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What, if anything, unites us a nation? And does it even matter?

Following on from the success of our last ‘long–read’ series, The Mighty and the Almighty, we have asked a number of leading theologians, philosophers, sociologists, historians, and writers – some Christians, others not – to think out loud on the topic. Next up is political historian Robert Tombs, author of ‘The English and Their History”:


‘And who is my neighbour?’[i]  A deceptively simple question, the sort that clever interrogators like to throw at public figures.  It has come back to the centre of our social and political concerns, and sometimes attracts polarized answers. 

First answer: everyone, the human race, the whole biosphere.  Second answer: my people, to whom I have a primary responsibility. 

Jesus’ answer was less clear cut, perhaps deliberately ambiguous.  A man with no responsibility for what had happened helped someone from another religious group, after leading members of the victim’s own group backed away.  So is this a story about universal benevolence?  Yes, in a sense.  But in another, this is a one–off: the Samaritan simply helps because he happens to be there, and someone he comes across is in need.  So, one could take the story either way.  We have a duty to others; we have a duty to people we come into contact with. 

How can these things be reconciled?  For most of us most of the time, quite easily.  I can help the lady next door with her shopping, and I can also give a donation to Oxfam.  But the choice is less easy when resources are finite, and morally problematic when the costs of my generous impulses are borne by others.  If there is a housing shortage, how many refugees can we accommodate before those already on the waiting–list suffer?  If large–scale immigration lowers wages, whose rights come first: those of poor immigrants or poor natives? 

The choice becomes more complex still when the costs and benefits are less tangible.  How do we evaluate the benefits of diversity against the costs of atomization?  A tiny example: Cambridge, my home city, is a shining example of successful cosmopolitanism.  But be very careful when you cross the street, for hardly anyone obeys the Highway Code. 

The dilemma was brought into the open by Theresa May’s 2016 Conference Speech, and as much as the speech itself, in the strong reactions to it.  May said that ‘if you believe you’re a citizen of the world, you’re a citizen of nowhere. You don’t understand what the very word “citizenship” means.’[ii]

The context was an attack on ‘international elites’ who abuse their position by avoiding taxation or exploiting workers – a habitual target of the Left.  But coming from a Tory prime minister in the aftermath of Brexit, it was interpreted as whipping up xenophobia.  Angry responses accused her (among other things) of rejecting the Enlightenment, of racism, of Stalinism, and of ignoring global problems.  For her, citizenship (national) consists, in her own words, of ‘bonds and obligations’ which one cannot legitimately renounce.  For many of her critics, citizenship (global) seems to mean feelings and sympathies, which by definition are not obligatory, but are subjective and self–imposed, and hence able to be altered or renounced. 

This confrontation between what one might call a ‘realist’ and an ‘idealist’ conception of citizenship is evidently heightened by contemporary political concerns: Brexit, the election of Donald Trump, and the rise of anti–establishment parties of Right or Left, or hybrids of the two, across Europe.  Despite huge differences between these phenomena, they have in common a sense of dispossession among many citizens, who think they see rights, power, security and wealth being taken away from them in the interests of an interconnected elite, often by means of international organizations and the theories that underpin them: unfettered markets, free movement of capital and labour, pooling of sovereignty.[iii]

Brexit is one response to this general problem: an attempt to return authority and power to the nation, its citizens and its government: ‘decisions about the UK should be taken in the UK.’[iv]  For many years – a century and more – internationalists have argued that this is an illusion.  Global forces make the nation obsolete.  If so, perhaps they make the EU obsolete too – indeed, at the moment the EU, rather than its constituent nations, seems less likely to survive. 

Whatever the future may decide, last June a small majority in Britain voted, however hesitantly, to put their trust in the nation as the best or only way of protecting their fundamental interests in a global world, and of allowing their voices to be heard.  But a large minority doubted that the nation could manage on its own.  A minority of that minority did not want it to: nearly 5 percent of voters saw themselves as strongly ‘European’, citizens of a multi–national continent rather than of an island nation, and perhaps aspiring to be citizens of the world rather than merely citizens of a state.[v]  But citizens of a nation–state, not of a confederal Union, we have now chosen to be. 

What sort of a nation–state is it likely to become?  Clearly, there is an aspiration to promoting solidarity within it.  A nation, said the French philosopher Ernest Renan, is ‘a great solidarity’[vi]; and a similar view seems to inspire Theresa May’s revived version of One–Nation Conservatism.  This is drawn tenuously from Benjamin Disraeli’s 1845 social novel Sybil: or The Two Nations, in which the two nations are ‘the Rich and the Poor’.  Greater equality is a habitual aim of the Left, but part of the Left eschews patriotism as the means, especially under a Tory government. 

So the Brexit vote, and its aftermath, brought out a divide (running down the middle of the Labour Party) which has been long established in Britain, and exists in many other countries too.  George Orwell famously mocked the middle–class Left who took ‘their cookery from Paris and their opinions from Moscow’.[vii]  Their avatars are that core of Remainers who reacted to the ‘Leave’ vote with anger and disgust.  Their reasons, in so far as simple observation can discern, are a seamless mixture of idealism and self–interest: desire for a Europe without borders among professional groups who do well in such a Europe.  The economist Paul Collier has suggested that their internationalism is in practice confined to favoured groups, and excludes the un–cool.[viii]  I suspect – without any strong evidence – that its devotees also include the spiritual heirs of those whom Orwell despised: people whose internationalism was spiced by an elitist distaste for their humbler fellow countrymen.[ix]  Such people are clearly not going to be easily reconciled to Brexit and seem likely to remain ‘a sort of island of dissident thought’ (Orwell again) on the alert for any post–Brexit setbacks. 

How well placed is Britain to create something like the ‘one nation’ that Leave voters, whether enthusiastically or hesitantly, put their trust in?  Here history, both recent and ancient, may at least point us towards the questions we have to answer.  Most obviously, the British are to some degree one nation, but are also undoubtedly four nations.  Such hybrids were not rare, but since the 19th century they have been under continual pressure either to become more homogenous or to break up.  Several did break up in part or in whole, though mostly at times of severe crisis: the Netherlands (1830), the Habsburg Empire (partly in 1867 and completely in 1918), Norway–Sweden (1905), the Russian and German Empires (1917–18), the United Kingdom (with the independence of Ireland), and others.  Those still remaining face an uncertain future: Spain, Belgium, the United Kingdom – to take only the relatively mild European examples.  We might also place the EU itself in this category.  Some commentators have consequently written off the United Kingdom as dead or dying, primarily due to the growth of Scottish nationalism.  Not all problems have solutions, but if this one has, the best hope seems to be maximum devolution. 

In our case this leaves – as it has done since at least the 1880s – the problem of England: is a federal Britain workable with one disproportionately large element?  Essential is a willingness to ‘go on living together’ (to quote Renan again).  We have to see whether the Scots are still willing.  Federations of unequal size can manage, as the United States shows – including both Rhode Island (population 1 million) and California (population 39 million).  But respective powers need to be clearly defined and accepted.  What could help such a compromise in Britain is on one hand the evident risk that independence entails for the smaller British nations, and on the other the relative unassertiveness of the English, who show little interest in an English government or parliament.  They would probably be satisfied with fairly small concessions, such as ‘English votes for English laws’, an idea first put forward more than a century ago.  Krishan Kumar ascribes this unassertiveness to the fact that the English have long been at the heart of multi–national entities.[x]  The Brexit vote, mainly English, was arguably the English nationalism that dared not speak its name: the EU was one multi–national entity too far.  

If English and/or British nationalism – even if not called that – is to be an important element of our post–Brexit identity, what might this imply?  For historical reasons, Britain has never engendered a large anti–liberal nationalist movement (neither UKIP nor the SNP qualify).  In France, Italy, Germany, Poland, Hungary, Ireland and elsewhere, nationalism appeared in reaction against foreign rule or conquest, and against domestic minorities stigmatized as alien or anti–national.  Consequently, many nationalist movements developed violent, racist and anti–democratic tendencies, which often maintain at least a latent presence today.  Britain has never experienced this, at least in virulent form.  On the contrary, during the twentieth century – as far back as most people’s historical awareness extends – the idea of the nation in Britain has been associated with liberal values in resistance to aggression, racism and totalitarianism.  Extreme British or English nationalism (as in the British National Party or English Defence League) ironically seems ‘un–British’ and has never been other than marginal. 

Although to some extent envenomed by the Brexit debate and its aftermath, there were and are signs of a willingness to embrace a liberal national identity as an inevitable and even desirable feature of culture and politics.[xi]  In a now classic work, Ernest Gellner argued that the nation was the basis of modern politics, at least in so far as nation states were the norm and national sovereignty and national interest were accepted as the basis of political legitimacy.[xii]

The position taken by ‘citizens of the world’ – now dating back at least to the 1860s – has been that nationalism and even nations are both undesirable and ephemeral.  Nations have been conventionally blamed (rather as some blame ‘religion’) for most of the evils of modern times – despite the fact that the worst evils of the last century were brought about by trans–national or anti–national forces, principally fascism and communism.  But like religions, nations can be good or bad; indeed, both good and bad.  They show no signs of disappearing, and if they did, the result would probably not please citizens of the world.  Democracy and the nation–state are two sides of the same coin, and doubly so with modern welfare democracies which redistribute wealth and confer social rights. 

Can we realistically imagine the survival of such democracies untied from common language, history, and solidarity, enforced through Mrs May’s ‘bonds and obligations’?  Citizenship of the world is an attractive conceit, not a basis for politics.  Nations and nation states are under pressure.  But the EU’s problems show how difficult they are to replace.  Polities in which the bonds of nationhood are weak or lacking prove vulnerable, and often fail.  Are we quite sure that a post–national world would not be a Hobbesian world of conflict between corporate interests, mafias and dictators? 

A post–national world is fortunately not the prospect we are facing in the foreseeable future.  Rather, we are still trying to build nation–states that work.  The economist Paul Collier, in a powerful recent article,[xiii] argued for ‘inclusive nationalism’ similar to that promoted by Scottish nationalists today as the necessary pragmatic foundation for social justice.  We should be aiming to create a democratic, harmonious and confident nation – in so far as we can in an imperfect world.  This is the best prophylaxis available against political and social breakdown, and the consequent rise of various forms of violent extremism.  And it makes it possible for us to answer the question ‘Who is my neighbour?’ without getting angry.


Robert Tombs is the author of The English and their History


Image is a painting by Teofilo Patini, available under public domain


            [i]               Luke 10: 29

[ii]               Speech to Conservative Party Conference, 5 October 2016.

[iii]              The problem has been lucidly summarized by Peter Mair in Ruling the Void: The Hollowing of Western Democracy (London, Verso, 2013)

[iv]              The main motivation stated by ‘Leave’ voters on the day of the referendum.  Lord Ashcroft poll, ‘How the United Kingdom voted on Thursday and why’ (24 June 2016)

[v]               Only 9 percent of ‘Remain’ voters stated their main motive was ‘a strong attachment to the EU and its shared history, culture and traditions’.  Ibid.

[vi]              In his famous lecture ‘Qu’est–ce qu’une nation?’ (1882)

[vii]             George Orwell, ‘The Lion and the Unicorn’, in George Orwell: Essays (London, Penguin Classics, 2000), p 155

[viii]             ‘The new pragmatism’, TLS (27 Jan. 2017) p 4

[ix]              A mild and rather amusing example was the outburst by the actress Emma Thompson referring to Britain as ‘a cake–filled misery–laden grey   old island’.  The Guardian (15 Feb. 2016)

[x]               Krishan Kumar, The Making of English National Identity (Cambridge University Press, 2003)

[xi]              See Michael Kenny, The Politics of English Nationhood (Oxford University Press, 2014)

[xii]             Ernest Gellner, Nations and Nationalism (Oxford, Basil Blackwell, 1983)

[xiii]             ‘The new pragmatism’, TLS (27 Jan. 2017) pp 3–5

 

Robert Tombs

Robert Tombs

Robert Tombs is the author of The English and their History

Posted 27 February 2017

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