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Nation-state or country-state: a response to Gagnon from the UK

In this response to Jean-Paul Gagnon on the nation-state, Michael Gardiner argues that cultural homogeneity is unnecessary as a property of nationhood. Rather, participatory citizenship is what is at stake. Resorting to the term 'country-state' would open the gates to half-formed ethnicism and ethno-culturalism.

Michael Gardiner responds to Jean-Paul Gagnon in this two-part exchange on the nation-state.

Two ideas spring out from Gagnon’s piece on the nation-state. Firstly, the idea that the state follows the nation so automatically that only questions of speed and arithmetic can be asked, and secondly that the state’s role is to ‘protect the individual’. This can’t help but sound odd to those of us based in the UK: our experience is that the state is there to coerce and indebt through a monopolisation of violence, and is entirely self-interested. The UK represents an important counter-case to the one in which ‘unitary nations’ are held to evolve into states, as if by natural law. 

One example of why this matters. In the House of Commons – quietly turned into the only effective chamber of a previously tricameral government by New Labour – both major parties voted for the Iraq war, and only nationalists, ultra-liberals, and oddballs against. Why did this not happen in France? Forget, for a moment, the ‘Celtic fringes’: would an English polity, which had dropped adversarial first-past-the-post whipped party demands and an entrenched political class relying on an unwritten constitution, have allowed the war? When a million or so people made it to the extreme south of the island to protest, there was an important sense that the system of political representation was not working; but there was also a sense that the state could not be forced to listen to public opinion. Why? The nationless state had behind it a constitutional apparatus whose job was to make action impossible. People were then subjected to years of whining ‘yes, but…’ columns by Polly Toynbee and the like, while a police state was built up around us.

So not every nation can or should simply transform into a state, like the first fish growing legs and walking onto land; one could talk about the limited powers of Palestine, Tibet, or Wales to wage global war, but more fundamentally, the UK is a state with no national or civic backing, the opposite to the ‘unitary nation’ which the author assumes to be widespread. This is the case historically – it describes how the state was set up and embedded between 1688 and 1815 – and in today’s terms, when anything British-national stinks of low-cultural ideology. (Britain, by definition, does not Have Talent).

Only during the height of empire between the 1810s and 1860s could the illogic of the British nation-state be plausibly expanded by continuous export. After world war one, this gradually atrophied into a state-nationalism, the claiming of ‘national’ properties for a state apparatus, which is one reason that the description of New Labour government as ‘soft Stalinism’ is not as juvenile as it first sounds. Besides this, much cosmopolitan thinking is pragmatic, class-bound, and thus underlines the need for the state; it can crush the individual (or, put more technically and correctly, the personal) in happy-sounding formations that offer us no protection. One obvious example is British ‘multiculturalism’, a post-imperial, re-heated version of ‘race’ which was used to make people declare themselves in terms of genotype, while swearing allegiance to the UK state.

So this is not a question of cultural homogeneity (whatever that means), but rather of participatory citizenship. Of course 'mass movement' is a good thing where the movers have a proper say over it; 'common rituals' on the other hand are unnecessary as a property of nationhood; "ethnically similar" is really quite shameful – the writer is right to be hesitant about this – and in the interests of concentration I am resisting the intriguing image of a community of persons sharing "similar fetishes". Instead, insofar as they are defined relative to that nation, there can be an active people, a citizenry. No ethnic or ‘cultural’ homogeneity is needed: none. And despite the tone of the argument, states and nations do not go together like a horse and carriage, and haven’t since the era of state formation ‘around’ nations (to which Britain is an instructive anomaly).

Nations can also be necessary buffers against ‘race’, carceral statism, and the ossification of constitutional systems – such has been the case in Britain since the turn of the eighteenth century. The ultimate aim of a nation is not necessarily the creation of a state (in the image, it is tacitly imagined, of the original state); indeed the aim may be closer to the opposite: an open-ended and dialectical future politics (as, to some extent, certain moments of the Edinburgh parliament show). To return this to the ultra-generic term ‘country’ or pays, may be to take away this political open-endedness and definition of citizenship as action, and to let back in all sorts of half-formed ethnicism and ethno-culturalism.

Indeed a ‘country-state’ sounds like what someone might think Britain was really like after two weeks enforced exposure, eyelids propped open Clockwork Orange-style, to BBC News. Those of us who have lived through New Labour have a good enough idea of ‘where this might lead us to’, so thanks anyway, but no.

About the author

Michael Gardiner is Professor of English and Comparative Literary Studies at The University of Warwick. His books include The Return of England (2012) and The Constitution of English Literature (2013). 

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