Making and remaking the state

All individuals, to a lesser or greater extent, are involved in making and remaking the state, as the example of the census above suggests. This happens in numerous and complex ways. To return to her story for a moment, Jill may well have contributed to making and remaking the state by paying her taxes, by not speeding, by renewing her MOT and by taking her toddler to the health visitor for a check-up. On the other hand, she may well have contributed to ‘funmaking’ the state by doing none of these things or by doing them in ways that go against established processes and procedures.

Since 1 January 2004, under the Nationality, Immigration and Asylum Act 2002, all successful adult applicants for British citizenship have been required to attend a citizenship ceremony. While they are quite a recent innovation in the UK, citizenship ceremonies have a longer history in other countries, such as Australia. These ceremonies are an example of a performance carried out by individual citizens that contributes to producing and reproducing the state and to creating a particular idea of the state. A key element of this idea is the link between the state and a nation defined by its territory and people. One of the most famous definitions of the state, which is regularly used in political argument today, depends on this symmetrical relationship between a state, its territory and its people. The German sociologist Max Weber, in a lecture given in 1918, defined the state as ‘a human community that (successfully) claims the monopoly of the legitimate use of physical force within a given territory’ (Weber, 1991 [1921], p. 78). While other elements are key to Weber’s definition, and we shall explore some of these below, territory is clearly central to it – the state claims to be dominant (it claims to say what goes) within a defined territory, or within a country’s borders.

And yet, the relationship between state and nation, or nations, is not a given – it is constructed rather than natural. The suggestion of a citizenship ceremony for all school leavers in the UK sparked off intense debate because it raises key questions about the relationship between the state, its territory and its people. In part, this is because the borders of a state do not necessarily coincide with the borders of a nation, as in the case of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland (the official title of the country since 1927) where one state houses three nations – England, Scotland and Wales. Northern Ireland is an interesting example, and one to which we will return below. For now we can say that it is part of the state of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, but only some would consider it a nation or would describe their nationality as Northern Irish. Some refer to it as a state-within-a-state, others as the Province, others as the Six Counties, others as Ulster.

In 2008, a report, authored by government minister Lord Goldsmith, and commissioned by Prime Minister Gordon Brown, suggested that all school leavers should be encouraged to take part in a citizenship ceremony, which could contain an oath of allegiance to the Queen. Below is a selection of personal pledges that members of the public invented in response to this suggestion. Read the pledges and try to draw out what they say about the relationship between the people who wrote these pledges and the state they are pledging allegiance to.

I make a personal pledge to respect my fellow citizens, regardless of race, gender, or religion, and to uphold the laws of Great Britain. In so doing, I acknowledge my personal responsibility to contribute to the country I have chosen to call my own.

Lynne Killeen, from Brentwood, Tennessee, USA

I pledge my oath of allegiance to my Queen and my country. I promise to watch all reality TV and to emulate those that are put before us as examples of fine citizens. I will honour all sporting figures and raise them upon pedestals until such times as they make an error where upon I will pillory them and mock them to the ends of the earth. As an upstanding member of British society I vow to claim as much social benefit as possible to ensure that my binge drinking does not sink to sub standard levels. But most importantly, and over everything else, I swear that I will not take myself, or my country, too seriously because I am proud to be British and that is how we do it.

Kiltie Jackson, Staffs, UK

I swear to be true to the Queen (or King) of England (even though I’m Welsh) and to never watch her speech on Christmas Day because there’s always a good film on the other channel. I promise to moan constantly about theweather, the price of fuel, Americans and how much better things were 10/20/30 years ago. I will not leave my bag unattended on a railway station. I pledge allegiance to the flag of Ikea and can’t wait for the next series of Dr Who which is very British and also made in Wales. I will not accept foreign currencies nor will I weigh items in grams when pounds are perfectly adequate.

Wags, Tywyn Gwynedd

I swear allegiance to humanity, to the values expressed by the UN Charter and vow to uphold the Human Rights of all people in accordance with its precepts.

Lorna McAllister, Cumbernauld, North Lanarkshire

(BBC News, 2008)

These pledges of allegiance point to a number of interesting questions about the relationship between state, nation and territoriality, and about issues of identity and belonging.

The pledges suggest that there is a relationship between a state and a territory but that this relationship is not a neat one. The idea of ‘my country’ is expressed frequently but exactly what this means varies between the pledges: we have references to Great Britain, England and Wales. The last pledge also refers to a wider ‘humanity’ beyond the confines of nation states or countries. Although none of the pledges cited here refer to the European Union, they could have done so given that all UK citizens now also have European citizenship.

The pledges also hint at a set of common ideas, values and cultural references, often expressed here in terms of humorous stereotypes, which give people a sense of belonging and a sense of identification with a particular state and its territory, even though these ideas and values might not be uniformly or universally shared.

Finally, there is a sense that being a citizen of a state carries with it certain responsibilities, even if these are often expressed ironically, such as promising to moan constantly about the weather. The first pledge, in particular, stresses the responsibility that arises because this person has chosen to be a citizen of a particular state whereas the other pledges assume, to some degree, a pre-given relationship between a person and the nation state in which they happen to be born.

From the above, we can see how the relationship between people, territory and the state is not pre-given but is made and remade through the practices of citizens and the practices and discourses of the state’s agents and institutions. In this sense, the state cannot just assume its territoriality, but must constantly lay claim to it.