Gordon Brown (who sanctimoniousness grates ever more) wants a slogan for Britain. The good ones, such as Liberty Equality Fraternity, having been taken, and the really British ones such as “Mustn’t grumble” having been suggested elsewhere, how about “Please form an orderly queue”?
But what is this really about? Why does Britain need a slogan? Because, in fact, Britain is so lacking in inherent unity that we are forced to resort to a marketing ploy so make people believe in it. A British slogan might just as well invoke our collective faith in phlogiston as in ‘the nation’. As far as I can tell, patriotism is a scarce commodity in this country, not only in the positive sense but also in the sense that quite a few people feel very uneasy at the tricks that are currently being played by politicians, the media and other still murkier forces under the guise of ‘national identity’. Or as Michael Flanders put it almost 50 years back, regarding patriotic songs:
There’ll always be an England. Well that’s not saying much, is it? I mean, there’ll always be a North Pole – if some dangerous clown doesn’t go and melt it.
Nor is this a peculiarly British problem. The fact is, it is hopelessly unhistorical to regard countries – or more precisely nation states – as natural expressions of human social relationships, and equally absurd to suggest that it is a deadly threat to society when an outside organisation takes over some control or an internal forces threaten to break the nation up. The issue is not of any threat to our ‘national identity, or ‘British values’ but of whether such changes takes place democratically. From a historical viewpoint the nation state is a recent phenomenon. What is more, many states are the products of a series of not very rational accidents, many of the problems in society could probably be solved by ignoring state boundaries, and there is no reason to believe that states will last very much longer as the many body for decision-making.
In fact nation states are always being redefined or even totally invented, and it is hard to identify any nation states that are more than three centuries old or one that still corresponds at all closely to a real social unit. Indeed, many never have.
- Many major European nation states were created through accidental rights of succession, such as the UK and Spain.
- Belgium was created as a buffer state between France and the Netherlands in 1830 and even now suffers spasms of internal division between the Flemish and the Walloons.
- Italy came into existence in 1860 as a result of internal revolution.
- Germany emerged in 1870 as a result of Prussia forcing union on various German states, was divided again in 1945 as a result of conquest (i.e. the ‘iron curtain’) and was then reunited in 1989. In addition, had Prussia not defeated Austria at Sadowa in 1866, huge areas of what is now southern Germany might have remained completely aloof, and ‘Germany’ would probably not have become the politico-economic powerhouse of the eight decades after that.
- As a result of the collapse of the Austro-Hungarian Empire after the First World War many states came into existence, with Yugoslavia being a particularly artificial invention, as it was deliberately structured to finally put a stop to the ‘balkanisation’ of the Balkans.
Not is this a uniquely European phenomenon.
- Most of the countries in South America came into existence as a result of local revolutions against the Spanish and Portuguese empires in the first half of the nineteenth century.
Many Asian countries had their first taste of national identity as a result of resistance to European imperialism.
- Dozens of countries were likewise created for the first time by post war decolonisation in Africa and Asia.
- Finally, all the successor states to the Soviet Union were only formed in 1991 when more than a dozen new states were created, and Yugoslavia and Czechoslovakia each divided as part of the same post-Soviet collapse.
Furthermore, if the nation state is defined as a political unit with the powers of the modern state, including a central administration, sovereign authority, territory with borders, all members becoming citizens at birth, a constitution, monopoly of the means of violence and so on, then there were no nation states at all before the fifteenth century. For example, even up until the rule of Elizabeth I, the Percy dukes of Northumberland were often more powerful in terms of military might than the monarch who at the time was recognised as the sovereign head, and attempts to oust them by Plantagenet monarchs came to grief on local allegiance to the Percy name.
As for what is probably the current bastion of unqualified patriotic enthusiasm, the USA came into existence in 1776 as a result of the American War of Independence.
- At first, the thirteen original states seriously considered setting themselves up as individual countries.
- Later, when Louisiana, a territory with little previous involvement with the US, was bought in 1804 from Napoleon, the United States doubled in size. However, had Napoleon not been forced to sell, and Britain not been distracted by her wars in Europe, the US frontier would probably stand only a little west of Chicago and the USA would probably be no more powerful than, say, Germany or Japan. On the other hand, an independent Republic of Louisiana, created perhaps by a fleeing Napoleon, is a fascinating historical ‘what-if’.
- Meanwhile, the ‘real’ USA grew again in 1867 when Alaska, which does not even have a geographical connection with the rest of the US, was bought from the Russians. Finally, the USA very nearly became two separate nation states as a result of the Civil War of 1861 to 1865. Is this the history of a natural social unit?
Nation states are often thought of as representing a particular group of people who share a common identity and culture and live together more or less as a unit. But in reality many nation states were created by a series of not very rational accidents. For example, when the British left their colonies in Africa it was convenient for them to draw lines on a map dividing the land up into Uganda, Tanzania and Kenya, without considering the groups of people living in that area. As a result one the largest tribes in East Africa, the Kikuyu, found their territory divided and their identity ignored. This made them a minority in each state, causing massive problems for them and their neighbours alike. Likewise the decolonisation in the Middle East left the Kurds separated into Syria, Turkey, Iraq and Iran, with disastrous consequences in all these countries including extensive terrorism and repression.
On the other hand, because nation states don’t always correspond to natural social units they frequently have major problems built into them, often expressed by separatist movements or endemic conflict, as with the IRA in Northern Ireland, the Kurds, the Basques and the Catalans in Spain, or the Hutus and the Tutsis in Rwanda. Many of these problems could probably be solved by overriding the powers of nation states. This has already been reflected in policies of subsidiarity (delegating power to the lowest appropriate levels) and the creation of supranational bodies such as the EU (conceding sovereignty to a higher level entity). In many cases, multinational bodies have also been involved in mediating between nation states and their regions. For example, African Union troops and United Nations negotiators are helping in Darfur in Sudan.
Assuming then that nation states came into existence because of political reasons at the time, then changing political reasons are likely to mean that, even if the nation state does not disappear in the near future, it will no longer be the basis for most important decisions. Supranational organisations like the EU and UN will become more powerful, as will regional government. The last real nation states are likely to be those such as the USA and Russia whose pre-eminence (global or local) allows them to act as independent powers long after this ceases to be a viable strategy for most of their neighbours, or those too marginal to provide grist to any significant historical process.
Nation states made sense for a while. They genuinely were the basic social structures for a huge number of people living in industrial societies over the last couple of centuries. But before, say, 1650? Or even 1750? How many genuine nations, where people’s genuine sense of identity resided in a nation state, were there even in Europe? And with progressive (if that is the word) globalisation, especially in the industrial/capitalist world, how much of our identity resides there still, leaving aside the trivia of international sport and the fictions of modern politics?
Not a whole lot, I suspect.