Britain’s future on knife edge in deal talks

Race against time: The UK will crash out of the EU with or without a deal on 1 January

Is the nation state doomed? As the UK hovers on the brink of a no-deal Brexit, some fear it is staking its hopes on an outdated ideal – but others say an independent nation can still thrive.

It’s on every front page. The Guardian says: “Brexit talks hang in the balance”; the Telegraph warns they are “on a knife edge”. The Times thinks this is the “final bid” for a deal, and the Daily Mail is egging them on: “BULLISH BORIS READY TO WALK AWAY”.

It is the last scene of the last act of the top political drama of the past 20 years: Brexit! The Musical (not). But it looks set to end not with a bang but a whimper.

The UK with its 67 million citizens is set to become an independent nation state, free of the regulations of the European Union, a political and economic union of 27 member states comprising 447 million people.

In going it alone, the UK is joining a small club of nation states that shun the sharing of sovereignty. That club is about to get smaller, as Singapore and Australia enter the largest trading bloc ever formed: the RCEP – home to 2.3 billion people.

So it is no surprise that some experts say the day of the nation state is over. Author Rana Dasgupta argues that with the rise of supranational organisations, the power of nation states has dwindled.

He thinks nation states are outdated in a globalised world. At one time, people mostly read news and books and listened to music from their own country, and they would rarely go abroad. But today, travel and the internet let us immerse ourselves in other cultures.

Suddenly, our nation stopped being our whole universe. Some have suggested that people no longer identify with their nation: they instead feel European, or African, or even a citizen of the world.

And he points out that while it might seem universal, in fact the nation state is a recent, European invention. For most of history, the world was ruled by large multinational empires. Only in Europe did states claim total authority over a national territory.

After their empires outside Europe crumbled, it seemed natural to them that their former colonies would also become nation states. But they drew the borders of these new states almost at random, and the people within them did not all feel that they belonged to the same nation.

Many new nation states could only be held together by strongman leaders who robbed people of their rights. Understandably, those citizens now have little interest in keeping the nation state alive.

Yet others think rumours of the nation state’s death are much exaggerated. They point out that the world’s economic powerhouses, the USA, China and India, are all federal nation states.

The nation state has proved remarkably durable in former colonies. When Arab nationalists formed a new political union in 1958, only Egypt and Syria joined, and it quickly collapsed back into independent nations.

And the EU itself is transforming into a similar, vast nation state. It has a central banking system, it offers citizenship to its peoples and it has a judiciary to protect their rights. There is even talk of forming an EU army. Perhaps the nation state is not dead; it is just getting bigger.

So, is the nation state doomed?

State of the nation

Dead as a dodo, say some. In an internationalised world, states cannot hope to retain total sovereignty. Most people are looking beyond the nation. The nation state was a European invention that should not have been imposed on the rest of the world. Now it is past its prime even in its birthplace: most European nations have already joined the EU, and the rest are clamouring at the gates.

Alive and kicking, say others. While many nations have chosen to pool their sovereignty, the UK’s departure from the EU shows they still have the power to withdraw it whenever they like. Most of our rights still come from the nation state, and national allegiance is increasing, not falling. Even if they are not native to Africa and the Middle East, nations here have withstood the test of time.

You Decide

  1. Do you feel like you belong to your nation, first and foremost? Or do you identify more with another group or label?
  2. Is nationalism now an inherently conservative idea? Or can you be a progressive nationalist?


  1. Imagine you have just signed a deal to secure your country’s independence. Write a speech announcing your newfound freedom.
  2. You have been tasked with turning your class into a federation. Each person represents a nation. Think about what powers each individual will get to keep, which ones you will turn over to your federal authority and who will get to wield federal power.

Some People Say...

“I am not an Athenian or a Greek, but a citizen of the world.”

Socrates (c.470 - 399BC), ancient Greek philosopher

What do you think?

Q & A

What do we know?
Most people agree that international cooperation is becoming more and more important. Almost all countries in the world now belong to a trading bloc, and the challenge of climate breakdown is forcing them into more collaboration. In fact, some question how much the UK is likely to become an entirely independent nation after Brexit anyway. It is likely to want a free trade deal with the EU even if it does not agree to one immediately, and it still has close military cooperation with France.
What do we not know?
There is some debate over whether or not there ever really was an “era of the nation state”. For most of its history, Britain was an empire, which worked just like a huge trading bloc. Other European nations also had large empires. Britain entered as the forerunner of the EU and the EEC in 1973, shortly after its empire crumbled. In a sense, the UK is attempting something that has almost never been tried: a small European nation entering the global economy without a bloc behind it.

Word Watch

Not with a bang but a whimper
The last line of T. S. Eliot’s long, fragmentary modernist poem, “The Hollow Men”.
European Union
The world’s largest trading bloc in terms of member states. Its forerunner, the European Coal and Steel Community, was founded in 1952 with just six members.
Nation states
A kind of political structure in which one defined “people” is governed by a single state with a monopoly on political power.
A city-state in South East Asia. Briefly part of a federation with Malaysia, it was expelled in 1965, and has been an independent state ever since.
The Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership. It is a free trade agreement between 15 countries which make up about 30% of the world’s population.
Supranational organisations
Political bodies, like the EU and the UN, that stand above nation states and issue rules to them.
Citizen of the world
A phrase coined by Socrates to express his sense of belonging to all countries, not just his own city of Athens. The same idea was later used by Diogenes, who called himself a “cosmopolitan”, literally a citizen of the universe.
Multinational empires
Huge nations made up of a number of different peoples who may feel no ties towards each other, follow different customs and obey different laws, despite living under the same state. In these states, power was not imposed from above but negotiated between different groups.
A style of leadership in which a head of state, usually a dictator, uses the power of their own personality and the constant threat of force to impose their will on a country.
A federal state is broken into several regions, each of which can govern itself to a certain degree.
Arab nationalists
Believed that Arabs, currently split into 22 different states, form one common nation. Some tried to create political unions of Arab countries with the ultimate aim of uniting them under one state.


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