Adrian Hastings
A reply to Hobsbawm


NOTE: Adrian Hastings is an Emeritus Professor of Theology at the University of Leeds. He is author of a number of books, including The Construction of Nationhood which is quoted from below. This book represents a direct reply to Eric Hobsbawm and is based on a series of Wiles Lectures which Hastings delivered in Belfast in May 1996. (Interestingly, Hobsbawm's Nations and Nationalism since 1780 is based on a series of Wiles Lectures which he delivered in May 1985.)


Let me begin by briefly setting out my central theses, themes to which we will return from one angle or another again and again.

  1. For the development of nationhood from one or more ethnicities, by far the most important and widely present factor is that of an extensively used vernacular literature. A long struggle against an external threat may also have a significant effect as, in some circumstances, does state formation, though the latter may well have no national effect whatever elsewhere. A nation may precede or follow a state of its own but it is certainly assisted by it to a greater self-consciousness. Most such developments are stimulated by the ideal of a nation-state and of the world as a society of nations originally 'imagined', if you like the word, through the mirror of the Bible, Europe's primary textbook, but turned into a formal political philosophy no earlier than the nineteenth century and then next to canonised by President Woodrow Wilson and the Versailles peace settlement of 1920.

  2. An ethnicity is a group of people with a shared cultural identity and spoken language. It constitutes the major distinguishing element in all pre-national societies, but may survive as a strong subdivision with a loyalty of its own within established nations.

  3. A nation is a far more self-conscious community than an ethniclty. Formed from one or more ethnicities, and normally identified by a literature of its own, it possesses or claims the right to political identity and autonomy as a people, together with the control of specific territory, comparable to that of biblical Israel and of other independent entities in a world thought of as one of nation-states.

  4. A nation-state is a state which identifies itself in terms of one specific nation whose people are not seen simply as 'subjects' of the sovereign but as a horizontally bonded society to whom the state in a sense belongs. There is thus an identity of character between state and people. In some way the state's sovereignty is inherent within the people, expressive of its historic identity. In it, ideally, there is a basic equivalence between the borders and character of the political unit upon the one hand and a selfconscious cultural community on the other. In most cases this is a dream as much as a reality. Most nation-states in fact include groups of people who do not belong to its core culture or feel themselves to be part of a nation so defined. Nevertheless almost all modern states act on the bland assumption that they are nation-states.

  5. 'Nationalism' means two things: a theory and a practice. As a political theory - that each 'nation' should have its own 'state' - it derives from the nineteenth century. However, that general principle motivates few nationalists. In practice nationalism is strong only in particularist terms, deriving from the belief that one's own ethnic or national tradition is especially valuable and needs to be defended at almost any cost through creation or extension of its own nation-state. If nationalism became theoretically central to western political thinking in the nineteenth century, it existed as a powerful reality in some places long before that. As something which can empower large numbers of ordinary people, nationalism is a movement which seeks to provide a state for a given 'nation' or further to advance the supposed interests of its own 'nation-state' regardless of other considerations. It arises chiefly where and when a particular ethnicity or nation feels itself threatened in regard to its own proper character, extent or importance, either by external attack or by the state system of which it has hitherto formed part; but nationalism can also be stoked up to fuel the expansionist imperialism of a powerful nation-state, though this is still likely to be done under the guise of an imagined threat or grievance.

  6. Religion is an integral element of many cultures, most ethnicities and some states. The Bible provided, for the Christian world at least, the original model of the nation. Without it and its Christian interpretation and implementation, it is arguable that nations and nationalism, as we know them, could never have existed. Moreover, religion has produced the dominant character of some state-shaped nations and of some nationalisms. Biblical Christianity both undergirds the cultural and political world out of which the phenomena of nationhood and nationalism as a whole developed and in a number of important cases provided a crucial ingredient for the particular history of both nations and nationalisms.

I will be suggesting that England presents the prototype of both a nation and a nation-state in the fullest sense, that its national development, while not wholly uncomparable with that of other Atlantic coastal societies, does precede every other - both in the date at which it can fairly be detected and in the roundness that it achieved centuries before the eighteenth. It most clearly manifests, in the pre- Enlightenment era, almost every appropriate 'national' characteristic. Indeed it does more than 'manifest' the nature of a nation, it establishes it. In the words of a very recent writer, Liah Greenfeld, 'The birth of the English nation was not the birth of a nation, it was the birth of the nations, the birth of nationalism.' Moreover, its importance for us lies too both in its relationship with religion and in the precise impact of English nationalism on its neighbours and colonies. Much of this, I will be claiming, was detectable already in Saxon times by the end of the tenth century. Despite the, often exaggerated, counter-action of the Norman Conquest, an English nation-state survived 1066, grew fairly steadily in the strength of its national consciousness through the later twelfth and thirteenth centuries, but emerged still more vociferously with its vernacular literary renaissance and the pressures of the Hundred Years War by the end of the fourteenth. Nevertheless the greatest intensity of its nationalist experience together with its overseas impact must undoubtedly be located in and after the late sixteenth century.

I will argue that there appears to be no comparable case in Europe and that it was this English model, wholly preceding the late eighteenth century, in which this sort of process is held by modernist theory to find its roots, which was then re-employed, remarkably little changed, in America and elsewhere. I will not suggest that English nationalism preceded an English nationhood. On the contrary. However English nationalism of a sort was present already in the fourteenth century in the long wars with France and still more in the sixteenth and seventeenth. Indeed, without the impact of English nationalism, the history of England's neighbours seems virtually unintelligible.

Hastings, Adrian. The Construction of Nationhood: Ethnicity, Religion and Nationalism. Cambridge and New York: Cambridge University Press, 1997. pp. 2-5.