I’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.Views: 3420
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