St Andrew’s Day’m not much of a one for the tokens and trappings of nationhood. I can’t get all that excited about the baubles and the bunting and the flags and the finery. The banal jingoism of packaged patriotic celebration leaves me cold. I’m a civic nationalist. For me, it’s all about the practicalities of democratic government. It’s about what is done with power rather than the mere possession and flaunting of it.

The nation is important only as a unit of social, political and economic organisation which is manageable because people are able to identify with it. This common sense of identity allows them to reach a critical level of agreement about how their communal affairs should be managed. That’s about it, really. No ‘blood and soil’ nonsense. Just a practical solution to the problems of maintaining a large and complex human society.

Not a perfect solution. Not a complete solution. But the best we’ve come up with to date. The concept of the nation-state probably ranks second only to religion when it comes to being identified as the source and cause of all human ills. Such analyses are woefully simplistic and shallow. The nation-state has served humanity well. Indeed, the development of the nation has, arguably, been the single most important factor in the success of the human species. It is our greatest invention.

And it is an invention. The nation is not natural. It shouldn’t exist. It shouldn’t even be possible. We evolved to live in small, nomadic clans or tribes. For most of human history, we lived in kin groups no bigger than around 200 individuals. That is the maximum size at which social cohesion and organisation can be maintained through interpersonal relationships. Even now, individuals only very rarely have as many as 200 people in their lives at any given time with whom they interact in any meaningful way. Try tallying the number of different individuals you have spoken to directly and in person on two or more occasions in the past month. You will probably be surprised by how few they are.

People just don’t get on in large groups. For by far the largest part of our evolutionary history, the tensions within overlarge groups were resolved by violence or fragmentation, or both. Numbers would be reduced by killings. Or large groups would divide into two or more smaller ones, fighting over resources as part of the process.

But this fragmentation was not compatible with new technologies, such as agriculture. As these novel solutions to the problem of staying alive came along, people had to devise ways of living in unnaturally large groups. As has ever been the way, one technology begets another. The technologies which allowed people to be better fed created problems which then required other technologies in order to make the first technologies feasible. Writing, mathematics and every other technology we now take for granted developed to facilitate civilisation – living together in large groups.

The nation-state is the product of this process. It is the largest unit we’ve learned to maintain with anything like the stability that the organism of civil society requires. There’s a very good reason why nations exist. It’s because they are functional. They are effective as mechanisms of civilisation. They don’t always work. And they pretty much never work flawlessly. But that’s what evolution does. It is not a process that seeks perfection. It is a process that settles for whatever does the job for the time being. while humanity gropes towards something better, the nation will have to suffice. So we might as well make the best of it.

Of all the ways that have been tried to make the best of our nations, democracy is the preferred option. Again, not because it is a perfect solution, but because it has been tried and tested and found to be reasonably good at making nations manageable in the medium to long term. That’s it! No high-blown rhetoric about justice or humanity or equity or any of the rest of it. Nations are good because they facilitate civilisation. Democracy is good because it facilitates nations. And nary a flag in sight.

For me, occasions such as St Andrew’s Day are little extras. They’re like birthdays and anniversaries in our personal lives. They are personalising and humanising features. The nation may be a machine, but we are more than mere cogs in that machine. For purely practical reasons, we have to be able to identify with the nation at a personal level in a way which is at least analogous to the way we identify with a kin group. Democracy is voluntarily pooled sovereignty. A sense of national identity is what makes our willingness to participate something more than a selfish survival tactic.

The flags and the anthems and the festivals are not the essence of the nation. Only people are that. The French historian, Ernest Renan, defined the nation as a “daily referendum” on the rules by which a given society functions. In his 1882 lecture “Qu’est-ce qu’une nation?” (What is a nation?) he also observed that nations are based on what people jointly forget as much as what they jointly remember. The key word here is ‘jointly’. The nation is what people willingly choose to do together.

Being Scottish isn’t a matter of a common heritage, but of a shared commitment. St Andrew’s Day must not become a routine, commercialised celebration of our history or our land. Like our national flag, our national day serves us best as an affirmation of our shared commitment. It is not for any flag or anthem that we seek to restore Scotland’s rightful constitutional status, but for the better nation and society that we may then join together in building.

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6 thoughts on “St Andrew’s Day

  1. LC Lorna Campbell

    Good piece, Mr Bell. I agree with most of that. I think, however, that even nations can co-operate in larger units if they are allowed to do so as ‘nations’, acknowledging the limitations of the expanded entity. It is when one ‘nation’ starts to throw its weight around that problems start, and it almost always end in tears and dissolution. That is why I believe in the EU co-operation, but find its political cohesion less of an attraction for the simple reason that it will not work. Large, disparate groups trying to coalesce never do. Their co-operation has to be willing and mutually beneficial. If and when that stops being the case, all hell breaks out. Basically, that is precisely what has happened in the UK: the Union is no longer working, if, indeed, it ever did to the extent we have been brainwashed into believing; and Scotland wants out. The only way, I think, that we can stay in the UK in the longer term is if England reforms and embraces devolution on a large scale and allows the other three parts to have a voice on all non-domestic issues (foreign affairs, defence, etc.) whilst maintaining full fiscal autonomy for each part. It would, then, be a willing coming together of four equal partners for the benefit of all.

    That, I think, will never happen because England cannot conceive of itself as anything other than the ‘grand fromage’ in ‘These Islands’. This has been getting worse since Brexit was voted in by a small majority in England, and it seems that the clock has been turned back to the days of imperial and colonial narcissism. The desire to leave the EU by so many south of the border is indicative, not of a return to the ‘nation state’ ideology, but of a mindset that is based far more on being ‘king of the castle’ or the ‘grand fromage’ even on the European scene. This drive for one nation EnglishToryism is truly frightening for what that must mean for the rest of us in ‘These Islands’ – and, indeed, what it must mean for ordinary English people, too.

    1. Peter A Bell Post author

      We have started experimenting with supranational entities. The EU is, arguably, the most important and, in many ways, the most successful of these experiment. It’s early days.

      The UK is, I would insist, useful only as an illustration of how you shouldn’t go about creating a supranational entity.

      1. LC Lorna Campbell

        The problem is, though, Mr Bell, that the EU is not behaving in a way that is any better than the way adopted by the UK from day one. The Catalunyan crisis is just one way in which it has behaved rather badly as a model for supranational and democratic collaboration. I am a Remainer, but I do acknowledge that the EU is not perfect – far from it. I feel now that we should, in Scotland, if we are allowed no other choice because of a ‘hard’ Brexit, whatever that means, be looking at membership of EFTA.

        At least, prima facie, the EU is a collection of equal nation states that have come together willingly, albeit Germany, in particular, but also France, do tend to dominate, while the UK has always had pretensions to dominate tempered by a contrary desire to leave; the UK was never a collection of nation states coming together willingly. Wales was bludgeoned into submission, after what can only be described as genocide; likewise, Ireland (which escaped later, with the loss of the six counties); and only Scotland, superficially, entered into a Union with England. From the English viewpoint, both the Union of the Crowns and the Union of the Parliaments were takeovers – relatively peaceful ones, but takeovers, nevertheless. This mindset has dominated British Nationalist thinking for the past 310 years and looks set to continue.

        We have had the dissolution of the former Yugoslavia, the dissolution of (most) of the USSR in recent years, and the hideous conflicts that have arisen from those dissolutions are the direct result of mismanaged independence claims and the reluctance of the ‘grand fromage’ (imperial/colonial power) in each case to back off willingly and recognise others’ right to self-determination. The same is happening between Spain and Catalunya, and I have not the slightest shadow of a doubt that the same will apply should Scotland seek its own independence. It should be the job of the UN to move in before the conflict takes place and manage the dissolutions, and this should be done with the full co-operation of the UN members – all of them. Otherwise, we are in for a century of conflict as former empires disintegrate, which, of course, is the final stage of the dissolution of the empires themselves, after the end (more or less) of the colonial period in the 20th century.

        The EU, if it is to survive, must stop its precious (and entirely pseudo) ‘neutrality’ (remember The Ukraine) and start to behave in a democratic and legitimate fashion in relation to agreed international laws on both self-determination and basic human rights. It began its existence as a trading bloc, and it has slowly moved towards being a political bloc, too, so it is up to it to prove to all of us that this is possible. Personally, I doubt it, but I would be happy to be proved wrong here.

  2. Big Jock

    I am both a civic nationalist and as you might refer to a patriotic Scot. The nature of a nation and nationality is complex. For some it’s a flag and others a rugby match. As long as everyone respects each other there is no right and wrong way to be Scottish.

    I suspect the majority of yes voters are first and foremost patriotic Scots. Nations are not born from anything other than cultural identity and shared culture. They do evolve over time but are definitely born from shared connections with the land and people who dwell on it.

    How you feel about Scotland is not necessarily how I feel about Scotland. That’s the way it should be, that’s a free society. I feel the civic description is overused, as if being legitimate, and simple national identity is frowned upon.

    I can say this as a third generation Irish/Scot. I just knew I was Scottish from childhood. I felt it in my heart. I would vote to be poorer just to be free. I have evolved into a civic Scot but fundamentally I love my nation and want it to be free.

  3. Moonlight

    The continentals understand so much better the need to have small building blocks bonded together.
    I am mostly familiar with France and Spain, there we see relatively small communes governing themselves as part of a larger whole.
    We were struck with the curse of regionalisation, whisking away the town councils and their local Provosts and close connection with the people. Replaced by faceless inpenetrable monoliths run by anonymous politicians and civil servants.
    I dearly hope that in an independent Scotland we will see a breakdown of the monoliths towards a far more local form of local government.
    It will no doubt cost a bit more, but will be so much more accountable and responsive to local needs.

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