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What does it mean to be English?

Updated Tuesday, 5th August 2008

The Open Minds programme explored the subject of nationhood - and the position of the English in a United Kingdom.

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The London Eye

Anita McNaught welcomed Open Minds resident philosopher Derek Matravers and special guest Professor George Schopflin from the School for Slavonic and Eastern European Studies.

The subject was nationhood – what does it mean to the English, to the individual, and to the global community? Questions posed by Anita included:

1. What is the problem in "being English"?

2. Is the concept of nationhood becoming less relevant?

3. Are we becoming more individualistic in Europe?

4. Is it possible to preserve a concept of nationhood and to live in harmony at the same time?

5. Do we need a new philosophy to replace nationhood?

Some quotes from the discussion

Derek Matravers: "It’s part of the English tradition not to think of ourselves as really constituting a nation. We’ve lived with it for so long that it’s something that’s become transparent to us."

George Schopflin: "The world is infinitely diverse – there are all sorts of ways that people express their diversity and that diversity frequently has political expression. That’s what we call a nation state."

Derek Matravers’ views on nationhood:

The issue is largely about how we should each think of ourselves. Should we think of ourselves just as people, or as English people or Europeans or what?

A related issue is whether we have equal obligations to everyone, or whether we have more obligations to those who share our nationality.

Why would we fight for England (even abroad) but not for another country (if indeed we would). As nationalism has given rise to such bad things (the Nazis for example) should it be abandoned?

I think Nationhood is a good thing, in the main. It may be important for giving structure to what we think is right and wrong.

George Schopflin’s views on nationhood:

Nations are central to the way in which people relate to politics in the modern world. Virtually all major political institutions operate within the framework of the state and states depend in large measure for cohesion on the sense of belonging that we usually associate with nationhood.

Without this sense of belonging, it is much more difficult for the state to carry out its main tasks – raise taxes, distribute tax revenue, regulate society, create order, ensure the security of the citizens and so on. At the same time, some – though not all – of our sense of solidarity with others is arrived at through nationhood.

The entire edifice of states, belonging, solidarity, cohesion is sustained through a set of symbols and rituals that ensure that nations live on in time and in space. However, at the end of the millennium, the state and the nation are facing the challenges of globalisation and, in Europe, of European integration.

These weaken cohesion and create different forms of belonging, different obligations, and when a nation faces threats and challenges that it finds difficult to deal with, there is a possibility of its overreacting – something that has given nationhood its negative image.

Still, there are ways of diluting the threats and calming the overreactions, by making political concessions and symbolic gestures to reassure groups that feel that their sense of belonging has been undermined by change.

About the experts

Derek Matravers

Derek Matravers Derek Matravers is currently a lecturer in Philosophy at the Open University and Chair of the Arts Foundation course.

Before coming to the Open University he graduated with a degree in philosophy from University College London and went on to gain a doctorate from Cambridge University, where he held a research fellowship for three years at Darwin College.

George Schopflin

george schopflin open minds professor hungary eastern european specialist nationhood George Schopflin was born in Hungary and came to the UK in the mid 1950s. He began by working as Eastern European Specialist for the BBC World Service and went on to lecture on the political institutions of Eastern Europe at the London School of Economics.

He currently works at the School of Slavonic and Eastern European Studies at the University of London.

Take it further

Nations, Identity and Power
George Schopflin and Eric Hoskyns, Hurst


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