The Uses of Nations: Bonds of affection, consent and the future of democracy in Europe

 

This speech was given on 20 September 2004 at a meeting of the Deutsch-Britische Gesellschaft in Stuttgart

 

Richard Bacon




I want to make the case that nations are not out of date but rather that they express a natural human need to belong to a group, which is as basic as the need for food or sex or talking.

 

I will examine why it is that nations are flourishing despite the difficulty in defining what a nation is. I will look at why nations matter, democratically and politically. And I will conclude by suggesting what this says about the future of democracy in Europe.

 

An Old Idea


The idea of the nation has been with us for thousands of years as one of the defining ways in which human beings see ourselves. Ancient history is full of stories of different nations, from the Phoenicians, the Egyptians and the Persians to the Babylonians, the Carthaginians and many others. Indeed, there are over 500 references to the word 'nation' in the Bible.

 

More recently, and particularly since the 19th century, the idea of nations has been formalised into the doctrine of 'nationalism' - which has been variously described as a devotion to one's nation; national aspiration; support for national independence; or the political programme of a nationalist party. My own preference is to say that nationalism, at root, simply means a belief in nations.

 

Of course, in order to believe in a nation or to support national independence, one must have some clear idea of the group in which one wishes to believe or which one wishes to see become independent.

 

And as the Oxford thinker David Miller has pointed out, this is not entirely straightforward. Nations, he suggests, are not things that exist in the world independently of the beliefs that people have about them, in the way that, for example, volcanoes and elephants do. In the case of volcanoes and elephants, once we know the criteria for defining one, it becomes a fairly simple matter of observation to make your mind up whether something is an elephant or a volcano, or to decide how many elephants - or volcanoes - there are in a particular region of the earth.

 

But to ask similar questions about nations is more difficult. Not only does it involve a wider range of criteria than for elephants and volcanoes, but also people's own beliefs about their nationhood enter into the definition.

 

Classically, people seeking to describe nations have used things such as language, ethnicity, religion, and land or territory to define what they mean. However, none of these factors is adequate in each and every case.

 

Language


One can easily think of nations that have more than one language, either official or otherwise - Switzerland is the most obvious example but there are many others; in Sweden, both Finnish and Swedish are official languages; in Belgium; Flemish and French are official languages; in Canada, English and French, and in Canada there are also the various other languages of indigenous peoples such as Inuktitut, the language of the eastern Arctic. South Africa has 11 official languages.

 

The spoken English dialect of Wigton in Cumbria, in the far north west of England, is directly related to Old Norse, and a local man who during the second world war was washed overboard at sea and rescued by Icelanders who took him to Reykjavik, found that within a couple of days he could without difficulty both understand and make himself understood to Icelanders; but this is not to say that either Wigton or Cumbria is a nation. In short, there are more languages in the world than there are nations, some 6,000 at the latest estimate.

 

Ethnicity


The ethnic basis for defining a nation is not much better. Nations may often have been founded around ethnic groups - and it is also likely that ethnic groups which suffer persecution, or find their identity threatened, or their legitimate political aspirations denied, are more likely to think of themselves as nations - but nevertheless it is perfectly possible for nations to take on a multi-ethnic character. The United States is the most obvious example. Ethnically it began as an Anglo-Saxon nation but quickly incorporated Irish-Americans, German-Americans, Italian-Americans, Greek-Americans, Polish-Americans, and many others, who were no less American simply because they also identified with their old country. This phenomenon continues to the present day with Vietnamese-Americans, Estonian-Americans and so on.

 

Ireland was populated by Celts pushed westwards by the succeeding waves of immigration to the British Isles by Angles, Saxons, Danes, Normans and so on. Yet although there are many people in Ireland whose ancestry dates from those times, today there are also many inhabitants of Ireland who are descended from English Protestant soldiers who went to Ireland to fight under Cromwell, but who remained there afterwards, converting to Catholicism, and who are today no less Irish for that. One can find similar examples all over the world, from Argentina and Brazil to Canada and India, to name but a few.

 

Religion


Is religion any more dependable as a guide to defining a nation? Well, no, not really.

 

It is true that there are many countries with a clearly recognisable religious character. One thinks of Russia as Orthodox. One thinks of Poland and Spain as Catholic countries, and even though the Spanish Constitution does not allow for a state church, it still underlines the special relationship of Spain with the Roman Catholic Church. In Sweden the monarch must be an Evangelical Lutheran. The Constitution of Denmark states that the monarch shall be a member of the Evangelical Lutheran Church, which is the established Church of Denmark. Similar arrangements exist for the British monarch in relation to the Church of England. In the Netherlands the succession to the throne is limited to the legitimate descendants of the protestant King William I, Prince of Orange. Yet, although these nations having a particular religious character, no one suggests that all Danish people are Lutheran or that all Russians are Orthodox or that it would be impossible to be a Polish Protestant, or a Dutch Catholic, or, for that matter, to be a British Hindu or British Muslim.

 

Land or territory


Then we come to the case of land or territory. Although it is usually the case that a nation finds its home within a defined piece of land or territory this is not always so. Sometimes the members of a nation do not have their own land area at all but are divided into land areas made up of different states. This is the position today of the Kurds and the Palestinians. And although there is a country called Hungary it is much smaller than the area called Hungary where in the past those of Hungarian origins have lived and in many cases still live.

 

So neither language, nor ethnicity, nor religion, nor even land, is enough by itself to give us a clear definition of a nation. And yet this difficulty, in being precise about what a nation is, has not prevented the idea of the nation from becoming well-established. Indeed, the Preamble of the United Nations Charter reaffirms faith in 'the equal rights of men and women and of nations large and small' while Article One of the Charter states that the United Nations exists 'To develop friendly relations among nations based on respect for the principle of equal rights and self-determination'.

 

Neither of these could mean anything unless people had some reasonable idea of what they were talking about when they spoke of 'nations', even though it is quite easy to pick holes in any given definition.

 

Attacking nations and nationalism


However, the difficulty of finding a perfect definition has led some thinkers to attack the whole idea of nations and nationalism. In particular, the experience of nationalism in the middle of the 20th century, with the extremes of German and Italian fascism, has caused many people to regard nationalism as a dangerous and violent force which must be contained and overcome.

 

Nationalism has been attacked from many quarters. Socialists have attacked it as contrary to the principles of universal brotherhood and solidarity. Liberals such as Friedrich von Hayek, comparing nationalism with primitive tribal sentiments, wrote: "Our emotions are still governed by the instincts appropriate for a small hunting band". The conservative thinker Kenneth Minogue regards nationalism as essentially a revolutionary theory and therefore "a direct enemy of conservative politics". Albert Einstein described nationalism as "the measles of the human race". 

 

However, the fact remains that nationalism persists and indeed is flourishing. According to the United Nations' own web site, there have been 34 new members of the UN in the last 15 years.

 

Why nations persist


How can we account for the sheer persistence of nations? In my view the explanation is actually quite simple. Nations persist because they express a natural human need to belong to a group.

 

As Isaiah Berlin once observed, the need to belong to an easily identifiable group has been regarded - at any rate since Aristotle - as a natural requirement on the part of human beings. Families, clans, tribes, estates, social orders, social classes, religious organisations, political parties, and finally nations and states, were ways of fulfilling this basic human need; and while no one particular form was, perhaps, as necessary to human existence as the need for food or shelter, some form of it was indispensable - and moreover, that it found its expression in things such as common ancestry, common language, customs, traditions, memories, continuous occupancy of the same territory for a long time. These things together were held to constitute a society.

 

The difficulty for many modern minds is that by creating a group to which one belongs, one also necessarily creates those who do 'not belong', who are 'outside' the group which is being created.

 

The Italian writer Primo Levi, who was a survivor of Auschwitz, in the introduction to his famous book, The Drowned and the Saved, quotes from a letter he wrote to his German publisher:

 

"I do not understand, I cannot tolerate the fact that a man should be judged not for what he is but because of the group to which he happens to belong".

 

Yet later in the same book, quoting a different letter, he wrote:

 

"It is dangerous, wrong, to speak about the 'Germans', or any other people as of a single differentiated entity, and include all individuals in one judgement. And yet I don't think I would deny that there exists a spirit of each people (otherwise it would not be a people), a Deutschum, an Italianita, an Hispanidad: they are the sums of traditions, customs, history, language and culture. Whoever does not feel himself within this spirit, which is national in the best sense of the word, not only does not entirely belong to his own people but he is not part of human civilisation. Therefore, while I consider insensate the syllogism: "All Italians are passionate; you are Italian; therefore you are passionate"; I do, however, believe it legitimate, within certain limits, to expect from Italians taken as a whole, or from Germans, etc., one specific collective behaviour rather than another".

 

As Professor Andrew Vincent of the University of Sheffield has pointed out, while many theorists will admit that nations have had a brutal and unpredictable history, they remain certain that nationalism also has a moderate face and that membership of nations gives a rich meaning and identity to human beings, providing a conceptual and moral framework which permits human beings to comprehend their own existence within a community.

 

Quite simply, membership of nations makes up a part of our personal identity. And if it is true that all human identity is deserving of respect, then the basic principle of respect obliges us to respect that which, in others, constitutes part of their own sense of identity. Consequently there ought to be a fundamental respect for national differences.

 

Some say that nations are no more than a fiction or an invention formed in order to control people and turn them against one another. I do not find this persuasive. Of course it is true that nations are all created by human beings; after all, we all began as the ashes of dead stars, and so everything in our human world is the result of mankind's activities upon the earth. But there are real differences between nations.

 

And here there is a vital difference between the moderate and wise nationalism of which I am speaking, and the vicious and ugly nationalism which turns into hatred and violence. A wise nationalism understands that the fundamental importance to me of my nation's customs, traditions, laws, language, land, memories, beliefs, religion, paintings, literature, music, song, dance, social institutions, and political institutions, does not stem from the fact that they are 'better' than someone else's, but simply from the fact that they are mine - they are part of me and my identity. They go to make up the local and regional and national life of which I am a part.

 

And once created, these cultural artefacts of our existence are real in people's lives: together they create the bonds of affection that make us identify with one group rather than with another; together they go to make up what it is to belong, what it is to be a nation. This is no less so just because there is no neat definition of a nation that encompasses all cases, nor because people's own beliefs about their nationhood can affect the definition.

These bonds of affection, which together amount to a belief in the nation, play a fundamental role in the ordinary lives of citizens which no other form of loyalty can perform. This is why nations are so often the basic building blocks for democracy.

 

In a national community, people are held together by a dense web of customs, practices and implicit understandings. There is a shared way of life, which is not to say that everyone follows exactly the same conventions or adheres to exactly the same cultural values, but that there is a substantial degree of overlap in forms of life.

 

It is this shared way of life that inspires the loyalty that is necessary for much of day-to-day public life in a democracy to operate successfully. Once I am member of the nation, once I belong, I accept the obligations that flow from membership. These may include: paying taxes to the government, because I recognise myself as belonging to the group that benefits from the government building roads, or educating the young, or looking after the weak and the sick; or it may include serving in its armed forces, because I recognise that the group must be able to defend itself from outside threats to its way of life; or it may include obeying its laws, because I recognise this as a fundamental obligation to the group if it is to function successfully; or it may include participating in its democratic processes such as elections, because I recognise my responsibility to the group to help shape its future. These activities, and others as well, flow from my membership of the nation. People do these things because of a feeling that they 'should' do so.

 

I am unlikely to pay taxes if I don't identify myself as part of the group that benefits from those taxes. I am unlikely willingly to serve in the armed forces if I don't identify with those armed forces as protecting the group of which I am a member; and it will be unclear to me why the laws of the group should bind me if they mean nothing to me and I had no say in how they were made; or why I should participate in the democratic processes of the group if they seem irrelevant to my life.

 

The future of democracy in Europe


This leads me to the question of the future of democracy in Europe. I believe that the success of democracy depends upon the consent of the governed, not on any notional mathematical majority.

 

Consider the following countries and their populations: Germany has a population of some 82 million people. The United Kingdom has a population of 60 million and France is around the same. Finland has 5 million and so does Denmark. Portugal and Greece both have around 10 million. Spain has 40 million. Ireland has 3.5 million.

But to speak of a 'majority' of Greeks and British (70 million) against a 'minority' of Danish and French (only 65 million) or a 'majority' of Germans (82 million) against a 'minority' of Spanish and Greeks and Portuguese and Finns and Irish (only 68.5 million) - to speak of a 'majority' in this way, as if anyone should take any notice of this majority, is actually meaningless unless we have consented to the right of this majority to have any sway over us.

Within our own nation, this is generally not an issue. We might approve of the government in our own country or we might not; but generally we accept that it has legitimacy, not least because we know we can participate in a process - an election - which can get rid of it. I am in a different political party to Tony Blair and naturally I would like to see him ousted from Downing Street and replaced by my own party's leader, but I do not deny that for the present he is the lawful Prime Minister of my country. In this sense I 'consent' to Tony Blair's being Prime Minister.

 

Some might say there should be no difficulty at the European level. After all, the United Kingdom in common with the other members of the European Union has signed up to the treaties which together created and sustain the European Union. The governments which signed these treaties were democratically elected, and so one might argue, at least theoretically, that citizens are bound into the decisions of those governments, taken together in the European Union, to the same extent as if these had been purely the decisions of their own national governments.

The problem lies in lack of trust and consent at the European level. Actually, the level of trust and consent is declining even within the nation, although the governments of individual nations continue to enjoy at least a reasonable degree of legitimacy. At the European Union level there is nothing approaching this level of legitimacy.

 

The process has been driven from above by political elites, with little if any consent from the people below.

It has often been said that there is no European 'demos' - the basic building block of a democracy - no single European people bound together by the solidarities like those that bind each nation individually, and I think this is self-evidently true. Professor Daniel Tarschys of the University of Stockholm, speaking at a conference in Potsdam last year, gave a paper in which he asked the question: "Will there ever be a European 'demos'?" He starts, apparently realistically, by listing a number of reasons for saying that it is not possible.

 

There is the issue of languages. There is the lack of external enemies. There is also what Professor Tarschys calls the very maturity and relative sophistication of Europeans. "We recognise", he says, "that the record of nationalism and nation-building is disturbingly ambiguous". But nonetheless he concludes that a European 'demos' can and should be built, although he says it will only work if there is very substantial extra expenditure and major investments in education and mass communication".

 

Given the rather sluggish economic performance of many European countries, the already high levels of taxation, the growing crisis in financing the health services and the university systems, the problems of an increasingly elderly population including how to pay for pensions for the retired, and high levels of unemployment - given all these things, the idea that the extra expenditure for a taxpayer-funded mass propaganda exercise on the joys of democracy at a European level - 'demos money' - is likely to be forthcoming from taxpayers across Europe on anything like the scale required, seems to me - to say the least - unlikely. And even if it were, it does not follow that such a campaign would actually work.

 

In the UK we are frequently assured that we are not moving towards a European superstate - and that any suggestion that we are is wrong and misplaced. I have never actually heard a description by those who favour European political integration (but who say we are not heading towards a superstate) of the point at which there would be something that should concern us. Usually one just hears bland reassurances that the idea of a superstate is dead.

 

I simply observe that the European project already has or very soon will have a parliament, a flag, an anthem, a currency, a central bank, a driving licence, a passport, a concept of citizenship, a legal system with a hierarchy of courts and a supreme court, a criminal justice system with a public prosecutor and a police force, a common foreign and security policy which members are obliged to uphold, a diplomatic service, a foreign minister, a president and a constitution.

 

It is possible that people worry less about this in continental Europe simply because it is so widely accepted that, in some shape or form, a 'superstate' - call it what you will - is indeed where Europe is headed, that the goal has always explicitly included much closer political integration, and that the only remarkable thing is that anyone might doubt this.

 

My own view is that the whole project now inspires the greatest cynicism because it has failed as a framework for public decision-making which people can understand and to which they can consent. It is seen as corrupt and self-serving, with no serious interest in reform. The financial accounts of the European Union have continued to receive a black mark from the European Court of Auditors in Luxembourg in every year since the introduction of the Statement of Assurance system in 1994, because there is so much fraud and irregularity. Each year the European Commission promises change, but each year - now for 9 years in a row, and it will probably be 10 years in a row this coming November - nothing much happens.

 

When the European Commission appointed Marta Andreasen as chief accounting officer and she refused to sign the accounts because of glaring problems with fraud, she was told: "Sign the accounts. That is why you are paid a high salary" and then she was disciplined and then lost her job.

 

Perhaps I am wrong about this. Perhaps it is indeed the case that many of the peoples of continental Europe are prepare to forge ahead towards a much deeper political integration, involving the subsuming of their national political identities into a broader European political identity, that they really are prepared to grant to institutions at the European level the degree of loyalty and acceptance, and power to run their affairs, including the power to levy tax, which would be needed for the project to be successful. I have my doubts that this is what people across Europe really want.

 

But at the least, I will readily agree that over the years the British have often deeply underestimated the degree of solidarity or 'emotional glue' in many continental countries which holds the European project together. The scars from the experience of France and Germany in going to war so frequently, not only on the three occasions between 1871 and 1940 but on a number of occasions in the centuries prior to that, and also the shared experience of war for those European countries that were occupied in the world wars of the 20th century, have meant that there is a deep and profound political will to produce something better through the project of the European Union, which many British people can read about, and describe, and intellectualise, without truly understanding it at an emotional level.

 

At the same time, there is about the British experience an issue which is equally profound, whose importance has been deeply underestimated in continental Europe.

 

It is often said that if we achieved a deeper political integration in Europe, the Italians would be no less Italian, the French would be no less French and the Germans would be no less German - and that in the same way the British would be no less British.

 

This immediately raises the question of what it is to be an Italian, or what it is to be French, or German, or British - and whether we can just taken it for granted that the things that make one an Italian are of the same type as the things which make one British.

 

Of course, in some ways they are the same: the issues I raised earlier which have to do with language, land, customs, religion. These are the things which help us to recognise someone as, say, Italian.

 

There is, though, a very big difference. And that is the fundamental importance within the British cultural identity of self-government and limited government under the rule of law; as well as the central importance of controlling the government by controlling its access to money. By this I mean not only that these things are important within British political culture, but also that they are an important component of the British cultural identity as a whole.

In short, the themes of how one controls government are at the heart of the British identity and are reflected across the Anglo-Saxon world.

 

In the United States, people sometimes say the reverence for the American Constitution is a 'civic religion' - and they are right to do so. The US Constitution has an almost sacramental quality in the American national story, with a deep reverence for checks and balances upon government. This has even found actual religious outlets: for example, around the main pulpit of the national cathedral in Washington D.C. there is a carving in stone which shows a scene from England - the barons at Runnymede, handing the Magna Carta to King John. In other words, surrounding the very pulpit of one of the most important religious buildings in the United States lies a tribute not to the glories of those who have power but to the limits placed upon them.

 

The fear of unaccountable power also explains the deep unwillingness of the British to enter the single European currency. The single currency means having one interest rate. That means having greater power at the centre (than would be needed with floating currencies) to deal with the consequences of having one interest rate. And that means greater power at the centre (than would be needed with floating currencies) to move money around from the rich areas to the poorer areas, which in turn requires greater authority at the centre so as to levy taxation.

 

To join the single currency (if it is to be successful) is the same thing as to agree to greater political authority at the centre to deal with the consequences of a single currency, and in particular to allow for more central control of tax than exists now.

 

And this is why those who want to see political integration have been so keen on achieving a single currency. When the French economist Jacques Rueff declared that "Europe will become united through its money or not at all" he meant precisely that a single currency would inevitably lead on to closer political integration. Otmar Issing, a member of the executive board of the European Central Bank, made a similar point when he commented that "a Europe which ventures to monetary union cannot avoid making a decision over the shape of the political union".

We have seen Hans Eichel, the German finance minister, criticising the Italian budget proposals. We have seen Nicolas Sarkozy from France criticising the tax levels of the new members of the European Union in Eastern Europe. And the Greeks have recently admitted to hiding the size of their deficit by manipulating their national accounts.

 

All this is quite understandable. In a single currency system the condition of, say, Italian or Greek public finances is a matter of entirely legitimate interest to the German finance minister, since it will directly affect the situation in Germany and the value of the German currency, which is the same currency as in Italy and in Greece.

It was a famous German central banker, Hans Tietmeyer, the former President of the Bundesbank, who stated openly what some have sought to deny: that in a single currency area with one monetary policy, with one interest rate, there must also eventually be much closer co-ordination of fiscal policy, of taxation. And, indeed, Chancellor Schröder has explicitly called for greater co-ordination of European taxation.

 

Here lies the rub. The whole history of the struggle of the House of Commons has been the struggle to ensure that the people could not be taxed without their consent, and that the very means of governing - money - would not be available, unless those who were governed could call their governors to account. The power of the House of Commons stems directly from achieving sole power over decisions on tax. To this day, all Money Bills must start in the House of Commons, not the House of Lords, as a reminder of this.

 

If one walks through the public entrance to the House of Commons, through what is called the St. Stephen's Hall, one sees a painting of Cardinal Wolsey, who was Lord Chancellor to Henry VIII, together with Sir Thomas More and other Members of the House of Commons. The caption reads:

 

"Sir Thomas More, as Speaker of the Commons, in spite of Cardinal Wolsey's imperious demand, refuses to grant King Henry VIII a subsidy without due debate" (my emphasis).

 

The great cry of the American Revolution "No taxation without representation" stemmed from precisely the same source - from an understanding of the rights which the colonists in America understood to be theirs under the British constitution and which they would not see denied - namely, that those who are governed and have taxes levied upon them must have a say or it is not legitimate.

 

The contribution of the Anglo-Saxon legal and political system to world civilisation, above all else, has been to stress the fundamental importance of limited government under the rule of law, and of controlling the ability of those in power to obtain the money needed to govern. It is this idea - that governments should be constrained and controlled and watched over by those whom they are governing - which has an almost sacramental quality in our national story and which forms a central part of our identity.

 

So the very act of transferring powers of lawmaking to the European level - or of transferring powers of taxation to the European level - itself undermines the British identity in a way that is simply not true, say, for an Italian.

The enormous contribution of Italians to world civilisation is not seen (at least in modern times) in the creation and sustaining of smooth and stable democratic government. Their contribution has been elsewhere - in art and literature and music and cuisine and fashion and style and fast cars and, unfortunately, football.

 

It may no longer be true to say that not paying one's taxes is an Italian national sport. But it is true that for generations Italians have more or less despaired of their government, that they have sought simply to avoid their government - and where possible live without it - and that one of the attractions of the European project for Italians has been precisely that it may produce better government than they have had domestically. So for Italians to lose part of their government is not to lose anything which is that important for Italian identity; Italians have been ignoring their government for years. The same is not true for the British.

 

The British Parliament is among the most famous buildings in the world. Most other parliament buildings are not so physically well known. This is not an accident: it reflects an important historical truth, that when one thinks of the British identity one thinks much sooner than for most other countries, when formulating in one's mind what the British identity is, of the relationship of those people to their government and, in particular, to their ways of controlling their government.

 

In the context of Europe, it is not obvious that a democracy at a European level is possible. To those who think it is, let them try. Perhaps I am missing something. Perhaps housewives in Germany are longing for the day when they can turn on the television to watch a speech by their favourite Greek politician, in Greek, before going down to vote in the election. I have my doubts.

 

I believe that a wise nationalism would allow nations to honour one another and to celebrate what it is that makes them special, what gives them their identity, leading to a rich variety of national forms of life. And central to that, at least for the British, is retaining control of those who govern us, not sharing it with others.

 

The great challenge facing us is to construct a set of arrangements that at the same time allows those who wish to go ahead into deeper political integration in Europe to do so - if that is what they genuinely wish - while allowing those who want a much looser arrangement based on co-operation and trade to have that. Unless the European Union can create such arrangements I do not believe it will last in its present form, no matter how many constitutions or treaties are laid down. As Ralph Waldo Emerson once put it: "A foolish law is a rope of sand".

 


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