The death of Queen Elizabeth is a symbolic turning point for the United Kingdom as she leaves behind a nation stripped of its traditions. Peter Ramsay argues this moment requires us to think about the essence of nationhood.
During Britain’s recent mourning rituals, the left-wing Labour MP Clive Lewis expressed his ‘bemusement’ and even ‘despair’ when he saw The Queue. Hundreds of thousands of his fellow citizens had waited many hours to file past Queen Elizabeth’s coffin. Why, Lewis asked, are so many willing to ‘show such deference to an institution that is the very embodiment of the inequalities of wealth and power that permeate our country?’ Lewis concluded that ‘many are not there to honour the institution of monarchy or a royal individual’ but were rather expressing the ‘need to feel part of something more than themselves’ and he wondered how democratic politics might ‘fulfil the same function’. But he could not bring himself to ask what the ‘more than themselves’ that people ‘need to feel part of’ might actually be. Lying behind Lewis’s difficulty is the real hostility of the left to just what that ‘more’ really is.
Environmentalist Paul Kingsnorth put his finger on the problem in a melancholic piece in Unherd: ‘The throne’, he wrote, ‘represents to its critics more than some putative offence against “democracy”: it stands for something whose very existence is increasingly contentious in its meaning, form and direction: the nation itself.’ Kingsnorth’s reflections are worth thinking about. His article was headlined ‘Can the nation survive the Queen?’, and it’s a good question to which he does not have an answer.
The evidence is compelling. Elizabeth II was in office for so long that she reigned over the fall of not one but two versions of Britain’s nationhood. The British Empire expired during the first 15 years of her reign. Over that period, imperial Britain was replaced with the social-democratic nation of full employment, welfare guarantees and working-class advancement that had originated during the Second World War. By the fortieth year of her reign, that nation too had followed the Empire into oblivion. Following its disappearance, the UK institutionalised the decay of its national politics by becoming a member-state in the European Union, now also given up. Over its time as a member-state, the very Union of England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland that makes up the UK has weakened dramatically. And the Mother of Parliaments—in which, according to constitutional doctrine, the Queen herself was sovereign—has come to be held in contempt by her people. Over the whole period of her reign, the state’s official religion, of which she was the head, declined to a marginal rump. At her death, all that remained to unite the British people were faint echoes of those earlier national achievements. Only two national institutions—one imperial, the other postwar—still enjoy overwhelming popular support: the armed forces and the NHS. And the awkward truth is that the former have been massively reduced in scale, reach and power, while the latter has been hollowed out by decades of internal markets, mismanagement and the lockdown disaster.
By staying out of politics, the Queen rose above the institutional decay and kept up a façade of national continuity. For now, at least, the monarchy soldiers on. But without the steadying presence of Elizabeth II, the façade may be more difficult to maintain. Even if the monarchy itself survives, Kingsnorth’s question hangs in the air: what will be left of the nation it reigns over? As national institutions and traditions have steadily deteriorated, their historical meaning has ceased to form part of the imaginative world of most British people. Rituals of state remain but the life has drained out of the so-called ancient constitution. What is left of it is no longer understood by those who populate the state’s institutions, let alone by the population. Conservative commentator Peter Hitchens mourned the death of the queen as the death of the kingdom.
Instead of the old nation, the British people now inhabit what Kinsgsnorth describes as ‘the consumer globoculture’ in which all must be sacrificed to the needs of capital. And that includes the nation. The delegitmisation of the nation suits ‘transnational capital and its enablers’. But Kingsnorth is coy as to exactly why. The postwar British nation, with its full employment and trade union rights, proved to give too much authority to its wage-earning classes at the expense of its capital-owning classes, which is why the Thatcherites destroyed it. The Labour Party subsequently adapted to Thatcher’s victory, abandoning its commitment to the old nation that it had created back in the 1940s. As a consequence, the most significant crack in the structure of the nation is the repudiation of it by its own elite cadres. Though our late sovereign lady was able to paper over this fissure through most of the later part of her reign, it became all-too obvious in the aftermath of the Brexit referendum.
The electorate’s decision in 2016 to take back parliament’s law-making power from EU institutions was greeted with outrage by the bulk of the political and chattering classes, by the civil service and academia. Leave voters were denounced as racists and ignorant dupes. Groundless predictions of the rise of fascism and even a new Kristallnacht were confidently made. The overnight conversion of the middle classes to militant Europhilia was less because they knew much about, or cared much for, the EU. It was more that they were horrified by the electorate’s reassertion of the idea of national sovereignty. The all-pervading preoccupation with racism among Western elites in recent years has a political function that has been identified by Christophe Guilluy in France and Matthew Crawford in America. By targeting ordinary citizens as the beneficiaries of slavery and Empire, national elites can deny that they bear any burden of accountability to populations that are the bearers of the original sin of Whiteness. But, in so doing, the Western elites themselves delegitimise the nations whose institutions they command. Britain is no exception.
It is this rotting from the head that is destroying the nation. But why should we care? Perhaps like Clive Lewis we should simply forget about the nation and try to find something else that people can unite around? After all, the actual history of nationalism appears to be less than promising, with its racism and war. As Kingsnorth concedes: ‘I’ve long found myself in the uncomfortable position of valuing nations but mostly being repelled by nationalism.’
He is right to value nations because the alternative to nationhood, the alternative which now beckons to our elites, is capital’s cosmopolitan dystopia: at home, the continuous low-intensity civil war of fragmented vulnerable identity groups—religious, ethnic, gendered and so on—squabbling as the economy stagnates under the watchful eye of the intersectional police state; abroad, forever wars of intervention, fragmenting nations worldwide, inexorably raising the stakes, from Serbia through Iraq and Libya, to Ukraine and Russia and on to China. We need urgently to replace our demented cosmopolitan elites by giving new political life to the larger loyalty that our fellow citizens queuing in London were nostalgic for.
How, though, can we keep a grip on the national baby while still throwing out the bathwater of nationalism? How, to paraphrase Kingsnorth, can we ‘hold our country lightly’ so that ‘it will nourish us, even complete us’ rather than ‘attaching ourselves to it needily or defensively or angrily’ so that it will divide and destroy us?
The answer to this question eludes Kingsnorth because all the major tendencies in British politics are incapable of it. The Tories love to wave the Union flag, but this is an increasingly threadbare veil for their divisive, and nationally disastrous Thatcherite policies. The Labour Party has now joined in, posing at their conference before the largest red, white and blue ever seen, but they are obviously protesting too much. The liberal left’s cosmopolitan commitments to mass migration, multiculturalism and intersectionalism are wholly inconsistent with revitalising the nation. And, as Kingsnorth astutely notes, whatever else we might think about them, the ethnic loyalties promoted by European populists no longer have sufficient unifying meaning in modern Britain. In the coming months, the policies of liberal cosmopolitan technocrats will, like those of populists, probably be framed in terms of a purported national interest. But their real content will remain, at worst, hostile to the project of nation-building, at best, inadequate. Kingsnorth is left to wistful speculation: ‘Perhaps then new nations will form, around a spiritual core and a love of their place…. Perhaps we will live in real nations again. Perhaps we will build them.’
If Kingsnorth is uncertain, some others hope that the new monarch may provide some way forward. Aris Roussinos, for example, sees in Charles a true conservative—willing to engage politically, as his mother was not, to restrain the Conservative Party’s mania to privatise the state—and also a self-confessed anti-modernist—with a passion to preserve tradition and the environment. If the revival and unity of nation is the aim, then this hope seems seriously misplaced. A monarch prepared to throw his weight around in pursuit of the causes of environmentalism, religious faith and pre-modern aesthetics will only expose the exhaustion of the monarchy as a unifying force for the nation. As Brendan O’Neill observes, Charles’s established position as one of the world’s most high-profile believers in the need to restrain mass consumption in order to limit climate change, is likely to make him the darling of the Davos class, and this is only likely further to divide the British elite from the masses in the years to come. It is striking that the funeral of his predecessor, the carefully planned ritual that inaugurated his reign, was promoted by the BBC’s political editor as ‘a global tribute’ to the Queen.
Despite their sentimental and extravagant royalism, the old elites neither want to lead the nation nor know how to. The alternative to the nation is only warring identity tribes and globalist austerity. So, what is to be done? We need to go back to first principles. Kingsnorth thinks the nation ‘can be hard to define’. But 40 years ago, Benedict Anderson offered a definition that may not be perfect but nevertheless helps us to think through the problem. A nation, Anderson thought is ‘an imagined political community – and imagined as both inherently limited and sovereign’.
‘Political communities’ are those secular groups that we are willing to make sacrifices for because we are loyal to their purposes and members. In this sense the nation shares some qualities with the family. For, in the final analysis, these sacrifices include the ultimate sacrifice—the sovereign nation may ask us to die for it—so that the sacrifices of politics are acts of love that lack the sanction of instrumental rationality. This is why Kingsnorth is right to ask what the ‘spiritual core’ of the nation might be; what is it that would move our spirit to make such sacrifices?
Political communities include not only nations but also political parties, ethnic organisations, trades unions, even business associations. They might even include religious organisations in so far as believers treat their religion as a secular force in the state. But, as Anderson’s definition emphasises, the nation is that particular political community that is ‘inherently limited and sovereign’. The nation makes no claim on the loyalty of humanity as a whole and owes no duty to humanity as a whole. But the claim that the nation does make on the particular humans that comprise it is the claim of sovereignty. The nation is that secular unity that claims ultimate autonomy and authority within its territory. A particular nation might choose to respect some religious teachings as the Word of God or commit itself to the pursuit of a particular social order, but there is no inherent need for any nation to commit to any such higher loyalty. The nation’s essence is the claim of sovereignty, the claim to be self-governing.
The limited character of the nation and its sovereignty are bound together. The practical authority of the nation-state to rule itself depends not on it doing moral justice for persons in the abstract or humanity in general. The sovereign state’s authority depends upon fulfilling its claim to represent particular people so that they understand themselves to be collectively self-governing. The nation is incipiently democratic. And, in this essential character of self-government lies the obvious, if demanding, solution to Kingsnorth’s problem of nationhood without nationalism.
The problem is that we can no longer be sure that many of us will make sacrifices, still less lay down our lives, for the Church of England, the Union with Northern Ireland, the sovereignty of parliament or, for that matter, King Charles III. British people were willing to sacrifice their liberty two years ago to ‘Save the NHS’, but it is far from clear whether the authorities could pull off that trick again. The exhaustion of the old national traditions is, however, an opportunity as well as a problem. As the old forms and appearances of nationhood inherited from the past lose their grip on the popular imagination and loyalty, we can more clearly identify the nation’s essence. And it is a potentially inspiring one: it is our own self-government. Brexit was already an inchoate demand for this (‘Take back control’), one that the political class, particularly its Eurosceptics who were swept to power on the back of it, have been unable to respond to. While decades of EU membership and elite hostility to the nation may have weakened our representative institutions, they have not yet destroyed them. Those institutions are still there for those of us who would constitute a nation again by drawing out its democratic spiritual core.
But what of the liberal’s nightmare of resurgent nationalism, and the left’s prophecies of fascism? Like all contemporary liberalism and leftism, these are the politics of fear, and they are based on a superficial reading of the past. Realising the nation’s essential quality of self-government is no basis for nationalism. On the contrary, it is the basis of internationalism.
The imperialist nationalism of the past was always an inflation of the nation’s claims that served to avoid its core, that is to avoid the self-government of the political community. Faced with the volcanic class struggles of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, the old ruling classes sought with considerable success to contain the democratic pressure, and to win the loyalty of the masses, by promoting the superiority of their nation over others. The result was that the inherent limits of nationhood were transgressed by imperial expansion and war, while the nation’s political essence of sovereignty was submerged under cultural and ethnic loyalties. The old defunct symbols paraded through London last week contain echoes of those long efforts to evade the internal demands of the nation by inflating its external claims.
The people of a territory that seriously intend to rule themselves will know their limits and stick to them. True respect for our own national sovereignty implies respect for the sovereignty of other nations. The enemy of national sovereignty is not other nations as such; it is anyone, within the borders or without, who would limit the sovereignty of the people by violating the limits of nationhood. And a truly self-governing people can only constitute themselves a nation by seeking to represent the territory’s actual inhabitants, not a fantasy of ethnic purity inherited from a distant past. Constituting the nation in its political essence – limited and sovereign – is the way to hold it lightly so that it may nurture both us and the peoples of other nations.
If constituting the nation is the solution, it is a demanding one because it can only be carried out by the citizens of the would-be nation. We ourselves must constitute the nation. This means inspiring citizens fully to grasp the nettle of sovereignty by entering the arena and engaging in the political task of constituting a truly democratic, self-governing state. The task will appeal to many citizens who live in those places that are overlooked and despised by our cosmopolitan elite, and to many of those citizens who not only took the risk and voted to Leave the European Union but stuck to that decision through the long campaign to nullify their vote and their political equality. It will appeal to those who wanted to be mobilised as citizens to help in what should have been a great national effort to protect the vulnerable from Covid, instead of having their civil liberties suspended in a wholly disproportionate, fear-driven state of emergency for which so many are now paying dearly. But the work is open to anyone who can free themselves from the zombie politics of the moribund old order; to those who have awoken from the faded dreams and nightmares of our grandfathers, and want to conduct their politics in the cold light of our current circumstances; to those who can see the fascist and Marxist bogeymen beloved of the left and right respectively for the ghosts that they really are, and so can stop hiding behind the fake imperative of ‘resistance’ to somebody else.
In the upheavals that are shortly to come, we will have to take responsibility for constituting a nation from below: for determining which of our constitutional institutions will serve the construction of a truly democratic state, and which are an obstacle; for working out whether Northern Ireland or Scotland is part of the British nation or of another nation; and, most importantly, for determining how will we govern our economy, for deciding who will decide what is produced, and how and where it is produced. We need to find a way to re-enchant our politics with the spirit of nationhood—which is to say with the spirit of popular sovereignty, of democratic self-government. If we do not set to this work of constituting the nation, nobody else is going to do it. There is no way back. The life went out of the old traditions some time ago and they were finally buried with Elizabeth II. The aristocrats and the socialists, the Thatcherites and the Blairites, the technocrats and the populists have all shot their bolts. Now we must learn how to rule ourselves.