Multiculturalism and the Nation State

by George Hatjoullis

The theme of this blog post is the possibility of multiculturalism in a nation state. The answer in part depends on how multiculturalism is defined. However, the conclusion is that only a limited form of multiculturalism is possible and most would not call it multiculturalism. In short, it is not possible and has been a pointless and damaging experiment. The problem is, of course, the nation state itself. However, that is a different blog. I give the conclusion up front as knowing it you might not want to read the blog. Moreover, the route to this conclusion might seem a bit odd at times.

I begin with overseas visitors to the UK. I always make a point of taking them to three places; Stonehenge, Lullingstone Roman Villa and Dover Castle. They are all English Heritage sites (and thus very economical if planned). They are all no more than two hours drive from my home. This is how I came to know these sites but I came to know many more as well. I choose these three for my guests. There is a reason.

Stonehenge has something to do with the sun. This is the only aspect that is certain. Everything else seems to be conjecture. The people who built it may have been sun worshippers. Sun worship seems to have been quite common among the ancients across the Mediterranean. A common cultural theme. Apollo was also associated with the sun, light and knowledge. There is strong evidence that Greek and Phoenician traders (eastern Mediterranean people) came to Cornwall and southern England regularly to trade for tin and other metals. This common heritage is often ignored.

Lullingstone Roma Villa is in Kent about an hours drive from my home. The settlement dates from AD 75 and lasts until AD 420. It is technologically advanced with heating and baths. It has evidence of Christian worship in a Christian house-church dating back to the third century AD. The fact that a Roman settlement thrived here for so long and brought Christianity to Britain so early says much about the extent and power of the Roman rule of Britain. The central room has a magnificent mosaic depicting scenes from Greek mythology (as well as geometric shapes such as Swastikas). The importance of Greek culture, education and administration within the Roman empire is often forgotten. Once again we see that southern England has much common heritage with the eastern Mediterranean.

The demise of the Roman empire is followed by the Anglo-Saxon invasion of England and a turbulent period (what period in history is not turbulent) that culminates in the Norman invasion of 1066. Some kind of fortification existed close to the site of Dover Castle in the Saxon era but the castle we see today was built by the Normans. It may have been initially as a base to control the locals but it soon became the first line of defence for England. Modern England, it seems to me, begins with Dover Castle and it plays a continuous role in the defence of England right up to, and including, WW2. Between 1066 and Elisabeth I, modern England takes shape. The process is complete and obvious by the time of Elisabeth I but I would guess was pretty much done by the time of Henry IV. England as the nation state that we know today is in place by the 14th Century.

It is odd to talk of nation states when monarchs still rule. A feature of monarchy is that the realm knows no ethnic or cultural boundaries. It consists of all who owe allegiance to the monarch. Monarchy is by definition multi-cultural. It is nevertheless evident that England and the English is being constructed during this period. They are distinct from the Scots, Welsh and Irish and, whilst the monarchs laid claim to possessions that we now regard as ‘France’, they were also distinct from the French. It may be Shakespeare that completes the construction of modern England but it begins with William the Conqueror. Nation states and Nationalism soon reshaped the whole world.

I was born in Cyprus but was brought to England as a baby and never knew anything other than Hornsey Road, Islington, London until I was 17. The locals made me fully aware that I was not from here which was painful and confusing as I was not knowingly from anywhere else either. At school I was taught English history. It was about the glorious empire on which the sun never set. In so-called music class we sang songs like ‘Hearts of Oak’ and ‘Rule Britannia’. It was impossible to internalize this as my history as it was obvious to me that I was a victim of this history not an owner. I was born a British Subject and Citizen of the United Kingdom and Colonies. Moreover, as I had been brought to England more than 5 years prior to Cyprus independence I had no automatic right to Cypriot citizenship. In fact the concept of a Cypriot nation state only came into existence in 1960. It was a compromise that no one seemed to want and was imposed by the UK.

The importance of history in the formation of personal identity was brought home to me when I first visited Cyprus in 1970 at the impressionable age of 17. I saw how my life might have been and who I might have been but was aware that this identity was not open to me any more. Growing up in London had made me ‘British’ (but not English) and there was no way I was ever going to be a Cypriot. In fact I could not identify a Cypriot. All I found when I was in Cyprus was Greeks and Turks, and I never once met any of the latter.

My strongest link to Cyprus was in fact my attitude to Turks. If was fear and loathing. This is odd as I had never met one. At first I thought I had internalized the attitude of my parents and family. More recent research in epigenetics suggests it may have been passed on in my genes ( see The Guardian). It was reinforced by my unfortunate experiences in July 1974 when I found myself on the beach head when the Turks invaded. However, as time went by (and I finally met a few Turks) my brain started to assert itself over my heritage. I also found myself with an uncommon insight into identity, nationalism and culture. It is not unique as many find themselves in the same no-man’s land. However, what may be uncommon is how I have dealt with the problems, and opportunities (the little Ferengi within), it presents.

To someone who is British, but not a Briton, and  having never had a strong link elsewhere, the importance of a strong core, common, set of values is very obvious. It binds the community together. It provides cohesion. It gives everyone something in common to which they can belong. This common core must be the dominant set of values. We are organised as nation states so this common core set of values needs to apply to this entity. This is not to say that a nation state is a good way to be organised. It is the way we are organised and so the value system needs to apply at this level. Moreover, it is clear that this common core cannot dwell overly much on history if it is to be effective. History must be consigned to the past. Common core values are about how we live today not tradition or habit. It is hard to see how multiculturalism can be consistent with a common core set of values defined in this way.

Cultural variation is invariably historical. It is traditional. It is rooted in the past. It can remain within the present if, and only if, it is consistent with the common core value system of the nation. One can worship any God one wishes. One can celebrate in any way one wishes. However, if the culture prohibits something that the common core allows there will be a conflict and the common core must be modified or dominate. Similarly, if the culture allows something the common core prohibits. There are limits to multiculturalism. In a pluralist democracy this can work provided all cultures are pragmatic. However, they are not naturally pragmatic and too much pragmatism dilutes the culture. Once again we see multiculturalism has considerable limits. Two examples may illustrate the problem and may be relevant to current issues.

First consider religious law. Some religions are poorly disguised legal codes. If the code conflicts then the common core legal code will dominate. However, in a pluralist democracy the common core can be changed. What if the migrant culture becomes so dominant that it can effect a change in the common core? Some would say, well that is democracy. Others might see the potential growth of the migrant culture as a threat and resist it, creating internal conflict and destroying cohesion. These people might resist migration and the tolerance of culture that comes with it. The debate over Islam in Britain seems to fall to this category. Is there a form of Islam that is acceptable to muslims and consistent with the current core set of British values? I do not know the answer but it is a question that needs to be posed. If there is, we need to find it. If there is not we have a problem.

Second, consider Cyprus and the so-called Cyprus problem. The problem is that the island has two dominant apparently distinct ethnic groups with different histories and cultures and religions. Nationalism in Cyprus is not centred on Cypriot but on Greek and Turk. There can be an agreement between the two communities but it will not be a solution until nationalism centres on Cyprus and both communities buy into a common core set of values. An agreement can buy time for the generations to achieve such a state but only then will it be a solution. In the meantime it will be at risk of derailment by those that cling to the previous nationalist ideals.

Finally, the EU offers a way out of the nationalism trap and I believe was what the founders were seeking to do. It is a union of nation states that stops short of becoming a nation state. It imposes a common core set of values over other values. Unfortunately, this was always a logical nonsense. It will ultimately cease to exist or become a new, large nation state. The world will then come to be dominated by a few large nation states. The risks are obvious but perhaps it is an inevitable to step towards the world becoming one nation state. What then?