Saturday, 15 August 2015

'State', 'Nation' and the Union Rag

OK, so that's a deliberately provocative title for a post which I know some will find controversial - stick with me, and hopefully you'll see why I chose it.

Firstly, a little bit of context. I was prompted to write this today be a couple of things. Initially it was related to articles like this:
about the lack of a Union Flag on the new GB athletics kit. Now personally I think this is a bit of a non-story, since the whole thing is pretty conclusively union flag coloured anyway, but I can, of course, understand the sentiment. There is a problem, though, which is what I want to discuss.

There were one or two other issues, too, including a Lib Dem Federalism-related twitter account that wants to campaign for the UK to be a federal 'nation'. Now I am absolutely fully in favour of a Federal UK, as I have already made clear in other posts. It seems to me the only logical, viable way for the UK to be effectively governed in future. I have very strong reservations about the terminology being used, though.

The UK is not a 'nation', it is a 'state'. These are terms that get thrown around and a great deal as if they were freely interchangeable, but they are not the same at all (note that I don't use the term 'country' - it's not one that is so clearly defined). The Oxford English Dictionary (online version) gives this definition for 'nation':

'A large body of people united by common descent, history, culture, or language, inhabiting a particular state or territory'

 And for 'state' (in this context), the same source gives this: 

'A nation or territory considered as an organized political community under one government'

These are very different things. They often get confused, perhaps as a result of the nineteenth century grouping of most European countries broadly into 'nation states' - in other words, administrative 'states' which broadly coincide with 'nations' where there had previously been various principalities, and so on. The definitions are quite clear, though - a 'state' is the administrative and political entity that occupies and controls a geographical area, and a 'nation' is a group of people with a broadly similar cultural identity. 

The 'problem' with the UK in this sense is that it is not a 'nation state', and never has been (and, I hope, never will be, as much as there have been attempts to make it so). It is a 'multinational state' - a geographical area under the control of one set of state mechanisms, but occupied by several different clear and distinct nations. In fact, the borders of the part occupied by those different nations are quite clearly defined and accepted, having been around for some centuries, so it really should be quite easy to spot!

You can, of course, argue that to an extent each of those 'nations' now has a 'sub-state' entity of its own through devolution (and they have previously in some ways), and you can argue that at some points in history in particular (during the 20th century wars, for example) there has been at least something of a UK 'nation', in as much as the peoples of the various nations have evolved culturally hand-in-hand, and have demonstrated a general loyalty to the same 'state' as if it were a 'nation state'. However, it would be folly, I believe, to deny that that somehow means that the UK is no longer that 'multinational' entity, fundamentally 'multicultural' in its construction. 

Of course, some people prefer to identify themselves as 'British' rather than coming from one of the constituent nations of the UK (Britain is not the same as the UK, of course, and that's another issue!). Some people presumably 'feel' themselves to be an amalgamation - a 'sum of the parts', so to speak. Whilst I have absolutely no desire to impose anything on anybody, and will always regard such things as a matter of free personal choice, I do have to question the extent to which some of those people understand the individuality of the nations of the UK. Does a self-proclaimed 'British' person from East Anglia, for example, really feel that they are in equal parts English, Welsh, Scottish (and Northern Irish, if they are using 'British' to refer effectively to 'UK-ian'), or are they simple ascribing a title to what they 'feel' as English people who are pro-Union in a political sense when really they have very little affinity with the UK nations beyond England? That's something for self-identified 'British' people (from all of our 'nations') to think about for themselves, but I don't think that feeling part of a 'family of nations' under one 'state' and with some degree of shared history is quite the same thing as that family being one single 'nation'.

And here we come to a fundamental point about the issue of terminology - the two things are often and easily confused, but there is actually a world of difference between feeling a cultural affinity with a particular 'nation' and giving political support and loyalty to a particular 'state'. A great many historical problems have been created by this common confusion, with it being regarded by some (sometimes people, sometimes governments) that in order to be loyal to a 'state' an individual has to also feel affinity to a 'nation'. This notion is especially nonsensical in the context of a 'multinational state', of course, but that's never stopped it from happening. Enforced cultural conformity and assimilation on the basis of a mistaken belief that 'nation' and 'state' are, or should be, one and the same has created some very serious problems, and indeed crimes, over the years. 

'Nation' is about people. It is about feeling affinity to a culture. That does not need to have anything whatsoever to do with the political concept of 'state', or loyalty to a particular state entity, or a belief that a particular state entity is the right construct for the nation to live within. To put it in more blunt terms, I do not have to 'feel' anything other than 'Welsh' in my 'national identity' in order to believe that the UK is the best construct for my geographical home to be a part of. In order to be 'loyal' to the UK, I don't have to declare myself to be 'British' rather than 'Welsh'. This is something that doesn't seem to be very well understood, and this is a problem both for relations between the defined 'nations' of the UK and for the attitude towards more recent immigrants - there is also nothing at all wrong with being, for example, feeling partly or predominantly 'Indian' in terms of 'nationality' and 'cultural identity', but still being entirely loyal to the United Kingdom as the political entity that administers the geographical area in which you are living (although there's obviously also nothing wrong with 'feeling' 'British Indian' either, and feeling a natural cultural affinity with both Indian heritage and with the 'nation' in which you have been living - that's quite natural, too, though again the issue of 'British' as notion applies). It's as if we are saying that in order to be truly 'loyal' to the UK 'state' we can only be assimilated into personally conforming with a particular form of 'national' culture, and I think that is pure rubbish.

In this context, one term that becomes very much misunderstood because of this is 'Nationalism'. 'Nationalism' has taken on a connotation of a negative, xenophobic view - a feeling that not only is a person's own 'cultural identity' theirs and what they feel an affinity to, but that the cultures of others are somehow 'inferior'. That's fair enough, given the history of the term and how it has been used, but where misunderstanding occurs is when the term also gets used for a desire to change state entities and develop a different construct of 'nation states' in what would then be the former UK. The two things can be related, in that some of those who would like to see the UK broken up are doing so from the point of view of a xenophobic resistance to what they see as 'foreigners' - it's nonsense to suggest that those elements do not exist within the SNP and Plaid Cymru, for example. They do - always have, always will - they are the 'natural home' for such people. That doesn't mean that they are the prevailing and/or policy view, though, and that doesn't mean that 'secessionism' is always based entirely on 'xenophobia'. It can also be based on a simplie principle of 'localism', and a belief that those geographic areas occupied by an accepted 'nation' are better served by having their own independent systems of governance. It is also nonsense to suggest that Plaid and the SNP are just the equivalent of the BNP in Wales and Scotland, with similar xenophobic agendas - they are not. Of course, it is difficult to understand that if you don't understand the fundamental difference between 'nation' and 'state' in the first place.

To give you a specific example, I will point you towards a couple of songs from well-known 'Scottish Nationalists' (and socialists) The Proclaimers. Whatever you think of them musically, and whatever you think of their sentiments as expressed in these songs, it's a simple, clear illustration:

The first is 'Cap in Hand':

It's a simple enough song about being able to understand lots of things, but 'I can't understand why we let someone else rule our land, cap in hand', on the basis that Scotland belongs to the people who live there, not to anyone else who lives elsewhere. On the face of it, that might seem 'Nationalistic', and many would take that to mean in some way 'Xenophobic'.

The second song, however, is 'Scotland's Story':

This is a song about immigration, and all of the people being a part of Scotland's Story:

"In Scotland's Story I'm told that they came, The Gael and the Pict, the Angle and Dane, but where's all the Chinese and Indian names? They're in my land's story and they're all worth the same!"

It's a song about the equal worth of everyone who lives in Scotland, regardless of their origins or 'nationality'. How do you square these two sentiments with one another? Unless you understand the fundamental difference between 'nation' and 'state', and between 'Nationalism' in terms of 'secessionism' and 'Nationalism' in terms of 'xenophobia', I'd argue that it would be quite difficult to do!

So how is this whole thing relevant to where I started? Well, in the case of 'making the UK a federal nation', I don't believe you should. I'm a committed federalist in terms of the UK - I believe it is the way forward, but I utterly reject any idea of trying to make the UK a 'nation' and overriding the existing feelings of identity among the various peoples of the UK, including the defined 'nations' that occupy particular parts of these islands. It's a huge mistake to mix the two things up, in my opinion. The UK should be a federal 'state', but a 'state' comprising of the various 'nations' and not just a 'nation' in itself. To push the idea of the UK being a 'nation' is to fall into all of the old traps of enforced (by implication, if nothing else) conformity to a single cultural identity, and I've mentioned the problem with this previously in my post about 'Britain Day' and the like.

As for the 'Union Flag', there is a very specific problem with it as a supposed symbol of the UK as a 'state' - it explicitly fails to represent one of the main constituent nations of the UK. There is no representation of Wales, and that is something that I, as a Welsh person, strongly object to (and I'm not alone, I can assure you). That doesn't make me some kind of radical 'xenophobic nationalist' (or even 'secessionist nationalist'!), and it's not an entirely uncommon sentiment in Wales. I absolutely believe in the UK (a Federal UK) as the best 'state' mechanism for my geographic area to exist within politically, but I can never support a flag that is supposed to represent our shared family of nations under one 'state' when it doesn't recognise the existence of my country or represent it in any way (and the same is true, of course, of the Royal Standard flag). 

Of course, the argument that very often comes back when this is mentioned is one of 'tradition'. Well, nuts to 'tradition', quite frankly! Slavery is traditional. Sexism is traditional. That doesn't mean that these things shouldn't be changed, and the same is true of an obviously fundamentally flawed state symbol. The other regular answer is that it 'doesn't really matter' or 'isn't important'. Well it does, and it is. It is important, because it is helping to foster the dangerous and offensive misunderstanding of 'nation' and 'state', and promote the idea that in order to be truly loyal citizens of the UK 'state' we have to all be one 'nation'. We don't. Of course, many of those who regard this as people just being 'difficult', or 'nationalistic' in a negative sense, come from 'nations' which are represented on the flag, and have little understanding of the nature of the UK as a 'multinational state' entity rather than a 'nation state', and that is the kind of understanding that we need to promote. 

I can and will show loyalty to the UK state, but don't ask me to show loyalty to the idea of not being a part of the Welsh 'nation', because that's never going to happen, and nor should that kind of thing be asked of any of us. The problem is not only a directly political one - it raises its head in things like sport, where we are expected to feel 'national pride' (I won't delve deeply in to the obvious issues and dangers surrounding such 'pride', and the fact it is actually possible, though many sadly don't seem to be able to do it, to feel affinity and support for your 'nation' while not actually regarding it as any better than anybody else's!) and 'national loyalty' in supporting our 'national team' under circumstances whereby the team comprises of few representatives of our 'nation' (as one of the smaller constituent parts of the UK) and competes emblazoned with a flag that doesn't actually represent our 'nation' at all. Again, we are allowing terms to be confused.

So where does that leave us. Well, I'll put it in blunt and personal terms. If you want me to support 'Team GB' at anything as if it were a 'national' team, use a flag that includes representation of my 'nation'. It's that simple. Make it clear that it is a 'multinational' team with a 'multinational' 'state' flag that actually includes my 'nation', not a 'national' team that I should feel ashamed to not support as if it makes me in some way 'xenophobic'. Either that, or if you want people to support it 'national' teams as others in 'nation states' do, end 'Team GB' altogether and let us support our own 'nations'. You can't have it both ways - either we compete as 'nations', or we compete as a 'multinational state' - we cannot pretend that one is the other, and then not bother to include one of the constituent parts of the 'state' in how we represent it. 

We need to change the flag, for a start - the title I chose for this post was a deliberate one, based on a reference to a very common term used for the flag in Wales, and not just among those who are politically 'nationalist' in any sense. We are supposed to enthusiastically endorse a flag that explicitly fails to represent our nation as a constituent part of the UK state, and many people seem to have no recognition of how genuinely offensive that is to many people. The same kind of thing goes for the anthem, of course - 'God Save the Queen' is supposed to be the UK's anthem in theory, but it is very clearly a song of and for only one of our nations. We need to change it - let England have it, and let's have a modern UK anthem that actually represents us all (and not just the geographically established 'nations', preferably, but the gloriously diverse peoples that we are in the UK). The idea of a new anthem just for England is a nonsense - England has, by its nature and by modern 'tradition', a perfectly reasonable anthem in 'God Save the Queen' - what we need is an appropriate new anthem to represent the whole of the UK.

I am Welsh. I am comfortable with that as my 'national identity'. I don't regard it as in any way 'special', or as in any way 'superior', but simply as 'mine' - it is what I have grown up with, and it is what I feel a part of. Wales is my 'nation'. I don't 'feel' anything else, but I'm more than happy to enjoy cultural elements from any other nation - we should celebrate our diversity, within the UK and beyond. Our own nation shouldn't be something we feel 'proud of' in terms of it being something 'exclusive' or 'better', but in order to truly celebrate our diversity we have to recognise the fact that we aren't actually all 'the same' even within the UK 'state'.

I am also a supporter of the UK as the state mechanism that I think will best support and serve the place where I live - I would like it to be a Federal UK, of course, and I also want it to be a part of the wider EU mechanisms. I think that serves us well in Wales and beyond. I fully support devolution on the basis of 'localism' (I am a Liberal), and I believe that 'Wales' is a logical geographic entity on which to base that, but I don't support the idea of it needing to be 'independent' of the UK. 'Nation' and 'State' are very different things, and in order to understand how we can celebrate diversity, enjoy the culture which we feel to be 'our own' and equally enjoy elements of others as of equal worth, and recognise how all of our peoples are best served in terms of 'state mechanisms', we need to understand that, especially within the context of the relatively unusual political entity (in Europe, at least) that is the UK.


  1. Surely as the Union Jack is the flag of the United Kingdom, and Wales is not in fact a kingdom in its own right but merely a principality subject to the Crown of England, Wales is in fact represented in the flag, same as the other areas under the dominion of the English Crown like Yorkshire and Cornwall, by the cross of St George.

    1. That is the technical, legal excuse, yes (and same for the Royal Standard - Wales is theoretically represented by the 3 lions of England).

      It's essentially based on what is now effectively a legal 'fiction' about Wales being annexed to England and not, therefore, being a 'state' in its own right. Given what has happened with devolution, that no longer really applies, though (and it could be argued that it goes further back than that) - Wales may not be 'independent' of the UK, of course, but it certainly does have many of its own individual 'state' mechanisms.

      That's not really the point, though - the point is the difference between 'state' and 'nation'. Even if the above were to apply, and if it were simply considered to be a 'state' flag, why would anybody then expect people to view it, and 'feel affinity' and a 'sense of belonging' with it, as a representation of their 'nation' in the way that is demanded by some and expected by many? The UK is not 'a nation', but a 'family of nations', and if it is to have a flag to represent those 'nations' rather than just the 'state', it should surely represent the 'nations' in that family. The cross of St George may reflect a now largely outdated legal status of 'statehood', but it certainly does not in any sense represent the Welsh as a 'nation' - it is the clearly defined symbol of the English 'nation', and the Welsh 'nation' have never been a part of that (even when they were legally, in every sense, a part of the same 'state').

      If that argument is to be used in the modern context, it means that the Union Flag should be considered no more 'special' to people than the EU flag, or the UN flag - it wouldn't be intended to be representative of any 'nation' at all, including in terms of 'interNATIONal sport'. Clearly that isn't the generally accepted case, but there seems to be little understanding among some of just how offensive it can be to many to be expected to 'follow' a symbol of 'nation' that has no reference whatsoever to your own 'nation' (or even specifically represents your 'nation' through the symbol of another 'nation' that annexed your land into its 'state'!).

      That is why it is so important to understand the fundamental difference in definitions between 'state' and 'nation', which is the main point of the post. If that difference is misunderstood, it can lead to all kinds of other misunderstandings, such as why so many Welsh people absolutely won't accept the Union Flag as in any way a symbol of their 'nation'.

      The idea that 'well they should just be happy to be represented by the 3 lions or cross of St George because of the legal language of a 500 year old act that they had nothing to do with' really isn't going to be enough for people!