Coronavirus heralds the return of the nation state



Opinions differ about the optimum unit of government. The nation state largely succeeded the age of empires. The British withdrawal from empire mostly left a host of new station states in its wake, whereas the end of the Soviet empire saw the re-emergence of the former nation states it had subjugated.

The “European Project” aimed to turn the EU into a superstate that could stand up alongside the US, Russia and China, defending the interests of “Europe.” This state would have its own government with authority over those of its constituent nations, its own foreign policy and its own army. It already has its Parliament, its bureaucracy, its flag and its anthem. Although originally an assembly of nations, its goal was “ever closer union,” ultimately leading to a unitary government of a European nation.

As part of that project, the EU sought to have its member nations divide into regions that the EU could deal with directly, by-passing their national governments. Unfortunately for that plan, England showed a remarkable resistance to such division. The 2004 Northeast referendum turned down the proposal for a regional assembly, and other parts of the country showed little enthusiasm for yet another layer of representatives and officials.

There remain strong county loyalties and affinities in England. People take pride in local products from Yorkshire tea to Cornish cream, and counties express a friendly rivalry with their neighbours that finds an outlet in such things as county cricket. Edmund Burke wrote that our love of family and neighbourhood, ascends through our villages and towns by degrees into patriotism. Our local loyalties, he wrote, do not detract from loyalty to our nation; rather they are part of it.

The coronavirus pandemic has shown how strong the ties of nationhood still are in Europe. Pan-Europeanism has taken a back seat as nations have closed borders and taken measures to protect their own citizens, despite European agreements to act collectively. This year has seen UK withdrawal from the EU, and national, rather than European, responses to the epidemic, two severe setbacks to the inevitable union that Europhiles have aimed at for decades. 

The reassertion of national priorities is also a setback to those seeking ultimately a world government. Their motives may or may not be the ideal of humanity coming together in common purpose, but the reality would be of a control from which there would be no escape. A multiplicity of countries, with a variety of cultures and laws, gives people an alternative from governments they find oppressive. A world government precludes the variety that gives choice.

Some advocates of world government openly admit the aim of denying the existence of lower tax administrations, places more favourable to enterprise and expansion, and places where companies might seek to locate to escape excessive tax and regulatory burdens elsewhere. The presence of low tax countries puts a brake on rulers who want more things done collectively through taxation rather than individually by choices. If talent and enterprise can move elsewhere, it limits the burdens a government can impose upon them.

The UK’s exit from the EU affords the opportunity to do both of the things a nation state can do, but which a superstate cannot. It can, and should, devolve much decision-making down to the levels where local loyalties lie, and where people feel local affinities. And it can, and should, create areas within its borders where light tax and regulatory burdens can allow opportunity and enterprise to flourish. The events of recent times might mean that the high tide of international centralization and uniformity has turned, and that variety will flourish instead on the beaches it withdraws from.

Dr Madsen Pirie is President of the Adam Smith Institute.