Citizenship And The Nation State Remain Relevant, Despite The Efforts Of Their Detractors

Katy Perry - Treaty of Westphalia - Nation States

There’s life in the humble nation state yet

As the backlash against Brexit grows ever stronger and the Cult of Social Justice and Identity Politics eats away at our national fabric from within, there are many legitimate reasons to fear for the future of patriotism, citizenship and even the nation state itself.

However, there are also a few reasons for optimism, and Rebecca Lowe Coulson sets some of them out in Conservative Home. But first she paraphrases the question that many people are now asking about the continued relevance of the concept of citizenship:

In an increasingly globalised world, however — in which the Westphalian order of nation states is regularly criticised as inward-looking — citizenship is repeatedly denounced as an outdated representation of division and exclusion. It hardly seems necessary to comment that such denouncements typically come from the privileged, within the most economically and politically secure nations. And that, like those Britons angered at the imminent loss of their EU citizenship after Brexit, few “global citizens” seem keen to give up the privileges of their current national citizenships.

Of course, what many of those citizenship-snubbers truly want (like most of the rest of us) is for their own privileges to be extended to those living in less secure places. It is undeniable that great global imbalances remain, even though living standards continue to rise across the world. But then, the question should not be whether the concept of citizenship precludes opportunities in the sense that being a member of one state can be highly preferable to being a member of another, but whether it is still the case that one’s rights and opportunities are best protected and afforded through membership of an individuated state. In a world in which secure states increasingly offer extensive rights to non-citizen inhabitants, aCitind less secure states need more substantial upheaval and help than an improved understanding of the intricacies of membership rules, is the concept of citizenship relevant?

Coulson Lowe then goes on to explain exactly why the concept of citizenship remains relevant, and will not be undermined despite the best efforts of those who see the nation state as an obstacle to be overcome rather than a crucial guarantor of rights:

We all remember how, in her 2016 Conservative Party conference speech, Theresa May said that “citizens of the world” were “citizens of nowhere”. The comment has become symbolic of an approach for which she has been widely criticised: an approach seen both as arrogant, and as attempting to appeal to those on the further right of her party.

At the time, I felt her tone mistaken, in that I would have preferred a use of language implying greater keenness to heal, or at least address pressing divisions within the country. General criticisms of the comment often overlook the argument May was setting out, however. The words came within a section about the “spirit of citizenship”, and read, in full: “But if you believe you’re a citizen of the world, you’re a citizen of nowhere. You don’t understand what the very word ‘citizen’ means”. Surely, it is that forgotten second sentence that is key, here. And that the point May was in the midst of making was about the importance of “respecting the bonds and obligations that make our society work”.

The state, and the society that exists within it, still matters profoundly to those people who aren’t happy with the countries they call home .. Official membership of such societies is conferred in different ways: from the automatic rights of familial lineage to the successful passing of a test. But the standard way of gaining the citizenship of a state is by being born and growing up in it. For those of us fortunate to count somewhere like Britain or Australia as that place, it can be easy to take for granted the relative privileges this affords us.

Yet most of us see that the uncertainties and risks of life make it expedient for us to live together in societies, and that, as social creatures, it is natural for us to want to do so, over and above that expediency. The advancements of the past centuries — in communication, travel, science, military capabilities, commerce, and on — have made it impractical for societies to remain limited to the family groups, villages, or cities they once were. The continuation of that advancement does not mean that our embrace of the nation state must also become outdated, however. For simple reasons of functionality — not to mention the more complex, such as those related to culture or national identity — it is hard to see how bigger blocs or idealist internationalist approaches could work.

This is what many on the Left fail (or are unwilling) to grasp. The Westphalian concept of statehood and sovereignty (combined with 19th century concepts of nationalism) survive the test of time because they work with the grain of human nature rather than against it. Rather than pretending against all available evidence that somebody from country A has as much in common with someone from country Z as their next door neighbour, the system of nation states is a tacit admission that the human instinct to be part of a social communities mean that harmony is best achieved when systems of government are aligned with societal boundaries. And indeed, when there is a mismatch between government and society, nation states have often split and reformed in response.

But the bigger blocs and non-state actors championed by the nation state’s detractors will not become a viable replacement in the foreseeable future, precisely because an entity’s democratic legitimacy and popular support are derived from having a demos which identifies as a cohesive whole and consents to being governed at that level.

The United States works as a country because US citizens see themselves as American first and foremost, and not Californian, Texan, Iowan, Alaskan or North Carolinian. The United Kingdom survived the 2014 Scottish Independence referendum because a majority of Scots (just about) considered themselves British as well as Scottish, if not more so.

Supranational blocs do not command this sense of loyalty or commonality among the people they nominally represent, as the European Union discovered with Brexit and will continue to discover as member states chafe against one-size-fits-all dictation from Brussels. Brexit occurred because the European Union’s drive for ever-closer union and a grander role on the world stage was plain for all to see, and the majority of voters who consider themselves more British than European wanted no part of it.

The “if you build it they will come” approach – where ideological zealots construct all the trappings of a supranational state in the hope or arrogant expectation that a common demos and sense of shared purpose will follow on automatically – has been proven to be nothing more than wishful thinking.

And this is a good thing, because as Rebecca Lowe Coulson correctly observes, supranational and non-state actors have generally proven themselves far less able to effect change than unilateral, bilateral or multilateral efforts by nation states with common purpose. The very nature of trying to shoehorn the competing national interests and priorities of multiple countries into a “common” foreign, fiscal or defence policy gives rise to resentment, suboptimal outcomes (such as stratospheric youth unemployment in Southern Europe) and inevitable net losers.

And yet the myth persists – amplified by bitter Remainers and much of the corrupted civil liberties lobby – that cooperation between countries is only possible under the umbrella of supranational government, and that these non-state actors are somehow a better guarantor of individual liberties than nation states themselves.

Take this hysterical email recently sent out by “civil liberties” organisation Liberty:

Yesterday we took another huge step towards our withdrawal from the European Union as the Government published the Repeal Bill.

If the Bill passes in its current state, people in the UK will lose rights after we leave the EU. It’s that simple and the stakes are that high.

The vote to leave the European Union was not a vote to abandon our human rights.

Yet the Repeal Bill includes worryingly broad powers for ministers to alter laws without parliamentary scrutiny and contains no guaranteed protections for human rights. Worse, it takes away the protections of the Charter of Fundamental Rights without ensuring that we will continue to protect all of those rights in the UK after Brexit.

Every single right we have now needs to stay on our statute books – from those contained in the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights, to equality protections we’ve gained from our membership.

Liberty – and other groups who are content for British citizens to have “rights” imposed on them from above rather than argue for and win them at a domestic level – see supranational organisations as a convenient bypass for national democracy. If the stupid British people are too dumb to vote for more employment protections and other government treats, this line of thinking goes, then advocacy groups who know better should just go over their heads to the EU. This is profoundly undemocratic, but more than that it only affirms the dangerous idea that our rights should be granted by government (at any level) rather than being innate and inalienable.

This is utterly wrong, as I explained back in 2015:

The new, emerging institutions which will replace them are being designed behind closed doors by small groups of mostly unelected people, as well as the most influential agents of all – wealthy corporations and their lobbyists. We have almost no idea, let alone influence, over what they are building together because instead of scrutinising them we spend our time arguing over the mansion tax or the NHS or high speed railways, which are mere distractions in the long run.

The liberties and freedoms we hold dear today can very easily slip away if we do not jealously guard them. By contrast, power is generally won back by the people from elites and powerful interests at a very heavy price – just consider Britain’s own history, or the American fight for independence from our Crown.

The yawning gap in the argument of those who would do away with the nation state is how they intend to preserve democracy in its absence (assuming they even care to do so). Even many of the EU’s loudest cheerleaders concede that the current institutions are profoundly undemocratic and unresponsive to popular priorities or concerns – this tends to be expressed through an exasperated “of course the EU needs reform!”, sandwiched between odes of love and loyalty to the very same entity, as we witnessed countless times during the EU referendum.

But what that reform actually looks like, nobody can say. Or at least, those few tangible visions for a future EU which do exist are so unmoored from reality as to be little more than idle curiosities – see former Greek finance minister Yanis Varoufakis’ DiEM25, which contends both that the European Union can be persuaded to undertake meaningful reforms (ha!), and that this reformed EU should then amplify left-wing priorities to the exclusion of all others (how very democratic).

If you want to do away with the concept of the nation state or actively agitate for its demise then I think you have a responsibility to state clearly and unambiguously what you would have in its place before pushing us all into the undiscovered country. Yet the assorted citizens of the world, so anguished by Brexit, refuse to come up with an answer – at least not one which they are willing to utter in public.

The European Union is not a static entity – it is an explicitly and unapologetically political project moving relentlessly (if erratically) toward the clear goal of ever-closer union. If this is not their preferred outcome for Britain and all other nation states (and few pro-EU types will admit that this is what they want) then it is incumbent on them to offer an alternative goal with a politically viable means of achieving it.

And until they do so, the assorted enemies of the nation state do not really deserve a hearing.

Treaty of Westphalia

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10 thoughts on “Citizenship And The Nation State Remain Relevant, Despite The Efforts Of Their Detractors

  1. angharadlois September 1, 2017 / 2:05 PM

    I still get a strong sense of cognitive dissonance from this argument. You’re effectively defending one supranational union over another. You manage to brush over it lightly here by suggesting that a slim majority of Scots view themselves as British as well as Scottish, but I doubt that is the only reason, or even the main reason, that the IndyRef went the way you hoped, and there’s more than just the two nations in this United Kingdom.

    The “19th century concepts of nationalism” you seem to think serve us so well were used as the rationale for government-led oppression and suppression of my language and culture. So, needless to say, I am skeptical of any argument which uses these concepts as its ideological base. Some people might think that the Welsh language is indeed a hindrance and should be suppressed for the benefit of a cohesive nation state – but how is that qualitatively different from the Brexiters’ favourite straw-man supranational EU state? At least the EU respects linguistic diversity, whereas London has given us two mainstream media attacks on the Welsh language in this past month alone. As far as I can tell, my Welsh identity is supposed to accommodate Britishness, but Britishness is under no obligation to accommodate Welshness. So you’ll forgive me for not joining in this rousing chorus of ‘Rule Britannia’

    From my perspective, one union is very much like another: the quality and nature of the union is what matters. We’ve argued about this before, and all the same points still stand: any concerns I have about what we will lose by withdrawing from the EU could be addressed by reform within the UK. But, in your words, “what that reform actually looks like, nobody can say.” The very people who lobbied for Brexit are too busy complaining about the fact that not everyone is happy about it to state a positive case for what happens next.


    • celt darnell September 5, 2017 / 2:58 AM

      All right, well while I am not Welsh, I lived and worked there for a decade. I’m the son of a Scottish father and English mother and I’m also familiar with British (including Welsh) history, so I do know whereof I speak.

      Britain is not a supranational entity, it’s a nation state — and it is internationally recognised as such (the EU is not). Scotland and England, meanwhile, are part of the same nation state courtesy of the Act of Union (preceded by the union of the crowns). By the standards of the day — the early 18th century — it was a liberal arrangement. England did not conquer and annex Scotland. A political merger was agreed upon by the elites of the day. You’re speaking of a + 300 year-old union which, besides conferring a degree of legitimacy all by itself, was reconfirmed by a clear majority of Scots in 2014.

      By contrast, British political integration with Europe, which really originates with the Maastricht Treaty (Europe’s competencies were largely restricted to aspects of trade prior to that) never enjoyed the consent of the British people. Had the Maastricht treaty been put to a referendum, it would have been voted down. Nor have a majority of the British people ever supported further political union with Europe. Further, polls demonstrated that even most Scots did not, in fact, want more political integration with Europe (which may be why, to the Scots Nats’ chagrin, a third of their supporters voted leave).

      Thus, by late twentieth and early twentieth-century standards, European political integration is decided illiberal (and I haven’t even started on the rejection of the European constitution by the electorates of France and the Netherlands, only to have it imposed on them in the form of the Lisbon Treaty, this time without the benefit of a referendum in either nation).

      The Welsh-English connection is owed to the Norman conquest of both. Neither peoples were given any choice in the matter. Wales, however, undeniably did very well out of the 19th century political structure by any measurement: living standards, literacy rates, life expectancy, etc., all increased. While one would never defend the “Welsh Not” policy, it was never sanctioned by Westminster. It was not a policy of the British state. Not only that, modern Welsh nationalism, including a determination to preserve the Welsh language, can be seen to have started in the 19th century — thanks to the better transport, increased prosperity and literacy — the first National Eisteddfod was held in 1861. Public broadcasting in Welsh, laws protecting the Welsh language, etc., meanwhile, predate our entry into the EEC — by decades, in the case of the BBC Welsh language service.

      To say that ‘at least the EU respects linguistic diversity’ in comparison to Victorian Britain is thus an intellectual shell game. You may as well write that ‘at least the EU respects women’s right to vote.’ The fact is, whatever its shortcomings, the British state has done more to protect the Welsh language than the EU ever has.

      I’m truly sorry that some in the media are such bell ends as to disparage your language and culture, but that hardly justifies your claim that ‘my Welsh identity is supposed to accommodate Britishness, but Britishness is under no obligation to accommodate Welshness.’

      Indeed, being, I suspect, at least a generation older than you, I can recall the days when the overwhelming majority of Welsh, English and Scots had no issue whatsoever with our British identity. It was only after we joined the EEC and then had the EU imposed upon us, that being British became problematic — that it somehow prevented one from being equally English, Scottish or, yes, Welsh.

      Finally, I would like to remind you that the majority of Welsh voters voted leave.

      Be careful with terms such as ‘cognitive dissonance.’


      • angharadlois September 6, 2017 / 11:14 AM

        “Be careful with terms such as ‘cognitive dissonance’.”

        I like to live dangerously.

        As it happens, however, this particular use of the phrase was neither dangerous nor careless. Sam has consistently argued for the continued existence of the UK on emotional grounds, in terms of a sense of belonging; he has also consistently argued against continued membership of the EU on an equal but opposite basis, as he does in this post.

        Similarly, in spite of being Welsh, my opinions are not decided by majority vote. A majority of Welsh voters voted leave, but a significant minority didn’t. It shouldn’t be surprising that a diversity of opinion exists on the major political questions of our time, and I am here to express some of that diversity. No cognitive dissonance here.

        My mention of linguistic diversity was made in the specific context of – and the same sentence as – attitudes expressed by London media this past month. I agree that comparing contemporary EU linguistic diversity to the standards of Victorian Britain is an intellectual shell game. I didn’t make the comparison: you did. My mention of Victorian Britain was simply intended to highlight some of the problems with C19th concepts of nationalism.

        Incidentally, the Welsh-English Union dates in legal terms from the Acts of 1535 and 1542 – somewhat later than the Norman conquest. These acts were fully repealed in 1993.

        When it comes to identity, in spite of being younger than you, I have no issue with my British identity: only with the way in which ‘Britishness’ is currently being portrayed in much of the media.


        • celt darnell September 9, 2017 / 12:07 AM

          I’m aware of the Laws of Wales Acts. But, just as I am aware of the Acts of Union of 1800, I wouldn’t identify that date as the start of Ireland’s political union with Britain. I was merely conceding that the Welsh-English union did not enjoy the voluntary basis that the English-Scottish one did.

          As for cognitive dissonance, I don’t see how anyone, with the best will in the world and with basic literacy skills, would contest the charge that you compared (albeit indirectly) the 19th-century British state to the present-day EU, to the disadvantage of the former. Again, my point that the British state implemented laws to protect the Welsh language and culture long before we joined the EEC, undercuts your argument that “At least the EU respects linguistic diversity.” The fact is, so does the UK — and it did so before the EU ever came into existence.

          But here’s the thing. As with a lot of Europhiles, you conflate Europe with the EU — the collection of cultures and nations on the western part of the Eurasian landmass, with the treaty organisation called the European Union. The problem is, this often leads to the position that all of Europe’s achievements — political, cultural and scientific, are somehow part and parcel of the EU, while all of Europe’s crimes — such as the Holocaust, imperialism, wars, etc., remain the sole property of the nation states. It also muddies, quite splendidly — as is the intent — the question of a “European” identity.

          If, however, you restrict the definitions — as I did — to the legal/political entity Great Britain to the legal/political entity the European Union (and not “Europe”), this approach is effectively ruled out of bounds. In this sense, Britain’s legitimacy, and thus the British identity, has been legitimated at the ballot box, just as legitimacy of Britain’s EU membership, and thus Britain’s “EU’ identity (but not “European” identity) has been repudiated at the ballot box.

          This confusion of terms, by the way, is why you can claim your Welsh identity is obliged to accommodate your British identity, but not vice-versa, based solely on some ignoramus expressing his views on the alleged deficiencies of Welsh culture.

          Tell me — does the current French President’s expressing his equally ignorant views of, say, Poland, equally mean that Poland’s Polish identity is obliged to accommodate the European identity, but not vice versa?

          I voted leave. As it happens, I regarded myself as a European before we joined the EEC. I regard myself as a European now and will consider myself a European after we leave the EU.

          True, your opinions are not decided by majority vote. You will find, however, that Wales’ status with respect to membership of the EU is determined by the ballot box.

          You’ll remain European. You just won’t remain a citizen of the EU…

          …unless you take out allegiance to another nation state. If so, I hope you enjoy that identity, too.


          • angharadlois September 9, 2017 / 11:54 AM

            You seem to be conflating my specific reply to this blog post with arguments you have had with “remainers” – which may explain why you consistently read things into my comment which are not, in fact, there.


  2. rapscallion September 1, 2017 / 8:51 AM

    “The Westphalian concept of statehood and sovereignty (combined with 19th century concepts of nationalism) survive the test of time because they work with the grain of human nature rather than against it.”

    This concept allied with our desire that those placed in power by us are accountable to us, are elected by us, and if need be, removed by us.

    As is so often the case, the leftists, “citizens of the world”, globalists and EU apparatchiks ignore human nature, considering that it can be engineered the “right way”, in much the same way that Eire had to keep voting until it came up with the “right” result.

    Whilst we are creatures of reason and logic, we also respond to other triggers over which we have little, if any, control. Like, love and hate. Who can say why we dislike a particular person, or genre of music, or whatever metric you care to select. It just is. Live with it.

    All these criteria allied with ties of family (or tribe if you will) are what makes us what we are. How many times will parents back their children to the hilt, even when wrong (say in divorces), because they’re “blood”. It happens all the time. What did you expect?

    At heart, the nation state is there to look after its own people, to protect their rights, laws, customs and traditions, all within a system that is manageable – and if becomes difficult to manage then either power is devolved or a separate country is created. The nation state doesn’t mean trampling on other countries, for they too have their own ways of doing things – and long live the difference.

    In short, I am master in my own house, and you are master in yours. I don’t seek to tell you what to do in your house, and if I should you’d soon be telling me where to get off. Should I visit you, I abide by your rules and customs and vice versa. It isn’t difficult.


  3. Douglas Carter August 31, 2017 / 6:46 PM

    ‘Take this hysterical email recently sent out by “civil liberties” organisation Liberty:’

    Inverted commas in context greatly appreciated. Well observed and many thanks.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Samuel Hooper August 31, 2017 / 6:49 PM

      Cheers. They certainly don’t deserve the description without inverted commas to show what a mockery they make of the causes they claim to promote. Liberty, like the ACLU, prefers to worship at the altar of the Cult of Social Justice and Identity Politics than actually defend civil liberties.


      • Douglas Carter August 31, 2017 / 7:25 PM

        Amen to that.

        Same as Amnesty International. Sad decline of principles.

        Liked by 1 person

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