Nation and State

State and nation are distinct and separate concepts. A state is a legal entity based on a certain territory; it has its laws, and it enters treaties, international organisations etc. France, South Africa and the United Kingdom are all states.

A nation, by contrast, is based on a group of people. They share certain characteristics, such as  history, culture, language, descent and more. The nation is its people. It follows that to talk of the Sioux as a nation or of Old Testament Israel is perfectly correct. There is no assumption of land, nor of exclusive occupation territory. Nations are usually states, but not always. Scotland is so called because it is the land of the Scoti. As England is, or was the land of the Angles, Angleland. The nation came before the state.

 In the context of the UK there is one state, the United Kingdom. It is the UK which is a member of NATO, the Commonwealth and so on. My nationality for now is “British” as a consequence, at least for legal purposes. Leaving aside Wales and Ireland, with their own complex histories, England and Scotland have claims to be nations.

 I asked on Twitter what it meant to be Scottish. And got some very illuminating responses. One thing that came across very loud and clear was a love of the place, its people and a feeling of being at home. That was true of Scots-born and my fellow immigrants from England and elsewhere. I am Scottish by choice after all as are so are many others.

 There was a lot of mention of history and traditions. There was a mention of distinct ways of thinking and acting. The history is important. England has different stories, the Armada, the Conquest. Scotland has the wars of Independence, the Declaration of Arbroath, and the Bruce. Together their national poets are Shakespeare and Burns. 

Scotland’s identity is not just about scenery and tartan, there is a rugged and virile sense of “Scottishness”. Whatever else, it is it is distinct from anything remotely English. Not for nothing did my son remark that he was living in a different country when he came to Scotland as a student. It is as distinct as France and Germany.

There are parts of the culture of Scotland which I recognise as being of a certain significance beyond the obvious. It follows that no way am I going to wear a kilt until I am happy that I am truly a Scot, and that I have proved it. I cannot forget it was proscribed in the 18th century as a part of the attempt to stamp out Scottish national identity. It is not something to be worn as a type of fancy dress. That would be the mere cultural appropriation.

 If nationhood is a matter of historical culture and identity then it follows that Scotland is a distinct nation as is England.

In a UK context nationhood is made  murkier than it needs be by two factors. One is that England is struggling to define itself as English. The attempt is being made, in sporting events, in a display of the English flag and so on, but it is still at the stage of defining itself by saying what it is not, which makes it easy to lapse into xenophobia. It is emerging from the taint of right -wing extremism, just as Scottish national identity is no longer defined by being anti-English. Yet English identity is still perhaps thirty years behind Scotland in that respect. It is emerging.

 The other factor is that English identity has been submerged in British identity. For many purposed they are inter-changeable.  This is almost inevitable, but the assumption that Britishness as an identity means that  Scotland was simply merged into England as Britain.  Britishness meant  the Imperial project, which was British, but the assumption of British identity  is a hard one to shake off. There is a claim to be a British nation, but looked at closely the history is of England. To be English is to struggle as the glories of British power fade, and even pass out of living memory. Colonial power slipped away when I was a child. It leaves a void and a lack of a role. Westminster seems to try to keep the pretence up with foreign wars and a seat on the UN Security Council but even the Commonwealth quietly dropped the British tag a while back.

 There are those in Scotland who claim to identify as British.  I can concede there is an element of common history in Britain.  Many Scots serve still on British Forces and the British civil service. Those who take this position are inevitably emotionally Unionist by default.  I think they are persuadable but it needs thought. The problem is that British culture as opposed to English or Scottish is actually a rather weak common denominator.

 I grew up with the notion of British values -of good administration, of public service of mutual respect and so on. The truth now is such values persist in Scotland far more than in England. England seems narrow and corrupt by comparison.  It is part of the reason I feel at home here. Most of what was ever good of Britishness is now Scottish.

 More over the identity of Britishness is affected by many who claim a national identity or status without actual commitment to the country. If the case of those born here it seems a rejection of nationalism. It is a fudge. It also allows immigrants to clings to being of the home country first. If you came from Ruritania (to take a fictional and neutral example) you may be legally British but culturally Ruritanian.

Ultimately I have to conclude that Britain is not a nation in the way Scotland is; or England.  In the height of British power that was forgotten. Now it matters once more.

 Nationality is a personal choice. Mazzini, one of the movement for Italian unification and independence, came to that conclusion. It is also a matter for each nation to decide what qualifies a person as belonging. Scotland has grown up and moved beyond mere blood and land as criteria.  There is no longer a racial demand based on mere inherited right. It persists in some right wing zealots but looks increasingly untenable. Civic nationalism is to be welcomed and cherished. An ancient nation is on the way to being a young state.

 The usual pattern for a nation is to be a state, determining its own future. Scotland faces a battle to win over the doubters and show her capabilities to be a state. There is work needed on that. But there be no doubt Scotland is and always has been a nation.

 Meanwhile I will do what I can to further that cause of nationhood and statehood. Freedom is my cry too now.

For anyone interested on the way Scotland’s residents see themeselves

Comments welcome as ever


One thought on “Nation and State

  1. Excellent piece Chris, as thoughful as I expected. The only part I disagree with is, ‘It is emerging from the taint of right-wing extremism’. I suspect England has further to travel down that path before it emerges.


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