Donald Dewar and Francis Fukuyama share the same anxiety that all forms of nation-building will collapse into ethnic nationalism. They are wrongby Tom Nairn / August 20, 2000 / Leave a comment
Earlier this year I published After Britain-reflections on the problems of millennial Britain, which focused on Scotland and the likelihood of that country seceding from the United Kingdom at some time in the new century. It attracted two particularly censorious reviews: one from Donald Dewar (in Scotland on Sunday) and one from Francis Fukuyama (in Prospect). Both these had something to add to the argument on the subject. I want to reply to the points they made, partly because it seems to me that a larger thesis lurks behind both attacks; a thesis significant far beyond Scotland or the British-Irish archipelago. It is a new conservatism aimed at countering and stabilising the consequences-or imagined consequences-of devolved power (for Dewar) and of the “globalised” world (for Fukuyama).
Donald Dewar began by objecting to my denunciation of the Blair project, suggesting that “it seemed harsh to condemn the politician and the administration that made devolution possible.” Doubly harsh, in fact, because they were being “tendentiously” compared to the rulers of the long-extinct Hapsburg empire. “Who knows or cares?” about anything so absurd, Dewar snapped. Fukuyama also found this comparison “a conceit,” because the UK “is nothing like the Austro-Hungarian empire.”
The impertinent comparison of Britannia with “Kakania” has been mentioned by other reviewers too, and in such dismissive terms that I should defend it. I do so by drawing on a High Tory account of Anglo-Britain by the historian JCD Clark in the Historical Journal (March 2000), which lays out the basis of the Austria-Hungary comparison. In a penetrating review of left-liberal ideas about national identity, he writes that Britain was a much stronger entity than the progressives believed, and that this explains its survival into the present century: “The experience of imperial expansion and major war in the 19th and 20th centuries never persuaded the English at least that they were a ‘race’: lacking this idea and its attendant problems, the UK’s plural national identities showed themselves to be, in functional terms, highly effective in two world wars. With the exception of Southern Ireland… the UK survived the 20th century with its unities impaired far less than other composite states like Russia and Austria-Hungary…”
I agree; but the continued existence of such (relatively) unimpaired “unities” was exactly the point of the comparison. As Clark shows, such survival is not by chance or luck alone: it requires incessant therapy and adaptation.…