The concept of the nation-state

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Series Details No.6, December 1998
Publication Date December 1998
ISSN 0264-7362
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The concept of the nation-state
By Professor John Loughlin
(School of European Studies, Cardiff University)

The political system we know as the nation-state has been one of the most successful forms of political organisation ever devised. It has, however, been in existence for a period of no longer than 200 years if we regard it as beginning at the French Revolution. 'States' and 'nations' existed before the Revolution but it was at this time that the couple 'nation-state' came into being. Henceforth 'nation' and 'state' were inextricably linked: 'nations' ought to have 'states', while the 'state' ought to be coterminous with the 'nation'. The nation-state existed within the bounds of a given territory and its sovereignty, authority and legitimacy within that territory were absolute. The coupling of nation with state also led to the development of one of the most powerful political forces of the modern world: nationalism. Nationalism has had the power to dissolve empires and to liberate peoples but also to develop into Nazism, fascism and an imperialism which led to two great wars in this century and many smaller wars bringing death and injury to millions of people.

French tradition of the nation-state:
The idea of the nation-state expressed itself par excellence in the French centralised state, also known as the Jacobin state. Napoleon, as Emperor, carried these centralising tendencies even further with the creation of the prefectoral system. The Napoleonic conquests exported the model to conquered countries such as the Netherlands, Spain, Portugal, and those parts of Germany and Italy where the Emperor established puppet kingdoms. The Jacobin/Napoleonic state in France was, at least until the 1980s, centralised, uniform and intolerant of diversity within the state: the various peoples, languages and cultures found within the boundaries of the French state - Basques, Bretons, Corsicans, Occitans, Flemish, Alsatians - had to conform to the French language and culture. The role of the state was to create the (French) nation out of this disparate collection. However, it was not until the Third Republic at the end of the nineteenth century with the introduction of free primary education for all and the deliberate repression of the minority languages that homogeneity began to occur. But even by the time of the First World War, millions of Frenchmen still spoke their native languages - derided by teachers and administrators as patois. Thus France might be described not so much as a nation-state as a state-nation: one of the primary functions of the state was to create the nation.

Today, we tend to be highly critical of the Jacobin French state because of our new sensitivity to the importance of minority cultures and languages. However, at the end of the nineteenth and the beginning of the twentieth centuries, it was seen as one of the best examples of political and administrative organisation by many countries. During the wave of nationalism that swept Europe in the nineteenth century, countries such as Greece and Italy chose this model for their new states. Finland, which became independent only in 1917, also chose the French model even if it interpreted it rather differently (for example, in its toleration of the Swedish-speaking minority). Irish republicanism was also inspired by the example of the French revolutionary tradition and the Irish tricolour flag was donated to the Young Irelanders in Paris during the 1848 revolution.

German tradition of the nation-state:
However, the French or Napoleonic model of the nation-state was not the only one around. The German tradition of nation-state is rather different. In France there already existed under the ancien r�me a centralised state but a fragmented culture. This continued after the Revolution and, originally, one became French by choice whatever one's cultural, religious or ethnic background. This was the doctrine of the Rights of Man and the Citizen which is still the foundation of our concept of citizenship. This is also related to the modern legal category of nationality based on the concept of ius solis - the right to nationality based on the place of birth. In Germany, thinkers such as Hegel and Herder, in the light of the French Revolution, claimed there was a homogeneous culture based on the German language (although with many dialects) but a highly fragmented political system. German nationalism, therefore, was concerned to create a single state for the already existing cultural nation (Kultuurnation). In fact, the notion of Kultuurnation was more a normative idealisation of a more complex reality of cultural heterogeneity and the survival of German tribalism which the idealist philosophers and romantic nationalists sought to overcome. This 'tribalism' was based less on the concept of 'ethnos' than on the notion of 'Heimat' or regional belongingness. The German concept of nationality is based on the notion of ius sanguis.

Distinction between French and German concepts of nationhood:
These differences allow us to formulate a useful distinction between the French and German concepts of nationhood:

The French definition as expressed by Ernst Renan: the French nation is a daily plebiscite of the French people: voluntaristic nationhood or nation as demos.

The German definition is one of cultural nationhood or nation as ethnos.

These two ways of conceiving nationhood are not mutually exclusive: in France, demos tended to become ethnos(those who did not possess the superior culture of the French language and civilisation were expected to do so), while in Germany ethnos sometimes attempted to express itself as demos (although this became a reality only under the Weimar Republic and post-war Bundesrepublik). However, the distinction is useful in so far as it points to a tension within nationalism and is still relevant for today's nationalist movements in different parts of Europe and elsewhere. It reminds us too that the concept and the reality of nation is a human construct and not something that has had an eternal existence. Human groups create (imagine) nationhood which can thus be seen as a political project. The same remarks might be made of regionalism especially today when we speak of the new regionalism or concepts such as the innovative or learning region, about which more later.

The United Kingdom tradition of the nation-state:
The United Kingdom is different again. It continues to follow an older tradition which is that of the 'multinational state' or, as Derek Urwin has described it, the 'union state'. In effect, the UK does not possess a 'state' understood as an overarching entity with a moral or legal personality of its own which is the continental tradition. It has to make do with the rather weaker concept of the 'Crown'. Furthermore, it is composed of constituent nations, originally four (England, Scotland, Wales and Ireland), today three and 'a bit' (England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland). The kingdom was formed by a series of Acts of Union with Wales, Scotland and Ireland respectively. It is true that England, from Tudor times, attempted to impose uniformity over the rest. But this was only partially successful. The Gaelic languages of Scotland, Ireland and the Isle of Man were almost eliminated in the nineteenth century at least partly by British government policies. Welsh has survived in much greater proportions but, even in Wales, English has become the dominant language of the country. Nevertheless, the British state tradition did allow a certain amount of diversity: Scotland retained its own legal, educational and religious systems. Wales, eventually, was allowed to retain its separate language and culture. Ireland continued to be ruled as a country apart. The Isle of Man and the Channel Islands kept their peculiar 'semi-detached' relationship to the United Kingdom. Nevertheless, there exists, in the United Kingdom, a certain tension between the Kingdom as a whole which is sometimes referred to as 'the nation' and the nationalism of the Celtic nations - not to mention the Northern Ireland problem. Perhaps the root of the problem is that England tends to identify itself as Britain and that British nationalism is simply the projection of the English nation.

The nation-state and liberal democracy:
Historians point to a close link between the emergence of the nation-state political system in the nineteenth century, the creation of national markets, and the development of the institutions of liberal democracy by the industrial bourgeoisie. Without being too crudely deterministic, we can say that the nation-state and liberal democracy are closely linked. First, the theory of liberal democracy is rooted in the notion of the sovereignty of the people rather than in notions such as divine kingship or aristocracy. Before the French Revolution it was the monarch who embodied the nation. At the Revolution this embodiment was transferred to 'the people'. The legitimacy of the institutions of the state were thus derived from the nation understood as the people. The concept of 'people' was at first restricted to men of property and means but gradually extended to include all adults including workers and, very lately in some cases, women. Nevertheless, this was the basis on which were built the institutions of liberal democracy: the nation or the people elect their representatives who deliberate in assemblies on the welfare of the nation. The decisions of these assemblies are executed by bureaucracies accountable to the elected assembly and, eventually, to the people. Liberal democracy also implies a number of freedoms: to vote and stand in elections and to have a choice of parties; freedom of opinion and expression; a free press; freedom of trade and commerce. Governments are ultimately accountable to the people and may be changed according to the wishes of the people expressed in free elections. This system is guaranteed by a system of law rather than by the arbitrary dictate of a monarch, dictator or party.

These basic ideas form the basis of our modern liberal democracies even if they are rarely put into practice completely in this form. Furthermore, there are many different institutional expressions given to liberal democracy. There is a basic distinction between federal and unitary states. But there are also different kinds of federation (e.g. Germany, the US, Canada and Belgium are all quite different) and different kinds of unitary state (simple unitary, decentralised unitary, and regionalised unitary). Nevertheless, the common features of liberal democracy constitute what might be regarded as a basic part of our European heritage. This has been exported to all parts of the world either through colonial conquest or post-colonial imitation. Furthermore, the European Union exists, at least in large measure, to support and enhance liberal democracy and one of the conditions of entry of a candidate state into the Union is that it possesses the features of liberal democracy outlined above. In the cases of Spain, Portugal and Greece, membership of the (then) EC was crucial in assisting their transition to, and consolidation of, democracy after periods of dictatorship.

The changing nature of the nation-state:
However, the nation-state is not a static entity. It is continually changing under the force of different pressures. Today, it is transforming itself in quite a radical fashion. These changes may be summed up by referring to the three principal directions from which change is coming:

From above
Globalisation and Europeanisation are the most important factors of change from this direction. Indeed, the accelerated process of Europeanisation is largely a response to the perceived challenge of globalisation.

From within
This refers to attempts by the state to reconfigure itself through reforms of its administrative system and processes - these include deregulation, privatisation, new public management approaches, administrative adaptation to European policies and procedures, but also decentralisation and regionalisation which are now a general phenomenon.

From below
This refers to the mobilisation by subnational authorities such as regions and local governments who now exercise a much greater influence on national policymaking - this varies greatly from country to country, but in all countries today the local has become in creasingly important.

Of course, all these forces of change are related to each other: globalisation and localisation/regionalisation are said to be complementary processes; Europe has opened up windows of opportunity for sub-national authorities; it has also encouraged unitary states such as the UK, Finland, Greece and Ireland to decentralise and regionalise. However, it would not be true to say that the nation-state is disappearing. Rather, it is closer to the truth that it is still the key level of decision-making but now operates alongside a number of other actors including the European Institutions, sub-national authorities and private sector actors such as large corporations.

The Europeanisation and regionalisation of nation-states and the challenges to democracy:
Contemporary nation-states thus operate in a completely new environment from even twenty years ago. Their monopolisation of many policy areas has been removed and responsibility for these areas transferred to either Europe's supranational institutions or to sub-national authorities such as regions. This has not necessarily meant the decline of nation-states (in some ways they are stronger than ever) but it does means that their nature, role and functions have changed. They now operate in a complex system of multilevel governance alongside the European supranational institutions and sub-national authorities. Furthermore, they are no longer capable of delivering many of the welfare benefits and internal and external security that were the basis of their legitimacy until the present period. Finally, they can no longer be seen as the sole repositories of political identity. The old nation-state couple is in the process of decoupling and there is now the possibility of multiple-identities: local, regional, national and, rather more weakly, European.

These changes mean that it has become necessary to rethink (reimagine) the nature of our democratic political systems.

Contact Address:
Professor John Loughlin
Professor of European Politics
School of European Studies
Cardiff University
PO Box 908
Cardiff CF1 3YQ
United Kingdom

Tel: +44-(0)1222-874585
Fax: +44-(0)1222-874946

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