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What Is a Nation?

The doctrine of multiculturalism derives directly from Renan

John Laughland

“What is a nation?” Ernest Renan famously asked in 1882 and concluded that it was a group of people who had decided to live together. The definition has stuck because it encapsulates the most cherished belief of all liberals, which is that human life is essentially about individual choice. The belief has remained popular for over a century and is today seen in concepts such as the German idea of Verfassungspatriotismus (patriotism towards the constitution of one’s country) and, more importantly, in the very widespread notion of multiculturalism.

Even Renan’s definition, however, contained a fudge – a fudge which was essential to prevent his idea from descending into obvious absurdity. He said that a nation was a group of people which had done great things in the and which wanted to do more in the future. The use of “wanted” was essential to preserve his key notion of choice, but his reference to the past made a nonsense of it. The people who have done great things in the history of the nation are not the same people (not the same individuals) who are alive now. It is therefore wrong to elide the two uses of the word “people” into one. A people cannot be defined by choice: if members of a nation find or believe that their country has a glorious past, then that past is precisely something not chosen, like one’s parents. One’s parents determine an individual in a way the individual has not chosen and cannot control.The doctrine of multiculturalism derives directly from Renan because it affirms that people can live together in a state on the basis of simple choice. The idea is that individuals can come from all over the world and live peacefully and in harmony while preserving elements of their various different cultural backgrounds.

However, much hostility to multiculturalism is also fundamentally liberal and Renanian. As it happens, although multiculturalism has been a left-wing shibboleth for many years, it was formally abandoned in Britain in keynote speeches given by Tony Blair and one of his ministers in 2006. In the heat of the “war on terror” to which they had given energetic support, and which raised the temperature of feeling against Muslims in Britain, the Prime Minister and Ruth Kelly – who was at that stage “Minister for Communities” – said that in fact multiculturalism was now out of date. They argued that immigrants needed to conform to basic British values if they wanted to stay in the country, and they attacked multiculturalism for having undermined social and national cohesion.

Kelly said, “In our attempt to avoid imposing a single British identity and culture, have we ended up with some communities living in isolation of each other, with no common bonds between them?” (Speech, 24 August 2006). And Blair’s speech, entitled “The Duty to Integrate: Shared British Values” (delivered on 8 December 2006) concluded with a muscular and rather aggressive sentence which, only years previously, would have marked him out as extreme right: “Our tolerance is part of what makes Britain, Britain. So conform to it; or don’t come here.” [My italics

Gordon Brown has continued in this vein with his rather lumbering emphasis on Britishness and the need to promote it. He has even introduced a rather Soviet and American-sounding “Veterans’ Day” celebration to reinforce it. Yet in spite of their conservative appearances, these views remain fundamentally liberal. This is because, although they have inverted the multicultural paradigm for social cohesion, they retain the key element of choice. Immigrants are told that they must choose to conform or choose to leave, while Britons generally are told that their nation is constituted essentially by values. But has recent experience shown that, in fact, the inculcation of a single set of values cannot create

My thoughts on these matters have been stimulated by recent photographs of a large crowd of youngsters demonstrating against the murder of their friend, Ben Kinsella, stabbed to death in the streets of London ten days ago. There has been an explosion of knife crime in London, which is itself partly the consequence of a rise in knife culture among principally black gangs, and partly of the catastrophic collapse in policing and in social cohesion generally. As in many Western societies, ordinary people in Britain no longer respect the police and the police themselves hardly invite it. In my street in London, everyone knew the local shopkeepers but no one knew the local policeman because they were never anywhere to be seen. When they tried to investigate petty crime (such as the theft of my bike, which they did only under intense pressure from me, exerted over a period of many months) they typically found that people they questioned refused even to give their name.

The photographs of the demonstration are remarkable for the fact that almost every youngster in it is white. This is a rare sight in London, especially in the East End where immigration is particularly high. It strongly suggests that decades of preaching about inter-racial tolerance have failed to make people in Britain unite across the racial divide. Now, it is obvious that a street demonstration by group of youngsters outraged and saddened by a senseless murder is not a nation. But since I absolutely rule out the possibility that this group of white people actively chose to exclude blacks from their public meeting, their unspoken choice – their instinct – to rally together reveals a good deal about the nature of human action. It reveals, in particular, that choice and forms of behaviour are, in fact, partly determined by ethnicity – very often without people being aware of it.

The Renanian attempt to carve out a sphere for the liberal ideal of free individual choice is therefore doomed to failure.


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