TMA05

Dissertation Title
Is the support of a national idea a necessary condition for a
sustainable liberal state?

Student Name: Michael Taylor, BSc (Hons) in Computer Science and
English Literature, Keele University
Student Number: W0623315
Course: A857 - The Philosophy Dissertation Module (MA in
Philosophy)
Email: michael.taylor@britishcouncil.se
Tutor: Dr Ian Chowcat
Submission Date: September 2006
This entire work has been prepared by the author. Part of this
dissertation (albeit in an earlier form) was submitted as part of the
A851 examinable work in 2004.

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Table of Contents
Introduction: The Uses and Abuses of Nationalism ..................................................................4

Why Defend Nationalism?...............................................................................................9
The Positive Roles of Nationalism ................................................................................12
Chapter One: Defining Solidarity, States and Nations .............................................................15

Introduction....................................................................................................................15
What do we mean by solidarity?....................................................................................17
State and Nation.............................................................................................................24
What is a state? ..............................................................................................................25
What is a Nation?...........................................................................................................26
The Five Unique Features of National Identity .............................................................29
(i)
Mutual Belief and Mythology: Nation as an ‘Imagined Community’ ..........31
(ii)
Historical Continuity .....................................................................................37
(iii)
Political Activity ............................................................................................38
(iv)
Territorial Concerns: Nation as “Home”........................................................39
(v)
Cultural Similarities.......................................................................................44
Necessary and Sufficient Conditions for a Nation.........................................................48
Conclusion .....................................................................................................................52
Chapter Two: Liberalism and Nationalism - Opposing Standpoints? ....................................53

Introduction....................................................................................................................53
The Liberal State............................................................................................................53
Four Main Areas of Contention .....................................................................................55
The First Problem: Political and Cultural Neutrality ....................................................56
The Second Problem: Autonomy and Choice................................................................62
The Third Problem: Rational Consent ...........................................................................64
The Fourth Problem: Republicanism.............................................................................65
Remaining Issues: what about social solidarity? ...........................................................67
(i)
Political Liberalism........................................................................................69
(ii)
The Common Way of Life .............................................................................74
(iii)
Civic Republicanism......................................................................................76
The Case for Liberal Nationalism: social solidarity ......................................................78
Conclusion .....................................................................................................................81
Chapter Three: The Ethics of Liberal Nationalism ...................................................................82

Introduction....................................................................................................................82
Ethical Universalism and Ethical Particularism ............................................................83
Voluntary Creation .........................................................................................................87
Useful Convention .........................................................................................................89
The particularist account of nationalism........................................................................94
Conclusion .....................................................................................................................98
Chapter Four: Nationalism and Multiculturalism ....................................................................100

Introduction..................................................................................................................100
Liberal States and Multiculturalism.............................................................................101
Cultural Dynamics .......................................................................................................104
Inclusive and Exclusive Membership ..........................................................................107
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The Need for a Common Set of Values .......................................................................109
Conclusion ...................................................................................................................111
Conclusion: Beyond Neutrality ................................................................................................112
Bibliography ...............................................................................................................................115

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Introduction: The Uses and Abuses of Nationalism

Isaiah Berlin once argued that, “the ideas of every philosopher
concerned with human affairs in the end rest on his conception of
what man is and can be”. 1 For Berlin, being able to grasp that central
concept is more important than understanding the arguments with
which philosophers defend their views, however forceful these might
appear to be. More often than not that central concept is implicit in
the text, and needs to be tweaked out by the critical reader. However
I would like to buck this general trend and announce my beliefs from
the start. What follows here is based on a certain concept of a
person, one which is neither a ‘totally embedded self’, irrevocably
fixed into its immediate environment as some Nationalist’s would
have us believe; nor one which is a form of completely unattached
and hence ‘unconditioned rational agent’ that some Liberals argue for
- instead what follows here is based on the commonsensical belief
that a person is a ‘contextualised individual’.2 As Yael Tamir has
argued, this midway position is, “able to encompass the nationalist

1

Quoted by Tamir in Liberal Nationalism (see Tamir 1995: 13).

2

Scruton has argued that the view there is an ‘unconditioned rational agent’ is “psychologically, morally,
and metaphysically highly questionable” (Scruton 1990: 272)

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belief that individuals are the inevitable product of their culture, as
well as the liberal conviction that individuals can be the authors of
their own lives” (Tamir 1995: 13). In other words, while we can offload
some of the social and cultural baggage (or norms) we carry around
with us in order to view them rationally and critically, we can never
offload everything at once; there is no ‘view from nowhere’. As
Scruton has argued, choice needs to start somewhere; “even if this
starting point is later described, from the point of view of reason, as
mere prejudice, this is not to condemn it, but on the contrary, to show
the indispensability of prejudice in the make-up of the rational
agent” (Scruton 1990: 272). However, at the same time as there can
be no such thing as an ‘unconditioned rational agent’, so too must we
recognise that the apparent ‘naturalness’ of the societies we inhabit
are more often than not built on mythical premises and ‘invented
traditions’.3
Rather than seeing both approaches at describing who we are
as abject failures, I suggest that it is instead more useful to see what
we can learn from both conceptions, and, as long as there is
philosophical consistency, we could attempt to draw a new approach
3

I will say more about both Anderson’s concept of “imaginary communities” and Hobsbawm’s term
“invented traditions” in Chapter Two.

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based on the best ideas from both. As such I am in full agreement
with Yael Tamir when she says that instead these concepts can be,
“complementary rather than conflicting, suggesting that no individual
can be context-free, but that all can be free within a context” (Tamir
1995: 14).
In some sense then, this essay is looking at a concept of a
person which attempts to marry together aspects of both man’s
individuality and his sociability. In looking at the social side of this
equation – by which I mean societies and communities – I want to
concentrate on the type we normally identify as nations. This is
because I believe that the related concept of nationalism – if defined
within a liberal framework - can be of immense value to both liberal
theory and liberal states; as David Miller has argued, “nationalism
answers one of the most pressing needs of the modern world, namely
how to maintain solidarity among the populations of states that are
large and anonymous, such that their citizens cannot possibly enjoy
the kind of community that relies on kinship or face-to-face
interaction” (Miller 1993: 308). In addition to their size, liberal versions
of modern states also tend to embody and support a diverse number
of different cultures and values, some of which cut across or openly
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contradict each other. Neither is this a temporary position. According
to Rawls, the “diversity of comprehensive religious, philosophical, and
moral doctrines found in a modern democratic state is not a mere
historical condition that may soon pass away; it is a permanent
feature of the public culture of democracy” (Rawls 1989: 161). Given
these issues, it is easy to see why a lack of solidarity is a growing
concern for many liberal states.
Of course Nationalism – by which I mean here the emphasising
and support of a common nationality within a state’s territory - may
not be the only solution to the problem of solidarity. We may for
instance believe that emphasising a more common (non-nationalistic)
way of life, or emphasising civic participation in the political arena,
may provide better solutions to the same problem. As these are two
viable alternatives, I will be discussing them briefly during this
investigation. However I intend to argue that of all the various
solutions on offer, only nationalism is really up to the job in hand. At
the same time I want to show that it is possible to redefine
nationalism so that it is not only compatible with – but also helps to
underpin - contemporary liberal theory. If we can achieve this then I

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believe that we will have made significant progress in helping to
defend and support the wider liberal cause.
The weaker argument I will examine in this essay is that the
support of a national idea is of pragmatic value to the liberal - if the
liberal state is to survive then it must support solidarity, and there is
no other form of solidarity that can do the work on the scale
necessary other than a national idea. But in this essay I want make
the case for a stronger argument, namely that a liberal version of
nationalism is of value in its own right, because it gives people a
sense of place, history, and a common set of values with which they
can identify each other by. In fact I will argue that the instrumental
value of nationalism only exists because people find it of intrinsic
value in the first place.
However the first charge any liberal must answer is why defend
nationalism at all? For many liberals, nationalism is antithetical to
liberalism and therefore the term ‘liberal nationalism’ is an oxymoron;
or if not, at best it is a redundant concept better replaced with
something else - at worst it is a dangerous one that is best kept at
arms length or avoided altogether.

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Why Defend Nationalism?
In reviewing Gellner’s work on Nationalism, O’Leary argues that both
Liberals and Marxists got it wrong. Nationalism was not the, “doomed
legacy of outmoded irrationalism, superstition and savagery” (O’Leary
1997: 192) as some Liberals would have us believe; nor was it the,
“necessary but temporary stage in the path to global socialism” (ibid,
192) that the Marxists were hoping for. In fact quite the opposite
seems true: “while Marxism is now fast heading towards its grave and
liberalism is wracked with self-doubt, nationalism seems in vigorous
and rude health” (ibid, 192). Why is this?
In order to answer this question, we first need to explain and
then reject two accounts of nationalism which I believe are quite
wrong. The first account holds that nationalism is a sub-human,
primitive force, the work of some kind of ‘dark gods’ within us.4 If such
accounts are true then the only logical reaction for those of us who
are, “immune to the virus of national sentiments” (Miller 1999: 5), is to
try to “persuade our less enlightened fellow-beings to abandon them,
or else to find some form of mechanism – perhaps a reformed system
4 As Albert

Einstein put it, nationalism is “the measles of the human race” (Quoted by Miller, in his
Introduction to On Nationality. See Miller 1999, p. 5). Popper also said that Nationalism appeals “to our
tribal instincts, to passion and to prejudice, and to our nostalgic desire to be relieved from the strain of
individual responsibility which it attempts to replace by a collective or group responsibility” (quoted by
Tamir: 1993: 80). See also O’Leary 1997, p. 192, for a further elaboration on ‘dark gods’.

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of education – that will prevent the virus from taking hold in the first
place” (ibid, p.5). However both Gellner and Miller reject this account
out of hand.5 Miller argues that such accounts are both empirically
implausible and misrepresentative. It is empirically implausible
because there is nothing to suggest that nationalism is going away
(indeed as I have already stated the opposite appears to be the
case); and it is misrepresentative in that this view paints too passive a
picture of nationalism. In this essay I want to argue that nationalism is
not merely something that happens to us, it is also something we help
to re-create and sustain on a daily basis. As this is a crucial point, I
will return to this in more detail in the next chapter when I discuss the
definition of nations. I also want to reject here another implication of
this account, namely that nationalism is an inherently violent affliction.
History shows us that while nationalism has been the cause of
various conflicts and wars, the same can be said about any ideology
taken to extremes. As Scruton has argued, “it is only ignorance that
could permit the belief that Soviet communism, founded on
universalist principles, has involved less crime, less suffering, less

5

For Gellner’s reaction, see O’Leary 1997: 193.

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insolence and indignity, than the particularist politics of the
Nazis” (Scruton 1990: 279).
The second account of nationalism I want to reject argues that
nationalism is undesirable but inevitable – a form of incurable
disease. As Miller argues, in this context, “to ask whether a particular
nationalist identity is acceptable, or a particular nationalist demand is
justifiable, is beside the point” (ibid, p.5). This view may be held by
those who believe that nationalism fulfils a sociological function - in
that it helps to give people a sense of place where they might
otherwise feel dislocated or alienated. However at the same time
people with this view retain the belief that we would be better off
without it. While there is more to be said about the validity of this
second account than the first, it suffers from the same problem in that
it still views nationalism as a passive force, as something that
happens to us, rather than as something we also create and
participate in actively. Again I will hopefully shed some light on this
point in the next chapter.
Having briefly explored two negative interpretations of
nationalism, I now want to turn our attention to looking at what a more
positive interpretation of nationalism might look like.
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The Positive Roles of Nationalism
Until sustained by a national idea […] the liberal state is, I
believe, a solvent of unity and therefore contains the seeds of
its own destruction.
Scruton, In Defence of the Nation

I work for someone else, I rent my apartment from someone
else, there’s nothing for my son to inherit. I have no craft to
teach him, I haven’t a clue what he might do when he’s older.
By the time he grows up, the rules I lived by will be
meaningless - the world will be completely different. If a man
accepts the fact that everything must change, then his life is
reduced to nothing more than the sum of his own experience past and future generations mean nothing to him. That’s how
we live now.
Houellebecq, Atomised

While one could still argue that Nationalism is on the rise because it
is an inherently evil concept suited to evil times, I want to argue that
instead it is popular because it helps people to provide answers to
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questions they consider important. In this essay I want to explore the
following positive roles that a liberal interpretation of nationalism
might afford us. First, that it can help us to provide an additional layer
of solidarity that I (and clearly Scruton) believe is otherwise missing
from the traditional liberal equation. I will explore what I mean by this
in the next chapter when I discuss the concepts of political and social
solidarity. Second, nationalism can provide us with a sense of
continuity and place, and the feeling that we are ‘at home’ in our
environment. I will look into this in more detail when I explore what I
mean by nations and nationality shortly. Third, nationalism can help to
justify the social contract theory so often favoured by liberals. I will
explain this point in more detail in chapter two, when I explore the
areas where nationalism and liberalism are traditionally assumed to
clash. Finally, I will be looking at how nationalism might help to better
explain the special attachments and obligations we typically attach to
co-nationals. I will be looking at this particular argument in chapter
three when I look at the universal and particular accounts of ethical
justifications.
Having described a liberal interpretation of nationalism and how
it can underpin traditional liberal theory, I will then go on to spend the
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final chapter briefly discussing how this theory might help to meet the
challenge of modern, diverse societies. I will conclude that liberal
nationalism could provide the middle ground between the
requirement for solidarity and sharing on the one hand, and the need
to respect and support diversity on the other – concepts which
otherwise might lead to conflicts of interest between the state and its
citizens. But in order to do any of this, we now need to define our
terms more precisely. I realise that so far I have used the words
‘solidarity’, ‘nation’ and ‘state’ rather sloppily; it is now time to rectify
that mistake.

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Chapter One: Defining Solidarity, States and Nations
Introduction
I want to begin by defining what I mean by solidarity, and how this
relates to the terms ‘state’ and ‘nation’. I will argue that solidarity as
traditionally understood is not limited to small groups, and that it is
indeed possible to experience solidarity within the national context. In
defining solidarity, I will draw distinctions between what I term ‘social
solidarity’ and ‘political solidarity’. The first interpretation refers to the
commitments members have to the welfare and wellbeing of other
members, and the related sentiment of fraternity; the second refers to
how members are committed to upholding the decisions of the group.
I will argue that while the second form of solidarity is generally
recognised by liberal philosophers as having instrumental value, the
first is more often than not dismissed or ignored as irrelevant to the
liberal agenda. I not only want to show that liberals miss a trick if they
ignore the instrumental value of social solidarity - in that social
solidarity also helps to sustain a liberal state - but that liberals should
also recognise and support the intrinsic value many citizens attach to
this kind of solidarity. I will also argue that national identity is not
exclusive and that it is typically only part of a set of competing and
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overlapping associations people tend to make when identifying
themselves as members of various groups.
Having examined solidarity, I will then turn my attentions to the
state, and argue that – contrary to the popular view - the terms ‘state’
and ‘nation’ are not in fact interchangeable terms which describe the
same thing. In defining a nation I will look at the historical
development of the term as outlined by Leah Greenfeld, before
turning to the more philosophical interpretations offered by Miller,
Gellner, Tamir and Scruton. While Miller argues for three
interconnected propositions about nationality – namely personal
identity propositions, ethical propositions and political propositions,
this chapter will focus primarily only on the first of these. With regard
to identity propositions, I will critically examine the five features that
Miller identifies: mutual belief and mythology, historical continuity,
political activity, territorial concerns and cultural similarities. After
looking at each of these features in turn, I will then draw up a list of
necessary and sufficient conditions for identifying a community or
group as a nation. I will then go on in chapter two to see how, if at all,
we can use our definitions of solidarity, state and nation to begin to

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draw up a coherent interpretation of nationalism that is compatible
with liberalism.

What do we mean by solidarity?
Solidarity can operate at many levels. We may for instance feel
solidarity with members of our immediate neighbourhood or family, or
with other members of a particular club to which we belong. At this
level (which is typically face to face), feelings of solidarity tend to be
more immediate and apparent, as we can more clearly see the cause
and effect of our individual actions within the group. But feelings of
solidarity can be experienced within larger, more anonymous groups
too. We may for instance feel solidarity as citizens of a particular city,
district or nation, as supporters of a football team, as members of a
profession, or as supporters of an international political organisation
or movement - the majority of whose members we will never meet.
We may even have feelings of solidarity towards other members of a
purely virtual group (such as an internet based discussion group).
The point to be made here is that solidarity is not dependent upon the

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size of a group or on the need for intimate, face to face contact.6 In
turn this means that we can (and indeed sometimes do) feel solidarity
as nationals with other co-nationals.
We can also be members of several distinct groups
simultaneously, all of which may demand differing degrees of
allegiance that are not necessarily mutually exclusive. Hence being a
British Citizen does not preclude me from also being a supporter of
Nottingham Forest FC or from being a member of Amnesty
International. Indeed these kinds of ‘multi-membership’ (and the
complex identities that result from them) are an increasingly common
phenomenon in the modern world, thanks in part to people mobility
and migration, and technological advances in mass communications
and media. Such developments are not without their associated
problems however. It may occasionally be difficult for individuals that
are members of two distinct groups to reconcile or prioritise their
allegiances when the goals of these two groups are in conflict or
direct contradiction to each other. How for instance might a British
Citizen who is also a committed member of Amnesty International

6

Some even argue that we can even experience solidarity on a global scale (see the REP entry for Richard
Rorty, Section 3). It also interesting to note that larger groupings still tend to employ metaphors that link
themselves with the strongest groupings people know, namely the family. Hence the common use of terms
such as brotherhood, sisterhood, fatherland and motherland, etc.

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react if the latter were to heavily criticise the former? Such situations
become potentially more acute when people find themselves
members of two distinct cultures, the values of which may clash on
several important issues. However the point to be made here is that
being a member of a particular group does not typically exclude
someone from being a member of other groups at the same time.
Within the national context, this means that nationality will not
typically be the only source of a person’s solidarity or identity –
instead it will be merely part of a competing multiplicity of overlapping
and sometimes contradictory allegiances. I will return to this important
issue in more detail in the section on nationalism and
multiculturalism.
In philosophical terms, solidarity is usually described as a kind
of commitment – in other words how the members of a particular
group are ‘committed to’ each other. Commitments that imply
solidarity can usually be described in one of two ways. First there are
those commitments which demonstrate that members of a particular
group are concerned about the welfare and wellbeing of other
members. These concerns are, “sometimes conceived in terms of the
recognition of special obligations between the members of a group,
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which exist in virtue of their being members of it.” (Mason, A: 1998).
Secondly there are those commitments which demonstrate that group
members are willing to abide by the outcomes of a collective decision
making process. While the first type of commitment normally
describes the social aspect of solidarity (because of its obvious links
with the concepts of reciprocity, fraternity and community), the
second normally describes the political. Taken in either form, it is
clear why solidarity has a potentially important role to play in
supporting social cohesion and the sustainability of communities,
regardless of whether they happen to be national, local or virtual. This
leads most to agree that solidarity has at least an instrumental value
with regard to maintaining social and/or political stability.
So far then this points to three important conclusions about
solidarity: first, that feelings of solidarity are not limited to small
groups, and that it is indeed possible to experience solidarity at a
national level; second, that should we feel national solidarity, this will
typically be only part of a more complex (and sometimes
contradictory) set of allegiances; and third, that there are two types of
solidarity, social and political, and that these are of instrumental value

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in maintaining social cohesion and stability.7 However in this essay I
want to go a step further. I will argue that solidarity also has an
intrinsic value in and of itself.
The instrumental value of political solidarity - in other words the
commitment to abide by the decisions of a collective decision making
process - is often acknowledged by liberal philosophers because it
readily ties in to the rational, democratic and contractual approach
traditionally favoured by liberals. Some go further and also
acknowledge the intrinsic value of political solidarity, which is
frequently expressed in the theory of republicanism. However if we
now turn our attention to social solidarity – meaning the concern for
the wellbeing and welfare of fellow members – we can see that the
liberal response tends to be less enthusiastic, especially with regard
to the national context. As already mentioned, some liberals will
grudgingly admit the instrumental value of nationalism – typically
because they believe it fulfils the sociological function that people
commonly need to feel that they are members of a wider group or
7

Indeed the instrumental value of fraternity is underlined by none other than Rawls himself. For Rawls, his
‘difference principal’, “does seem to correspond to a natural meaning of fraternity: namely, to the idea of
not wanting to have greater advantages unless this is to the benefit of others who are less well off” (Rawls
1999: 90), a practice of justice he sees as comparable to that normally observed in the family sphere.
However Rawls interpretation of ‘fraternity’ remains problematic in that it is more political than social.
Indeed in his interpretation he leaves out precisely those aspects most of us would more commonly
associate with the concept of fraternity, namely ‘sentiment’ and ‘feeling’, aspects which to Rawls are,
“unrealistic to expect between members of the wider society” (ibid, 90). This is perhaps because Rawls is
constantly on the look out for the rational justification, rather than the emotional.

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culture, and as such it is a useful (if somewhat awkward) tool in
supporting the aims of social cohesion and stability. But it is even
harder to find examples of liberals that also support the intrinsic value
of social solidarity, especially as experienced within the national
context. This may be because social solidarity is more commonly
linked to communitarian concerns with fraternity, but it may also be
because some liberals primarily believe nationalism to be irrational,
and there can be no intrinsic value for a rational agent in subscribing
to something which is irrational. But this is to miss the point of what
membership is about. As Scruton argues, “the experience of
membership is precisely not political, but social” (Scruton 1990: 278).
In other words it is not subject to the same rational responses as
those open to the political dimension, rather it is a complex emotional
response tied up with feelings of belonging. This is not to imply that
political solidarity is somehow ‘trumped’ by social solidarity, or that
liberalism and nationalism is a “a tug of war between reason and
passion”8, instead the two concepts work in tandem with each other
and support each other. As Walzer has argued about the liberal state,
“a pervasive, at least ostensible, commitment to democratic

8

Gellner as quoted by Tamir (see Tamir 1993: 5).

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government” (in this sense the political) stands side by side with “an
equally persuasive, and more actual, commitment to cultural
autonomy and national independence” (meaning social).9 Just as
rationality is of intrinsic value to the liberal thesis because it helps
individuals to choose the best alternatives available to them, so too is
fraternity of intrinsic value to the individual, in that fraternity provides
belonging and the feeling that one is recognised by the larger
community as a fellow member, a concept without which rational
options would cease to have meaning. Together then, political and
social solidarity so described provide necessary and sufficient
conditions for what I want to call ‘complete unity’.
The distinction I have drawn here between social and political
solidarity will play a crucial role in the development of this argument.
However, before I go on to explore these links in more detail, it is
necessary to also provide working definitions of the terms state and
nation, without which it will be impossible to progress the argument
that liberal states should support and promote a national idea, one
which is not just politically expedient, but one which is also primarily
social.

9

Quoted by Orlie (see Orlie, 1999: 141).

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State and Nation
At first glance it is easy to think that the terms ‘state’ and ‘nation’ are
interchangeable. This may be because people either consider that
the two terms merely refer to the same thing (a distinction without a
difference), or that they refer to two sides of the same coin (the first
refers to the administrative side of the equation, the second to the
population it administers). This is perhaps not so surprising – views
such as these have both historical and modern precedents. 10 This
confusion (or unwillingness) to differentiate the two terms may also
help to explain the fact that, for many nations, the end goal of selfdetermination is often seen as the establishment of a state and selfrule. I will touch upon the implications of such a view later, but for now
I want to argue that - contrary to the common misconception that
‘state’ and ‘nation’ mean or refer to the same thing – these two terms
in fact reflect a fundamental conceptual difference. I will begin by
briefly defining what I mean by state before going on to look at the
term nation in more detail.

10

The view that the state represented the institutionalisation of the people’s will formed the basis of the
French and American revolutions (see Tamir 1993: 60); while the term ‘nation’ still refers to the ‘federal
state’ in the USA today (ibid, p. 60)

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What is a state?
The term ‘state’ as I want to define it here refers to any political
organisation that can meet the following necessary and sufficient
conditions:11
(1)There is a population which reproduces itself and whose
members are socially related
(2)There is territory
(3)There is a single government, which: (a) is a distinct body
of rule, supported by a judicial, administrative and military
machine; (b) is the ultimate prescriber and enforcer of law
for all those within its jurisdiction; (c) claims exclusive
control of the use of force within the territory and has
preponderant control of its use; (d) claims authority for its
existence and actions and is generally accepted as
authoritative
(4)The state is legally and politically independent from other
states, and recognized by other states as an independent
11

The following criteria are taken directly from the definition supplied in the Routledge Encyclopaedia of
Philosophy (see Nicholson: 1998).

Michael Taylor, A857 TMA05, W0623315 Page 25 of 122

or sovereign state
Obviously there are arguments as to what extent a state must meet
each of these criteria in order to be classified as such. For example:
how many people must a state have to reach critical mass? And how
many other states must recognise a new state for it to satisfy the
recognition criteria? These are all valid questions, but for the
purposes of this investigation I want to concentrate on the
implications of the first and second conditions only. I want to see to
what extent (if at all) the concept of a ‘nation’ might overlap with the
requirement that a state contains a population that is socially related
and which exists within a defined territory. However in order to do this
we first need to define what the term nation means.

What is a Nation?
In her book Nationalism: Five Roads to Modernity, Liah Greenfeld
researches the origins of the word nation and identifies nine stages in
its historical development as a term. Originally developed from the
Latin word natio meaning ‘something is born’, it was initially used to
refer to a group of foreigners. Subsequent use of the term in the
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middle-ages finds it being used to describe communities of students
from geographically related regions that functioned as support groups
or unions, whose members often developed similar opinions and took
the same sides in scholarly debates.12 From here the term
metamorphoses again to refer to the representatives sent by
universities to participate in ecclesiastical debates in church councils.
It is only at the beginning of the sixteenth century in England, in what
Greenfeld identifies as its fifth stage, that the term nation shifts focus
fundamentally from a term describing a political, cultural or social elite
to that of a term describing a wider population, or people. The term
then shifts slightly again to designate a ‘sovereign people’, before
finally settling down on its modern interpretation meaning other
populations and countries and a unique sovereign people.13
According to Tamir, the twentieth century saw the emergence of
yet another interpretation of the term, an interpretation that
recognised the inner diversity of nations: “hyphenated designations,
such as African-Americans or Italian-Americans, emerge[d] for the

12

Indeed, the term is still used in this sense at Swedish universities today, where each major regional
district is represented by a “nation”, where students from the same geographic areas live and study together
in a communal dormitory.
13

The O.E.D. states that the term refers to a “large number of people of mainly common descent, language,
history, etc, usually inhabiting a territory bounded by defined limits and forming a society under one
government”.

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purpose of differentiating these groups from one another” (Tamir
1995: 429).
What this discussion on the origins of the term nation shows is
that it has generally always meant the same thing, namely that it
refers to an “exclusive and limited community whose members share
some unique, defining characteristics, and are connected by feelings
of fraternity” (ibid, 429). So whether nation was being used to
describe a smaller type of elite community, or to describe a larger
folk, the underlining theme remains the same: it has always been a
means of defining ‘us’ and ‘them’, a tool that allows its members to
rationalise their common fate, to define themselves as a ‘we’,
and to prepare for the competition – which may, at the limit,
become a life-and-death struggle – between ‘us’ and ‘the
others’.
(Scruton 2006: 6)
Having sketched out the historical development of the term
nation, I now want to go on to provide a more philosophical definition,
and to see how nations differ (if at all) from other forms of
communities or social groups.

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The Five Unique Features of National Identity
In his book On Nationality, Miller identifies three interconnected
propositions that constitute nationality: personal identity propositions,
ethical propositions and political propositions.14
The first type of proposition says something about who we are
as individuals. When someone claims they belong to a certain nation
(e.g. Sweden), they are not making an irrational statement about their
beliefs. Instead, statements about nationality should be taken as
genuine; they are a constituent (though far from necessary) condition
of personal identity. The second proposition concerns claims that we
owe special duties to co-nationals over and above those we might
owe to non-nationals (a relevant example of which might be the
provision of a welfare state, the benefits of which are only available to
co-nationals). The third proposition concerns the political selfdetermination of nations, which may or may not be carried out under
the auspices of a sovereign state and self-rule. In my attempt to
define the term nation, I will discuss only the first of these
propositions at this point in time. The second proposition concerning
the ethical aspects of nationality I will explore in chapter three, as this

14

See Miller 1999, pp.10-12.

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is one of the major bones of contention in trying to reconcile
nationalism with liberalism: liberalism is typically based on
universalism, while any consistent account of nationalism is typically
founded on a particularist ethical approach. As the third proposition
concerning national self-determination is such a big issue in its own
right, and is only peripherally associated with the current
investigation, I will not be exploring this or any related self-rule issues
here.15
With regard to the identity proposition, Miller examines what
makes national identities different from other forms of identity - such
as individual or communal identities. He argues for five kinds of
features that are specific to national identities: mutual belief and the
use of mythology, historical continuity, political activity, territorial
concerns, and cultural similarities. I will now go on to critically look at
each of these features in turn, and also look at how other
commentators – notably Gellner, Tamir and Scruton - have also
approached these issues.

15

For further reading in this area, see Miller 1999, Raz and Margalit 1990, Kymlicka 2004, and Tamir
1993.

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(i)

Mutual Belief and Mythology: Nation as an ‘Imagined

Community’
The first obvious point to be made about nations is that, due to their
size, members of these ‘super-communities’ cannot possibly get to
know each other on a face to face or personal basis. This
differentiates them immediately from families and other small, tightly
knit communities. Nations are not like clans or tribes either, where
“each member is indirectly linked to every other by ties of marriage
and descent” (Miller 1999: 32). Nations are therefore neither families
nor clans – so what is it exactly that differentiates nations from other
types of communities?
In an attempt to define a theory of nationality, Gellner argues
that nations must be ‘willed’ by their members, and he identifies two
generic catalysts for group formation and maintenance: “will,
voluntary adherence and identification, loyalty, solidarity, on the one
hand; and fear, coercion, compulsion, on the other” (Gellner 1994:
53). In general, any group or community has a combination of these
factors in play at any given time in order to come into being and to
continue to exist. However, while these factors are necessary for any
nation to survive, they are not the exclusive property of propositions
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about nations and apply equally well to other types of smaller subgroups and communities. Clearly, we will need some additional
criteria in order to differentiate a nation from a bridge club.
Miller picks up on a similar point but develops it in a different
way. For Miller, nations are instead held together by beliefs,
transmitted through “cultural artefacts which are available to everyone
who belongs – books, newspapers, media, pamphlets, and more
recently electronic media” (Miller 1999:32). This is precisely what
Benedict Anderson had in mind when he argued that nations are
‘imagined political communities’,

Imagined as both inherently limited and sovereign. It is
imagined because the members of even the smallest nations
will never know most of their fellow-members, meet them, or
even hear of them, yet in the minds of each lives an image of
their community.
(Anderson 1991: 6)
As such, “nations cannot exist unless there are available the means
of communication to make such collective imagining feasible” (Miller
1999: 32).
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In part because of they are a product of the collective
imagination, nations are not as natural as they might at first appear.
According to Gellner, “the culture [a nation] claims to defend and
revive are often its own inventions, or are modified out of all
recognition” (Gellner 1994: 56). Although Gellner is being critical in
this instance, this is precisely the point. As Tamir argues, while each
nation is an intricate assemblage of (to borrow Hobsbawm’s phrase),
‘invented traditions’, we should not conflate invention with
fabrication. 16 Invention should instead be seen as a positive force, a
result of man’s capacity for imaginative creation, a means of
answering difficult questions with ritual acts.17 In other words, we
should not confuse imagined with imaginary. Nations in this sense
are like stories, albeit stories on a grand scale. What becomes
important is not the truth of falsity of the facts which make up a
national story; instead it is the general underlying truths which the
story is trying to tell us that become of paramount importance.18 It is
part of human nature to look for a structure in chaos. For instance we
16

See Tamir, 1995, p. 420.

17

For a full clarification of what I mean by ‘ritual’ in this instance, see the following section on ‘Nation as
Home’.
18 According

to McKee (who admittedly is writing about stories of the Hollywood variety), “facts are
neutral. The weakest possible excuse to include anything in a story is [to say] it actually happened” (Mckee
1999, p.25, my emphasis). Kenneth Burke once said too that, “stories are equipment for living”. Both
sentiments concur with the account of nation being argued for here.

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are adept at stitching together the often unrelated events in our own
lives into ‘life stories’, and everything this entails: missing out those
facts we would rather forget and emphasising those of which we are
proud. It should therefore come as no surprise that we attempt to do
the same thing with the cultures which we inhabit.
Such an analysis is not without its problems. If nations are
nothing more than a random collection of facts, figures and people
woven into a largely mythical story, then why are they of value? It
would seem that if we wanted to achieve some kind of unity, then this
might be better served by some other, more rational means, such as
a civic forum. And if we do accept that nations at least serve a
function with regard to political unity, then surely the mythical,
‘imagined’ aspect of national identities means that at best such an
approach can only have instrumental value – after all, how can such
an apparently random event such as being born in Britain have any
intrinsic value?
To counteract such arguments, Miller employs an analogy. At
first glance citizens of nations seem to be no different from the
occupants of a lifeboat – both have been thrown together under
random circumstances. As Miller suggests
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The occupants of a lifeboat, after all, must establish
relationships among themselves. They must treat one another
decently, they must work together to keep their craft afloat, and
so forth. It seems no handicap that they can all recognize that it
is the merest chance that has brought them together. In the
same way, people who live together under a common set of
institutions are obliged to respect and co-operate with one
another, and it is not obvious why, in order to do this, they must
think of themselves as bearers of a common historical identity.
(Miller 1999: 41)
This looks like a powerful argument against any intrinsic value being
assigned to national identity or nations. Miller suggests two lines of
defence. The first is based on an ethical account of nations, which I
will deal with more fully in chapter three when I discuss ethical
particularism. The second defence which I will explore here is to
argue that the lifeboat analogy is not particularly useful in describing
nations. In this sense, nations have more in common with a circle of
friends or family than occupants of a lifeboat. For instance the fact
that I am born into a certain family is a random event over which I
have no control. At the same time this does not prevent me from
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attaching intrinsic value to the subsequent web of relationships that
are formed by this event. The joint trials and tribulations of families,
the history, the constant contact and complex emotions we share
mean these connections are amongst some of the most powerful and
potentially rewarding connections many of us will form during our
lifetime. But the same may be true of other communities of which we
might find ourselves members, including nations. Like families,
national communities are also made up of a “dense web of customs,
practices, implicit understandings, and so forth” (Miller 1999: 41),
which in turn can be the source of a set of strong attachments and
commitments to fellow members. If we accept that nations are more
like families than lifeboats, then this argues for the potential of
citizens finding intrinsic value in their national identity. This is a point
often denied, overlooked or ignored by liberals, and is something I will
return to again in later chapters.
In terms of defining a nation however, the concept of ‘imagined
communities’ is not sufficient on its own to explain them. True, we will
never meet many of our compatriots face to face, and therefore we
must rely on an image of them as a people. But the same could be
true of an extended family. This is doubly true when we think of our
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relations to past and future generations, who we can never know,
either because they died before we were born or will continue to live
after our own death. Clearly, imagined communities are a necessary
part of any definition of nation, but they do not fully explain them.

(ii)

Historical Continuity

That nations have a certain historical lineage is undisputed. As we
have already noted, how ‘true’ much of the history we find wrapped
up in the national story is debateable and does not often stand up to
rational scrutiny.19 However historical continuity has a real function, in
that it roots us in a set of obligations, both forward and backward
looking. As Miller argues, “because our forebears have toiled and spilt
their blood to build and defend the nation, we who are born into it
inherit an obligation to continue their work, which we discharge partly
towards our contemporaries and partly towards their
descendents” (Miller 1993: 305). In Miller’s terms, this gives nations a
‘depth’ that other forms of associations do not commonly share with
nationalism. As Scruton has argued, “when people discard, ignore or

19 As

a character in The Satanic Verses argues, “the trouble with the British is that most of their history
happened overseas” (quoted by Anshuman Mondal, see Replies to David Goodhart’s Essay in Prospect
magazine.

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mock the ideals which formed our national character then they no
longer exist as a people but only as a crowd”.20

(iii)

Political Activity

While some nations seem to be the result of spontaneous events and
movements, others seem to be the result of declarations and
enforced impositions driven by political parties or leaders. The
approach taken would seem to have a direct correlation with the
amount of subsequent fabrication presented as part of the national
myth. As Miller argues, “the emergence of a national identity in
eighteenth century – and early nineteenth century Britain, which
involved competition between a number of groups – tradesmen,
women, the Welsh and Scots, as well as English aristocracy – each
seeking to establish themselves as citizens, and offering contrasting
images of British identity to support their claims” (Miller 1999:41), was
hugely different to the, “Chinese cultural revolution of the 1960s,
where an attempt was made by a small political clique to impose a
uniform definition of Chinese identity upon the mass of people,
involving a deliberate attempt to destroy traditional Confucian moral
20

Quoted by Gordon Brown in his address to the British Council Annual Lecture.

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values and replace them with Maoist ideology” (ibid, 41). While no
national story can be perfectly true, there are variations in quality.
However a nation has come into being it needs to be
maintained by political and institutional processes, often by proxy. All
nations have an element therefore of political self-determination, in
that they have to reach joint decisions and abide by them. In this
sense, nations are far from passive communities. How far political
activity is taken however depends on how far those leading the
political process (and those who support them) are prepared to take
them, which may or may not result in the establishment of a state and
self-rule.

(iv)

Territorial Concerns: Nation as “Home”

In England: An Elegy, Scruton argues that, at least in England’s case,
the nation was, “first and foremost a place – though a place
consecrated by custom” (Scruton 2006: 7). From here Scruton builds
a definition of nation based on the concept of ‘home’ and the rituals
that are practised within its boundaries.
There seems little mention in the philosophical cannon about
the importance of rituals and the crucial role they play in defining and
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demarcating cultures. They are often, though not always, a reflection
of the immediate environment (or place), and a means of
manipulating and shaping that environment. Rituals as we
understand them probably began with formal burials practised during
the Neanderthal period. These burials reflect the development of a
new concern for man in that they demonstrate that he became
concerned about the fate of his compatriots, and that he had a desire
to honour and mourn other individuals. Indeed recent findings may
prove even more: the discovery of the skeleton of a Neanderthal man
who had lost one of his arms years before he died argues that he was
cared for by others for some considerable time. Some archaeologists
go further still and suggest ritual burial may even prove that man had
begun to pose the theory of an after-life – proof of a huge conceptual
jump if true. What we do know is that, “the human brain must already
have been capable of discerning questions it wanted to answer and
perhaps of providing these answers in the shape of rituals” (Roberts
1995: 22).
Nations in turn are stuffed with rituals, and it is the preservation
and continued observance of these rituals which are of paramount
importance to those who identify strongly with a particular culture.
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Some rituals may be based on the duties inspired by a particular
religion, but it can also include such everyday things as what you
choose to eat for breakfast.21 As Tamir argues, “the ability to turn an
everyday act into a source of national pride is one of the most
appealing aspects of nationalism. It contextualises human actions, no
matter how mundane, making them part of a continuous creative
effort whereby culture is made and remade” (Tamir 1993: 85).
Rituals are often (though not always) associated with a
particular place and people. Scruton develops this point lucidly in his
definition of ‘home’, and it is worth quoting him at length to make the
point.
When human beings cease their wandering and mark out a
place as their own, their first instinct is to furnish it with things
which have no function – ornaments, pictures, knick-knacks –
or with things which, while possessing a function, are valued
more for other reasons: for their associations, their beauty, their
way of fitting in. This instinct for the purposelessness has a
purpose – namely to make these objects into an expression of
ourselves and of our common dwelling place, to endow them

21

William’s claimed that “culture is the ordinary” (quoted by Tamir – see Tamir 1993, p. 85)

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with marks of order, legitimacy and peaceful possession. In
other words objects, when they form part of a home, are
endowed with a soul. […] The enchantment of things in the
home is part of a larger spiritual project. Home has its customs,
its rituals, its special times and places. Or if it does not, it is so
much the less a home.
(Scruton 2006: 13)

Quoting Larkin, Scruton sees home as a, “joyous shot at how things
ought to be”.22 Any nation worthy of the name would have the same
guiding principle, the same spiritual attachment to things and
customs; if not, it is so much the less a nation.
The concept of nation as ‘home’ is not without its problems.
How, for instance, do nations fit in that have no home or suffer
problems of disputed territory? However the fact remains that every
nation has some conception of home, even if this is purely spiritual:
for instance the nation of Islam, despite spanning every continent, still
has a spiritual home in Mecca (indeed one of its central tenets is that
every believer must visit ‘home’ at least once in their lifetime); the

22

Philip Larkin, ‘Home is so Sad’.

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same is true, though in different ways, of the Jewish nation and its
relationship to Jerusalem, the Mormons to Temple Square, and the
Catholics relation to the Vatican.23
It would seem then that the concept of place, or home, should
play a qualifying role in the definition of a nation.

23 According

2006, p. 5.

to Scruton, the term ‘nation’ came into common use through the Jewish bible. See Scruton

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(v)

Cultural Similarities

Gellner’s second candidate for defining nationality is that of an
experience of a shared culture. If we take culture to mean, “a system
of ideas and signs and associations and ways of behaving and
communicating” (Gellner 1994: 7), then there is a good argument for
making this a necessary condition for a social grouping to be
classified as a nation. However, once again, this also opens the door
to a whole host of other groups that we would not normally want to
classify as nations, such as a local community with a distinct dialect
and set of traditions, or even an internet community built around a
single issue or interest and which cuts across traditional national
boundaries.
Even taken together, Gellner’s criteria of ‘will’ and ‘shared
culture’ are not sufficient to define what a nation is, or what nationality
might mean, as compared to some other experience of being a
member of a group. Clearly we need to look for some further
conditions in order to fully define what a nation is.
Tamir takes Anderson’s argument that nations are ‘imagined
political communities’ as a starting point to develop a more robust
argument for defining nations. First, Tamir drops the term ‘political
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community’ in favour of ‘cultural community’. This is because national
movements are primarily motivated by a cultural rather than a political
claim. Their desire is, “to assure the existence and flourishing of a
particular community, to preserve its culture, tradition and
language” (Tamir 1993: xiii). As such, striving for political power
(usually in the form of a state) is a means to this end rather than an
end in itself. This is an important shift, and one which has clear
similarities with the distinctions previously drawn between social and
political solidarity.
Having changed the focus from politics to culture, Tamir then
looks for some ‘distinguishing features’ that mark out an imagined
community as a nation rather than some other form of social
grouping. She splits these features into two types, those that are,
“independent of the feelings and perceptions of the agents – age,
gender, race, income, or place of birth – and those that are
not” (Tamir 1995: 422). From here it follows that any group whose
major defining characteristics rely on objective facts about the
individuals which constitute them, rather than on how they feel about
and relate to each other, could not be classed as national. Instead the
defining features of a nation are that its members, “share feelings of
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fraternity, substantial distinctiveness, and exclusivity, as well as
beliefs in common ancestry and a continuous genealogy” (ibid, 425).
In this sense then, and as I have already argued, nations have more
in common with, “a group of friends than a group of citizens” (ibid, p.
422). This distinction is an important point and one which I will revisit
in discussing the subject of civic republicanism in chapter two, where
I will examine the liberal argument that we should replace the
concepts of nations and nationality with those of civic duties and
citizenship.
Before I move on to explore the implications of this shift from
the political to the social (or cultural), I want to briefly explore the
general misconception that nations are based on the concept of a
single ethnicity. While some nations (which have been the result of
particularly hard-line nationalist movements) have indeed tried to sell
the myth that one nation equals one ethnic group, this is not generally
the case.24 There is a case that ethnic identities are subject to
precisely the same kinds of mythical re-interpretation as national
ones, in that people who identify themselves strongly with a particular
ethnic background will also be identifying strongly with the particular
24

Ernst Gellner makes the mistake of conflating ethnicity and nationality when he argues that, “ethnic
boundaries should not cut across political [national] ones”. (Quoted in Miller 1999: 21).

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‘historical baggage’ such identities contain. That said, as Miller
argues, “once we recognise that there can be multi-ethnic nations,
the inference [that nations must be understood as ethnically
homogenous communities] falls away” (Miller 1999:21). While a
nation could be built from a single ethnic group, this would mean
potentially putting an objective fact about its members (i.e. their
ethnicity) before that of how the members actually feel about and
relate to each other. If this was indeed the case, then such a grouping
would I argue be better classified as a political grouping than a
national one. As Scruton has also argued, “races, if they exist, are not
confined within national boundaries, and have no characteristic
language, culture or history” (Scruton 1990: 273).
It would seem that Tamir’s interpretation of Anderson’s
argument is more robust than the original, in that it excludes several
types of communities and groups that we would not ordinarily classify
as nations. It would, for example, be impossible to classify an
international women’s rights movement as a nation: even if they
demonstrated fraternity, they would not share a belief in a common
ancestry or distinctiveness – indeed such a movement would instead
reflect the diverse cultures and values from which its members were
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drawn. If this is the case then it would be better described as a
political movement (by fighting for the recognition of certain rights),
than a cultural one. That said this definition is not without its problems
and hard cases either. How, for instance, would we wish to classify
the Amish in America? Are they a nation or do they fall below some
as yet undefined tipping point we would like to see in order to call a
group a nation? If not, are they an example of a ‘micro-nation’, or
something else? However, as with our definition of the state, the
definition we are now edging towards will I believe be good enough
for the majority of cases. I will now go on to draw these different
features together in an attempt to define what the term nation means.

Necessary and Sufficient Conditions for a Nation
Any community can be classified as a nation if and only if it meets all
of the following necessary and sufficient conditions:
(1) Its members have a shared experience of an imagined cultural
community, whose system of rituals, ideas, signs, associations,
values and means of communicating they wish to support,
observe and maintain through political activity and selfdetermination
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(2) It is primarily a social (as opposed to political) construct, and
therefore its members experience feelings of fraternity with
other members to the extent that they feel obliged to extend
special obligations towards co-members
(3) Its members believe that their culture is unique and that their
being a member of it is a constituent (though far from
necessary) part of their personal identity
(4) Its members share an idea of a homeland (territory) and of a
continuous genealogy, and of the mythology which ties these
together
(5) The community is not defined on objective facts about its
members (e.g. gender, ethnic origin), but rather about how its
members ‘feel about’ or ‘relate to’ each other
While these criteria present a ‘best fit’ for defining when a community
can be classified as a nation, it is by no means perfect.25 It says
nothing for instance about the difficult question of how large a
community should be, or how long it has been in existence, before it
can be classified as a nation. This ambiguity may be no bad thing;
such restrictions would force us to draw distinctions on the basis of
25

By way of a litte light relief, compare this to Frank Zappa’s suggested list of necessary and sufficient
conditions: “you can't be a real country unless you have a beer and an airline. It helps if you have some
kind of a football team, or some nuclear weapons, but at the very least you need a beer”.

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arbitrary counts, such as the number of members involved, the
number of years in existence, or even the relative size of a
geographical (territorial) area. Nor does such a definition rule out the
majority of world religions as nations in their own right. It does
however rule out some groups we would not typically want to classify
as nations, such as families, voluntary groups, political parties,
international pressure groups, virtual internet groups, professional
groups and football club supporters.
For the purposes of this essay then, the definition of nation we
have now arrived at is fit for purpose and will enable us to examine
some of the traditional problem areas in trying to fit the concept of
nationalism together with traditional liberal values, issues which I will
pick up in the following chapter. But before I move on to discuss
these issues, I want to return briefly to the question I posed earlier as
to how well the concepts of state and nation overlap, particularly with
regard to the necessary criteria that a state needs to rule a defined
territory which also has a socially related population.
In the modern world, evidence suggests that it is a rare
occurrence that these two concepts overlap perfectly, meaning that a
single state rules over a single nation. By far the most common
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situation is that a state finds itself ruling over a territory which
encompasses several national identities. Indeed in some cases it is
yet more complicated, in that a state may govern only part of the
territory traditionally associated with a particular nation (as is the case
with the Kurdish nation and its relation to Turkey and Iraq). How
modern liberal states try to manage these complex challenges is
something I will return to again on the chapter on multiculturalism: I
will argue that despite the fact that several nationalities often exist
within a single state territory, there is nothing illiberal about promoting
a single, ‘over-arching’ (or ‘umbrella’) national identity which would
bring all of these together.

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Conclusion
I have argued for two types of solidarity – social and political – and
together these make for complete unity. I have also argued that social
solidarity on a national scale has instrumental value in that it helps to
sustain the liberal state. I have also argued that this kind of solidarity
has intrinsic value in that it helps to give people a sense of place and
belonging, much like that gained from being a member of a family or
a circle of friends. I have shown that national identities need not be
exclusive, and that they often compete with other forms of
membership. I have also tried to show what makes nations distinct
from other kinds of communities, from which I have subsequently
drawn up a list of necessary and sufficient conditions for identifying a
community as a nation. I have not as yet shown how our definition of
a nation might be further refined to make it compatible with liberalism,
or as yet defined what I mean by a liberal state. In the next chapter I
will begin to explore how we might go about this, and from there look
at the ethical implications for the liberal should they agree on
attempting to reconcile nationalism and liberalism.

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Chapter Two: Liberalism and Nationalism - Opposing
Standpoints?
Introduction
So far our discussions of solidarity, state and nation have only
obliquely referred to liberalism. I now want to go on to argue that, just
as is it is possible to argue for a liberal interpretation of a state, it is
also possible to argue coherently for a liberal interpretation of a
nationalism. Before I go on to explore what this might look like, I first
want to briefly outline what I mean by a liberal state, and identify the
major areas where such a definition might clash with a traditional
theory of nationalism.

The Liberal State
While in general it can be said that liberal principles of justice vary
considerably (encompassing everything from Nozick to Rawls), it is
true to say that all liberals at least agree on the basic Kantian view of
individuals. This view finds its embodiment in Rawls’ first principle of
justice:

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Each person is to have an equal right to the most extensive
scheme of equal basic liberties compatible with a similar
scheme of liberties for others.
(Rawls 1999: 53)
The “basic liberties are given by a list of such liberties” (ibid, 53),
which includes (amongst others) political liberty, liberty of conscience,
freedom of speech and assembly, and freedom of thought. As this is
necessarily the first principal of any liberal state, I do not want to go
into any further detail here. However the existence of any further
principles over and above this remains contentious. For instance
Rawls’s second principle – which he calls ‘democratic equality’ argues that the best way for a liberal state to distribute the resources
available to it is through the implementation of what he calls the
‘difference principle’ – an approach which Nozick categorically
rejects. There is no room to enter into the complex arguments put
forward by both sides here. Instead I want to limit my interpretation of
a liberal state to the following: first, it would uphold the basic liberties
as outlined in Rawls’s first principle; second, it would make some
form of provision for the less fortunate through the maintenance of a
welfare system; third, it would also make some provision for equal
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opportunity for all. I do not wish to go into any more detail on these
points here for fear of prejudicing my argument for connecting liberal
values and nationalism in favour of one form of liberalism (e.g.
Rawlsian) over another; by leaving room for a certain amount of
ambiguity we can avoid this restriction.26 I now want to go on to
outline the major areas where the values of the liberal state might
clash with that of nationalism, and suggest how a liberal interpretation
of nationalism might provide solutions to these problems.

Four Main Areas of Contention
In On Nationality, Miller argues that the debate between liberalism
and nationalism may turn out to be a “more general contest between
liberals and communitarians” (Miller 1999: 193). He goes on to say
that, “if there is a contest here at all, it occurs at the level of the
justifying theory rather than at the level of the political principle: most
‘communitarians’ adopt recognizably liberal political positions” (ibid,
193). However because such justifications do indeed matter, it is
important for our purpose here to make sure that any marriage we

26

Having said this, my interpretation of the liberal state, by allowing for the provision of a welfare state
and the taxes this would entail, does in fact rule out any version of a ‘nightwatchman’ or similar libertarian
state.

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might achieve between liberalism and nationalism is not forced, and
that any differences in justification can be properly reconciled.
As to specific areas of contention, Miller identifies four possible
areas where liberals might clash with nationalists: the principle of
cultural (and political) neutrality; individual autonomy and choice;
rational consent; and republicanism. I will add to this list (as does
Miller in an earlier chapter) the problem of ethical foundations, by
which I mean the debate between ethical universalism and ethical
particularism. As this is one of the more complicated areas of
contention between these two theories, I will look at this in more
detail in the following chapter; for now I will go on to examine these
first four areas of contention and suggest ways in which both sides
might reach a suitable compromise.

The First Problem: Political and Cultural Neutrality
The liberal position typically favours a position called political
neutrality, the basic interpretation of which “requires that the state
remain neutral on disputed questions about the good” (Waldron
1998), which is itself an extension of the old liberal tenet of toleration.
In other words, the state should not favour one way of life over
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another, but should respect all equally. However there is an important
caveat liberals place on the extent of such toleration, namely that only
those conceptions of the good which do not violate the basic liberal
principles are allowed. According to Waldron these principles might
typically include “justice, freedom and individual rights” (ibid). Liberals
call these the ‘principles of political right’, the point of which is, “to
define a framework within which individuals ought to be able to
pursue any conception of the good they please” (ibid). As Rawls also
argues in A Theory of Justice, “the principles of right, and so of
justice, put limits on which satisfactions have value; they impose
restrictions on what are reasonable conceptions of one’s
good” (Rawls 1999: 27). Rawls goes on to say that this means that,
“the concept of right is prior to that of the good” (ibid, 28). The
implication of this is that (at least in the Rawlsian world), any
conception of the good must meet the necessary conditions of the
principles of right and justice; hence any “interests requiring the
violation of justice have no value” (ibid, 28). We could add to this
explicit principle of political neutrality that of the implicit principle of
cultural neutrality, in that no liberal state should prioritise the traditions
and values of any one culture over that of any other; if it did, then the
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state might be guilty of stepping over the demarcation between what
is ‘right’ and what is ‘good’.
At face value then, the concepts of political and cultural
neutrality seem at odds with that of nationalism – liberal or otherwise
- which may well seek to prioritise certain aspects of a particular
culture or values (meaning its own) over those of other cultures and
values. Within the context of a liberal state, these may take the forms
of nationalist groups demanding special privileges which they feel are
necessary in order to protect their group identity. In turn this may lead
to the granting of certain group-based rights – something which the
liberal state may well be wary of granting. As there is a whole set of
complex problems hiding within this, I will return to this and related
issues when I discuss nationalism and multiculturalism in chapter
four. At this point however I instead want to concentrate on the more
basic problem, namely how can we reconcile (if at all) the liberal’s
desire to uphold the principle of political neutrality and the
nationalist’s desire to actively promote a particular culture?
We can start this line of enquiry by trying to point something out
to the liberal, namely that the prioritisation of the principles of right
over good in itself carries certain value commitments – such as
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protecting individual rights and autonomy.27 This means that - far from
being neutral with respect to values – liberals have in fact ring-fenced
certain values as inviolable and essential to the liberal outlook. Most
liberals however are willing to admit this. According to Rawls the core
values are ring-fenced because they “are very great values indeed
and hence not easily overridden” (Rawls 1989: 168). He goes on to
say that, “these values govern the basic framework of social life, ‘the
very groundwork of our existence’28, and specify the fundamental
terms of political and social cooperation” (ibid, p.168). However given
this twist – meaning that we are now looking at a sliding scale of
values as opposed to two different types of values - the nationalist
could rightly accuse any liberal of making a distinction without a
difference when they attempt to differentiate between ‘right’ and
‘good’.29
At one end of the scale then (let’s call it the ‘thin end’) we have
the small list of prioritised values essential to the liberal position,
while at the other end (the ‘thick end’) we have a much more
27 Although

see my later section on ‘political liberalism’ as to why autonomy may or may not be one of
these values.
28

Rawls is quoting Mill here, see J.S. Mill, Utilitarianism (3rd ed., 1867), ch. 5, par. 25.

29

In a later work, Rawls also seems to acknowledge this point. In outlining a ‘political conception of
justice’, Rawls says that the difference between a political conception of justice and other moral
conceptions is “a matter of scope” (Rawls 1989: 165).

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comprehensive list of values which more fully prescribe how we ought
to live. In the liberal world, those values at the thick end would also
be ‘backwardly compatible’ with those found at the thin end, meaning
that the ‘thin’ conception of the good is that which is general (and in
the liberal ideal, universal) to all conceptions of the good. Walzer
makes the point more concisely when he argues that, “there is a thin
and universal morality within every thick and particular morality”.30 As
this is an investigation into liberal nationalism, I now want to see what
use the liberal nationalist can make of this discovery.
The first thing the liberal nationalist could argue is that, because
national identity need not be (and frequently isn’t) an all embracing
identity, nationalism can also be described in ways which are only
partially comprehensive and which also meet the criteria of the
principles of right. In other words nationalism can also be ‘thin’ and
therefore does not need to prescribe every aspect of the good; just
like the core values of liberalism itself it can therefore leave room for
further values to be bolted on top, and thereby provide the means for
diversity within its own ranks, including the existence of other national
identities.
30

This interpretation of Walzer’s claims is made by Orlie in her review of Walzer’s book Thick and Thin:
Moral Argument at Home and Abroad. See Orlie, 1999, p. 140

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The second thing a liberal nationalist could argue is as follows:
if we can show that social cohesion and stability are vital to the
survival of the liberal state, and that nationalism can provide this, then
we can argue that liberal nationalism is also part of ‘the fundamental
terms of political and social cooperation’. The liberal nationalist is not
asking the traditional liberal to rip up their theory and start from
scratch; instead they are making a much more modest request,
namely to move the marker designating the ‘principles of right’ a little
further up the scale to make room for nationalism too. As Kymlicka
has argued, “if states promote such thin national identities on the
grounds that possessing them will make citizens more likely to fulfil
their obligations of justice, then there is no violation of liberal
neutrality” (Kymlicka 2002: 266).
Given these two possible approaches, I would suggest that the
differences between nationalism and liberalism on the principles of
political and cultural neutrality are not as great as they at first
appeared.

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The Second Problem: Autonomy and Choice
We have already touched on the essence of the debate here in the
introduction to this essay, where we drew a distinction between the
‘unconditioned rational agent’ sometimes favoured by Liberals and
the ‘totally embedded self’ sometimes favoured by particularly hardline Nationalists. At the extreme end of the scale a liberal may argue
that, unless we have rationally chosen the culture and values we
recognise and practice (either through some kind of voluntary
agreement or social contract), it can be of no value. This approach
requires us to ‘step outside’ the usual bundle of prejudices that
normally provide the framework for our choices in order to asses
them from a purely rational perspective – much as Rawls tries to
achieve with his idea of the ‘veil of ignorance’.31 At the other end of
the extreme, Nationalists may believe that, “our membership of a
national community is not open to choice in this way, and that the
public culture which the community embodies forms an unchosen
background against which more specific private cultural decisions can
be made” (Miller 1999: 194).

31

Rawls argued that, “somehow we must nullify the effects of specific contingencies which put men at
odds and tempt them to exploit social and natural circumstances to their own advantage” (Rawls 1999:
118).

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As already argued, both of these positions seem nonsensical. It
is absurd to suggest that we can shake off all of our prejudices
simultaneously – after all, prejudice is in part what makes us human
(as opposed to purely rational robots). Conversely it seems equally
absurd to suggest that we can never evaluate (and therefore possibly
reject) the cultural norms in which we grow up, however strongly
inculcated. Surely the more commonsense approach is to argue that
some middle-ground view – what we have termed ‘the contextualised
self’ - is more like the state of affairs as we actually understand and
experience it. To borrow a concept from Heidegger: even if the
nationality we inherit has an element of ‘throwness’ about it –
because, just like families, they are not initially subject to our rational
consent and are instead given to us by an accident of birth – this is
not to argue that they cannot be critically re-assessed or that such
connections have no intrinsic value; nor does it mean that everything
about them must confirm to the laws of blind rationality. In the liberal
interpretation of nationalism therefore, such cultural norms are indeed
up for debate, and as such they can be reconfirmed, rejected or
modified. This makes liberal nationalism an ongoing, creative and
critical process, subject to revision and reconfirmation. This also has
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the implication that an individual should have the right to change
nationalities if they so wish (as long as the other nationality is willing
to admit them). The argument therefore is that, rather than
perpetuating the dispute about the concept of a person that exists
between nationalists and liberals, liberal nationalism instead provides
a potential reconciliation.

The Third Problem: Rational Consent
This problem is to some extent a reflection of the problems discussed
above: if liberals favour the contractual or voluntary consent approach
to explaining the legitimacy of political institutions, then nationalists
may well believe the opposite, namely that the legitimacy of such
institutions rest on the will of the national community, which does not
require that each individual consents to such institutions. At face
value this would seem to be an impasse between justifications.
However I would suggest that the liberal nationalist can actually point
to a significant advantage to his or her theory in this context, in that it
potentially provides the answer to an embarrassing conundrum for
the liberal. The conundrum is this: “in order to sign a contract
individuals would have to regard themselves as part of a group, but
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they are not supposed to regard themselves as part of a group until
they have signed the contract” (Matravers and Pike 2003, 267). We
could well add to this basic necessity (i.e. that some form of grouping
already exists), Scruton’s demand for the rule of law, which in turn
demands that, “the safety, continuity and stability necessary to a rule
of law are unobtainable until territory is secure” (Scruton 1990, 283).
So without a pre-existing group (however defined), a rule of law, and
a territory, it would seem that the contractual approach is unable to
even get off the ground. As Scruton argues:
The liberal ought to bite the bullet, and confess to the
advantages of the national idea. It establishes a social loyalty
suited to territorial jurisdiction; and without territorial jurisdiction,
there is no possibility of a liberal state (ibid, 284).

The Fourth Problem: Republicanism
According to Charles Taylor, the “mature liberal society does not
demand very much of its members, as long as it delivers the goods
and makes their lives prosperous and secure” (Taylor 1989: 203).
This would appear to be in contrast with the traditional nationalist
approach to, “attach real intrinsic value to public life, and to adopt a
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republican view of citizenship, according to which the citizen should
be actively engaged at some level in political debate” (Miller 1999:
194). As Kymlicka also notes, “whereas the ancients sacrificed
private liberty to promote the political life, moderns view politics as a
means (and somewhat of a sacrifice) needed to protect their private
life” (Kymlicka 2002: 295). Once again I want to suggest that liberal
nationalism can provide the middle-ground between these two
versions of ‘passive’ and ‘active’ citizens. In part, the alleged passivity
of citizens under a liberal state may be part and parcel of liberalism’s
underlying problems. It is tied up with the neutrality principle,
autonomy and rationality, all of which provide answers to the political
aspect of solidarity but remain completely silent about the social side
of solidarity. As Kymlicka has argued, “shared political principles may
indeed by a necessary condition for political unity […] but shared
political principles are not sufficient for unity” (ibid, P.253). This is
because “unity is, in the normal instance, social rather than
political” (Scruton 1990: 271). Liberal nationalism as it is conceived
here is designed to precisely plug that gap: it provides the missing
necessary socially-based condition for complete unity by bringing
together the social aspects of nationalism with the political aspects of
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liberalism. Taking an active role in politics and social networks does
not therefore run counter to the liberal thesis; rather, it underpins it.

Remaining Issues: what about social solidarity?
We have done some work now on trying to marry together liberalism
and nationalism in a coherent way. In the process we have provided
solutions to four major principles on which they might have been said
to clash, those of political neutrality, autonomy and choice, rational
consent and republicanism. However it is now the turn of the liberal
nationalist to ask questions of the traditional liberal. Liberal
nationalists suspect that liberal theory – and in particular its
attachment to political and cultural neutrality – provides only part of
the solution, in that liberalism only answers the political side of the
solidarity problem and says too little about what we should be doing
to address the social side.
In his Defence of Nationality, Miller makes the point that, in
“societies [where] economic markets play a central role, there is a
strong tendency towards social atomization, where each person looks
out for the interests of herself and her immediate social

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network” (Miller 1993: 308). 32 Whether we agree with this particular
line of reasoning or not, Miller is certainly not alone in his belief that
modern liberal states are suffering from fragmentation, atomization
and a lack of solidarity. While there may be small isolated pockets of
altruism and instances of strong communal bonding, the fact remains
that the once traditional sense that citizens of liberal states were ‘all
in it together’ and that they were working towards a common goal is
being slowly eroded. The knock-on effect of this can be of real
consequence to the legitimacy of state institutions, especially with
regard to welfare. If diversity is indeed a “permanent feature of the
public culture of democracy” (Rawls 1989: 161), then the need for
something to bind us together in some way is all the more crucial.
This is because, as Goodhart has argued, “sharing and solidarity can
conflict with diversity” (Goodhart 2004). Goodhart goes on to argue
that, “this is an especially acute dilemma for progressives who want
plenty of both solidarity – high social cohesion and generous welfare
paid out of a progressive tax system – and diversity – equal respect
for a wide range of peoples, values and ways of life” (ibid). A similar
point it is made by Kymlicka. He argues that when we become
32

I will take it for granted here that atomization, and the inherent dangers it presents to social cohesion and
stability – not to mention the sustainability of the liberal state itself - is no good thing.

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distanced from our shared form of life, it means that “we become
unwilling to shoulder the burdens of liberal justice” (Kymlicka 2002:
253). He goes on to say that, “as a result, liberal democracies are
undergoing a ‘legitimation crisis’ – citizens are asked to sacrifice
more and more in the name of justice, but they share less and less
with those for whom they are making sacrifices. There is no shared
form of life underlying the demands of the neutral state” (ibid, 253).
So while the principle of political neutrality (and the subsequent
diversity it encourages) remains a central tenet of the liberal thesis, it
is also one of the main causes for the current ‘crisis of legitimation’
that Kymlicka is talking about. As such, the liberal thesis needs a
complimentary approach to help underpin solidarity in such a way
that it engages every citizen in a similar and meaningful way. I will
argue that this is best answered by invoking and supporting a
national idea (liberal nationalism). But before I do that, I will first go on
to briefly examine and reject three alternative approaches to the
problem of solidarity. These approaches can be called ‘political
liberalism’, ‘the common way of life’ (or communitarianism), and ‘civic
republicanism’.
(i)

Political Liberalism
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At the minimum end of the spectrum – in what Kymlicka calls ‘political
liberalism’ – there is an attempt to redefine the core liberal values on
an even thinner account than those set out in the ‘principles of
right’.33 Oddly enough, the reasoning behind the move towards this
‘lite’ version of liberalism is an attempt to increase unity - I say odd
because the immediate, commonsensical approach to increasing
unity would seem to be to increase the number of values and virtues
a community shares in common, not decrease them. However, the
justification of political liberalism goes roughly something like this: by
reducing the number of normative values to which any member of
society must consent to an absolute minimum, the chances that even
members of fundamentally opposed comprehensive conceptions of
the good can subsequently find a common ground for rational
discussion are increased. In practical terms, the key issue becomes
that of the need to find areas of consensus between strongly
communitarian, minority groups founded on mainly non-liberal
principles on the one hand, and those of the wider (liberal) society on
the other. To drill down even further into this problem, we find that the
main sticking point between these two groups tends to be that of

33

See Kymlicka, 2002, pp. 228-244.

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autonomy: for many liberals, the right to step back and rationally
review the values of society and to potentially challenge them is of
vital importance; while for some communitarians, such a move can be
seen as potentially fatal to their entire enterprise.34 Thus, by reinventing liberalism in a way that significantly ‘plays down’ the value
of autonomy, ‘political liberalism’ claims to leave the door open for
dialogue with illiberal communities; whereas a more ‘comprehensive
liberalism’ (because it values autonomy) may end up forcing certain
values on minority groups which they have no desire to adopt, a
position which could lead to charges of imperialism.
One advocate of ‘political liberalism’ is none other than Rawls
himself. In his later writings, Rawls argued for a ‘political conception
of justice’, the aim of which was to “specify the special domain of the
political in such a way that its main institutions can gain the support of
an overlapping consensus” (Rawls 1989: 167). The ‘overlapping
consensus’ turns out to be a very narrow set of what Rawls calls
purely political values; this domain “affirms certain basic political and
civil rights and liberties, assigns them a certain priority, and so

34 A concrete

example of which can be found in America, where the Amish fought to be exempted from the
mandatory (liberal) education laws, because they believed that the liberal education system and its
emphasis on rational choice would undermine the successor generations beliefs in the Amish way of life
(see Kymlicka 2004, pp. 162-164).

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on” (ibid, p.166), which in turn yields what Rawls calls ‘constitutional
essentials’. However this is not the big about-turn it seems, as for
Rawls the domain of the political still leaves room to include such
political conceptions as his own ‘justice as fairness’.35 Rawls argues
that, unlike his earlier, more ‘comprehensive’ version of neutrality, this
new position is not even partially comprehensive, as “for a conception
to be even partially comprehensive it must extend beyond the political
and include nonpolitical values and virtues” (Ibid, p.165).
In discussing Rawls’ updated theory, Kymlicka argues that
Rawls makes this move in response to communitarian critics. Rawls
came to believe that “not everyone values autonomy, and so
appealing to it in political life would be ‘sectarian’” (Kymlicka 2002:
243). He goes on to argue that, “the autonomy-based defence of
individual rights invokes ‘ideals and values that are not generally
shared in a democratic society’, and hence ‘cannot secure sufficient
agreement’” (ibid, 243). In other words, to include a value such as
autonomy in the political domain simply means that “liberalism
‘becomes but another sectarian doctrine’” (ibid, 243).

35

See Rawls 1989, p. 160.

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The problems with this account are legion, but for the purposes
of this argument I will focus only on the following. 36 First, it explicitly
focuses only on the political aspect of solidarity, and says nothing
about the social aspect, which in the Rawlsian world becomes
privatised and outside of the state’s field of interest. I believe this is a
fatal flaw in the argument. Second, as an explanation of unity, it is
simply far too thin and extremely naive. As we have already pointed
out, shared political principles alone are “not sufficient for
unity” (Kymlicka 2002, p. 253). In other words, the fact that we are
occasionally take part in political debate is not enough to legitimise
state institutions. Finally, in its rush to find a common ground, it
abandons one of the fundamental building blocks of liberalism,
namely autonomy, and is thus in danger of ‘throwing the baby out
with the bathwater’. At first, this may seem like an odd position for a
liberal nationalist to adopt; surely autonomy works against the need
to ‘protect’ the story and values which holds the national idea
together should not be tampered with? While this may well be the
case with some forms of nationalism, it is precisely not the case with
the liberal interpretation. According to Anshuman Mondal, we should

36

For a fuller account of the problems with political liberalism, see Kymlicka 2002, pp. 228-244.

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not “settle on a new story once and for all”.37 Rather “we should
recognise the value of keeping who ‘we’ are open and negotiable”.
This is a point I will raise again on the chapter on Multiculturalism and
Nationalism.
To conclude then, I want to argue that for unity to work, the
state must go ‘beyond neutrality’. Accounts of liberalism that rest on a
‘purely political’ definition of values and virtues address only the
political side of solidarity, and as such they fail to address the social
needs of communities.

(ii)

The Common Way of Life

While this approach to solidarity is more rightly called communitarian
than liberal, this is not to say that the desired ‘outcome’ of such an
approach would not be liberal in nature.38 For the sake of argument,
we can say that by a ‘common way of life’ we mean that people share
a common conception of the good life. If such a society were to exist,
then the state would have no problems of legitimacy, as everyone
would be working towards a common good. While there is no doubt
37

This and the following quote are taken from Mondal’s piece “New national Myths” (see Replies to David
Goodhart’s essay “Too Diverse?” 2004).
38

Kymlicka quotes Sandel and Taylor as two proponents of this type of approach (see Kymlicka pp.
257-261).

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that communitarian accounts of this position are much more subtle
and complex than this, the underlying problems remain the same. For
surely while the approaches of ‘political liberalism’ and the
‘overlapping consensus’ are too ‘thin’, this approach is too ‘thick’. By
straying so far beyond the principal of political neutrality, the ‘common
way of life’ approach risks running rough shod over the values and
interests of minority communities and other groups. As such it has
more in common with hard-line nationalism than with liberalism.
Examples quoted by communitarians of such ‘ideal’ societies – such
as ancient Greece – ignore the fact that the good life they
encouraged did little to include the interests of women, non-citizens
and slaves, a position which of course is an anathema to liberals. It is
clear then that this approach to creating solidarity comes at too high a
price in that it overrides the core liberal value of respecting diversity
and the freedom to choose one’s own comprehensive conception of
the good life.

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(iii)

Civic Republicanism

This approach has much in common with the related concept of
citizenship theory, in that it also emphasises political participation in
public life. As such, civic republicanism is “intimately linked to liberal
ideas of individual rights and entitlements on the one hand, and to
communitarian ideas of membership and attachments to a particular
community on the other” (Kymlicka 2002: 284). It is an approach
which has many proponents, including (amongst others) Weinstock,
Mason, Dzur and Mayerfeld. There is no room here to explore all of
the variations proposed within this general theme, for instance
whether the participation in public life has intrinsic value, or if this is
only instrumental. However I do not want to argue that many of the
conclusions reached by proponents of this view are invalid. Rather I
want to argue that the conclusions they reach are in fact
complementary to as opposed to contradictory to the findings of
liberal nationalism. In fact I want to argue that this ‘complementarity’
may be even stronger than civic republicans want to admit. By way of
example: if one of the aims of civic republicanism is that of building a
deliberative democracy, then it is “difficult to imagine how [this] is
possible without a shared language […] but the diffusion of a shared
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language within each state is one of the main goals of nationbuilding” (Kymlicka 2002: 312). In other words, civic republicanism
answers the political side of the solidarity equation quite well, and as
such it is only to be welcomed by liberal nationalists. In turn liberal
nationalists can argue that they answer a different problem, namely
that of social solidarity, and so the two answers go hand in hand, as
both political solidarity and social solidarity are necessary conditions
for complete unity. This means that – however much the civic
republicans would want it to be so – their theory is simply not
sufficient on its own for unity. With respect to this investigation, what
is more interesting then is not to try and reject civic republicanism
(because we shouldn’t), but rather to answer the arguments put
forward by its proponents as to why nationalism isn’t part of the
equation. Much of this boils down to the fact that, by definition,
nationalism is not ‘cosmopolitan’ in the same way citizenship theories
can be, which in turn comes down to a disagreement about ethical
justifications. This is something I will explore in the next chapter.

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The Case for Liberal Nationalism: social solidarity
To counteract social atomisation, Miller argues that there is a
requirement for large-scale solidarity, and that the de facto solution to
this type of solidarity is nationality. If this is true, then nationality has
the potential to reach the large-scale populations within a state’s
boundaries in a unique way, one that other kinds of solidarity simply
cannot compete with. As I have hopefully argued, the non-nationalist
approaches mentioned above all fail properly to answer the question
of ‘complete unity’. This is because they either: a) provide too little in
that they answer only half of the unity equation, meaning political
solidarity (or what Habermas has called ‘constitutional patriotism’39 ),
such as is the case for ‘comprehensive’ liberalism, political liberalism
and civic republicanism; or b) they provide so much unity that they
are in danger of repressing diversity, such as in the approach we
have called ‘a common way of life’. Instead I would suggest a middle
ground, one which goes some way towards a common way of life but
stops far short of repressing diversity. Together with the political
approaches of liberalism, liberal nationalism helps to complete the
picture. While it is a ‘thicker’ approach in the sense that it is partially-

39

For a fuller account of ‘constitutional patriotism’, see Miller 1995: 162-3).

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comprehensive (as, indeed, is the ‘comprehensive liberal’ approach
of political neutrality), it is still ‘thin’ in the sense that it does not
attempt to describe a fully comprehensive set of values and virtues.
However the adamant liberal may still question the value of social (or
cultural) solidarity, and it is this question I would now like to answer.
Prior to the development of the modern state, societies were
more often than not highly structured affairs - meaning that they were
prescribed and ruled by elites. They were also managed in their own
fashion – there was typically little regard or care taken in
communicating their decisions to the wider populace which they
managed; indeed many such elites often spoke a language entirely
alien to their subjects. The picture is however much more complex in
the modern liberal state. Posts of responsibility and power are now
generally open to all, and as such their decisions need to be
communicated and agreed by the majority of the populace (at least if
we are to follow the basic principles of democracy). According to
O’Leary (in part quoting Gellner), this means that nowadays, “those
who communicate must speak the same language, in some sense or
other” (O’Leary 1997: 193), as the rest of the population over which
they are put in charge. O’Leary goes on to argue that, “the erosion of
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rigid social structures [means that] a shared culture is now much
more important in creating and sustaining social cohesion than it
was” (ibid, 194). And as I have already pointed out, a shared culture
at this level has only one possible interpretation, and that is
nationalism. O’Leary concludes that, “Nationalism is a principle of
political legitimacy for us precisely because culture has become so
important that it does not so much underline structure: rather it
replaces it” (O’Leary 1997: 193). If this is true, then nationalism
cannot be simply ignored. Even if we only apply this rather ‘narrow’
interpretation of a national idea – meaning that of finding a ‘common
language’ of some sort or other – the case for nationalism is strong.
As Miler has argued, “a shared national identity is the precondition for
achieving political aims such as social justice and deliberative
democracy” (Miller 1999: 162).

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Conclusion
I have hopefully shown in this chapter that, just as it is possible to
have a liberal interpretation of a state, it is also possible to develop
and coherently defend a version of ‘liberal nationalism’. I have also
hopefully shown why the four main areas of possible conflict between
nationalism and liberalism – neutrality, autonomy and choice, consent
and republicanism – can in fact be reconciled with each other via
liberal nationalism. I have also attempted to demonstrate why
nationalism – rather than some other approach – holds the best way
forward to solving the puzzle of ‘complete unity’. I have not, as yet,
said anything about the ethical justifications of liberal nationalism.
This forms the subject of the next chapter, where I will argue that
liberal nationalism does a better job of explaining and justifying the
special attachments we often feel bound to as co-nationals of a state
– something which a more universalist approach to ethics has
consistently failed to satisfactorily explain.

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Chapter Three: The Ethics of Liberal Nationalism
Introduction
One of the main bones of contention between liberalism and
nationalism is the way in which they attempt to account for our moral
actions. On the one hand liberalism has traditionally been associated
with universalism and rationality, of treating people the same
regardless of their particular social, economic or national context;
while on the other hand nationalism has been associated with the
more particularist branch of ethics, in that it requires we make room
for exceptions with regard to particular circumstances and
relationships, and potentially treat people differently as a result.
Hence liberals are more obviously associated with the ‘cosmopolitan
outlook’, while nationalists are viewed as more insular. These
traditional views and their relationship to liberal nationalism is
something I will pick up again towards the end of this chapter. Before
that however I want to begin by defining a few terms. Following Miller
I will draw a distinction between ethical universalism and ethical
particularism. I will then go on to look at two attempts to unify
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nationalism with universalism – labelled ‘voluntary creation’ and
‘useful convention’ respectively - and show why these attempts fail.
Finally I will look at accounts of nationalism based on particularism,
arguing that this is the more successful approach, and that it is not
incompatible with the liberal thesis. I will conclude that liberals should
in fact acknowledge the benefit a liberal account of nationalism brings
to their agenda, in that it helps to explain the intrinsic value we place
in relationships.

Ethical Universalism and Ethical Particularism
Within the boundaries of a nation, it would seem that we sometimes
extended special duties and obligations to co-nationals that we do not
subsequently extend to non-nationals. This would seem to contradict
the intuitive belief that everyone matters equally and should therefore
be treated the same. As Miller puts it, “from an ethical point of view,
nationality may seem to give our feelings for our compatriots a role in
practical reasoning that is rationally indefensible” (Miller 1999, 49).
Indeed, Kant argued that partiality, “the tendency to make exceptions
on one’s own behalf or one’s own case, is the central weakness from
which all others flow” (Gellner 1994: 2). George Kateb makes the
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same point even more forcefully, “any strong group identity derives
from, promotes, and rewards certain traits and habits that should be
called by their right name – vices”. 40 Clearly there is an ethical case
for nationalism to answer: why should we acknowledge special
obligations and duties at all?
In order to open the defence for special obligations to conationals, Miller makes a distinction between ‘ethical universalism’
and ‘ethical particularism’. The first argues that only general
responsibilities are really significant, meaning that our duties and
obligations should not be swayed by specific relationships - instead
they should adhere to a system of ethics rationally conceived. This is
what I would call the ‘flat iron’ approach to ethics and it is the
traditional position of the liberal. The second argues that special
obligations do indeed matter, meaning that the social relationships
people find themselves in naturally and justifiably affects their
behaviour.
Taking ethical universalism first, MacIntyre argues that
whatever flavour of liberal moral philosophy we examine – Kantian,
utilitarian or contractarian – they all share five central positions:

40

Quoted by Jamie Mayerfeld – See Mayerfeld 1998, p. 564.

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Firstly, that morality is constituted by rules to which any rational
person would under certain ideal conditions give assent;
secondly, that those rules impose constraints upon and are
neutral between rival and competing interests – morality itself is
not the expression of a particular interest; thirdly, that those
rules are also neutral between rival and competing sets of
beliefs about what the best way for human beings to live is;
fourthly, that the units which provide the subject-matter of
morality as well as its agents are individual human beings and
that in moral evaluations each individual is to count for one and
nobody for more than one; and fifthly, that the standpoint of the
moral agent constituted by allegiance to these rules is one and
the same for all moral agents and as such is independent of all
social particularity.
(MacIntyre 1999: 290)

In practical terms this means simply that, at the fundamental level,
the ethical universalist could not allow facts such as “because she is
my mother”, or “because he’s my team-mate”, or “because she is a
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fellow national”, to enter in considerations about how I should treat
my mother or my team-mate or my co-national on an ethical level.
At the opposite end of the spectrum, ethical particularism does
take into account such facts: relationships matter, and therefore they
should be taken into consideration when deciding on moral actions.
Particularism takes the view that we are ‘contextualised’ within certain
kinds of communities, relationships, and even accepted ways of
behaving. It is important to note however that this does not mean that
the particularist is condemned to only accepting the ways of behaving
in his or her society: although my relationship with other agents does
figure in my moral reasoning, it does not necessarily preclude me
from acting towards them in non-partisan – or universal - manner.
At face value then it would seem that these two approaches to
morality are irreconcilable and we have reached stalemate. Miller
suggests that, “the universalist sees in particularism a failure of
rationality; the particularist sees in universalism a commitment to
abstract rationality that exceeds the capacities of ordinary human
beings” (Miller 1990: 58). So where does that leave us? If we think
nationalism is defendable, then does that entail a rejection of

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universalism? Or are their convincing strategies that a universalist
might adopt in arguing for a coherent version of nationalism?
I now want to go on to see how we might reconcile these
seemingly diametrically opposed ways of thinking. The first of these
examinations looks at two attempts to justify particular obligations
and duties in terms of ethical universalism, the so-called ‘voluntary
creation’ and ‘useful convention’ strategies; the second examination
looks at how particularism might possibly accommodate the concerns
of universalism.

Voluntary Creation
As a strategy for reconciling nationalism with the principles of
universalism, ‘voluntary creation’ would seem to fall at the first hurdle.
Being a member of specific community brings with it specific
obligations. To account for these special obligations a universalist
could argue along the following lines: if the community is the result of
some kind of quasi-contract into which I and the other members have
voluntarily signed-up to and agreed in advance; and if the community
is grounded on universal ethics; then there is nothing wrong from the
universalist perspective if I subsequently observe special obligations
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to my fellow members. The obvious problem here for a defender of
nationalism is that this is precisely what does not happen to members
of a nation. As I have already argued, for the majority of us our
nationality is simply something into which we are ‘thrown’: we do not
make an initial choice or provide prior consent with regard to our
nationality, any more than we might initially choose our gender or
family. And while it may be true that for at least some members of
national communities there remains the option of weighing up the
pros and cons of membership, and of subsequently denouncing or reaffirming membership, this is not the case for every member.
Additionally, any universalist adopting this strategy to explain
nationalism ignores the ‘historical feature’ of nations already
mentioned in the first chapter, namely that nations have emerged
over time, and incur both backward-looking and forward-looking
obligations.41 In this sense then, many of the obligations to which we
find ourselves bound as nationals are not voluntarily chosen or
arrived at rationally, but instead are part of an ongoing historical and
social process over which we have only marginal control.

41

See Miller 1999, pp23-24.

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Useful Convention
The second alternative approach to reconciling universalism and
nationalism Miller calls the ‘useful convention’ strategy. In his paper,
‘What Is So Special about Our Fellow Countrymen?’, Goodin poses
the possibility that the special responsibilities required by nationalism
are of a universalist nature. Goodin argues that there are two types of
duties. The first are those ‘general duties’ that we have towards other
people simply because they are people. The second type is what he
calls ‘special duties’, meaning those duties that - over and above our
general duties - “we have toward particular individuals because they
stand in some special relation to us” (Goodin 1988, 663). Among
those whom might qualify for this special treatment are, “our families,
our friends, our pupils, our patients [and] our fellow countrymen” (ibid,
663).42 In addition, Goodin takes special duties to ordinarily imply,
“especially good treatment” (ibid, 663). However Goodin seeks to
counter this general assumption by arguing that – at least in some
cases – our general duties to non-nationals are more compelling
morally than those of our special duties to co-nationals. The

42

It is important to note that Goodin makes no distinction in his paper between terms such as “state” and
“nation”, and “citizenship” and “nationality”. For the purposes of this argument, I will take the terms
“compatriot” and “countrymen” to mean “co-national”, in other words someone I might recognise as being
a member of the same “national cultural community” as myself.

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conclusion for Goodin is that nationality does not ultimately matter
when it comes to deciding moral actions. Instead it is, “some further
feature which is only contingently and imperfectly associated with
shared nationality” (ibid, 663). For Goodin this ‘further feature’ is
essentially one of efficiency: the only reason to accept special duties
at all is that they are “an administrative device for discharging our
general duties more efficiently” (ibid, 685). Such a conclusion implies
that nationality has only instrumental value: special duties are useful
only because they happen to be the most efficient way of realising
universal principles.
It is important to state here that Goodin is not arguing against
special duties per se, but rather their assumed priority over general
duties. Indeed, quoting the extreme example of a burning building,
and the choice of being able to rescue only your own mother or a
‘great public benefactor’, Goodin agrees that the intuitive response is
that most of us would choose to rescue our own mother.43 Nor is
favouritism of this kind limited to extreme cases only; instead it
accounts for the majority of ‘real life’ instances when we are dealing
with cases involving obligations to such people as our families,

43

The example is taken from William Godwin. See Goodin 1988, p. 665.

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friends, co-workers and the like. The reason for this kind of partial
treatment has to do with, “the need to centre one’s self through
personal attachments to particular people and projects” (ibid, 665).
However the crux of Goodin’s argument for downgrading special
duties to co-nationals stems from the fact that he does not see
attachments to co-nationals as being ‘personal’. In Goodin’s account,
attachments that generate partial treatment apply, “most strongly to
more personal links, and only very weakly, if at all, to impersonal links
through shared race or nationality” (ibid, 665, my italics). Two things
argue against this conclusion.
The first is that, as I have already stated, nationality can indeed
be bound up strongly with someone’s personal identity. People can
and often do attach significant, personal importance to the welfare
and wellbeing of co-nationals; in other words it is not a necessary
condition of a person’s strong commitment to someone or something
else that the relationship should be intimate or at the level of face to
face contact. The second argument against a ‘weak link’ between
special duties and co-nationals is that we often experience strong
emotions with regard to the behaviour and actions of our co-nationals
that are similar to those we experience with regard to families and
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friends. Consider for example the case where we might feel ‘shame’
over the escapades of our co-nationals abroad (e.g. rioting football
fans), or, more positively, ‘pride’ over their achievements within an
international arena (e.g. a sporting achievement). Both of these
emotions are ones we generally associate with more intimate
relationships, such as family and friends. Compare these emotions
with how we might look on the actions and behaviours of nonnationals: puzzlement, incredulity, surprise, sure, but not generally
pride or shame.44 This is surely because that – at least to some
degree – we are more emotionally tied to co-nationals than nonnationals. Once again this points towards their being a stronger rather
than a weaker commitment between co-nationals than Goodin is
prepared to admit. This is not to say that the welfare of co-nationals
should always override the welfare of non-nationals; such a position
is that of the hard-line nationalist rather than that of the liberal
nationalist. In the latter interpretation, claims by co-nationals compete
with other claims that often contradict or cut-across these, for the
simple reason that national solidarity is typically only one of many
solidarities in which an individual finds themselves entwined.

44

The same point is made by Berlin (see Tamir 1998: 98).

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But there are further problems with Goodin’s account for the
nationalist. Consider the following example. The principle of efficiency
is all well and good where two nations – lets call them nation A and
nation B – are equally efficient in their assignment of special
responsibilities. It is more problematic however where we can
demonstrate that nation A is much more efficient than nation B in
assigning these special duties. In this latter case, on Goodin’s
account it would then make more sense to transfer nation B’s
responsibilities to nation A. Additionally, if we can show that nation B
is in greater need than nation A, then nation A’s primary
responsibilities lies with members of nation B, and not nation A. As
Goodin himself argues, “in the present world system, it is often perhaps ordinarily - wrong to give priority to the claims of our
compatriots” (1989, 686). It’s not hard to see why these conclusions
might be antithetical to nationalism. For instance the liberal nationalist
may counter that the primary responsibility for nationals of nation B
lies not with nation A, but with the co-nationals of nation B. Only if the
co-nationals of nation B refuse, deny or renege on this responsibility
should responsibility then be transferred to nation A. In such a case,
A’s first reaction must be to try and persuade B to recognise their
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responsibilities – only once this position has been exhausted should
A pick up the gauntlet of direct action. It may also be that – even if we
could demonstrate that state A would make a more efficient ruler than
state B – the population of nation B might prefer their own state all
the same.
So it would seem that the universalist wishing to defend
nationalism has nowhere left to go. The conclusion surely is (as
Goodin would no doubt agree) that, “the consistent ethical
universalist should also be a cosmopolitan” (Miller 1999, 79). Having
dismissed attempts to define nationalism in terms of universalism, it is
now time to see if we can fair any better with a particularist
justification.

The particularist account of nationalism
According to Tamir, particularists can point to at least four immediate
advantages that their account of nationalism might be said to provide.
I will also argue that these advantages are not incompatible with the
liberal thesis, although they do imply another kind of justification.
First, particularism allows for relations based on care and cooperation
rather than rational egoism or purely contractual theory. Second, it
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accounts for the intuitive belief that we have special duties to those
we share our lives with. Third, as already discussed, communities
potentially solve the liberal ‘social contract’ conundrum and thereby
allow members to agree on the principles of justice. Finally it is not
necessarily contradictory with the liberals desire for global justice – in
fact liberal nationalism may help to further that cause. As I have
already discussed the point about social contract theory, I will not
elaborate further on this final point. I will however now go on to briefly
examine the three remaining points made by Tamir.
Taking the point about egoism first, in the liberal, quasicontractual view of the world - where communities could be seen as
nothing more than useful tools - it may well prove irrational in some
cases to help people if the same level of help is not already
guaranteed in return (e.g. through some form of insurance policy).
But communities as we actually experience them don’t work like that.
Instead, what we find is more like what Miller terms ‘loose reciprocity’:
“a person who acts to aid some other member of his group can be
sustained by the thought that in different circumstances he might
expect to be the beneficiary of the relationship” (Miller 1999, 67). This
does not suggest that, “such a person will act in order to receive
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some future benefit […] the point is a weaker one: the act of making a
contribution is not a pure loss, from the point of view of the private
person making it, because he is helping to sustain a set of
relationships from which he stands to benefit to some degree” (ibid,
67 my italics). I would argue that this second account is a more
realistic and accurate description of how people actually interact with
each other in communities.
Tamir’s second point deals with special obligations. In Bleak
House, we are appalled by Mrs Jellby’s inclination to care more for
the welfare of the inhabitants of ‘Borrioboola-Gha’ than for the
wellbeing of her own children. 45 This is because there is something
deeply disturbing about someone who neglects their own children in
favour of someone else’s. As Tamir agues, such examples are “not
designed to suggest that we have no obligations to non-members in
need […] rather, they stress our intuitive belief that it is particularly
cruel to overlook the suffering and hardships of those we have a
particular reason to care about – our fellow members” (Tamir 1993:
99). The reason behind this lies in the pronoun ‘my’: they are my
family, my friends, my countrymen; only once the basic obligations to

45

See Chapter Four (entitled ‘Telescopic Philanthropy’) of Bleak House by Charles Dickens.

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them have been fulfilled do the more general obligations to others
apply. This does not imply that my compatriots are better than others.
Rather, as discussed above in the example of obligations between
nation A and nation B, the first responsibility for other compatriots lies
with their fellow compatriots, not me. Only when it can be shown that
they have failed in their duty would such obligations be passed on to
me.
The final point regards that of obligations towards nonmembers. The most important point to be made here is that
nationality is only one of many competing (and often contradictory)
obligations in which people find themselves. Some of these other,
non-national obligations will potentially be trans-national or even
global. As Tamir argues, “if each individual has different circles of
membership, and if there is no one ultimate membership that includes
all others, the distinction between members and non-members
becomes blurred” (Tamir 1993: 114). In other words, those general
obligations to other non-nationals that are not recognised within the
context of a person’s nationality are not necessarily excluded, as they
could easily be picked up within the context of another obligation. By
way of example: as a national of Britain, I may feel inclined to dispose
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some of my money and efforts in the help of fellow Britains; as a
member of Amnesty International I may equally devote other
resources to wherever in the world the current obligation is greatest,
regardless of nationality.
It would seem then that the better explanation of nationalism
rests on ethical particularism, but, as argued above, this is by no
means incompatible with objectives of universalism and the
protection of human rights.

Conclusion
In this chapter I wanted to show how it might be possible to reconcile
nationalism and liberalism from an ethical perspective. Following
Miller, I began by making a distinction between ethical universalism
and ethical particularism. From here I went on to argue that attempts
to justify nationalism on universal grounds – namely voluntary
creation and useful convention – do not work. I then went on to look
at the particularist account of justifying nationality. I argued that not
only did this provide specific advantages to the nationalist, it is also
possible to justify ethical particularism in such a way that it is
compatible with liberal theory. Of course liberals may still suspect that
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there is a deep incompatibility with the particularist account of
nationalism and the more universal (global) desires of liberalism.
Indeed, there is more work to be done within liberal nationalist theory
to show that the inhabitants of such states would not be indifferent to
humanity in general. However, in agreement with Miller, I believe that
the “onus is on the universalist to show that, in widening the scope of
ethical ties to encompass equally the whole of the human species, he
does not also drain them of their binding force” (Miller 1999: 80).
Once again, even on ethical issues, the main challenge comes down
to a question of a lack of unity on the part of traditional liberalism.

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Chapter Four: Nationalism and Multiculturalism
Introduction
Cultural diversity actually needs a concept of what is common
to all the cultures in a given society in order for each individual
culture to recognise itself as different in the first place.
Anshuman Mondal 2004
So far then I have hopefully shown that the support and promotion of
a common national identity and a set of common values – in other
words liberal nationalism - can be of real value to the liberal cause. I
now want to move on to answer the charge that such an approach
runs counter to the liberal ideal of respecting diversity and is therefore
‘imperialistic’. However I want to demonstrate that the opposite is in
fact true, namely that liberal nationalism is a necessary condition for
any sustainable policy of diversity; pursuing a policy of unchecked
multiculturalism runs the risk of undermining the unity necessary for
the survival of liberal states, and without the protection of the liberal
state, there can be no diversity. I will argue and hopefully
demonstrate that liberal nationalism might help both the liberal state
and the demands of various competing cultures to come to terms with

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each other by providing a flexible middle ground on which they can
meet.

Liberal States and Multiculturalism
The question is not whether one wants to be a multiculturalist at
all, but the kind of multiculturalist one wants to be.
(Miller 1999: 131)
Although the term ‘multiculturalism’ is relatively new (it first appeared
in 1957), the appreciation of cultural and social diversity has been
part of liberal theory since its inception (Weinstock 2002, 241). What
is new however is the sheer scale and breadth of diversity in many
modern societies. Diverse group identities may arise from any one of
a multitude of different causes, such as immigration, asylum,
colonisation, state formation, religious beliefs, sexual orientation,
slavery, ethnicity and lifestyle choices (to name but a few). Neither do
these groups represent a homogenous set of members, but tend
instead to “exhibit the same sorts of cleavages in political views and
personal lifestyles as the larger society” (Kymlicka 2002, 331). To
complicate the picture further still, many states contain not one but
several distinct national identities within their borders. All told, such a
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fragmented picture of society presents significant challenges to the
established political, social and institutional orders of liberal states. As
a result of these challenges, the concept and policy of
‘multiculturalism’ has been adopted by a number of liberal states as a
way of tackling these issues.
But this is where the recent tensions between liberalism and
multiculturalism begin. If multiculturalism means “the policy or
process whereby the distinctive identities of the cultural groups within
a [multicultural] society are maintained or supported” (OED), then this
policy has recently fallen on hard times.46 For instance, one way of
‘maintaining and supporting’ different cultural groups is to grant them
what Young calls ‘group differentiated citizenship’ (2003a: 223) - in
other words, rights which are based on groups as opposed to
individuals. Such policies have resulted in very concrete distinctions
being drawn between members of different groups. To take an
example from Britain: Sikhs are currently exempted from the Criminal
Justice Act of 1988 that prevents the carrying of knives in public
46

In Britain for example, Trevor Phillips (the current chair of the Commission for Racial Equality and the
successor of Bhikhu Parekh) has recently overturned thirty years of British multicultural policy and called
for the term to be scrapped. He goes on to argue that, “the word is not useful, it means the wrong things. [It]
suggests separateness. What we should be talking about is how we reach an integrated society, one in which
people are equal under the law, where there are some common values” (Baldwin 2004: 3). In a separate
article, Neil Ascherson claims that multiculturalism is “not a permanent condition” but rather it is a “waystation” to something else: hybridity - a “new kind of urban society which is neither a bouquet of
contrasting cultures nor the adoption of the patterns of the old indigenous majority, but a fresh
synthesis” (2004: 103).

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spaces so that they can carry a kirpan (a religiously symbolic sword
or dagger). Barry calls this the ‘rules-and-exemption approach’ to the
political challenges of multicultural societies (2003a: 249). But how
does the granting of such rights fit with the central tenets of
liberalism, namely that of universal citizenship and equal rights?
While some liberals have argued that (in certain circumstances) the
granting of group rights is supported by liberalism (Kymlicka 2004),
others (Barry 2003a) have argued that such moves contravene the
basic essence of liberalism. From the non-liberal side, some
commentators (Young 1989, Franklin 2002) argue for a more radical
form of multiculturalism, and suggest that in the battle for social
justice for discriminated groups, ‘difference blind’ liberalism simply
isn’t up to the job; while still others (Scruton 1990) offer a form of
‘conservative nationalism’ that is fundamentally opposed to any kind
of multiculturalism at all.
Clearly, there are a lot of opposing issues and concerns
between liberals, nationalists, and multiculturalists, and there is no
room to explore all of the challenges here. Instead, I will limit my
argument to exploring ways in which liberal nationalism might provide
the middle ground on which at least some of the demands from all of
Michael Taylor, A857 TMA05, W0623315 Page 103 of 122

these competing theories could be partially met. But first I will argue
that both ‘radical multiculturalism’ and ‘conservative nationalism’ rest
on the same false premise about the nature of communities and
groups - namely that they are immutable.

Cultural Dynamics
Conservative nationalists tend to see in the claims of minority groups
a threat to the established order of the national community, and as
such they are a subversive, destabilising force. Equally, radical
multiculturalists often treat the claims of minority groups as
unassailable; because the rights of the group are being suppressed
by the dominant culture, then the dominant culture must
accommodate the claims on the grounds of respecting diversity, even
if these claims occasionally run counter to liberal values. However
both of these approaches rest on false premises, namely that cultures
are unchanging entities cast in stone, and therefore immune to critical
assessment or re-evaluation. But this is to ignore the simple fact that
the nature of communities, large or small, is not static but dynamic.
Within the liberal context, claims for change should work both ways:
national identities should be willing (over time) to make concessions
Michael Taylor, A857 TMA05, W0623315 Page 104 of 122

to various group claims, while at the same time groups must
recognise the need for a common set of values to underpin social
unity, and be prepared to make some adjustments accordingly. As
such this approach has more in common with a policy of partial
integration than radical assimilation. It is also worth noting that
change is vital, and that any attempt to capture a culture in amber
and preserve it is doomed to pursue a course of both increasing
totalitarianism and certain failure. As Burke said, “a state without the
means of some change is without the means of its conservation”.47
So how does liberal nationalism fit into this complex picture? To
pursue a course of unchecked multiculturalism is a certain recipe for
the dissolution of both state and nation because it is a solvent of
unity. At the same time the national story must be open to revision if it
is to respect the demands of competing cultures. I would suggest that
this is precisely what liberal nationalism can achieve. As Jonathon
Sacks has argued:
We each have to be bilingual. There is a first and public
language of citizenship which we have to learn if we are to live
together […] the more plural a society we become, the more we

47

Quoted by Gordon Brown (Brown 2004).

Michael Taylor, A857 TMA05, W0623315 Page 105 of 122

need to reflect on what holds us together. If we only have our
second language, the language of the group, we have no
resource for understanding why none of our several aspirations
can be met in full and why we must restrain ourselves to leave
space for other groups.48
Miller argues that, “the first language cannot simply be a language of
abstract rights: it must be the language of the national culture” (Miller
1999: 138). As already argued, the national culture must be as thinly
defined as possible in order to make room for as many
comprehensive conceptions of the good as possible. Without a ‘first
language’ there is a danger of developing a society along the lines of
what Amartya Sen has called ‘plural monoculturalism’ (Sen: 2006). A
further advantage of the first language is that it also allows room for
complex, multi-national identities, such as British-English, IrishAmerican and the like.
But isn’t there still a problem with nationalism? Isn’t it still true
that the nature of national identity is exclusive? And isn’t a state
which promotes a single national culture guilty of overriding the liberal

48

Quoted by Miller (see Miller 1999: 138).

Michael Taylor, A857 TMA05, W0623315 Page 106 of 122

principle that all cultures should be given equal respect? I will now go
on to briefly discuss these two issues.

Inclusive and Exclusive Membership
It should be an obvious conclusion that the crass definitions of
nationalism that rely on a single factor to determine those who are
‘in’ and those who are ‘out’ are exclusive in nature and wholly
incompatible with even a moderate version of multiculturalism.49
However, constructed correctly, liberal nationalism can not only make
room for more complex responses to questions about identity than
the simplistic either/or model allows, it can also allow room for
multicultural demands.
In defining a more liberal form of national identity we must do
away with the ‘tidy minded’, black and white approach to defining who
is and who is not a member of any given nation. In other words, being
a member of a nation should not be about checking items off on a
shopping list, where finding that you’re missing any single item
implies that you’re disqualified. Instead, liberal definitions do better to
draw on something similar to Wittgenstein’s concept of ‘family
49

I’m thinking here of Norman Tebbit’s infamous ‘cricket test’ approach to deciding nationality.

Michael Taylor, A857 TMA05, W0623315 Page 107 of 122

resemblances’.50 This theory states that “objects denoted by a term
may be tied together not by one common property, but by a network
of resemblances”.51 Unlike families however, the rattle bag of
interconnected characteristics that go towards making up a national
identity are not genetic or ethnic, but cultural.52 In this sense then, it is
not that a people share a single common attribute that identifies them
as a member of a certain nation, but rather that a people share in a
common set of attributes. This is an important distinction: the first is a
means of excluding people (or, from a coercive angle, of assimilating
them); the latter is a means of accommodating people (or integrating
them). In short, having such ‘cultural resemblances’ means that the
people who inhabit a society can recognise in each other certain
common, cultural features which they share, while at the same time
making allowances for the fact that a variety of different perspectives
and interpretations are inevitable. And it is precisely this recognition

50

Miller makes the same point, but uses Wittgenstein’s analogy of the rope instead (see Miller 1999: 27).

51

Taken from Blackburn 1996.

52

It is interesting to note that some commentators still insist that the terms ‘ethnicity’ and ‘culture’ refer to
the same thing. Gilroy is wrong to assume that the debate on diversity started by Goodhart is hinged on
ethnicity (or more confrontationally, racism), and not culture. Lentin makes the same mistake when she
argues that, “It is taken for granted that the concept of multiculturalism refers to the struggle of minority
ethnic groups for recognition of their cultural diversity in western societies” (Lentin 2004). Gellner makes a
similar mistake (see Miller 1999: 21). But such a definition, because it blurs the distinction between
ethnicity and culture, misses the point. There is no reason to suppose that a culture should not by polyethnic, as indeed many are - such as in the case of most national cultures.

Michael Taylor, A857 TMA05, W0623315 Page 108 of 122

that helps to support the social cohesion liberal states are more often
than not lacking.

The Need for a Common Set of Values
I have argued throughout this essay that a liberal state which
promotes a single national idea and its associated values is not
exclusive or imperialist. Whilst it does ask for some concessions from
minority groups – in that they must ‘buy in’ to some common values
associated with the dominant culture – it does not ask them to do this
in a way that forces them into a position of total assimilation. Within
liberal nationalism, the national idea is ‘thin’ enough to allow for more
fully comprehensive conceptions of the good to be built on top of it.
This not only has the advantage of allowing minority groups a ‘way
in’ to the dominant culture, liberal nationalism can also function as a
‘gateway’ between different conceptions of the good. Radical
multiculturalists should, I think, accept this point. As Munira Mirza has
argued:
There was a rejection of the idea of a coherent universal
narrative, or a set of values applicable to everyone. This was
claimed to be exclusive on the grounds that it excludes
Michael Taylor, A857 TMA05, W0623315 Page 109 of 122

minorities. That kind of identity politics is about affirming people
and making them feel valued on the basis of their difference.
This in turn leads to diversity training and the proposition that
people in the workplace need to feel valued and respected
because of their difference. The argument is that you can train
people to respect other people because of this difference.
However, I would argue that this emphasis on difference is
actually more divisive because it says to people that they can't
have anything in common with the person next to them and that
they can't overcome the kind of cultural and ethnic background
that they have. It constantly emphasises to an individual that he
or she is a minority and does not share the same values of
others.

Michael Taylor, A857 TMA05, W0623315 Page 110 of 122

Conclusion
I began this chapter by exploring the policy of multiculturalism and
how this could conflict with liberal theory. I then went on to argue that
the policy of radical multiculturalism is incompatible with a sustainable
liberal state. Instead we should be looking to explore issues of
diversity within a common framework, and that common framework is
a national idea. Indeed, the final stop of radical multiculturalism may
be the state of affairs outlined by Ferdinand Mount. Quoting England
as an example, Mount argued that the country could become, “one
giant cultural mall in which we would all wander, free to chose from a
variety of equally valuable lifestyles, to take back and exchange
purchases when not given satisfaction or simply to window shop”. 53 I
concluded that the promotion of a common set of values is not
imperialistic or repressive with regard to minority groups; rather that
such a state of affairs helps to provide a stable building block for a
variety of competing comprehensive conceptions of the good, which
in turn yield a stable infrastructure within which cultural diversity can
flourish.

53

Quoted by Gordon Brown in his address at the British Council Annual Lecture (see Brown 2004).

Michael Taylor, A857 TMA05, W0623315 Page 111 of 122

Conclusion: Beyond Neutrality

In this essay I have tried to argue that the liberal dependence on
political solidarity alone is insufficient for a sustainable liberal state.
As such, given the current magnitude of the liberal crisis and the
associated problems of unity and legitimacy, there is I believe an
urgent need for liberal states to cross the threshold and go ‘beyond
neutrality’ in order to re-establish the commitments of their citizens.
For liberals this means accepting the findings of the theory of liberal
nationalism and promoting and supporting a more fraternal sentiment
among co-nationals, one which is built on both political and social
unity. The stakes are high: the failure of liberal states to engage in
these issues is potentially catastrophic. Warning shots are already
being fired:
I think the [7/7] terrorists were looking for meaning too. They
can't find it here; being British is so discredited in this country
that they look for that identity elsewhere. But the most
compelling thing about the al-Qaeda identity is its victimhood
status; it is the ultimate logic of multiculturalism, with its claim
that it represents an oppressed minority.
Michael Taylor, A857 TMA05, W0623315 Page 112 of 122

Munira Mirza 2005
What liberal states need is akin to something Etzioni has called
‘diversity within unity’. National unity allows us to feel that we are part
of the same team, without necessarily signing up to or agreeing on
every principle: even within a team there can be a dispute about the
right tactics to employ.
I have hopefully shown why the concept of liberal nationalism is
worth defending (because it helps support social cohesion), and how
such an account of nationalism might sit with the principles of
liberalism and the liberal state. I have argued that, rather than
undermining liberal values, liberal nationalism actually underpins
them. From here I have looked at my account might be justified
ethically (particularism). I then went on to discuss the associated
concept of multiculturalism, and suggested that liberal nationalism
might provide the middle ground between liberalism and
multiculturalism, and as such provide the groundwork for a
sustainable policy of diversity. The conclusion is that if social
cohesion matters, then so does the concept of liberal nationalism;
liberal states should be looking to adopt progressive, liberal versions
of nationalism before the pressures of finding ways of living together
Michael Taylor, A857 TMA05, W0623315 Page 113 of 122

makes us come unstuck, leaving the back door open to nationalism of
more extreme forms. As such, nationalism becomes a necessary
prejudice, without which our “tolerance is left unguarded by
conviction, and falls prey to the ever vigilant schemes of the
fanatic” (Scruton 1990, 273).

Michael Taylor, A857 TMA05, W0623315 Page 114 of 122

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