The nation-state

Civic and ethnic dimensions

Authored by: Colin Clark

Routledge Handbook of Ethnic Conflict

Print publication date:  October  2010
Online publication date:  October  2010

Print ISBN: 9780415476256
eBook ISBN: 9780203845493
Adobe ISBN: 9781136927577


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Nationalism is not a single beast. There are different varieties of nationalism. It can be well argued that some of the speeches by Conservative members – particularly those who regard themselves as Eurosceptic – are nationalistic. It seems that British nationalism is fine, but any other nationalism – Scottish, Welsh or Irish – is bad. That is not an acceptable distinction. If I were to draw such a distinction, it would be between ethnic nationalism, which is bad and should be rejected wherever it raises its ugly head, and civic nationalism, which is a good and progressive force that can be found all over the world spreading democracy and increasing the rights of ordinary people whatever their ethnic background. It is civic nationalism which is wound up in the Bill – a nationalism that gives the people who live in Scotland, no matter who they are, the same democratic rights as can be expected by people living in any other democratic society.

(John McAllion, Hansard, 23 February 1998: column 134) On 23 February 1998, during a debate in the House of Commons on the intricacies of the Scotland Bill, the Labour MP for Dundee East, Mr John McAllion, offered the above contribution in response to a suggestion by the Conservative MP for Woodspring, Dr Liam Fox, that certain devolutionary aspects within the Bill could trigger negative forms of ‘residual English nationalism’ and damage the nature of the Union holding Great Britain together. Of course, Fox’s undue concerns were placed to the side and the Scotland Bill soon became an Act. In May 1999 the Scottish Parliament, located in Edinburgh, started up again for business, having last met in March 1707. The Scotland Act (1998) devolved all powers to the Edinburgh Parliament except those issues referred to as ‘reserved matters’ – and, indeed, it was a lengthy list, including constitutional affairs, foreign policy and immigration, and as such the Union was not about to crumble any time soon. In relation to this chapter on the civic and ethnic dimensions to the nation-state, McAllion’s statement at Westminster gives us some indication of the lively, dichotomous debates that can occur when examining the many philosophical, geographical and political territories that nationalism can cover. It is also emblematic of the rather broad and sweeping statements that have been made in the respective names of both civic and ethnic forms of nationalism. We shall see that the reality of this apparent distinction to which McAllion refers – ‘good’ civic nationalism and ‘bad’ ethnic nationalism – is much more contested and complex than would first appear. The dichotomy itself needs to be explained and problematised as well as asking questions about whether or not different forms of civic nationalism can in fact be reactionary and, similarly, whether some forms of ethnic nationalism can actually be progressive. In this chapter we will examine this apparent divide and offer some thoughts, analysis and examples to illustrate that the ethnic–civic distinction is indeed less stable and more fragile than appears from a brief examination of the literature within nationalism studies, as well as looking at different views from civil society and other agencies. To begin with we need to set out the parameters of the debate and look closely at what the civic and ethnic dimensions to the nation-state are.

‘Civic nationalism maintains that the nation should be composed of all those – regardless of race, colour, creed, gender, language or ethnicity – who subscribe to the nation’s political creed. This nationalism is called civic because it envisages the nation as a community of equal, rights bearing citizens, united in patriotic attachment to a shared set of political practices and values.

(Ignatieff, 1994: 3–4)

There is considerable evidence that modern nations are connected with earlier ethnic categories and communities and are created out of pre-existing origin myths, ethnic cultures and shared memories; and that those nations with a vivid, widespread sense of an ethnic past, are likely to be more unified and distinctive than those which lack that sense.

(Smith, 1996: 385)
Debates rage on the topic of the ‘ethnic’ and the ‘civic’ in nationalist discourses. For Ignatieff (1994) the appeal of civic nationalism is obvious, rejecting as it does any appeal to the ‘who and what’ of the citizens found within its territory – more important is a common belief in agreed political practices and values. For Smith (1996) this is somewhat illusionary because you cannot escape the fact that the ‘ethnic past’ is a vital element for even the most ‘modern’ of nations and indeed those without, or denying, this past will ultimately become undone in denial. But where do these discussions begin? A common starting point for discussing the ethnic-linguistic and civic-political distinction is the work of historians such as Friedrich Meinecke (1907) and Hans Kohn (1944). In his influential work, Meinecke made an important distinction between what he termed ‘cultural nations’ and ‘political nations’ – the former having common ‘cultural heritage’ and the latter having a shared ‘political history and constitution’. For Kohn (1944), a useful distinction was to be drawn between ‘Eastern’ and ‘Western’ nationalisms with the dividing line being the river Rhine. To the West of this river was a kind of nationalism that displayed qualities of being both rationalistic and voluntaristic in nature, whilst to the east was a nationalism that was much more deterministic and organic. Such early work set the tone for more recent debates, many of which still tend to offer generalised caricatures rather than substance and specifics: it is regularly, and lazily, asserted that ethnic nationalism is associated with xenophobic attitudes and exclusionary policies, as well as violence when required, and civic nationalism is associated with highly liberal states who actively encourage the integration of new members with appeals to humanistic and universal values. Is it really this simple?

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