An almost-majority of Scots want independence. Image credit: Terry Mathews / Alamy Stock Photo

What is a nation?

National identities are social constructs—and no less powerful for it
May 10, 2023

Nations shape the world and reach into the hearts of the people who inhabit them. Ukrainians are bravely defending their country and paying a terrible price. An almost-majority of the Scottish want to end a peaceful and voluntary union with a prosperous neighbour, even if that leaves then poorer. Britain left a beneficial European club in the name of greater national sovereignty.

Yet, as I was reminded when I recently drove from Calais to Haarlem in the Netherlands, nations are artificial entities. I crossed two borders seamlessly, the second without seeing any sign I had left Belgium. On many maps, borders are the only things indicated that are not actual physical features or structures. Being arbitrary, borders are also the elements that need the most regular updating.

History and geography tell us that there is nothing natural about nations. With their canals and Dutch speakers, the Belgian cities of Ghent and Bruges seem to have more in common with their neighbours in the Netherlands than the French-speaking cities of Mons and Liège, yet it is the latter that are part of the same country. Even when crossing the natural divide of the English Channel, the revived rigmarole of customs checks and stamps on passports was an irksome reminder of the artificiality of political boundaries.

There is a seeming paradox here: nations function as though their reality were solid and fundamental, yet they lack stable essences and are subject to change. 

We might say that they are just social constructs. But beware of that “just”. Social constructs are no less real than natural phenomena. To suggest otherwise is to make a basic ontological mistake (ontology is the branch of philosophy concerned with the nature of being).

Social constructs are far removed from fundamental reality but are among the most real things we live with. Death is natural in ways marriage is not, but a divorce can be more painful. People may kill for food and water if they have to, but they choose to die for love, justice, liberty—and country. 

Nations are not any old social construct. They provide us with the structure and security that we need to flourish. When their laws are just, we can live fully as the social animals Aristotle said we were; when they are corrupt or unenforceable, social life swiftly collapses. As Hobbes argued, the state exists to prevent the bellum omnium contra omnes, the “war of all against all” that he pessimistically thought was “the naturall state of men, before they entr’d into Society”.

The most pressing question for us today is not what a nation is but what it should be

But most citizens today don’t just look to the state to secure their lives and possessions. They want security for their way of life, which may evolve but should not be forcibly overturned or altered. In Scotland, independence is largely driven by a feeling that the national culture is significantly different from the English-­majority British one. In Ukraine, the desire is to defend a freedom and democracy that have fairly recently been won and a much more established, distinctive culture and history that Russia denies ever existed. 

Of course, nations can be constructed in different ways. The origins of the modern nation state are usually traced back to the treaty of Westphalia in 1648, but kingdoms, empires, city states and the like existed before then. Even in the relatively brief era in which the nation state has been dominant, its nature has been highly variable. The most pressing question for us today is, therefore, not what a nation is—but what it should be.

Not so long ago, many observers were predicting the demise of the nation state, with transnational bodies such as the European Union and international trade agreements chipping away at domestic sovereignty. Innumerable nationalist backlashes have shown this view to be naive. It now seems obvious that, in building a more open and globalised world, we also need to preserve national identities and governments.

One way to square this circle is to encourage a civic nationalism that is not based on “blood and soil” ethnicity. Canada is usually held up as the model, while the Scottish National Party has been pushing this as its vision for independence. Some dismiss it as a thin, minimalist conception of nationhood. But Canadians, for example, do not just claim a passport. They embrace the languages, histories, traditions, cuisines, sports and traditional pursuits of their nation. These shared values matter: a national identity cannot be truly inclusive if it is no more than a collection of mutually exclusive sub-identities. 

Almost everything that makes up a nation is a social construct. Nationalism goes wrong when people forget this and fall for myths of blood and soil. Populations may talk about the importance of their “homeland”, but it is the largely non-material culture which this land supports that really matters.