There’s no such thing as ‘nation’

I spent yesterday morning watching the funeral of Margaret Thatcher, while sat in a radio studio, commentating for BBC Surrey. My fellow commentator (in a studio in Brighton) was Peter Bruinvels, a former MP and now a Canon.

It would be disingenuous of me to say that I enjoyed the event. On the one hand, I was being asked to provide some political and social context to proceedings, but on the other, I was also being invited (implicitly) to emote with the event and with Thatcher’s passing. As I noted, it’s easy to conflate Thatcher-the-person and Thatcher-the-symbol, especially if one doesn’t think about things in such terms.

What was particularly striking for me though was the imagery of the funeral. With its trappings of a full ceremonial occasion (if not technically a state funeral); its invocations of military precision and martial values (not least in the readings); the recalling of historical antecedents; the (limited) displays of public grief – all of this was a calculated process.

As we know, Thatcher herself had been closely involved in drawing up the plans some years previously – including the wish for no RAF fly-by ‘because of the cost’ – so it is no surprise that it should be so tightly organised. But my impressions went beyond that.

Indeed, it was a comment from Peter that triggered it. As the readings were being made, he said “a nation is united in mourning.”

The first critique – that of unity – is self-evidently incorrect, so I won’t dwell on it. But the second – that of a nation – is perhaps less immediately apparent.

What Peter invokes at that point is a sense that there is a ‘we’, a community bound together by deep bond. Through the funeral of a national figure, we find common cause and understanding: the ceremony itself becomes part of ‘who we are’ and ‘what we are like.’ Peter observed that ‘we do this sort of thing very well’ and I had to agree: as a piece of public ceremony, it is both exemplary and distinctive.

My issue comes before that, in the notion of a nation. Many years ago, I read Benedict Anderson’s excellent Imagined Communities, on the creation of communal identity in the modern world.  It now strikes me as self-evident that I do not actually share any meaningful bond with the rest of ‘my nation’, beyond a common language and some shared cultural experiences.

This is not to say that nations do not exist (just as Thatcher was not saying the society didn’t exist), but rather that they are social and political creations. In a technical sense, they are myths, and Thatcher’s funeral was part of the myth-making: it creates symbols and reference points and stories for us, helping us to understand who we are.

As much as the service talked of Thatcher-as-person, so we have to recognise that yesterday was as much an exercise in building up Thatcher-as-symbol. Even her contestation is part of that: ‘we all have a view about her’, I recall saying at one point – even in challenging her mythologisation I end up contributing to it.