Two principal propositions regarding nationalism and ethnicity, which arise from the discussion so far, are advanced in this chapter. The first is that the contemporary expression or resurgence of ethnicity, as the preferred form of community existence, marks a decisively new stage in nationalist doctrine and practice. The second proposition is that whilst no single-variable explanation can wholly account for such complex phenomena as nationalism and ethnicity, their re-awakening (with respect to groups with historic homelands in these islands) or awakening (with respect to recently settled groups) in post-imperial Britain is best explained as part of a much wider questioning of the ways in which power is presently distributed, and the manner in which it is exercised.
Two forms of nationalism
What Hans Kohn, the outstanding historian of European nationalism, called the ‘age of nationalism’ (Kohn, 1961, pp. vii–x) has indeed, in a general sense, come to an end. I would not, however, argue this case on the grounds implied by Kohn – namely, that the war against fascism, which was being fought at the time he was writing these words, would point men and women to the folly which flows from their blind faith in nationalism (see Wolf, 1979). It is not that Hegel's famous aphorism that ‘history teaches that history teaches men nothing’ does not contain a kernel of truth: it is, rather, simply that the social groups, classes, social elements, cliques and other groups contending over political power at any one place or time will use any means at hand to articulate and promote their immediate cause.