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The nation state: a mineral to be excavated or a fabric to be woven?

Journalist, Sonia Sodha reflects on the second of Kwame Anthony Appiah's Reith Lectures.

“Where are you from?” is often one of the first questions that get asked in a social situation where people are meeting each other for the first time.

Simple question: simple answer?

In his second Reith lecture – on “country” – the philosopher Kwame Anthony Appiah argues that it’s a bit more complicated than we might at first think.

A growing number of people could answer that question in one of a number of different ways, like Appiah himself – he was born in London to an English mother and a Ghanaian father, spent his childhood in Ghana and Britain, and is now an American citizen.

The romantic idea of the nation state emerged in the 18th century. Back then, people thought of national identity as fixed and immutable; as something that brings together a set of people with a common ancestry and a common spirit.

Complex it might be, but the idea of national identity seems to be enjoying a resurgence. It played a big role in the Scottish referendum and helps explain the SNP’s political success in Scotland.

National sovereignty – the idea of “taking back control” – was one of the key arguments made by the Leave campaign in the European Referendum. Across Europe, nationalist parties in countries such as Germany, France and Austria are enjoying success. “Make America great again” is one of the key slogans of Donald Trump’s presidential campaign.

Against this backdrop, Appiah explores the concept of the nation state, and how it relates to nationalism.

He describes the Romantic idea of the nation state that emerged in the 18th century. Back then, people thought of national identity as fixed and immutable; as something that brings together a set of people with a common ancestry and a common spirit.

But Appiah sees some big problems with this view of national identity.

First, it seems a bit strange to accept the idea that there are clear, fixed national boundaries based on ancestry, that make one person French and another British – when there are people with similar Celtic ancestry who live in both Brittany and Cornwall.

Who gets to say where you draw the line? Isn’t it all rather arbitrary at the end of the day?

And who gets to say whether part of a country gets to become independent – say, Scotland from the UK or the Basque country from Spain?

A view of the Edinburgh skyline, Scotland.

The answer is often thought to boil down to one of self-determination. If a majority of people living in an area want to break off and form their own independent country, surely they should be able to?

The problem is the answer to this question might look very different according to how you draw the boundaries against the group of people you ask.

In Glasgow, where Appiah was delivering this lecture, people voted strongly for Scottish independence. Down the road in Edinburgh, people voted to stay in the UK. Does that mean Glasgow gets to be part of an independent Scotland, and Edinburgh stays part of the UK?

Second, Appiah argues that this Romantic notion of the nation state is completely outdated for modern times. Many countries have become increasingly multicultural and diverse in recent decades. What does this idea of a nation state – of a united people who share a common ancestry – mean for minorities?

Appiah also points out that this 18th century ideal of the nation state has never really existed in the real world.

If you look at a map of the world, you find more straight lines dividing up countries in Africa and the Middle East than elsewhere across the globe.

That’s because in these parts of the world, these borders were not created naturally by people with common ancestries and cultures. Instead, they were drawn up by colonial powers carving up whole continents in a way that suited them.

Even many of the big European nation states are relatively new on the scene – neither Germany nor Italy existed as nation states until the second half of the 19th century.

The philosopher and cultural theorist, Kwame Anthony Appiah is the 2016 BBC Reith Lecturer.

Appiah thinks it’s more helpful to think of a nation state –in the words of his father – not as a “mineral to be excavated” (something that’s just there, waiting to be discovered) but as a “fabric to be woven”.

The Cape Coast, Ghana.

He draws on the example of Ghana: it does have a shared national identity, but it wasn’t there before Ghana was created as a country. Instead, it has been painstakingly built over time, bringing together people who speak many different languages, and who have different faiths and cultures.

This more modern idea of a nation state offers much more space for the diversity and multiculturalism that we see across modern societies.

But what happens when a nation doesn’t come together like Ghana? For every Ghana, there’s a Rwanda: countries that encompass hostile and competing ethnic groups.

This leaves a profound question: how do you weave a common national identity and a healthy sense of national pride if different groups of people within a nation state view each other with suspicion and hostility?

The 2016 BBC Reith Lectures