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History Table of Contents
1994 Summer Conference
Summer Conference 1994
Globalism and Tribalism: The New World Disorder?

Nationalism: Can the Nation-State Cope?

STEPHEN HUGH-JONES, Assitant Editor, The Economist

I am an journalist and I have to attend to facts.

And if I was to present a theory, let's say, that the liberal state was hopelessly absolutist and unitarian, my editor would say to me, Stephen, this is nonsense. And he would have the power, as professors do not suffer, to take a blue pencil and rub it all out.

Nonetheless I have one advantage, I come from the archetypal continent of the nation state. And it should be a good test bed for our theory today. For what do we find?

First of all, we start with our terms the nation state. We find there is no cliche in Europe that you can't demonstrate about the nation state. More important, there is no cliche about it that you can't disprove.

You take some familiar myths. The nation state we all know was an intellectual invention of the 19th century. It wasn't.

Shakespeare wrote 400 years ago and he put it in the mouth of a king who had existed much earlier than that; fill the breach up with our English dead. He knew what the nation state was. He didn't say our Yorkshire Dead, or our Kentish Dead, or our Québécois Dead. He said our English dead.

Queen Elizabeth knew; she said, I am mere English. She too didn't say exactly what her parentage was, perhaps because she didn't know.

Across the channel, France, France was not just famously centralized, it had a powerful sense of French identity centuries before the enlightenment, which we suppose invented the nation state. Centuries before the revolution, which the French think of as the intellectual starting point of modern Europe, and quietly forget, that their national hero, Napoleon, the result of that revolution, set out to create a multi-national empire. Not a national one, a multi-national empire in Europe, much like the Ottoman Empire that existed for centuries.

So we may agree nonetheless. The nation state is old, it is older than we thought, but at least you will tell me, the last two centuries have been the great days of the nation state.

I am sorry, again we are wrong. Look which nation states have had their great days. Well the greatest state of Victorian Europe was Britain, which had a least three nations in, and some such as my father, a Welshman, would say four. All right, we did create some nation states, Germany and Italy, and some survived. But look what else happened.

After the First World War, Europe set out to allow for nationalism. We created Czechoslovakia and it has just peacefully broken in half. We created Yugoslavia, need I say more about that. More modern still, the Euro-Americans created Israel, a very successful invention, but still a state 10 per cent of whose people are and feel largely alien to it, because they are Arabs.

Further afield in India, Pakistan was created specifically as a home for Muslim nationalism. What happened? it was broken in two within 25 years.

Our nation state may or may not be an endangered species, but it is certainly a rare species. There has never been a world of preponderantly nation states. We all have our minorities and some of us are suffering for it now. It is a rare species.

Then, let's look at the other things that may break us apart. The forces of tribalism, which may hold together, it holds together states, it may break them apart. What are these forces? Notably, well language.

Let me just ask you now, join me in a European experiment. Lets imagine that you are all Germans, we are gathered here in a small beer cellar near Munich, the year is 1930 and I am Adolf Hitler.

I have been ranting on for 20 minutes. We all know who is responsible for these misfortunes don't we? The Jews. Jewish capitalism. Jewish bankers. And then a little voice comes from the back of the hall and says, what about the bicyclists?

Hitler pauses a moment and carries on; not just Jewish capitalists, Jewish trade unionists, Jewish Bolsheviks, the Jews.

And again a little voice comes from the back of the hall and says, what about the bicyclists?

Hitler stops for a moment and carries straight on; forget the bicyclists. The Jews; yes, you for example, you with the bulging wallet and the bulbous nose. The poor chap in the third row hardly has time to feel his wallet and nose are the same size as everybody else's, before some stout young men have kicked him out the front door.

By now all of you are on you feet stamping and applauding. Then, there is a silence and a voice comes from the back of the hall that says, what about the bicyclists?

Hitler is at last thrown. He says why the bicyclists?

And the chap says at the back of the hall, why the Jews?

That was not actually a laughing matter, we have learned something from it. We have learned to behave differently. Tribalism is not new, it is not medieval, it has gone on all of the time. The difference possibly in Europe, at least in Western Europe, is our response to it.

On the other hand we have learned that language, as it was in the past as it is today, is still an immensely powerful force, pro or con.

And yet that still small voice, he too was talking German, he was talking exactly the same German, though not perhaps the same words, as Hitler was.

Why, because he defined his group by another identity; that of religion and was so identified.

That is an important thing that also can be seen, the tribe identifies itself with relation to its enemies and is identified by them, which may not be so clear. Another thing that I hope we have learned is to beware of generalizations.

We all know that religion is a very, very powerful cement indeed. Look at the Islamic movement today. For that devisive power we can go back, you can look at Europe's old wars of religion when we slaughtered each other by the city full, because he was Protestant and he was Catholic.

Look at today's Yugoslavia, nothing has changed; they are slaughtering each other by the field full, because one is orthodox, and one is Muslim and one is Catholic.

Look at Germany. Only 50 years ago and this was a real nation and it was torn apart by religious, I will call it religious distinctions. Christian Germans murdered Jewish Germans; a community of Jews who were the most assimilated in Europe. They were truly German, but they were different because of religion. And they had their heads cut off.

So we may agree, maybe or not, that without the cement of religion the nation state is at least in deep trouble. If you look around me in Europe, nations, even tribes don't need this cement.

Holland and Switzerland have combined Catholic and Protestant regions for centuries. We British, we English even, we have long been Protestant and Catholic. More recently we have added Jew, we have added Hindu, we have added Sikh. Whether we shall add Muslim is less certain – there are certainly plenty of Muslims there – it may well be that we shall add Muslim, too.

Go beyond Europe and the signals are even more extraordinary. Go to Sri Lanka, two nations; two religions, two cultures and one very nasty tribal separatist war.

And, yet 100 miles away, go to India; a nation, it has southern states which are historically and racially distinct from those of the north. It has two major religions and about three minor ones. It has 15 major languages, 8 major and distinct alphabets, very distinct many of them from each other, and it is all held together by a ninth language and alphabet imported from our side of the world. And yet this is undoubtable a nation, for all it separatists – its Muslims in Kashmir and its Sikhs in Punjab – India is a nation. It defies practically everything that one would believe about a nation.

So, I say beware of myths beware of generalizations. These very powerful determinants of group identity, language and religion, are not enough to hold together an effective working nation state, and yet far more curiously neither are they necessary.

You can as in Switzerland or in India, find a nation that has multiple languages and multiple religions. And you notice that these are indeed very ancient forces, there is nothing new about the forces that make up tribalism, they weren't born yesterday and yet even now, even today, these ancient forces are the ones that rule in Europe; not in Africa, not in Asia, not in Iran, but.In Europe.

The question for us is not can we cope with globalism, with CNN, with the marrkets, with Jacques Delore. The question is can the state cope with the tribe? Just as it was 2000 years ago.

Michael Ignatieff gave us a myth of his own, I thought, when he suggested that tribalism was essentially a danger today of Zone 2, the poor world.

Sorry, not so. Yugoslavia, was not poor. It was a rich considerably western European country. And more than that,in the past 5 years tribal forces have broken up Eastern Europe, they have broken up the Soviet Union, but also – and this goes back a bit more than five years, you can't blame the fall of communism – three West European countries are now in danger. Italy maybe, Belgium possibly, Britain in my view, quite probably.

Italy well there is a question mark, the Northern League may or may not carry its dislike for the south into action.

Belgium is a bit like your own country. It is divided between the Wallons who speak French, and the Flemings who speak Dutch, and for years the Wallons, though they were fewer, unlike the Anglophone here, lorded it over the Flemings. And I do mean lorded. They thought of Dutch as a peasant language, and its speakers likewise.

Well, now how do Belgians feel today, now that the peasants have grown rich, too?. Further apart than ever. The Flemings have always resented Wallon arrogance and as their own strength grew their demands grew, too. And they weren't demands for equality within one nation state, but for the equality of separation; you may see some parallels.

And today, what you have? You have a Flemish region, you have a Wallon region, you have a mixup in Brussels, which is a French-speaking island in a Flemish sea, and you have ever larger devolution of powers to these regions, which have not on the whole appeased the Flemish demands. Again you may see parallels.

But, againI take issue with Michael Ignatieff, who talks of the good guy tribalism which just says, we will not let others speak for us, and the bad guy tribalism, which is simply about trivial differences. I don't agree with that.

I think all of these tribalism are on the continuum and, what makes them good or bad, is the means by which they are pursued and the means by which they are responded to.

You can be as economically similar as you like; you watch the same television, you wear the same clothes, you eat the same food. If you feel different, I think it is simply then different you are.

I come from a part of Northern London where we support a football team called Arsenal. My wife comes from a region about 3 miles away, where they support the Spurs. We all we all use the same four letter words, we look identical, we are the same. But, by God, when those two teams play; fortunately in my household there is only one football following Yobbo, so we remain at peace. But out on the streets of London it isn't so; those people for the moment are deeply different.

And, alas, if football were the only thing that devides Britain. We have our tribes in Wales and Scotland, too. And I don't think that tribes is the world. Maybe the Welsh aren't a nation. My father called himself Welsh; I don't.

Now, no Scott could ever speak like that. The Scots are undoubtable a nation, they already have evolved powers, they want more, full independence say many of them, and my guess is that one day they will get it. It is not an ideal answer but it is an answer.

Alas, as you know Scotland is not our only trouble; we have got Ireland. To that I see no answer at all. We British we seized Ireland four centuries ago, notably three and a half centuries ago, but they remember we butchered the Irish in great numbers; we then misgoverned them for centuries, we bullied them into joining our United Kingdom in 1801,and we went on misgoverning them.

Very inevitably, the union failed, and after decades of high Tory resistance, we rightly withdrew in the 1920s, but just as rightly in my view we said that the largely Protestant six counties of the north should remain with us.

And we are now wholly incapable of dealing with Irish nationalism, or of the forty per cent Catholic minority in those six counties. We are wholly incapable; we cannot cope. Now just sending out troops just keeps things going, but it doesn't solve anything.

And, indeed, ever since Mrs. Thatcher accepted the Anglo- Irish agreement giving Dublin a say in Northern affairs, British diplomacy has turned a crisis into a disaster. We offer terrorists a crust of hope and, of course, they will try for the whole loaf. Is there a way out? Well reason offers several, but it is not reason in Ireland that rules.

There is another deep-rooted hostility in Europe; deep-rooted tribalism – that of race, against Asians and West Indians in Britain, against Arabs in France, against Turks in Germany. And this strengthens the tribal feelings of its victims.

Britain had a Tory cabinet minister who invented a test for who was British and who was not.

We thought he was a proper Charlie; an Idiot, a git. And his critics thought his nationality test equally balmy.

Well, I'm afraid I didn't.

At international cricket matches in Britain you often see West Indian kids cheering on the West Indian side, as they wallop ours, and Pakistani kids doing the same. Ah, says the Minister, ok. You can be white, you can black, you can be green, brown, spots.

If you support the British cricket team, then fine, you belong to us; if you don't you don't, you don't.

Fair enough, you might say, isn't a nation precisely that; the totality of those who feel they belong to it? No, because it depends, alas, whether the rest of the nation agrees.

Ireland's troubles threatened the British state and because of our reaction, it threatened British society. It threatened the decent society in my country.

Today Scotland's tribal troubles, threaten the state. They could break away, they are all in one place, but they don't threaten society because we would not react as we did in the past.

Britons Asians and West Indians. may be unhappy, but they don't threaten either society, or the state; the threat comes from the white sub- clan that rejects them. That is a threat, though, to society. It need not threaten the state.

The German nation state was perfectly capable, hideously capable, of dealing with the Jewish question. Given the political will, the force, the readiness to use it, today's nation state is as capable as ever it was of resisting divisions of tribalism, but do we want to at that price.

Do you want the political will to murder Jews, or Black men, or Quebecers, or I don't know who? Well, I certainly don't.

I think that we have to accept the nation state, when it is faced with that kind of demand, must give way. My Scottish brothers want to go, I could be sorry, I was brought up there, but I will say let them.

Now, of course, that is not what Abraham Lincoln thought. but the price he was prepared to pay a century and half ago, I don't think we should pay.

This is where the modern nation state differs from the past. The threat is the same, our response is and should be different. The state has to yield for the sake of society.

You may say, well, Europe states are doomed. I don't think they are, if we learn to yield enough and fast enough.

I think that a century from now, you will still see most West European states much more autonomous, much more regionally, but I still think you will see us in existence.