Daily Archives: October 29, 2010

The nation state

The nation state is the political organisation of ethnically similar peoples. Historically, the nation state arose from strong kingship over lands which contained peoples who were ethnically similar. How those lands came to be ethnically similar is another matter – it invariably required the destruction or forced submergence of other cultures by one means or another – but relatively homogeneous they became. But powerful kingdoms have rarely coincided with ethnically homogeneous populations, not least because monarchs have tended to view themselves as dynasts rather than nationalists. Thus the nation state is a rarity even today.  Most of the modern countries designated as nation states are multicultural empires. This distinction is important because a multicultural state may exist because the state is a political entity, but a multicultural nation is a contradiction in terms for nationhood requires a sense of belonging, of common feeling ithin the population.

A singular fact about the nation state is that it is a European phenomenon, for nowhere else in the world did Mankind move of their own volition beyond forms of tribal, dynastic or theocratic government. But even in Europe the nation state is a johnny-come-very-lately. Germany was politically united in 1870, Italy in 1869. Neither is a natural nation, both containing peoples such as the Prussians, Bavarians and Sicilians possessed of a strong historic identity. Even the two continental countries which loom largest and longest in history as political entities, Spain and France, have always lacked cohesion. Spain was not united, even in the limited sense of a unification of crowns until 1469 and is to this day a deeply provincial country tottering on the brink of dissolution with disaffection from the very idea of Spain spread far beyond Catalonia and the Basque country into the old divides between Castille and Aragon and the smaller mediaeval kingdoms such as Galicia. France remained a disparate state of many tongues and peoples (Breton, Basque, Provencal and such forth) in 1789 and like modern Spain retains numerous natural divides at least as  great as those between England and Scotland (Brittany, Gascony, Provence) and a few social fissures (Basques, Corsica) as insoluble as that between England and the Ulster Catholics.

England is the odd man out. As we have seen, the English thought of themselves as a distinct people very early, while the political state of England has lasted for more than a thousand years, longer than any Empire ever known. By the time of the Conquest, England occupied most of the territory she does today – that is unique amongst the major powers in Europe. She had a system of law which operated in theory at least throughout England. The use of writs issued by the king was well established. When William came he gained a kingdom ready made, not a series of dynastic fiefs held together by marriage and treaty.

At every point in the past seven centuries at least England has been ahead of the pack in developing the adjuncts of what we today consider a normal and civilised state, viz: the development of a national system of law; the absence of great princely territories (appanages). the early break with feudalism; the unique development of parliament, the diminution of princely power; the institution of a national system of welfare relief in 1601; the encouragement of private enterprise combined with successful mercantilism; the discontinuation of judicial torture; the introduction of habeas corpus; the rights of property given the firmest legal basis. By the end of the seventeenth century England was already hinting at the form of the modern world.

David Landes in the “Wealth and Poverty of Nations” has no doubt about England’s status as the most advanced nation state. When examining the reasons for the first Industrial revolution occurring in these islands, Mr Landes (he refers to Britain but it is clear from the context that he means England) lists among the prime causes precocious English nationhood viz: “To begin with, Britain had the early  advantage of being a nation. By that I mean not simply the realm of a ruler, not simply a state or political entity, but a self-conscious, self-aware unit characterised by common identity and loyalty and by equality of civil status…Britain, moreover, was not just any nation. This was a precociously modern, industrial nation.” 1

How did England grow to be such a different social plant from any other country? Perhaps she was never truly tribal in the narrow sense of small and exclusive groups. Of all the parts of the Roman Empire in the West, England was peculiar in the completeness of the destruction of Roman culture after the legions withdrew. Elsewhere in the Empire, Germanic peoples took power but retained much of Rome. In England this did not happen. England was formed from people who both had a good deal in common culturally and racially and who were by whatever means, amazingly successful in suppressing native British culture. Thus England began in a way given to few nations, as a clean cultural sheet.

England and Britain – what is it to be British?

What is it to be British? A very pertinent question in the aftermath of Devolution. Britain is a blend of legal entity, geographical proximity, historical interaction and a degree of fellow feeling deriving from (by now) shared values and experiences. But it is a second order focus of loyalty, more legal construct than emotional reality. In Britain, a man  normally thinks of himself as English, Scots, Irish or Welsh. The man who answers British when asked his nationality by a fellow Briton is almost certainly not someone who understands Britain unless, of course, an Ulster Protestant is speaking. 

Confusing as the British/English dichotomy can be, it is nonetheless fitting and noteworthy that foreigners still  commonly talk of England when they mean Britain, for what is British culture but English culture? If we look at the major cultural features which are frequently associated with Britishness – such matters as elected representative government, political stability, the absence of institutionalised bureaucratic corruption, the propensity for the nonviolent resolution of disputes, the primacy of the individual, the attachment to personal freedom, the ideal of equality before the law – we find no distinctive Celtic facets cut into the cultural stone. This is scarcely surprising for unEnglished Celtic society was based on more primitive social systems, essentially tribal, in which loyalty, justice and power sprang primarily from blood and marital relationships rather than universal abstractions such  as equity.

Nor was such a distinction between England and the other home countries buried decently in the dark ages. The Scotland of the Act of Union (1707) was not merely churchmouse poor, but cleaved between the much Englished lowlands and a barbaric upland life which was still clearly evident (although passing) some seventy years later when Johnson and Boswell journeyed in the Highlands and Isles. Moreover, even in the Englished lowlands, pre-union Scotland lacked the broad political development of England, which perhaps more than any other aspect of English society has shaped our culture. Looked at coldly, all the Celtic fringe represents today are mythologised ancestral resentments, more imagined than real, and a few pseudo-historical gewgaws such as Eisteddfods and tartans.

The different nature of the indigenous political culture of the Celtic lands can be neatly displayed by imagining some of the differences between a Britain dominated not by England, but by the Calvinist Scotch or the Catholic Irish. In either case, religious tolerance would have been uncertain at best and nonexistent at worst and the King’s power either utterly constrained by a narrow oligarchy (Calvinists) or exalted over that of parliament (Catholics). Either way,  parliament would have been a poor thing. The absence of religious tolerance and parliamentary development alone would have massively altered Britain. Moreover, it is probable that the English and British response to the continental ambitions of Louis X1V and Napoleon would have been quite different. Had either achieved their ends, England’s (and Britain’s) history would have been very different.

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