what we meant by the local. This was where roots were set, where generations were born and died, where the British values of social togetherness were nurtured. It was perhaps the single most important moral contribution of the church to British society. It’s where the “we” has precedence over the “I”.
But localism is now much derided. On a plane back from Israel last week, passing the time with in-flight entertainment, I am subjected to the most excruciating . The music pulsates. A young man is going for a run in Shanghai, off to some high-powered meeting, then returning to his hotel. The narrator sounds sexy and enticing. “No frontiers, no borders, no limits. You are the beautiful nomads. And our world is your playground.” I shuddered. What morally vacuous sentiments.
I thought of all the people I might be literally flying over, risking everything, desperate to escape the misery of Syrian barrel bombs. No frontiers? No borders? Beautiful nomads? The contrast was offensive, sick. For millions, born with the wrong sort of passport, the world is a vale of tears, a daily struggle for survival and the survival of their children. These people squeeze themselves through razor wire and face the daily rejection of strangers. How they must loathe the easy entitlement of the beautiful nomad, ugly with self-worth, for whom “our world is your playground”. And, yes, I feel convicted by that description too.
The philosophy of the beautiful nomad is often called liberalism. It’s the philosophy of the unfettered self, free from restraint, free from the tiresome constraints of place and the local. Indeed, from the perspective of this liberal cosmopolitanism, the local community is a place to escape from, to grow out of, a place of narrow-minded sameness, a place to go back to at Christmas, but nothing more. Asked where he came from, the philosopher Diogenes replied that he was “a citizen of the world”.
The beautiful nomad would think it an outrage that they’d have to pay for a visa to travel to Europe, for instance.
Michael Oakeshott, another philosopher, shows us how beautiful nomads are made. He argues that it is precisely the job of liberal education to sever people from their attachments to the local: “Each of us is born in a corner of the earth,” he writes. “But school and university are where a learner is emancipated from the limitations of his local circumstances. They are sheltered places where excellence may be heard because the din of local partialities is no more than a distant rumble.”
The values of the beautiful nomad are the opposite of those of Theodore and his community-orientated parishes. Here in the parish, what we mean by “social mobility” is helping the elderly get to the shops. And not about clever youngsters moving onwards and upwards, cutting themselves off from their roots and their background, rarely to return.
I know why the people of leave their homes and seek a new place to live. Most of them would prefer to have stayed put. But they need safety. And we should welcome them. They are not hopping around. They want to settle. No, it is the beautiful nomad that is the dangerous creature. Having little respect for roots or for locality, s/he is the digital übermensch, the epitome of capitalist entitlement that believes only in the things that s/he has made, bought or chosen. And like a locust, the rapacious consumption of the beautiful nomad turns the world into a desert. “It’s not about where you are,” advises the Pullman advert. Place is unimportant. Just consume and move on.
• This article was amended on 16 September 2016. In an earlier version, the word “not” was omitted from the sentence that refers to “clever youngsters”.