A rare moment of globalist candour from Labour MP Paul Sweeney, who declared this week that ‘all countries should be abolished.’ Tweeting in support of shadow chancellor John McDonnell’s statement that Labour would not block a second Scottish independence referendum, the MP for Glasgow North East explained that ‘the long term goal is to build international co-dependence to such an extent that the concept of state sovereignty is ended.’
The curtailing of state sovereignty and the subjugation of the democratic nation state to an international legal order is of course one of the primary goals of international governance organisations such as the European Union and the United Nations. But it is unusual for the antipathy of the globalists to state sovereignty to be stated quite so plainly by an elected representative.
Most ordinary people recoil at what appears to be an outlandish and absurd suggestion. How would the world work without countries? How would governments remain accountable? What would become of patriotism? But the suppression of national independence is a long-term goal of the internationalist Left.
Lenin wrote in 1919: ‘Capital is an international force. To vanquish it, an international workers’ alliance, an international workers’ brotherhood, is needed. We are opposed to national enmity and discord, to national exclusiveness. We are internationalists.’
Yet it is also a goal shared by much of the global corporate elite, for whom national democratic independence is an impediment to the free movement of goods, capital and labour. This is the root of the Leftist critique of the European Union as a liberal project in the service of capitalism.
‘We are opposed to national enmity and discord, to national exclusiveness. We are internationalists.’
With powerful forces arraigned against the nation state on both political Right and Left it is perhaps no surprise that national democratic independence has become so constrained of late by international treaties and legal arrangements.
Those who do defend the nation state are typically eager to stress that the form of nation they support has nothing to do with ethnicity. Heaven forbid that we might think Scotland has anything especially to do with people of Scottish ancestry! Overly eager to avoid the worst kind of blood and soil nationalism, they argue that their idea of the nation is a purely ‘civic’ one, based on subscribing to a set of values, or perhaps to common occupation of the land.
I find it hard to know how seriously to take such proposals. To hold them to their logic, do such people really mean to imply that if all the people of Scotland suddenly died and millions of people of, say, Asian or Eastern European or even English heritage came and settled there and signed up to some abstract set of Scottish values (much like the ‘British values’ of democracy, rule of law, individual liberty and tolerance perhaps), but otherwise lived according to their own customs with their own language, then such people would be no less Scottish? That Scotland would essentially continue as if nothing had changed?
Or if they are not saying this, what are they saying when they argue against any ethnic dimension to nationhood? The Scottish are a people with a history, an ancestry, a dialect, and customs and traditions all of their own. They aren’t just interchangeable with people of different heritage and history. But surely this is to state the obvious?
Ethnic nationalism is often discredited by its association with Hitler and Nazism. It is true that ‘Nazi’ stands for National Socialism, and that Nazi ideology valorised the ‘Fatherland’ and its connection with the German race. But as nationalist (Jewish) political theorist Yoram Hazony has pointed out, one of the distinctive features of Nazism was its imperialistic contempt for national democratic sovereignty. The Allies’ aim, he explains, was ‘to restore the independence and self-determination of national states throughout Europe. And in the end, it was American, British, and Russian nationalism … that defeated Germany’s bid for universal empire.’
It is a curious turn of history (and perhaps an indication of internationalist dominance among Western elites) that Nazism has become the great refutation of nationalism, given that at the time the Allies understood that they were fighting for democratic national freedom against an empire that opposed it. What’s more, at the time there was no question that the nation was an inherently ethnic or kinship based community, at least at its core. The Allies did not think they stood for internationalist multiculturalism against the Nazi’s evil embodiment of ethno-nationalism.
In 1942, for example, at the height of the war, Archbishop of Canterbury William Temple wrote a small book called Christianity and Social Order, which the government distributed to members of the British armed forces to give them a sense of what they were fighting for. Temple was a leading thinker of Christian socialism, so a man of the Left, and was writing in part to oppose Nazi ideology. Yet he was unflinching in his support for the nation state, and unashamed in recognising its foundation in national groupings of shared kinship and ancestry. He wrote:
The nation as we know it is a product of long history but its origins in the clan and the tribe give it the same relation as the family to the individual. And it is a product of historical development, not a deliberately manufactured structure. Every civilised man or woman is born a member of a nation as well as of a family. These nations have developed various cultural types, and the world is the richer for that variety. Each individual is born into a family and a nation. In his maturity he is very largely what these have made him.
Making explicit the theological implication, he wrote:
The family is so deeply grounded in nature and the nation in history that anyone who believes in God as Creator and as Providence is bound to regard both as part of the divine plan for human life. Their claims have to be adjusted to one another, and so have the claims of the several families within each nation and of the several nations in the family of mankind. But any ordering of society which impairs or destroys the stability of the family stands condemned on that account alone; and any ordering of international life which obliterates the freedom of the several nations to develop their own cultural traditions is also condemned.
In making such claims for the divinely ordained place of the nation, Temple is drawing on a rich scriptural tradition which recognises the centrality of the nation in God’s purposes. Nations (ethnos in the original Greek) feature frequently in the biblical texts, with strong indications that they form part of a divine schema for humanity following the division into nations and tongues at the Tower of Babel (Genesis 11:1-9).
Nations feature frequently in the biblical texts,
with strong indications that they form part of a
divine schema for humanity.
Acts 17:26 is a key verse here: ‘From one ancestor he made all nations to inhabit the whole earth, and he allotted the times of their existence and the boundaries of the places where they would live.’ Nations also feature in the final judgement (Matthew 25:32) and in the mission of the church (Matthew 28:19).
The nation is certainly an ethnic (kinship) concept in the Bible, but not solely – Acts 2:5 speaks of ‘devout Jews from every nation’ suggesting ethnic Jews can also hail from Gentile nations. The church is itself a holy nation, a chosen race (genos), God’s own people (laos) (1 Peter 2:9) – titles applied in the Old Testament to Israel, the nation God chose to be his own.
It is true that in the New Testament the ‘dividing wall’ between Jews and Gentiles is broken down in Christ (Ephesians 2:14), and there is ‘no longer Jew or Greek’ (Galatians 3:28). Nevertheless, nation or nations appears no fewer than 23 times in the Book of Revelation, alongside related ideas such as people, tribe (phulon) and language (glossan), including in the final chapter where the leaves of the tree of life are for the ‘healing of the nations’ (22:2). This suggests a certain permanence of nationhood in the divine schema for human society.
A nation state is a state based on a nation. It is the primary manifestation of a nation’s political self-determination. At its core, therefore, is an ethnic group who regard the state as their homeland, where they form a majority group and their customs and traditions constitute the public life of the state. Such a community can of course receive new people into it, but only at a volume and rate that facilitates their integration and assimilation and doesn’t threaten the core common identifiers of the group, such as common culture, traditions, language and history.
Too fast and the group starts to lose cohesion as the majority group feels threatened and senses that its common life is beginning to fragment and decay – a process observed in the UK by David Goodhart and Trevor Phillips. Such a community can also host a number of relatively small communities that maintain their own customs, but tensions will rise considerably if those communities begin to exceed a certain scale.
It is currently popular among conservative theorists to separate ethnicity and culture and claim to be in favour of a cultural basis to the nation but not an ethnic one. But this is a false separation. Cultures are to a large extent the customs of peoples, and they arise from a people’s distinctive history and traditions. A people’s culture cannot be fully separated from its history as that culture is largely a product of its history, and neither can its history be fully separated from its ancestry as ancestry is just history over generations.
The common likeness that many people in a nation share is also an integral part of their culture, and anthropologically plays an important psychological role in facilitating recognition and trust – people are physical and not just spiritual beings. As David Goodhart puts it: ‘Most of us prefer our own kind.’
Is the ideal then an ethnically and culturally homogenous state? Certainly homogeneity aids social cohesion and stability, and thus cooperation, loyalty and trust. But complete homogeneity comes at the expense of the freedom of people to move for work, for love, for refuge, or for other reasons. It comes at the expense of countries being able to attract talent from around the world, and to benefit from the input of other cultures and traditions.
So despite its possible advantages in some respects, complete homogeneity does not seem to be the ideal. Furthermore, ethnic groups are not closed entities. Through intermarriage their gene pools can develop, and there is no reason to think this is always a bad thing – though it is worth noting that just as we value biodiversity in nature there seems good reason to value the ethnic diversity of humanity, and thus not to regard present ethnic groupings as transient things of no regard.
‘Most of us prefer our own kind.’
States such as America and Australia began as largely Anglo-Saxon colonies (with African slaves in the case of the US) before absorbing large numbers of people of other European groups during the 19th and early 20th century, and then of non-European groups in the later 20th century. America in particular was originally conceived as a new nation coming into being, being formed out of a melting pot of peoples of others nations.
However, the rate and diversity of immigration in recent decades has challenged that model to its core, leaving a bitterly divided state with an unravelling sense of nationhood and a simmering identity politics that seems constantly to threaten to spill over into social breakdown and violence. It would seem wise to seek to limit social diversity more than countries like America and Australia (and indeed other Western nations) have in recent times; the open borders diversity experiment of the past several decades has not exactly been a roaring success. Eastern countries like Japan look to the West as a warning of what happens if you don’t watch your borders or your demography carefully.
It is encouraging to see nationalism coming back into vogue among conservatives. However, what conservatives are yet to grapple with properly is the relationship of nationality to ethnicity. The particular history and context of the United States and the struggle against ‘white supremacy’ makes this a vexed issue. The plight of indigenous peoples in former colonial states is a further complicating factor. But it is one which conservatives must contend with and begin in earnest to resolve. That won’t happen by just continuing blithely to claim that nationality has nothing to do with ethnicity, or that you can forge cultural homogeneity despite high ethnic diversity, as though ethnic groups don’t have cultures of their own that they are often eager to conserve. It isn’t true and it doesn’t wash.
No one wants a society marred by racial discrimination or prejudice, and there is no question of returning to that. Neither is there any question of America in particular denying the full civic equality of its African-American population, as the white supremacists demand. But that doesn’t mean nation states should ignore their intrinsic connection to their major ethnic group or groups – the group or groups for which they constitute a homeland – or the importance of cultural homogeneity for fostering cohesion, loyalty and trust. To do otherwise is to ask for trouble.
(Dr Will Jones is a maths graduate with a PhD in political philosophy and author of Evangelical Social Theology: Past and Present [Grove, 2017]. He blogs at Faith and Politics)