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New Left Review I/105, September-October 1977


Eric Hobsbawm

Some Reflections on ‘The Break-up of Britain’

Nationalism has been a great puzzle to (non-nationalist) politicians and theorists ever since its invention, not only because it is both powerful and devoid of any discernible rational theory, but also because its shape and function are constantly changing. Like the cloud with which Hamlet taunted Polonius, it can be interpreted according to taste as a camel, a weasel or a whale, though it is none of these. Perhaps the error is to apply zoological criteria instead of meteorological analysis. We are—to continue the metaphor—at present living through some sort of climatic change visibly affecting this type of meteorological phenomenon. Let us begin, unlike Tom Nairn, whose recent book suggests these reflections, by charting this change. [*] Tom Nairn, The Break-up of Britain, NLB, London 1977. All page references in the text and footnotes below are to Nairn’s book, unless otherwise specified. The political crux of modern nationalism is the demand for ‘self-determination’, i.e. to constitute something like a ‘nation-state’ as today understood: a sovereign and ideally homogeneous territorial unit inhabited as ‘citizens’ by the members of a ‘nation’, as defined in a variety of conventional ways (ethnic, linguistic, cultural, historical, etc.). Conversely, the citizens of modern territorial states are believed normally to constitute such a ‘nation’, those who do not fit the bill being classified as ‘minorities’ or other ‘nations’ which ought logically to have their own state. The point has been reached where the terms ‘state’ and ‘nation’ are today interchangeable (‘United Nations’). Whatever our definition of peoples, nations, nationalities, etc., it is clear that this identification is historically quite recent, especially in the standardized form which has become fashionable and which misleads incautious observers, including Nairn. [1] England is no less a nation than Scotland because Nairn does not think that it is yet ‘a nation like the rest’ (p. 301), i.e. having a nationalist ideology and party of the now standard model like the Scots. In the first place, modern territorial states of the kind now taken to be normal were rather unusual until well into the nineteenth century, whether or not they claimed to be national. In the second place, the enormous difficulties and cruelties to which the attempt to divide Europe into homogeneous nation-states has led in this century (including separatism, partition, mass expulsion and genocide) demonstrates its historic novelty.

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