Sunday, 10 August 2014

What defines a nation state?

Many of the world's crises recently have revolved around the question of nation states and how they are defined. Ukraine's turmoil is caused in part by being a pawn in power games between Putin and the West, but in part too by the history of Ukraine as a nation state, and the way that Crimea was allegedly added to it by Khrushchev when he was drunk. The ability and right of the Palestinian territories to function as nation states is of course central to the Gaza conflict, and we appear to be witnessing in Iraq the demise of that country as a nation state at all. And in a more domestic (and far less serious) context, both the Scottish independence referendum and the EU debate centre around the changing nature of the nation state.

All of which cases lead me to ponder on how a nation state can be defined. We tend to think of the concept as being inevitable and permanent but it is in fact a relatively recent phenomenon: Germany and Italy for instance only came into existence in the late 19th Century. In reality in many cases nation states are pretty arbitrary constructs: many do not have a unifying language (look at Belgium for instance), religion (think of Iraq) or ethnicity (virtually any African nation) or even coherent shape in terms of borders. On the face of it France seems to have very regular and logical borders (mainland France is called "the Hexagon" by the French), but look at the country's actual geography:

What is more, in today's world there are often more connections between individuals and groups in different countries than those within the nation state itself. Jet travel is no respecter of national boundaries and neither is the internet. Multinational companies (as the adjective implies) ignore differences between nation states, except for reasons of minimizing tax. A high street in London is now more similar to a high street in Brisbane than it is to one in Lerwick and it is almost impossible to discover where the goods we consume have actually been produced.

So how can a nation state be defined, if not by the companies trading in it, the ethnicity or religion of its peoples or the language spoken. Even social groupings won't do the job, as social media creates and maintains social groups that transcend national boundaries, and if the neo-cons have their way government won't either, as all the erstwhile government services are outsourced to (multinational) private sector companies. In the UK we already have a significant proportion of our public services delivered by French, German or American companies, and China is to be developing our new generation of power stations apparently.

It seems that all we are left with to define a nation state are the following: the national anthem and the flag. Both are on display (in the event of victory) at games such as the Commonwealth Games and the Olympics, and the visual image of the victorious athlete mouthing the words of their anthem in front of their nation's flag is about the strongest symbol of nationhood one gets to see.

So what of these national anthems and these flags? Most were chosen some time ago of course, so one might think that they are too out of date now to tell us anything meaningful about the nation states they symbolise, but in fact there are some surprising insights to be gained just by looking at them more closely.

Take for instance the flags and national anthems of Britain, the United Sates and France- three countries locked in a long history of mutual support and distrust since the American Revolution itself (it was France that donated the Statue of Liberty to the nascent United States). The flags are an interesting comparison as they all use the same three colours: red, white and blue, but the use made of these colours is very different:
The French flag is by far the simplest and boldest. To the French it speaks of clarity of thought and the Age of Reason that saw the creation of the Republic. It is the one true Tricolore, and as such the pattern for countless flags that followed, whilst remaining unique and archetypal. The problem is that to everyone else, France's flag is that one with the red, white and blue stripes, but are they horizontal or vertical? Or is that Hungary anyway. And which colour is it on the left? Who bloody cares anyway. They all look the same.

The British flag speaks of unity in diversity with its complex of overlaid crosses, and of the centrality of our great nation in the converging lines of power and influence that reach across the globe. Except that it is a bugger to draw, is probably hardly ever hung the right way up (which is the right way up? Does anyone actually know?) and shouldn't even be called the Union Jack at all.

The US flag is both powerfully simple and somehow on a different scale to the other two. It is instantly recognisable and would be the easiest to win Pictionary with, even without coloured pens, yet it has an unfeasibly large number of elements that always make it look bigger than it actually is. And its visual symbolism is on an epic scale: the red lines representing the lands and oceans and the stars the overarching skies. The earth beneath and the skies above- all are ours, the flag seems to say.

The anthems are just as different one from another, and the connotations of their words just as telling. The Marseillaise, for all its warlike evocation of revolutionary struggle is also surprisingly intimate and familial in its language. It refers to enfants (children), bras (arms) and fils (sons), and evokes a rural scene of campagnes (fields) and sillons (furrows). What is more, however defiant its tone there is an air of defeatism about the song. It is the citizens the chorus calls to arms, not the soldiery, and it calls them to put up barricades- surely a futile last-ditch attempt to resist the inexorable march of the feroces soldats who are approaching to ├ęgorger (slay) our sons and our companions.

The British national anthem is almost ludicrously overblown. One use of an adjective such as "gracious" one could maybe get away with, but in the first verse alone (the only one anyone knows) we have "gracious," "noble," "victorious" and "glorious." And what is telling is what the song in the end wishes for. Unlike the French and US anthems, the British national anthem positively invites subjugation. "rule us," or "be our Queen" would be one thing, but the anthem actually asks for the monarch to "rule over us."

So if the Marseillaise encapsulates France's parochial yet truculent defeatism and God Save the Queen manages to sum up Britain's pompous subservience, what of the Star Spangled Banner? Like the Marseillaise the US national anthem is an evocation of revolutionary struggle against a tyrannical oppressor, and if its depiction of "the rocket's red glare, [and] the bombs bursting in air" is nowadays more reminiscent of Hamas or the Taliban than of the all-conquering US Army then that is simply one of history's ironies.

In essence the Star Spangled Banner is a simple yet powerful summation of a myth that has kept the US at the top of the heap for a very long time. For a start it is a song about the nation's flag, so the two symbols work hand in hand. Secondly its imagery is actually quite surprisingly uplifting. There is a great deal about light ("the dawn's early light," "twilight," "gleaming", "gleam," "morning's first beam," "reflected," "shines," and of course the "star spangled banner" itself). There is powerful evocation of place too, with "the shore, dimly seen through the mists of the deep," "the breeze," "the towering steep" and "the stream." Together these give a strong sense of the land as the first European pioneers found it: unsullied, vast and shining. The people in the song are "brave" and "free" and this is their "land" and their "home."

Small wonder then that Americans have seen themselves as the undisputed leaders of the free world. The Star Spangled Banner is an anthem that can really only be sung with one's fist held over one's heart, unlike God Save the Queen which must be droned out in an embarrassed dirge and the Marseillaise which can only really be bellowed whilst in a state of inebriation.

So does any of this matter at all? Do these symbols prove that there is some indefinable essence to nationhood that was somehow captured by the designers of flags and the composers of anthems, and that still holds true today? Or is this some variation of nominative determinism, and a country's people learns over time to live up (or down) to that country's national symbols?

Who knows? What I would say though, to my fellow Scots is this: if you do vote for independence then think long and hard before you officially adopt Flower of Scotland as the national anthem.

1 comment:

  1. Totally agree with you on the last sentence! Dire.
    BTW, new blog design is much better IMO