Tom Stacey’s one-week-before-the-vote plea on Why Nationhood Matters.
Tom Stacey 4 vi 16
When I began my professional life as a foreign correspondent 64 years ago, the prevailing cry on the international scene was self-determination. As the Second World War was fought to its ruthless finish, it was that ideal which inspired the newly formed United Nations: there it was in the opening article of the Charter with its vow ‘to develop friendly relations among nations based on respect for the principle of … self-determination of the peoples’.
Just such an elevated principle during the ensuing period was to drive the dismantling of global empires. This I covered on the ground worldwide, in more than 120 ‘emerging’ nations. Some questioned the practicality of all this self-determination, but virtually none the justification of the principle. The collective ‘self’ defined by race and place had a right to its own determination.
‘Who we are and where we belong’ was seen as a factor of soul or (if you insist) of being. Note the singular verb, since race and place were invariably perceived as inextricable. The territorial boundaries of any given country or colony were defined by political inheritance, language, physiognomy and mores making for a union of allegiance that gave human life a higher motive. It raised self-respect, lifting the average citizen above the common drudge – above what Leon Trotsky pejoratively predicted as the looming ‘Belgianisation’ of a Europe sunk in the petit-commerçant meanness of mere economic self-satisfaction.
Self-determination, conversely, recognised that Man does not live by bread alone, as the voice of one once honoured by our civilisation has observed.
Nor indeed Man does. Each of us lives at our own centre of rippling circles: family, community, nationhood, and indeed humanity. Each ripple of belongingness, or selfhood, is informed by the potentiality of comradeship, generosity and love. The ripple of the national ‘self’ most vividly contributes to what we see ourselves to be at our collective best.
Today we can’t quite recognise this, let alone understand it.
Yet those of my age who grew up in the war know for ever of the truth of this self, and as a factor of soul. Any one of us would have risked death for ’our country’, our ethnos. The capacity for sacrifice and service in the name and tradition of ‘who we are’ is ineradicable in all of us of my era, and I guess not much less present among the young.
Among my bride’s and my 22 descendants I see it in, say, a granddaughter establishing a pioneering orphanage in Cambodia, or in a daughter counselling women raped in Bosnia. Their us-ness is at work, their Englishness, and that isn’t really otherwise than in my late father landing in Normandy just after D-Day and coming back shattered from Caen two months later.
My own life has been comparably informed: slip a hyphen into that choice of word in-formed – reporting, writing, publishing, playing the paterfamilias.
To the definition of the collective ‘self’ or ethnicity as a constituent of soul, I apply two key criteria. First, this self, this we, is invariably subjective. Secondly, invariably protean.
To interpret: each of us uses the ‘we’ in the subjective presumption that our ‘we’ is essentially shared. The fullness of that sharing may be an illusion, but we suppose it not to be so. Our ‘we’ by its nature is subjectively confident.
A bit more subtly, it is protean. That means the collective self is ever on the change, ever fluid, year on year, month on month, day on day – as a rule without our being aware of it. Yet the need of the ‘we’ is never less than vitally significant and imperative now, vertically, at any one moment, while being quite fluid in lateral time.
It isn’t inherently ‘racist’ in the common usage of that much bandied and quite recent coinage. The key players in our national football team may be of African origin yet still belong to ‘us’ – alongside, say, Trevor Macdonald our favourite ex-news reader or Trevor Phillips, former head of the Commission for Racial Equality.
Let us note how the more confident a people or community in their (ever protean) self, the more open they are to the incoming stranger – how readily ‘we’ took in and swiftly valued the French Huguenots flooding across from La Rochelle in the 17th century, or of German Jews in the rise of Hitler during my childhood. It’s only when the absorptive capacity is strained by the invasion of alien language, creed and custom in lumpen self-containment that hostility at imposed cohabitation breaks forth.
Then let us note how the imposition of the federated superstate has repeatedly bedevilled neighbourliness instinctively on offer. The other day Boris Johnson drew attention to history’s failed projects for making a single state of Europe, from the Romans to the Nazis. His most apt illustration would surely have been the Austro-Hungarian empire which gave us the First World War and Franz Kafka. That was immediately followed by Woodrow Wilson’s plausible insistence on the superstate of Yugoslavia, which ended in appalling inter-ethnic carnage eight decades later.
All through my life I have covered the collapse into acrimony or disorder of essayed superstates: in Central Africa, East Africa, the West Indies, and Malaysia-Singapore; in Indo-China, Cyprus, Sudan, Ethiopia and – monumentally – the Soviet Union. Even when obliged to survive, superstates never truly work: take Belgium, fabricated in 1831, prime mover of what we are about to vote on, a construct of Flamand and Wolloon locked in mute and mutual antipathy.
There’s more to be said. The peoples of the earth crave their corona of nationhood: the collective who-we-are and where-we-belong. They crave it with a righteous passion, not easily defined, in the ground of their being. It is the means of their self-diffusion as individuals, their collective pride. That craving is the source of the swelling disquiet at immigration; not, truly an issue of housing or welfare or the rest, but an issue of soul. The stymied soul engenders desperation.
I have witnessed it (and written of it) all over the world, mostly manifested as conflict. Conversely I have participated in meeting that craving by playing a key role in the emergence of Uganda’s fifth Bantu Kingdom, Rwenzururu, as a recognised cultural entity of a million or so folk inhabiting what the world knows as the Mountains of the Moon, on Uganda’s Congo border. I have seen the self-esteem of an entire regional ethnos transformed.
The vote facing us next Thursday is of historic importance. Immigration has predictably emerged as the pivotal issue. Trevor Phillips, already referred to, a Britisher of Guianese extraction, has analysed with devastating insight in his latest publication (Race and Faith: the Deafening Silence) the impending blanketing of his adoptive nationality by an imminent and overwhelming ‘superdiversity’ on a scale that will extinguish the corona of nationhood.
With that corona will go the context of allegiance without which meaningful governance is so hard, and true leaders emerge no longer.
This piece is written for publication the weekend before the June 23 vote.
TOM STACEY was named Foreign Correspondent of the Year in 1961, in the annual Granada Television awards, when he was with the Sunday Times.