In praise of the nation state

Why stand up for the nation state? Isn’t this a bit out of date?

I don’t think so. The nation state still has a vital place in human society – for several reasons, the first of which has become particularly relevant during the current pandemic.

The nation state has borders. Borders allow nations to protect themselves from things like the Covid-19 virus, international crime and terrorism.

The nation state stands for the dispersal of power. It limits how much power is accumulated in one place or by one person or group. Too much concentration of power tends to serve only the purposes of the powerful. Think of the unelected élites who run multi-national corporations which (some would say) have more power than most national governments. Power corrupts.

I think this is part of the meaning of the mysterious story in Genesis of the Tower of Babel. Having one language the people of the earth come up with a plan to build a great tower which will reach to heaven and “make a name for themselves”. In other words, this is a project of self-aggrandizement. God steps in and confuses their language so that they are no longer able to work together. Why? I think it’s an act of divine mercy. Too much power concentrated in one place doesn’t work out well, particularly for those at the bottom of the social structure.

The nation state stands for cultural diversity. Part of the richness of worldwide human culture stems from the fact that we speak different languages, live together as distinct communities within defined borders and have evolved different styles and traditions in everything from cooking and clothing to architecture and the arts. Do we want to squash that? We already suffer from too much uniformity. There is more to life than Starbucks on every street corner across the globe.

The nation state works better for the poor. Professor Sir Paul Collier is Professor of Economics and Public Policy at the Blavatnik School of Government at Oxford University. Writing about the need for “socio-economic convergence” in the European Union, he says this:

… the potential for European identity to substitute for national identity has profound consequences for the poorer citizens of Europe’s nations. For them, the post-war sense of shared national identity had become a hugely valuable asset. Post-1980, just as the new economic forces of social divergence were necessitating national solidarity, this sense of shared identity was being unwound. The most successful citizens, namely the well-educated metropolitans who have enjoyed rising relative incomes, have gradually peeled off from shared national identity. The option of being ‘European’ has perhaps been a convenient justification for them to withdraw from obligations to their provincial fellow citizens.

Quoted in Robert Tombs, This Sovereign Isle: Britain In and Out of Europe, (Allen Lane, 2021), p.158.

St Paul seems to suggest that the nation state is part of God’s provision for human flourishing. Addressing the intellectuals of Athens he says:

[God] made all nations to inhabit the whole earth, and he allotted the times of their existence and the boundaries of the places where they would live, so that they would search for God and perhaps grope for him and find him…

Acts 17.26-27

The Bible hints that the rich cultural diversity of the nations is here to stay: it will be part of the glory of God’s new creation, which the book of Revelation pictures as a great city. Not only that, but the nations themselves will in some sense continue to have their place:

… the city has no need of sun or moon to shine on it, for the glory of God is its light, and its lamp is the Lamb.The nations will walk by its light, and the kings of the earth will bring their glory into it. Its gates will never be shut by day—and there will be no night there. People will bring into it the glory and the honour of the nations.

Revelation 21.23-26

Published by markphilps

Came to faith at university while studying Russian. Brief career with the BBC. Married to Caroline. Ordained in the Church of England. Thirty-five years in parish ministry. Now retired and doing some writing.

7 thoughts on “In praise of the nation state

  1. I think cultural identities. as individual’s identities, are valuable to God – but reading this I can’t help thinking of brexit and devolution etc Is there a tension between affirming separateness and need for establishing alliances?


  2. Yes I think there is a tension. Clearly we need alliances but I think alliances are possible without surrendering to the undemocratic concentration of power in too few hands. From what I’ve read that is what most treaties are about – forming alliances without diminishing (let alone abolishing) difference and the power of independent action.

    It would be good to get together for a proper talk sometime!


  3. Hi Mark! Gosh, this is interesting – and impressive! Well done! 🙂 – On the need for nation states, see Roger Scruton, [England and] The Need for Nations (two versions, it seems: 2004 & 2006).


    1. Hi Philip – great to hear from you. Glad you liked my piece. I haven’t read that bit of Roger Scruton, though I have read a little of him. I much enjoyed an interview Giles Fraser did with him (I think on Unherd).


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