There is a respectable opinion among educated people that nations are no longer relevant. Their reasoning runs roughly as follows:
We live in an interconnected world. Globalization and the internet have created new networks of belonging and new forms of social trust, by which borders are erased and old attachments vaporized. Yes, we have seen the growth of nationalism in Europe, the Brexit vote in the U.K. and the election of the populist Donald Trump, but these are signs of reactionary sentiments that we should all have outgrown. The nation-state was useful while it lasted and gave us a handle on our social and political obligations. But it was dangerous too, when inflamed against real or imaginary enemies.
In any case, the nation-state belongs in the past, to a society in which family, job, religion and way of life stay put in a single place and are insulated against global developments. Our world is no longer like that, and we must change in step with it if we wish to belong.
The argument is a powerful one and was highly influential among those who voted in the U.K. referendum to remain in the European Union. But it overlooks the most important fact, which is that democratic politics requires a demos. Democracy means rule by the people and requires us to know who the people are, what unites them and how they can form a government.
Government in turn requires a “we,” a prepolitical loyalty that causes neighbors who voted in opposing ways to treat each other as fellow citizens, for whom the government is not “mine” or “yours” but “ours,” whether or not we approve of it. This first person plural varies in strength, from fierce attachment in wartime to casual acceptance on a Monday morning at work, but at some level, it must be assumed if we are to adopt a shared rule of law.
A country’s stability is enhanced by economic growth, but it depends far more upon this sense that we belong together and that we will stand by each other in the real emergencies. In short, it depends on a legacy of social trust. Trust of this kind depends on a common territory, resolution in the face of external threat and institutions that foster collective decisions in response to the problems of the day. It is the sine qua non of enduring peace and the greatest asset of any people that possesses it, as the Americans and the British have possessed it throughout the enormous changes that gave rise to the modern world.
Urban elites build trust through career moves, joint projects and cooperation across borders. Like the aristocrats of old, they often form networks without reference to national boundaries. They do not, on the whole, depend upon a particular place, a particular faith or a particular routine for their sense of membership, and in the immediate circumstances of modern life, they can adapt to globalization without too much difficulty. They will identify with transnational networks since they see those things as assets, which amplify their power.
However, even in modern conditions, this urban elite depends upon others who do not belong to it: the farmers, manufacturers, factory workers, builders, clothiers, mechanics, nurses, cleaners, cooks, police officers and soldiers for whom attachment to a place and its customs is implicit in all that they do. In a question that touches on identity, these people will very likely vote in another way from the urban elite, on whom they depend in turn for government.
We are therefore in need of an inclusive identity that will hold us together as a people. The identities of earlier times—dynasty, faith, family, tribe—were already weakening when the Enlightenment consigned them to oblivion. And the substitutes of modern times—the ideologies and “isms” of the totalitarian states—have transparently failed to provide an alternative. We need an identity that leads to citizenship, which is the relation between the state and the individual in which each is accountable to the other. That, for ordinary people, is what the nation provides.
National loyalty marginalizes loyalties of family, tribe and faith, and places before the citizens’ eyes, as the focus of their patriotic feeling, not a person or a religion but a place. This place is defined by the history, culture and law through which we, the people, have claimed it as our own. The nationalist art and literature of the 19th century is characterized by the emergence of territory from behind religion, tribe and dynasty as the primary objects of love.
The national anthems of the self-identifying nations were conceived as invocations of home, in the manner of Sibelius’s “Finlandia” or the unofficial national anthem of England, “Land of Hope and Glory.” Even a militant anthem like “The Star-Spangled Banner” will take land and home as its motto: “the land of the free and the home of the brave.” It is our home that we fight for, and our freedom is the freedom of self-government in the place that is ours.
Liberals warn repeatedly against populism and nationalism, suggesting that even to raise the question of national identity is to take a step away from civilization. And it is true that there are dangers here. However, we in the Anglosphere have a language with which to discuss nationality that is not tainted by the bellicose rhetoric of the 19th- and 20th-century nationalists. When we wish to summon the “we” of political identity, we do not use grand and ideologically tainted idioms, like la patrie or das Vaterland. We refer simply to the country, this spot of earth, which belongs to us because we belong to it, have loved it, lived in it, defended it and established peace and prosperity within its borders.
Patriotism involves a love of home and a preparedness to defend it; nationalism, by contrast, is an ideology, which uses national symbols to conscript the people to war. When the Abbé Sieyès declared the aims of the French Revolution, it was in the language of nationalism: “The nation is prior to everything. It is the source of everything. Its will is always legal…. The manner in which a nation exercises its will does not matter; the point is that it does exercise it; any procedure is adequate, and its will is always the supreme law.” Those inflammatory words launched France on the path to the Reign of Terror, as the “enemies of the nation” were discovered hiding behind every chair.
But those who dismiss the national idea simply because people have threatened their neighbors in its name are victims of the very narrow-mindedness that they condemn. A small dose of evolutionary psychology would remind them that human communities are primed for warfare, and that when they fight, they fight as a group. Of course they don’t put it like that; the group appears in their exhortations as something transcendent and sublime—otherwise why should they fight for it? It goes by many names: the people, the king, the nation, God, even the Socialist International. But its meaning is always the same: “us” as opposed to “them.”
Divide a classroom of children into those wearing red pullovers and those wearing green and then make a few significant discriminations between them. You will soon have war between the reds and the greens. Within days, there will be heroes on each side and acts of stirring self-sacrifice, maybe in the long run a red anthem and a green. Red and Green will become symbols of the virtues and sacrifices of their followers, and—like national flags—they will acquire a spiritual quality, leading some to revere a cloth of red, others to burn that cloth in an act of ritual vengeance. That is not a reason for abolishing the color red or the color green.
Given this genetic narrative, should we not concede that war in defense of the homeland is more likely than most to end in a stable compromise? When the boundaries are secure and the intruder expelled, fighting can stop. Hence, when central Europe was divided into nation-states at the Peace of Westphalia in 1648, the European people breathed a great sigh of relief. Religion, they had discovered, far outperformed nationality when it came to the body count.
In the world as it is today, the principal threat to national identity remains religion, and in particular Islam, which offers to its most ardent subscribers a complete way of life, based on submission to the will of God. Americans find it hard to understand that a religion could offer an alternative to secular government and not just a way of living within its bounds. The First Amendment to the Constitution, they think, removed religion from the political equation.
But they forget that religions do not easily tolerate their competitors and might have to be policed from outside. That is why the First Amendment was necessary, and it is why we are fortunate that we define our membership in national rather than religious terms.
In states like Iran and Saudi Arabia, founded on religious rather than territorial obedience, freedom of conscience is a scarce and threatened asset. We, by contrast, enjoy not merely the freedom publicly to disagree with others about matters of faith and private life but also the freedom to satirize solemnity and to ridicule nonsense, including solemnity and nonsense of the religious kind. All such freedoms are precious to us, though we are losing the habit of defending them.
On the foundation of national attachment it has been possible to build a kind of civic patriotism, which acknowledges institutions and laws as shared possessions and which can extend a welcome to those who have entered the social contract from outside. You cannot immigrate into a tribe, a family or a faith, but you can immigrate into a country, provided you are prepared to obey the rules that make that country into a home. That is why the many migrants in the world today are fleeing from countries where faith, tribe or family are the principles of cohesion to the countries where nationality is the sole and sufficient step to social membership.
The “clash of civilizations,” which, according to the late political scientist Samuel Huntington, is the successor to the Cold War is, in my view, no such thing. It is a conflict between two forms of membership—the national, which tolerates difference, and the religious, which does not. It is this toleration of difference that opens the way to democracy.
Ordinary patriotism comes about because people have ways of resolving their disputes, ways of getting together, ways of cooperating, ways of celebrating and worshiping that seal the bond between them without ever making that bond explicit as a doctrine. This is surely how ordinary people live, and it is at the root of all that is best in human society—namely, that we are attached to what goes on around us, grow together with it, and learn the ways of peaceful association as our ways, which are right because they are ours and because they unite us with those who came before us and those who will replace us in our turn.
Seen in that way, patriotic feelings are not just natural, they are essentially legitimizing. They call upon the sources of social affection and bestow that affection on customs that have proved their worth over time, by enabling a community to settle its disputes and achieve equilibrium in the changing circumstances of life.
All of this was expressed by the French historian and philosopher Ernest Renan in a celebrated 1882 essay, “What Is a Nation?” For Renan, a nation is not constituted by racial or religious conformity but by a “daily plebiscite,” expressing the collective memory of its members and their present consent to live together. It is precisely for these reasons that national sentiments open the way to democratic politics.
It would be the height of folly to reject the “we” of nationality in favor of some global alternative or some fluctuating community in cyberspace. The task is not to surrender to globalization but to manage it, to soften its sharp edges, so that our attachments and loyalties can still guide us in exercising the thing that defines us, which is the sovereignty of the people, in a place of their own.
Mr. Scruton is a British writer and philosopher. His many books include, most recently, “Confessions of a Heretic” and “Fools, Frauds and Firebrands: Thinkers of the New Left.”