• Will Jones

How diversity challenges the nation state

Did you know that the Republic of Ireland has a Minister of State for the Irish Diaspora? Thought to number up to 80 million, the Irish Diaspora consists of anyone with Irish ancestry who lives outside of Ireland. The Irish are proud of their diaspora and their achievements. Under Irish law, people of Irish nationality, wherever they live or are born, are deemed to be Irish citizens up to the third generation.

This idea of a diaspora reflects the traditional concept of a nation. Under this idea a nation is an ethnic (from the Greek ethnos for people or nation, or, if you prefer, ethno-cultural) group with a (relatively) distinctive ancestry and culture. People of this nation might be born or live anywhere where they or their ancestors have migrated. But they will usually identify with a national homeland somewhere.

Where this homeland is free from foreign subjugation it typically takes the form of a nation state. A nation state, on this understanding, is the political expression of a nation, where its ethnic group predominates and enjoys self-determination, living under its own laws and customs, peaceably within its borders.

Despite the continuing legacy of this traditional concept of the nation and the jus sanguinis or ‘right of blood’ that underpins it, the kind of nationalism which emphasises it is largely verboten in modern politics, marginalised as nativist and racist. Instead the politically correct form of nationalism is civic nationalism, under which the connection with the dominant ethnic group is downplayed or denied altogether.

The Scottish National Party and Plaid Cymru both claim to be civic nationalist parties, though their special concern to promote Scottish and Welsh culture casts doubt over whether they fully understand what that means.

Ethnicity and culture generally come together.

Taken to its logical conclusion civic nationalism would deny any special connection between, say, the Scottish and Scotland at all (making the name something of a misnomer), with those of Scottish heritage having no special claim to Scotland besides the fact that right now a lot of them happen to live there. Were this situation to change in the future through, say, mass immigration, the logically consistent civic nationalist would have no basis for complaint.

This seems absurd to all but the most diehard multiculturalist. Yet any attempt to formulate a conception of nationalism that allows for the link between the state and its major ethnic group is liable to charges of nativism and racism and thus is rarely aired. Neither is it much help to substitute culture for ethnicity, as though culture is something independent of ethnicity.

Cultures are closely associated with the customs and ways of life of ethnic groups, and while people can become acculturated to new surroundings, it is naïve to suggest that ethnic groups can (or even should) be wholly denuded of their native cultures. Ethnicity and culture generally come together. People frequently retain strong attachments to the ways of their forebears.

How has our culture tied itself into such knots over what should be (and is, in most of the world) a straightforwardly axiomatic connection between ethnicity and nationality?

The problem seems to be one of a post-war desire among Western states to avoid racism and anything reminiscent of colonialism or fascism, and to be welcoming to people of minority ethnic groups. Falling birth rates have also added an economic impetus to welcome larger numbers of immigrants. This has led to a minimising of the link between nation states and their dominant ethnic groups to near vanishing point in order to promote the multicultural vision of a liberal state undergirded by a minimal set of liberal democratic values. For many there is also an atoning dimension to this, regarding Western culture as uniquely prone to oppress others and culpable for past errors and crimes.

While this shift may be understandable, in truth it is a very risky thing to systematically deprive peoples of their sense that their country is their home. People-based nations do not need to be ethnically ‘pure’ (whatever that means) or disadvantage ethnic minorities (which is wrong) but they do need to retain some sense that they are a home for a distinctive people with its own customs and way of life and that this is something precious to be preserved. The accommodation and assimilation of immigrants and ethnic minorities needs always to be approached with this big picture in mind.

The importance of taking cultural similarity into account in immigration policy in order to aid assimilation – mainstream in the West before the 1960s – has been enjoying a small renaissance in recent years. Poland, for example, has begun prioritising immigration from culturally similar nations, while a similar idea has been floated by Eric Kaufmann in his recent book Whiteshift and last week was given a plug by The Australian newspaper. American journal First Things is promoting the notion in its latest issue, contrasting the (properly) different approaches of Church and State to welcoming newcomers:

‘A just immigration policy will recognize that whereas the Church welcomes all comers, no nation can. It will insist that migration policy give preference to those who share the history, culture, and creed of the welcoming nation. It will recognize that those who are, by reason of history and belief, hostile to the host culture cannot really aspire to join it. European states should not forget that they are, in Pierre Manent’s phrase, societies “of a Christian mark,” impressed with an indelible character. The same is true of America.’

Where the link between a people and their country is weakened by large scale immigration and anti-nation ideology, it is increasingly difficult to maintain an overarching sense of social cohesion and solidarity across society as trust between different groups breaks down. This effect is magnified where the major ethnic group is singled out for unfavourable treatment in pursuit of a goal of diversity, as is now increasingly common in the West.

Social tensions can rise as many feel that their country is no longer their own, and they look enviously at other people groups around the world who still enjoy the benefits of a country given over to their way of life. This is a root of much of what is called ‘populism’ – a popular backlash against multicultural orthodoxy.

For many there is also an atoning dimension to this, regarding Western culture as uniquely prone to oppress others and culpable for past errors and crimes.

Some states, of course, are more complicated than this. Thinking especially of post-colonial states like the USA, Australia and South Africa, where Europeans are relatively recent arrivals, there is an indigenous population, and also perhaps the presence of other ethnic groups with a special history in the country, like blacks in the US. Such countries have distinctive challenges in formulating a shared public culture and sustaining harmonious coexistence between different groups – particularly where one (usually the European) was historically dominant politically if not always (as in South Africa) numerically.

Such states are not strictly nation states in the traditional sense, except by extension of the term, since they are not generally understood to be the political expression of their main ethnic group. They can certainly work – the USA in particular shows how a nation can be formed by large scale waves of immigration (mostly Christian European historically) when combined with a strong emphasis on respect for the republic and its emblems. This requires determination.

Allan Bloom writes in The Closing of the American Mind of the dominant WASP (White Anglo-Saxon Protestant) majority in America which ‘gave the country a dominant culture with its traditions, its literature, its tastes, its special claim to know and supervise the language, and its Protestant religions’ but which was assaulted by 20th century American political thought and social science ‘in favour of a nation of minorities and groups each following its own beliefs and inclinations.’ He notes that America succeeds when its ‘outsiders’ become ‘insiders’ by adhering to the ‘natural rights inherent in our regime’ but suffers when the common good is lost sight of and the protection of minorities ‘emerges as the central function of government.’

Ethnically and culturally diverse countries will always have additional tensions over public norms and public culture that other more homogeneous states avoid. There is no reason to think there is a general imperative to increase the diversity of such states further, which would amplify the difficulties to little gain. Likewise, there is no reason to regard ethnically diverse states as the model for all states, including those which have historically been nation states in the traditional sense.

To do so would be to deprive the peoples who regard them as their national homeland of their patrimony, a move which they would strongly resist, exacerbating social tensions and divisions. Not every country has to be like post-1960s America, indifferent to its ethnic composition (a vision which is experiencing problems enough in America). Traditional nation states are allowed to be just that without breaching a basic law of nature that supposedly requires them to become more diverse.

Countries should treat all their citizens and residents with respect, whatever their national heritage. But they should also keep in sight the bigger picture of where they sit in the larger story of humanity and its various diverse peoples, each forged by history with a story of its own. To neglect this can only store up problems for the future, as countries lose their sense of who they are, and alienate their peoples and leave them feeling disoriented and rootless.

(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)