What is a Nation, if it cannot inspire Loyalty? | Jake Scott
It is a natural truth of politics that there must be boundaries to a people over whom governance is to be exercised. Indeed, as Michael Oakeshott remarked, politics is the activity of attending to the general arrangements of a collection of people. That these boundaries are contingent and open to negotiation is referred to as the ‘boundary question’ and is a pervasive problem in political theory.
In practical politics, however, we have a method of delineating the limits of our peoples: nation-states, and their concomitant boundaries. It is an historically contingent method of boundary-drawing, but it just as real as any social entity, in that it relies on a coherent group of people capable of recognising it as a shared possession.
So, the question then becomes, how can we provide legitimate reasons for inclusion – and exclusion – to our group, our nation? Historically this is a question the Western world has grappled with, but it found a strong and robust method of doing so: democracy.
Democracy asks very little of those it governs. Indeed, most remarkably, the defining feature of the relationship between state and individual under a democratic system is that of the legal system, that which Roger Scruton identified as crystallising in the virtue of citizenship. In fact, the demands democracy makes of its citizens is simply that: they obey the law.
This virtue of democracy makes it extraordinarily flexible to any group, national or otherwise, in that it generates, to paraphrase the American Founders, a democracy of laws. As a result, the entry of an individual is not conditional on (potentially paralysing) majoritarian decisions in each case, but on decisions that have already been made, in the form of laws that reflect the culture and spirit of each society. At its basic level, then, a democracy that respects the traditions of the people it governs provides a simple method of legitimating inclusion or exclusion: you obey the laws, or you leave (even if only temporarily – hence the existence of imprisonment as a form of social ostracism).
Where this systematic calculus of inclusion/exclusion falls down, however, is an overly sentimental attachment to liberalism. What I do not mean here, by liberalism, is the robust forms of civil liberties that have emerged in the Western world that the democratic tradition seeks to protect, but rather the liberal understanding of the individual.
As Patrick Deneen has observed, liberalism presents a vision of the individual as a self-contained actor that possesses perfectly-situated knowledge, and built its political system on that commitment, simultaneously inventing an individualistic worldview and forcing it into existence. What this forgets is the ancient truth, going as far back as Aristotle, that man is a political and social animal; he desires to feel part of something bigger than himself, because he is.
What the early Enlightenment sought to do, articulated best by Edmund Burke, was give you the freedom to join the little platoons that made life worth living and enjoyable. These little platoons filled in the gaps left between your individual existence and your political self, between that existential starting point – the agent of the will – and the political entity we are part of – the British state.
But the malign turn of politics in the modern day has left what Henry George has referred to as being entertained to spiritual death. I wouldn’t think it is a stretch to assert that what drives thousands of people to the extremes of politics across the world is the same as what has encouraged hundreds of Britons to travel to fight for the Islamic State. It is the gulf of meaning at the heart of liberalism that it cannot fill, because it was not structured to do so, and leaves many people feeling spiritually adrift.
This matters because, if liberal politics cannot (or will not) inspire loyalty, then people will search for something else that can. And when they find, are given, or hear of a compelling narrative and alternative value system that fills that spiritual void, they will cling to it, as it will offer a potential answer to the interminable question of existence – “what is the purpose of life?” – that liberalism cannot. This decline into moral relativism then undermines the relatively loose unity that democracy requires by opening up the possibility of separatist societies, which become more exclusionary by virtue of their more stringent entry requirements – such as faith, race, class, or so on.
We see this problem quite eminently in modern Britain today, but especially across Europe, as in, for instance, France and Austria’s secular republics at war with a virulent Islamism. Closer to home, as the scandal of nearly 400 returning ISIS fighters and the daily arrival of asylum seekers on the Channel coast revealed, the British state has become unforgivably lax in its maintenance of our border enforcement. Migration is one thing, but terrorism and crime are another, especially when obedience and respect for the law is the foundation – indeed, the only requirement for membership – of a democratic state.
An upcoming report by the Henry Jackson Society (HJS) will reveal a series of startling and worrisome facts about the nature of Islamist terrorism in the United Kingdom. The first, and most concerning, is that in the region of 100 Islamists with a foreign nationality have been convicted of at least one terrorism-related crime since 1998 – of which as many as 45 have been released with no official record of being deported from the UK. In this pool of 45 foreign convicted terrorists, organisational links include proscribed groups such as Islamic State, Al-Qaeda, and Al-Muhajiroun.
Clearly, there is a problem at the heart of our democracy, and it is its inability to inspire a substantive form of loyalty to those seeking to join it. I am not seeking to disparage liberalism entirely, as I say above, but simply the overly lax attitude that the British state has taken towards the question of inclusion, and loyalty. Indeed, in the absence of an attempt to inspire this loyalty, violent ideologues have seized on the compelling spiritual narrative that Islam (as with any religion) can offer, and twisted it into the political project we know as Islamism.
What can Britain do instead? The project of deeper loyalty to a shared set of values is not something that can happen overnight; indeed, such a project would require a repeal of a number of laws that are loyal to a worldview antithetical to that political culture that has emerged in this country, such as the 1998 Human Rights Act. But we can make a start. A modern treason act, for instance, that recognises respect for British laws as a necessary component of citizenship, could assist in enforcing our border security. We could also begin reversing the trend that has seen our government surrender sovereignty over decisions on deportation of foreign-born criminals to foreign bodies, such as the European Court of Human Rights.
Perhaps, by doing so, we can send a strong statement to those wishing to join our nation: you must respect our laws, otherwise you do not belong here.