The Myth of Nationhood

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine was accompanied by a public justification from President Putin. Part of his reasoning relied on the shared history of Ukraine and Russia and in particular referred to the concept of nationhood. Rather than examine Putin’s claims or the counter-claims by equally sure and equally unqualified people in the media I want to illustrate the nature of nationhood by considering the place I come from, England.

Liberal and Far-Right English Nationalism

England, like Ukraine, has far-right nationalists who make similar claims to a centuries-old, unbroken national identity reaching back, in their case, into Saxon England. Many of these people come from places, Yorkshire and Lancaster for example, which were never Saxon. However, even liberal historians and politicians like to characterise English history as a series of Monarchs as if they were listing the CEOs of a long-standing company; the names change but it was always ACME.

“Saxon” England

Saxon England never in fact existed. The first person to claim to be king of England, in 927 AD, was a man called Aethelstan. He was a Saxon King who struggled to be accepted in the Saxon heartlands but who did eventually muster an army big enough to defeat the kings of the Scandinavian north. The start of the English nation ? Hardly. The land was inhabited mainly by Germans, Danes and Norwegians plus a few remaining Romano-British and the “kingdom” forced at the point of a sword lasted 7 years.

There is another reason that Saxon England never existed. Although people got used to using the term Saxon, historians now believe that most of the people who came to England after the Romans left, first as invited mercenaries and then as invaders, in fact hailed not from the east of Germany but from the north west of Germany, as well as Denmark and Holland. These people forged a new ethnic identity in England, still referred to as Anglo-Saxon.

William the Bastard

Germans and Scandinavians continued to fight over England for another 130 years or so before a Norman, William the Bastard, crossed the English Channel with superior military technology and made it known amongst the royal courts of Europe that he’d prefer to be referred to as the Conqueror. William did soon control almost the whole of what is now England so can we date our nationhood to his arrival ? There are two major problems. The territory of William’s Kingdom extended as far south as Le Mans in France and being French, William’s political focus was on that side of the sea. Secondly his Norman administration imposed two versions of French along with Latin as the official languages; the vast majority of the population spoke either a version of German known as Old English or a Scandinavian dialect.

Emergence of English as the National Language

This dual identity went on for hundreds of years. Henry the Eighth, ruling from 1509, was the first king of England to speak English as his first language. Neither had those intervening years been stable or unifying. The successors to the Normans, the Angevins, ruled a territory in which England was just a small part and at its height under Henry II reached as far south as the Spanish border. His successor, Richard I — as Richard the Lionheart one of England’s best known kings — hardly knew England and is buried in Rouen, France.

By the time Henry VIII was crowned the French territory had been retrieved by France. So, at least from 1509 we can say that England was a country speaking English and occupying the same geographical area as it does today. Finally we have the onset of continuity.

Religious Division

No. No sooner had the language division been settled with the emergence of modern English, an amalgam of German, French and Latin, than religion stepped in to fill the void. Henry, for his own nefarious purposes, invented the Church of England and became a protestant. A lot of the population took a different view and a century of lurching from one clerical tyranny to another ensued.

The protestants finally got the upper hand and it wasn’t until 1829 with the passing of the Catholic Emancipation Act that state-sponsored religious persecution ceased in England. Henry VIII also formally annexed Wales making the territory of England, legally, subsuming that of Wales. So England settled for a protestant, English-speaking territory covering two countries early in the seventeenth century ?

English Revolution

The religious violence subsided just in time for the English Revolution. In 1642 the emerging Capitalist class made their move and England had rival governments for seven years, each controlling their own shifting territory.

It is only since the end of the second civil war, in 1649, that the territory of England and the complexion of its people has not been bloodily disputed.

I am, therefore, in a tradition of nationhood that goes back less than 400 years.

UK Announced (mark 1 and mark 2)

For the nationalists it gets worse. In 1707 England and Scotland agreed an act of union. There was no mandate, the Scottish aristocracy were bribed. Neither the people of Scotland or England had any say in the matter which edited their nationality to United Kingdom. So the UK has been in existence for a mere 315 years. Well, no. In 1922 the UK lost most of its first colony, Ireland. It retained six counties in the north and so the name had to change again to reflect another change in territory; the UK is now short for The United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland.

My nationality, stated on my passport, has only existed for one hundred years.

In fact so convoluted and ephemeral is nationality in this part of the world that we don’t even have a word for it any more. My nationality is UK but no-one ever says “I’m UKish”; we are forced to rely on a name that ceased to be correct 100 years ago, British. Confusion then but at least the borders are fixed.

Possibility of UK Mark 3

The Irish republican party Sinn Fein hold the most seats in the Northern Ireland parliament and are currently the most popular in the Republic of Ireland. At some point they will call for a border referendum. In Scotland the SNP (Scottish Nationalist Party) have already called a referendum once on independence. They narrowly lost but at the time Brexit was only a threat. Brexit is now a reality and Scotland voted overwhelmingly against it; the SNP have already declared that they will try again. No-one can predict the outcome of either contest but it is accurate to say that in 2022 there is a significant probability of the UK losing large chunks of its territory.

Fluid Europe

The media are gleefully reporting that books on Ukrainian history are being snapped up in Kiev. Disgracefully they are just as gleeful about the pulping of Russian books and predictably the irony of “book-burning” by a country Russia insists needs to be de-Nazified goes over their heads. History is always good to know though and as Ukraine doesn’t have Britain’s advantage of being surrounded by sea a cursory glance at any reputable history of Ukraine will reveal a concept of nationhood that is even more malleable, even more amorphous and even more historically shallow than that of England/England and France/England and Wales/Britain/UK/UK2.

Of course lack of historical depth doesn’t mean people don’t have strong feelings but they are based on short time-scales; the place where they grew up, where their parents came from, the place they know and where other people speak the same language they do and behave in a similar way. The comfort of familiarity and stability in a Europe that has been fluid ever since the Proto-Indo-Europeans from the Russian steppe first colonised it over 6000 years ago.

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