If ethnic Italians were no longer a majority in Italy, would it still be Italy? Does it matter that ethnic British are no longer a majority in London? Would it matter if they weren’t in Britain? Would it be a problem if ethnic Ugandans ceased to be a majority in Uganda, and Europeans overtook them?
These are all essentially the same question, though the answers might feel different in each case. They are all asking about the relationship between an ethnic group and its home country, and about the meaning of becoming a minority in the country it considers its own. Does being the majority ethnic group in a country carry any moral or political significance? Is it something which an ethnic group may legitimately aim to preserve? How does this interact with ideas of racism—the taboo par excellence of post-war Western culture?
Ethnicity and race are typically avoided these days when thinking about the constitutive features of a nation or state, particularly Western ones. In their place, writers who take an interest in such matters tend to ground their ideas in culture, shared beliefs and customs. Samuel Gregg, for instance, writes of the shared bonds of “a common culture, language, beliefs, shared memories, sense of a common patrimony, and association with a particular territory with recognized boundaries.” What is often left unsaid, presumably for fear of attracting the poisonous charge of racism, is any connection this culture might have with ethnic origin.
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This is all the more curious when you consider that on a sociological and anthropological level the connection between culture and ethnic group is very strong indeed. In fact, it would be difficult to find a more pronounced correlation between two observable factors than this. Logically, of course, there is no essential or necessary connection between an ethnicity and a culture, and in principle a person of any ethnic group could be raised in any culture and become accustomed to its norms. But this purely logical point only exceptionally translates into real world experience, where assimilation is rarely carried to perfection, the call of ethnic origin frequently pulls a person back towards traditional cultural forms, and experience of living as a minority often intensifies a commitment to traditional beliefs and practices amongst a group of people.
This is particularly true, of course, where such an outlook is encouraged, as was the case in Britain and many other Western countries under the doctrine of multiculturalism which dominated social policy between about 1974 and 2004, and arguably still does. But even without government encouragement people will naturally link their identity to their ethnicity and their ethnicity to the culture associated with it. This is surely why post-war ideas of anti-racism led very quickly to ideas of multiculturalism and, more recently, to identity politics—because of a sense that you cannot really affirm a person’s ethnic heritage without also affirming the culture associated with it. And it is only a small step from there to the thought that there is something imperialistic, intolerant, and dehumanizing about expecting a person to conform or assimilate to another culture. Today this worry has reached new intensities with ideas of cultural appropriation and micro-aggression rife among the educated, especially at universities.
Whatever else you want to say about ethnic diversity, then, it is plainly inseparable as a real world phenomenon from cultural diversity, for an ethnically diverse state will always to some degree or other be a culturally diverse one. Consequently, ethnic diversity within a state necessarily sits in some tension with the idea of a unified national and civic culture of a kind which is known to be strongly associated with high levels of social cohesion, solidarity, trust, and stability. In our very understandable and proper desire to avoid racial prejudice and be hospitable to newcomers of whatever background, therefore, we have perhaps lost sight of important general principles of social stability and harmony that should be forefront in our minds as we formulate social policy.
What does this mean for the prospects of the European peoples? A combination of high immigration, high birth-rate amongst immigrant communities, and low birth-rate amongst the indigenous population has resulted in dramatically increased (and increasing) ethnic diversity, alongside predictions that indigenous ethnic groups will become minorities in their home countries in the not too distant future.
European Stateless Nations
Were this to happen (and short of some drastic change in immigration policy and unforeseen reversal in demographic trends it is hard to see how it will not) it raises the strange possibility that European peoples will become stateless nations within their old countries. What does this mean?
A stateless nation is an ethnic group that currently lacks a state in which it forms a majority such as enables it to express its distinctive culture and achieve self-determination. Being in possession of a state allows the nation to protect itself from undesirable social outcomes such as colonization, subjection, persecution, prejudicial treatment, and assimilation. Prominent examples of stateless nations today include the Kurds, the Tamils and the Rohingya. Previous stateless nations that achieved statehood in the twentieth century include the Jews, the Serbs, and the Croats. If such nations are defined by the existence of secessionist or autonomist movements amongst a distinct ethnic group then there are an estimated seventy-eight in the world at the moment.
It is important to be clear here that this talk of stateless nations has nothing to do with white supremacy. There is no intimation of comparing races and claiming the superiority of one and its right to rule the rest (morally a deeply objectionable idea). Neither is there any suggestion that America in particular is properly a white nation in which white people should rightly rule—a clearly repugnant idea when black people form such an integral part of the country and its history and culture, and were so cruelly oppressed in the past. More generally there is no suggestion of an imperative to preserve racial purity—ethnicity is an inherently living thing which evolves over time through processes such as immigration and intermarriage and little good is achieved by preventing that from occurring, at least at a rate consistent with integration and assimilation. Talk of stateless nations is rather about considering the sociological and psychological connections between ethnicity and culture and their links to nationhood and statehood, and asking questions about what self-determination means, how it is achieved, and how desirable it is.
Every state includes ethnic minorities of course. Sometimes, as with blacks in America, and Native Americans and Australian Aborigines, these minorities have a special and historic (and not always happy) relationship with the country and state within which they live. In other cases the minority group has been a more recent addition to the state’s ethnic mix. How a state incorporates these minorities, and how it understands them to relate to its concept of nationality, can vary considerably between groups and change over time depending on various historical factors and contingencies. For example, before the twentieth century, America conceived of itself as an ethnically European (white) nation, but more recently has sought to understand what it means to include black people (and other minorities) as full and equal citizens. The natural and tight relationship between ethnicity, culture, nationality and statehood means that such enterprises will never be straightforward and will always be fraught with tensions and difficulties, some of them intractable. The moral imperative of equal respect makes such enterprises necessary (and the benefits of ethnic diversity makes them desirable), but even allowing for that there is surely wisdom in aiming to prevent the degree of ethnic diversity in a state from increasing beyond levels consistent with social cohesion and the general welfare.
The Permanence of Nationhood
The role of ethnicity in national identity today is politically perhaps most clearly reflected in the repatriation policies of states such as Germany, Italy, Ireland, Greece, Finland, Russia, Israel, and Turkey, where automatic or accelerated citizenship is provided for members of their ethnic diaspora scattered throughout the world.
Since Europe is of Judaeo-Christian heritage, and many within Europe are inspired by the Bible’s teaching, it is probably worth enquiring of what the Bible has to say on this. Nations (ethnos in the original Greek) feature frequently in the biblical texts, with indications that they form part of a divine schema for humanity post-Babel. Acts 17:26 is a key verse here: “From one ancestor he 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.” Nations also feature in the final judgement (Matt. 25:32) and in the mission of the church (Matt. 28:19). The nation is certainly an ethnic (kinship) concept in the Bible, but not solely—Acts 2:5 speaks of “devout Jews from every nation” suggesting ethnic Jews can also hail from Gentile nations. The church is itself a holy nation, a chosen race (genos), God’s own people (laos) (1 Pet. 2:9)—titles applied in the Old Testament to Israel, the nation God chose to be his own. Yet in Christ the dividing wall between Jews and Gentiles is broken down (Eph. 2:14), and there is “no longer Jew or Greek” (Gal. 3:28). Nevertheless, nation or nations appears no fewer than twenty-three times in the Book of Revelation, alongside related ideas such as people, tribe (phulon) and language (glossan)—not least in the final chapter where the leaves of the tree of life are for the “healing of the nations” (22:2). This suggests a certain permanence of nationhood in the divine schema for human society.
What should we take from all this? We need I think to take much more seriously the social, psychological, and moral threads which run between ethnicity and culture, and then on into nationhood and statehood. While avoiding racism or any of the old imperialism, this shift needs to work a revolution in the minds and attitudes of European peoples towards their home countries, their cultures, and their concern for self-determination as peoples and nations. This needs to proceed in the emergence of radically altered approaches to immigration, citizenship, culture, and even fertility and family, such as are sufficient to ensure that European states will retain their essential character as the home countries of the European peoples well into the future.
Can I see this happening? Only on days where my faith for miracles is high. But the alternative seems to me extraordinarily bleak, as European peoples face becoming minorities in their home countries, becoming stateless nations, and social discord and division increase beyond what free countries can realistically bear. I hope to be proven wrong in this, but I confess I am not holding my breath.