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. Only in dream-retrospect do old r?gimes seem to have endured calmly the storms of time “for 1,000 years” (and that sort of thing).
The August and September days following Princess Diana’s death in 1997 were a Viennese theatre of menaced unity which a lot of people would have liked to have seen exploited differently. They wanted to break from the unwritten, claustrophobic Anglican past so cherished by Clark, and discard royalty altogether. But as regards national identity, the new radical government turned out to be much less rupture-inclined than its predecessors. Margaret Thatcher nourished much more gut-hatred of the “Anglo-gent” hegemony than the calculating think-tankers who, after 1997, poured into the breach she had made. They represented the Restoration after her Revolution. They had come to patch things up.
As Donald Dewar knows (possibly better than anyone else alive), by 1997, devolving power to Edinburgh, Cardiff and Belfast had become a necessary condition of continuing that structure-let alone of “modernising” it. I understand why anyone who endured the 1970s, the miserable stalemate of 1979, and the 18-year fightback which followed, now has to defend and make the best of the result. Dewar’s role in that process was always determined and honourable. It arose out of personal culture and thoughtful conviction, not-or not alone-from party necessity or a desire to dominate. This is why he is so respected in Scotland-and why I feel honoured to be reviewed by him. He was borne to office by the Blairites, but has little in common with them. While it is too soon for a historical verdict on Dewar’s leadership, the “father of the nation” label seems fair enough (provided we keep in mind how insupportable most actual dads often are). It was probably fortunate that this bookish, eccentric lawyer presided over the first year of the Scottish parliament, embodying a quite personal hegemony which (it now appears) is unlikely to last much longer.
But he is mistaken in asserting that “I refuse to accept that the 1997 Labour government acted decisively to change the face of Scottish and indeed British politics.” Who could conceivably refuse that? The question is: why was the action taken then, so swiftly, after 30 years of indifference, division and postponement? The view defended in After Britain is that it had become more dangerous to postpone than to implement. Labour depended on its loyal outlands in Scotland and Wales. But in both countries, a generation of struggle against emerging nationalism had won the Scottish and Welsh parties over to genuine belief in a compromise, Home Rule, position. By 1997 it seemed indispensable to grant that wish-as part of Blair’s initial “project” to build up a longer-term left-of-centre strategy which might last at least as long as Thatcher’s. The continuity of state authority demanded it.
But this was not to be about writing a new agenda of state for the 85 per cent majority in England. Strident Blairite rejuvenation was the coating on the idea-pill-the nebulous newness required for one more lease of life for the status quo. From the 1970s onwards, “devolution” had evolved as the quaint formula for avoiding a written constitution, “federalism,” and other alien blueprints. It was devised by a state guided since 1688 by Providence. Ill-intentioned critics like myself may always have declared that only a miracle would make it work. But that’s the point. Having always been a miracle, Anglo-Britain can still undertake feats impossible for others.
Dewar unwittingly touches on this field of miracles where he admits that After Britain was right to argue that “it might have been better to start (constitutional reform) with the heartlands of the south rather than with Scotland and Wales.” There could then have been a new statutory framework within which regional power was clearly defined-the “first base” of secular, modernised, statehood. In the post-miracular condition, Scotland and Wales would turn into something like Bavaria, Catalonia or Qu?bec. But no. “That was not a practical option,” Dewar comments. The English majority was uninterested.
It is striking how negative the cadence of such excuses has been, often against opinion poll or survey evidence. How can the home of modern parliamentarianism be “uninterested” in improving such a celebrated and distinctive inheritance? One reason could be that it is under non-stop instruction from its political ?lite to leave “constitutional” in the “miscellaneous” (and “dry-as-dust”) category, because this ?lite still can’t help identifying its own power with the historic and providential: first-past-the-post, Westminster pastoralism, state openings, leading to quiet expansion of the immemorial gland and the sovereignty ego.
I would have hoped that Dewar the lawyer would be more alert to such duplicity. How can he fail to notice (for instance) that Blair’s renovated House of Lords is a straightforward ectoplasmic redemption-formula, a shot into the last available vein? In the week I write, Frank Field introduced a bill to prevent Scottish MPs from voting on devolved matters concerning the land of “England & Wales” (the archipelago counterpart of “Serbia & Montenegro”). Thus was the West Lothian question finally to be given earthly habitation and statutory name. It was to become an agreed custom of the ancient dispensation, not part of a new constitutional state.
Field’s move was defeated as premature and crass, but only after a speech from the present (and probably last) secretary of state for Scotland, John Reid: “Dr Reid said that the Bill underestimated the West Lothian question’s complexity. He added: ‘If this Bill became law, we would have to have not only the Scots with a different class of vote but Welsh and Northern Irish MPs who are different again. It fractures both the procedures and the symbolic unity of the UK Parliament.'” (The Times, 29th June 2000)
I suppose Dewar’s Scottish-Labour career has been like Reid’s-over-marinated in procedures and symbolic unity. Yet Field’s proposal showed that English opinion is becoming interested, and that, in a short time, majority opinion is likely to follow it. The general constitutional reform option will then become highly practical for everyone except hopelessly loyal Scots, who will go on babbling o’ unity and time-honoured customs while the framework of fake antiquity continues to dissolve around them.
in 1997, the most important internal UK issue (unmentioned by either Dewar or Fukuyama) was Northern Ireland. Three years on, it has been settled by a deal which, though enabled by the British government, departs totally from British precedents. For New Labour, getting gracefully out of Ireland was as important as squaring Wales and Scotland. The spirit of noblesse oblige towards Ulster Protestants demanded that they should not simply be abandoned to what might have become a Bosnian-style war. But the only way of doing this turned out to be a de facto secular republic, imposed from above but agreed to (finally) from below. The 1998 Belfast Agreement compelled equal abandonment of all the confessional hatcheries: they became communal traditions. It enforced an elaborate and astonishingly left-wing written constitution, and a profound redefinition of sovereignty (both Irish and British). What nobody in England was interested in turned out to be the answer for Ireland. And of course, strong international pressure has helped to buttress the resulting state. Blair and his Belfast emissaries certainly made the arrangement possible. Yet the essence of what was arranged escaped their Anglocentric philosophy altogether. What will be seen historically as the project’s greatest achievement is the one which most completely contradicts its Geist.
Having operated for too long inside Westminster, Dewar is unable to distance himself from it in any equivalent way. He concludes, rather dully, that the Scots and the Welsh have a duty to make Britannia go on working, in spite of heartland indifference or resentment. Well, I can see that he has such an obligation. But I still feel reluctant to identify this tragically honourable man with the much larger number of Scots and Welsh (not all in parliament or cabinet) who retain such a visible and powerful vested interest in propping up English exceptionalism. As embodied agents of the non-written dispensation, they cannot help feeling over-identified with the archaic Britishness which made them. Hence they are furiously hostile to any new identity which, whatever its problems, would begin by unmaking them. It would pull the rug from under their conception of “Scottishness.”
Dewar’s last point expresses this attitude all too plainly: “Nairn has no time for those-and I am one-who want to be both Scottish and British. For him it is a choice, and that is sad.” The sadness is on his side. It is the conviction that the old Union relationship of “Scottish” to “British” is the only valid recipe-once it has been rescripted by responsible devolution. “Responsible” here means “thus far and absolutely no further”: no truck with independence. Loyalists must make better things “as they are.” But “things” are clearly not as they were, and are liable to remain in their 2000 condition for less than no time. Once England starts to think for and about itself in a new way, nationally and constitutionally, it will change everything and everyone else automatically-and in its own interests. This is not disaster, merely an archipelago fact. We can’t help always being in bed with the elephant.
To face up to that day, my view is that Scotland needs its own constitution and a de facto independence which will (as in Ulster) enable a different, wider British relationship to be built up. Something of that was prefigured in the Belfast Agreement: “strand three,” the British-Irish Council or (as it was instantly rebaptised) “the Council of the Isles.” Dewar is suspiciously impatient over this. He detects in it only “unreality.” Who could seriously think that this body might change things, he snorts, or even be an archipelago polity in embryo? In practice he may be proved right-Blair’s cabinet may simply be in search of a fig-leaf. If that turns out to be the case, then Scotland, Wales and the micro-states (Isle of Man, Jersey and Guernsey) should all prepare themselves much more urgently for standard-issue de jure independence. At present they seem predominantly to favour a looser, associative model for the future-some kind of confederation which might renegotiate British institutions and inter-relationships in everyone’s interest. But if (as Dewar believes) this is simply out of the question, then the only alternative will be full United Nations statehood.
No answer can be found in “Europe,” as at present constituted. The SNP has been particularly associated with the ideal of “independence in Europe,” as a form of painless, side-door departure. But this has become like all those old blueprints for regionalism and federalism-wonderful had they been possible, but worse than useless because they are not. In a brilliant new survey of Euro-politics, Democracy in Europe (Penguin), Larry Siedentop concludes that federalism is inevitably a long-haul solution, approachable only gradually: “a matter for decades, probably for generations.” A tolerable political Europe will depend on “a consensus on which areas of decision-making belong to the centre and which ought to be reserved for the periphery. Today in Europe there is no such consensus…” The periphery of the archipelago is therefore damned twice over: its former British consensus has lapsed, yet for long there will not be another European one to replace it. However, history is unlikely to hang around twiddling its thumbs for decades and generations (as the devolutionists hope). Too little may have been accomplished by Blair on the constitutional level; yet too much has been done for the process to be arrested, or put into reverse. Chronic instability has been achieved, and will only be aggravated by futile back-pedalling in the name of “symbolic unity” and the House of New Lords. Unfortunately, the EU contributed almost nothing to the government’s big success-Northern Ireland-and is likely to do as little for other post-British settlements. In those conditions, is it surprising that the “old-fashioned” solution of independent statehood retains its meaning and appeal?
francis fukuyama is seen as the prophet of a globalised culture within which the nation-state has become anachronistic. His critique is in two parts: a general survey invoking “liberal principles,” and a much more focused attack-about which he evidently feels more strongly-concerning “American interests.” Were Scotland to split, he suggests, “Britain’s already reduced influence would almost certainly shrivel further… An independent Scotland would be less reliable as an American ally than Scotland as part of Britain has been. Complaints voiced in Scotland over its soldiers serving in Kosovo may be harbingers of things to come…”
He’s right on all these counts, but not necessarily for the right reasons. Nationalist disquiet about the coincidence of Kosovo with the first democratic election campaign in Scotland’s history had nothing whatever to do with ethnic or fellow-feeling for either Serbs or Kosovars. It was provoked by a mixture of scepticism and resentment at our neighbours’ continuing great power pretensions, and their assumption that (as it were) Good Soldier McSchweik would go on being happy to tag along. Hadn’t he always been effective in a uniform, “punching above his weight”? I think the leader of the SNP was attacking this assumption when he denounced UK intervention during the 1999 election campaign-losing some votes, apparently, but putting down a much more important marker for the future.
Providentialism entails a certain self-importance. For Britain this is symbolised by permanent membership of the UN Security Council and the special relationship with the US. Fukuyama is appropriately consoling about these perquisites, and worried about their loss: “A break-up of Britain might have a profound psychological effect on the English. The British do not see themselves as an outsize Switzerland which happens to be an island; they have always considered themselves one of the movers of world politics. The transition from Britain to England could mean a turn inward, and a concentration on problems of English identity, as occurred in the transition from the Soviet Union to Russia.”
It is indeed the case that, after losing the Baltic states, Ukraine, Belorussia, Moldova, and the Caucusus, the Russians were forced to swallow the bitter pill of still being (by far) the largest country on earth, and still with the means to blow the rest of it up. Yet somehow not so special as before, no longer a top-grade “mover” with its own end-of-history dispensation and the accompanying horoscopes.
Being “special” in that sense is a drug more toxic than cocaine. It is now chiefly consumed in the US. It is distressing to find Fukuyama so addicted. I had hoped that this would be an early victim of the liberal-market globe which he welcomed in his celebrated 1989 manifesto, The End of History and the Last Man. Yet 11 years later, we find him fussing over its disappearance in Britain-surely the most overdue demise in the history of modern imperialism? Just as the UK ?lite wants to hang on to its loyal-Scot auxiliaries, so the American State Department ?lite wants to keep the British trusties in line and ready for service. Those providential guys seem to be sticking together, as if big-time, responsible nationalism was fine, but small-time free-loaders and tearaways have to be sternly discouraged.
Fukuyama’s emphasis on saving Britishness is hampered by one awkward but unconcealable fact: he doesn’t like Britain much. While censoring my own bad jokes about it, he has to struggle to disagree with their implications. “With regard to legacy institutions like the House of Lords and the monarchy,” he admits in typically tortured Hegelian tones, “…it is hard for me to see how their function as bearers of tradition and continuity… outweigh their negative influence as the underpinnings of what still seems, from the outside, to be an excessively stratified class system.”
Yes, hard from the inside too-and aggravated there by incessant government pseudo-campaigns about the making new of all things. I can’t help feeling that he would feel far more at home in present-day Dublin than in London, and find Scottish formalism more to his taste than Whitehall’s “centuries of tradition.” But this won’t do: he has to snap out of it, declaring somewhat abruptly that “it does not, however, clinch the argument.”
No: the real clincher is the menace of ethnicity. What is decent about Scottish nationalism “can be perfectly well accommodated within a more decentralised system…” “Accommodated,” huh? This message has been droned out from Westminster for many years. It also used to be heard on the loudspeakers in Moscow and Jakarta, and long before that on every Viennese bandstand. In coded form, what it signifies is roughly this: folk-dancing is extremely good for you, but political choreography is extremely bad-and cannot be allowed. This is because it leads to indecent displays and breaches of the peace. After Britain is an incitement to such disorder: “Once you have moved away from genuinely liberal principles of political union to principles based on ethnicity, it is hard to know where to stop… Nairn implies that the national idea, once allowed to express itself, follows an inevitable life-course which must mature into a demand for full sovereignty.”
This is incidentally where Fukuyama and Dewar find themselves in most complete agreement. Dewar decries the book for promoting shallow “identity politics” at the expense of solid social-policy politics: “What I do question is whether a sense of identity, a recognition of cultural difference, inevitably requires the protection of a nation state. This book being based on that assumption gives constitutional change precedence over all else.” In other words, they both think that ethnic or ethno-cultural differences are the kernel of nationalism, harmless enough when accommodated but fatal when they attempt to accommodate themselves-for instance, by setting up constitutional shop on their own account.
I will not deny that I am an advocate of such smaller-scale entrepreneurialism. Scotland has the great good fortune of returning to political existence in a post-1989 world where democratic statehood is becoming a norm, at the start of a century in which scores or even hundreds of new (mostly smaller) polities will acquire the means of misbehaviour. But it is simply not the case that I have ever argued that “ethnicity” or inherited “cultural difference” is the principal explanation, let alone the justification, for such changes and possibilities. On the contrary: these are preconceived ideas which Fukuyama and Dewar clearly find impossible not to read into any text supporting the break-up of existing states or the constitution of new ones. Are the old forms wretched, decadent, oppressive and hypocritical? Are the successor nations mainly democratic republics, and a credit to homo sapiens? Well, maybe; their duty is nevertheless to stick to folk-dancing, preferably within a properly decentralised system.
This is what I meant at the beginning by the new conservatism which unites my critics, and which reads ethnic divisiveness into any reordering of national entities. Two farther scarecrows are invariably wheeled out to support such bourgeois anxiety. The first is a recent list of disasters: Yugoslavia, Rwanda, the post-USSR, Indonesia, Sri Lanka, Cambodia and (Fukuyama’s favourite) Qu?bec. The second is a more deeply-rooted philosophical assumption: that ethnic nationalism is the smoking gun of modern history and the motor of the “nation-state”-so what matters most is either to stop it firing, or (where this is unavoidable) to make it fire blanks, like devolution.
what is the response to this anxiety about ethnic nationalism? In absurdly short order, the answer goes something like this: the disastrous collapses customarily cited as evidence of insane ethnicity all occurred where constitutional democracy was either absent or deeply defective. Exclusivist nationalism gained the upper hand only where there was (or seemed to be) no alternative mode of communal expression and organisation. Once in control, it appeared (and sometimes pretended) to be an irresistible and atavistic force, rooted in blood, soil, history, faith, and all the rest of it. That was a cultivated illusion, however, not the voice of ages or of “human nature.” And even then, most of the actual mayhem was perpetrated by uniformed men in the service of one or other dominating state-or, as with the Rwandan Interahamwe and the Indonesian “militia” in East Timor, by non-uniformed but self-appointed agents of law and order.
People behave extremely in extreme situations, where all other alternatives appear to have lapsed in the face of a life-or-death choice. This does not mean that they or we are “really like that.” But there is a mythology of modernity which strongly supports precisely that interpretation. People still tend to reach for this whenever they feel the earth shifting under their feet. This is the notion of ethnos-based nationality as representing the deeper or truer foundation of human affairs. Thus, real life is presented in counterpoint to an abstract sphere of political management-to Fukuyama’s “liberal principles of political union,” to civic or constitutional identity. History is then construed as a ceaseless contest between nature and reason. It’s easy to fit the current disintegration of the UK polity into the scheme-as both these critics do, from very different starting points.
But the scheme is a myth of surprisingly recent invention. Socio-cultural variation may be a constant for homo sapiens, but the “ism” now so firmly attached to it goes no farther back than the European Enlightenment. It was not until the 19th century that the systematic form-“nationalism”-acquired general credence and that uneasy mixture of plausibility and notoriety which still characterises it. As the late Ernest Gellner showed, this was because of its connection with the simultaneous urbanisation of western Europe, and then the wildfire spread of industrialisation across the globe. In the essay I have quoted, JCD Clark observes that England stood a bit apart from this wider process: it did not fall foul of “race.” But among the most important population of Europe-the Germans of the Hapsburg Empire and farther north-“nationalism” easily outpaced democracy in the struggle for control of the new forces of production. In association with Italy and Japan (the most successful extra-European example of ultra-rapid modernisation) Germany came near to winning domination of the modernisation process-or of “globalisation” as we now label it.
Although militarily defeated in 1945, this great disaster left much of its Weltanschaung behind. “Ethnic nationalism” found some new sustenance in de-colonisation, in the neo-nationalism of the 1960s and 1970s, and in multiculturalism. Yet that was arguably the “History” which ended in 1989. The extension of liberal capitalism to the ends of the earth drew not just the sting of ethnic nationality struggle, but the reasons for viewing history in those terms. Ethnicity began to lose its general impetus and glamour-in spite of forced reanimation in the extreme circumstances mentioned earlier. Instead, the 1980s and 1990s have seen the emergence of a new-more accurately new/old-alternative in the shape of what is now fairly routinely called “civic nationalism.”
The most quoted remark from Fukuyama’s article is the one he quotes from “an acquaintance”: nationalism of the sort manifested in Qu?bec or Scotland is “a game played at the end of history.” In the same polemical way, the riposte could be that this game is history to come, beyond the way-station signalled by The End of History. Moreover, it is a greater and longer-range game than that perpetrated by the imperialism and racism of the 20th century Leviathans.
“Ethnic nationalism” was a short-lived ideological bias whose origins lay in the 18th century: the “nationalism” part became common currency in French and other languages in the 1870s, while the “ethnic” qualifier was added and generalised only in the 1970s. By contrast, “civic nationalism”-the philosophy of self-government or republicanism-descends from antiquity via the renaissance and early-modern times. In the modernity which has followed, communities of “blood” were an inebriate (though sometimes inevitable) delusion; but those based on constitutional citizenship and choice return us to the beginning of “History,” the edge of recorded time, fantasised in Michael Ondaatje’s novel, The English Patient. “Ethnic” traits (reputedly indelible, ever-recurrent) are in fact marked by transience. They are fluctuating, migrating and culture-dependent; and susceptible to speedy change. Civic or institutional traits (those employed in state-formation and legal systems) are very resistant-and they are transmissible over centuries or even millennia.
It was an error to believe that the tidal shift from ethnic nationality meant the end of “nationalism” as such. “Ethnic nationalism” was always a kind of emergency forgery; civic nationalism is the real thing. Before long it will probably just be called “nationalism,” with appropriately small “n” and vanishing “ism.” It is relatively easy to see how, in that perspective, the archipelago future can be read not merely as disintegration but as incipient re-formation. Irish independence, the Northern Irish Agreement, Scottish and Welsh devolution, and the regional and other stirrings in England could then appear as harbingers of a looser confederation or association of countries. This place will be much easier to breathe in than the claustrophobic old Dome which finally collapsed not long after the start of the third millennium. But until then, self-government is self-government is self-government. There is no ingenious substitute for the real democratic thing. All wider futurescopes must start from it, and a more independent Scotland and England will naturally find their place in these. I hope that the Danish electorate will remind everyone of this next September by voting “no” in the referendum on the euro. n