I wrote a series of blogs under this heading last year; I started the fourth and final one, then got distracted by something and it never went any further. I have used Michael Ignatieff’s book Blood and Belonging as the background to much of what I’ve said in the previous entries. Ignatieff’s last port of call on his journey to “trouble spots” around the world, in search of the meaning of nationalism, was Northern Ireland. He compares that divided society with those of the former Yugoslavia and the Ukraine, pointing out that

In all three cases, essentially similar peoples, speaking the same or related languages, sharing the same form of life, differing in religions which few actually seem to practise, have been divided by the single fact that one has ruled over the other”.

Later in the book, he sums up his experiences in each of the “flash points” he visited with the words

“Everywhere I’ve been, nationalism is most violent where the group you are defining yourself against most closely resembles you”.


Flags and slogans in Belfast, June 2014

Having made my first visit to Northern Ireland six months ago, and seen all the flags flying in readiness for the July 12th marches, I too was, and remain, baffled by a political movement that defines itself in terms of loyalism (“loyalism to what?” I couldn’t help wondering). But in fact one doesn’t even need to go as far as Belfast to witness the strange spectacle of nationalism. A few weeks ago the British press was full of stories about Emily Thornberry MP and her comments about the St George flag, together with Ed Miliband’s pathetic response, that one should “respect” a flag. My main reaction to that was “yes, but why that flag, apart from anything else?” It is not the flag of any state, but of what Ignatieff would call a nation within a state – the “nation” of England. But what does England mean? And why should far-right thugs use that flag as their emblem? What possible reason might there be for English people to hate Scots, Welsh or Irish? After all, here there is not even a hint of a religious or ethnic divide – just a geographical one.

I strongly suspect that many of the St George flags one sees displayed are actually tokens of support for a football team (and indeed the house Thornberry photographed had, according to one press report, “two St George flags and one West Ham flag” on display); but when the English Defence League come to my home town, as they do far too often, and perform their “March for England” swathed in St George flags, they are clearly thinking of something other than football. Yet it is hard to see why anyone would want to mark out England as being in some way superior to other parts of the world. I could understand this kind of nationalism much easier if it either expanded or contracted its borders: identifying with Britain, as the EDL’s forerunnner, the National Front, did a few decades back, is at least understandable if not condonable; identifying with Europe, even better; but even more natural would be to downsize one’s nationalism to a more manageable region – say one’s county (as for instance many Yorkshiremen and women do), or even one’s home town. Even I have to admit a slight degree of identification with my adopted home town.

Many people do indeed seem to want to feel that they belong to some community or other. A few months ago I sat in my office listening to a conversation between two of the PhD students I shared it with, about football. Clearly they supported different teams, but it was an amicable exchange. What intrigues me is the fact that, when one wanted to refer to the other’s team, he referred to the team as “you” – as though the students could be entirely identified with their teams as members, even though I doubt whether either has ever played football professionally – or possibly even at all.

Is football, then, a relatively harmless way of satisfying this need to belong? I am not sure. Sport actually brings a very interesting dimension to all this talk of national identification. In football, England, Scotland and Wales field national teams, and the same is true of rugby and cricket, although – correct me if I’m wrong – I believe the Ireland rugby team actually represents both Ulster and the Republic. Cricket also presents an opportunity for those who identify with their county, which again would seem more sensible than with a whole country. And there is a British Lions rugby team, which has no analogue in football or cricket. Best of all, there is a rugby team called the Barbarians, which – if I’ve remembered correctly – is open to all nationalities.

This blog series started off as a response to accusations of “anti-semitism” against people who oppose the policies of the Israeli government. I’m still trying to work that one out. One thing I have a big problem with is the concept of  the “right of return” which Israel offers to Jewish people even if they have never been there before, so cannot literally “return”. This is presumably based on an ethnic interpretation of Jewishness: over the course of a generation or two it’s understandable for people to want to return to a place their grandparents or great-grandparents came from, and which they may think of as “home” in some sense, and one could imagine it as an extrapolation of that. But the trouble is that one has to extrapolate over quite a large number of generations. Craig Murray, the former UK ambassador to Uzbekistan, has illustrated how bizarre this principle would seem if applied to other ethnic groups: “I’m Scottish”, he once said in a talk, “and I know that the Celts passed through Switzerland on their way to France and Britain; so does that give me the right to go and live in Switzerland?” Well, I suppose it depends, to some extent, on how long they stayed in Switzerland – but however long, it would have been a very long time ago and it would seem rather a strange idea to expect to just be able to go and live there. Personally I have no idea where my own ancestors were at the time the Jews left Israel, but wherever it is I wouldn’t expect to have a right to “return”.

In his book Citizenship, Nationality and Ethnicity, T.K.Oommen surveys several initiatives by American negroes in the USA in the 19th and 20th centuries to create a “homeland” for themselves. Incredibly – since it seems absurd to think of such an idea surviving into the modern era – these efforts continued right up to the 1960s. There were attempts to establish a homeland in Canada, Cyprus, Haiti, Liberia and South America; and there was also a campaign for one within the USA, consisting of the five Southern states of Mississippi, South Carolina, Louisiana, Alabama and Georgia, which, as Oommen points out, would have necessitated large “relocations” of existing communities since even in these five states only a third of the population was black at that time. The civil unrest that would have resulted from such “relocations” does not bear thinking about, and would have made even the race riots that did happen look like blissful coexistence in comparison. Oommen gives seven reasons why “race cannot be the basis for nation formation in the contemporary world” including miscegenation, dispersal, and lack of a common language or religion. Religion itself fares no better; Oommen points out that religions are often supra-national and that several religions can share a geographical area. WorldFaithsMap On that note, I was intrigued by a “world faiths map” that was put up at UCL during Freshers’ Week; students were invited to pick up a flag bearing an emblem of their religion, and stick it on the map, although I am not sure whether they were supposed to stick it on their country of origin, or a country they associated with that religion, or what; nor, indeed, could I understand what the point of it was. (There was also a map of the UK next to it, which didn’t help to solve the puzzle). Anyway, whatever it was, I did not like it: any attempt to associate religions with geographical areas only reinforces the concept of a religious state, which is surely at odds with the principle that people have a right to choose a religion, or no religion, quite independently of where they choose to live.

(Incidentally, even Ignatieff falls into the trap of confusing tribalism with religion: he claims that “it is rumoured that among school-age children in Belfast the Catholics are up to 50% of the total”. In what sense can these children, who could be as young as five, be said to be Catholics? Only, surely, if we assume that they have been brainwashed in the manner described in James Joyce’s Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. Better, surely, to think of new names for the two communities which don’t make any reference to religion. And “nationalist” and “loyalist” won’t do either, since they assume a certain point of view, as Ignatieff acknowledges. Perhaps this pigeonholing, even by enlightened souls like him, is part of the problem?)

Inspired no doubt by the Scottish independence referendum, a recent New Scientist ran a feature entitled “End of the Nation”. Its author, Debora Mackenzie, surveys current research on the concept of “nation” in the modern world, citing various “failed” states and supranational bodies such as the EU. She quotes Brian Slattery of York University, Toronto, on the need for  “a conception of the state as a place where multiple affiliations and languages and religions may be safe and flourish”, citing Tanzania, which has more than 120 ethnic groups and about 100 languages, as a working model. Mackenzie likens this to a new concept dubbed “neo-medievalism”, whose hallmarks include “overlapping authorities, divided sovereignty, multiple identities and governing institutions, and fuzzy borders”, as proposed by Jan Zielonka, of Oxford University. And on that rather idealistic and still somewhat confused note, I’ll end this current series. (But there is more! Click here for the next post in the series).