Political elites have spent much of the past decade worrying about why voters are revolting against globalisation. However, no political programme has proved as effective at grounding the global citizen as the apocalyptic horseman we’ve been living with for the last year.
Even open borders advocates have seen a use for port controls as the pandemic has rumbled on. Some Scotsman hope to make such arrangements permanent once the crisis is over. At such times it’s worth asking why we draw our state lines where we do, as well as who qualifies to live within them.
The British have long been exposed on this and related questions. Whenever somebody asked what our country was about on Question Time one of the panel would waffle about tolerance, sugar, spice and everything nice.
This had the neat effect of annoying both oikophobes and xenophobes. “Don’t other countries have tolerance, sugar and spice?” the former would ask, with justification. “Stop cutting our armed forces!” the latter would blurt out – both missing and hitting the point.
The United Kingdom is not primarily an ‘idea state’. Unlike the United States, it cannot mount a convincing case that it persists for ideological reasons. This is not to say that there is no ideology in defining Britain or Britishness, but it’s not really the point of it.
The same point applies even within the UK. The Scottish National Party (SNP) might fulminate against Brexit and the evils of Conservative rule from Westminster, but fundamentally they are trying to restore a border abolished 300 years ago and established centuries before that. Scotland as a territory is not about ideas, but history.
You also don’t stop being culturally Scottish if you suddenly discover Euroscepticism and think the Tories might have a point. Cultural nationhood is like accent acquisition, something that is inculcated into you and expressed through everyday habits.
The UK, being a ‘nation of nations’, is more complicated than Scotland on its own. But it’s not that much more complicated. What makes the British British is not ideology, but the usual symptoms of nationhood, namely local flavours of language, art, architecture, music, humour and so on.
This isn’t to say that the British have never been animated by ideological zeal. Britons were at the forefront of railing against popery. We later saw our empire as justified by a civilising mission. We have also sometimes joined Americans in their quest to impose liberal democracy on various huddled masses. But our purposes have been various, not singular.
The contrast with the United States is again useful. What exactly is that country without its ideological underpinning? Every American political disagreement is linked back to the constitution and intentions of the country’s founders. The British don’t even have a written constitution, let alone a continuous row over it.
Attempts to crowbar British political disputes into an idea state context is another sign of how dominant America is in our lives. I think it would be advisable that we relinquished this national habit. But perhaps it is a Briton’s lot to live in disappointment.