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Tribal rivalries and the relevance of the nation state
24 Jul, 2022

Nick Heenan wants to remain European. He spent most of his career advancing European objectives, which are not incompatible with the UK national interest. Yet his identity and beliefs put him at one end of the spectrum of the tribal affiliations, loyalties and emotions being expressed in the UK today. But tomorrow, he argues, the nation state will be no more relevant to managing the issues of the day than was the village at the dawn of the agricultural revolution. 

I can understand why loyalty to a particular football club gets passed down within a family, from one generation to the next. It’s a question of identity and culture. It defines who people are and how they behave, proudly wearing their team colours or uniform, socialising with people that have very similar ideas, who speak in the right idioms, and who know the smallest details about “their” club, its players, proud history and latest news. In short, football manifests very strong tribal behaviours amongst its supporters.

Loyalties to hometowns or regions are also important to some people: knowing who you are through where you come from, your roots, where you grew up, where you went to school and perhaps where most of your relatives still live. Not all tribes have strong geographic ties: the more people travel, experience different cultures, move their home or work away from home, the weaker their personal geographic ties become.

And so to the national tribe: why do people choose to identify as being British or Polish, or European for that matter? Does this really define who they are and how they behave, in the same way as it used to do centuries ago?

In comparison to medieval times, the nation state has largely replaced the “Lord of the Manor” and individual family responsibilities as the provider of personal security, rules and standards of behaviour, the enforcement of rules/laws and the authority punishing (even expelling) those that do not conform. It is the nation state that ensures freedom of choice on careers, whom we can marry (and divorce), that provides housing for the poor, health care for the sick, and in many cases provides care for the elderly.

In all these respects the state increasingly takes over responsibilities that used to be undertaken by individual families. Individual loyalties to the family have been gradually superseded by loyalties to the state. Monetary contributions (taxes) are paid to the state; citizens benefit from a society ordered by known rules, enforced by state-run authorities. When the state itself is under threat, the young may be called upon to fight for the state. Yet for some, loyalties to less formal tribal groupings such as football fan clubs or “street gangs” are far stronger and more relevant than loyalty to the nation.

Tribal loyalties only work if the benefits of membership can be felt, and correctly attributed to the right leaders. Similarly, when things go wrong, the root cause of problems also need to be correctly attributed if they are to be properly understood and addressed. Sadly, it is all too common for tribal leaders to take all the credit for successes, whilst firmly pointing the finger at others for their own failures. Leaders that seem too geographically distant, or who are addressing issues that are of less relevance to sectors of the population, are seen as being far less important.

Thus, it is all too easy to blame central government (far away in London) for holes in the road, or poor working conditions in a factory, when the root cause is much closer to home. Equally, central government’s “taking back control” mantra is as much about curbing the powers of devolved governments, as it is about blaming Europe for its own national policy shortcomings.

National governments have but one seat at the table of an international body such as the United Nations, NATO or (until recently) the European Council. However, sovereignty in an interdependent world of nation states is an illusion. Clamping-down on security of the nation’s borders is a self-defeating policy when as a trading nation, freedoms of movement (of goods, services, people and capital) are fundamental to free trade. No country is truly independent, but mutually dependent on others. Trade relies on international treaties, standards - and above all on the mutual trust and respect of other countries. Recent developments have highlighted the economic shock that can result when essential imports on which the UK depends are suddenly threatened.

There is nothing wrong per se in identifying strongly with the British tribe, of being proud to be British. Equally, there is nothing wrong with being proud to be Welsh or from Essex. However, it is a big mistake to base loyalty to the British tribe (this being British nationalism) on our nation’s history as a major imperial power, or on its role in two World Wars. The British Empire has long gone. Our armed forces have only a small fraction of the reach and power that they once held. It is no longer true the UK “punches above its weight”. Today, we are a small and increasingly isolated nation, yet heavily dependent on other nations for our continued prosperity. We can be proud of our cultural heritage and our traditional British sense of fair-play, but let us focus on playing our full part in European and global affairs, rather than turning inwards and raising false fears about the threats from outsiders. All homo-sapiens tribes live on the same planet and many of the most serious issues we humans face today can only be tackled on a global level: climate change and the pollution causing this, drought, wars and famine as the causes of mass-migration, world peace....

Prior to Brexit, the UK was at the heart of the EU. Trading within the Single Market of the EU was easy. Around half of UK exports were destined to other EU Member States. The current government now claims it has the freedom to set its own standards, but the reality is that if we want to maximise our opportunities with the EU, we need to apply its standards, not ours! Unfortunately, we no longer have any influence on how those standards evolve.

Today, many may still feel secure living within the confines of their national tribe, even though they are increasingly aware of life in other regions of the world. Tomorrow, the nation state will be no more relevant to managing the issues of the day than was the village at the dawn of the agricultural revolution. Whilst tribalism will remain a fundamental part of human nature, competing nation states will soon be no more relevant to humankind than competing football teams.

Nick Heenan

Nick is a London4Europe committee member and previously spent most of his career working for the European Commission in Brussels. London4Europe blogs are edited by Nick Hopkinson, Vice-Chair. Articles on this page reflect the views of the author and not necessarily of London4Europe.

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Andrew (Andy) Pye
published this page in Latest blogs 2022-07-24 13:19:10 +0100