Nationhood is not dead. It's thriving


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No one watching the victorious Spanish football team arriving at Madrid airport yesterday could be in any doubt about the boost such a sporting victory gives a nation. Everyone beamed from ear to ear, even those who seemed to be trying hard not to. Those not in national strip, including many whose playing days were clearly long over, almost burst with pride as they walked along.

But you didn't have to be there, or even to watch the return on television, to appreciate the effects of such national success. Travelling across London on Sunday evening was a colourful experience. I had to thread my way through groups of young people, big and small, decked out in red and yellow, and other groups of all ages clad in bright orange. They were shouting and laughing and mostly sober. By the time I reached home, the match was well underway, with the Dutch team resplendent from head to foot in the same age-old orange. The Spanish wore their dark strip, but at least even I was able to tell one team from the other.

Since satellite technology facilitated live global broadcasting, each World Cup has produced small-scale reflections of the matches on London streets, as the many diasporas descend to celebrate victory or mourn defeat. The most memorable shows of allegiance were in 2002, when the time difference with Korea brought a good-humoured relay of mini-armies to Trafalgar Square from early morning to claim their vicarious lap of honour.

This year, I dare say, the divide was as great as ever between the real sports enthusiasts and the rather less engaged spectators like me – for whom style meant not ball-skills, but the rather gorgeous socks displayed, all too briefly, by France, and post-match analysis meant vague musings about geopolitics (rather than the intricacies of off-side). But if I still need to mug up on my goal-line technology, I don't think football aficionados should knock geopolitics either.

What of the irony that took the Netherlands – almost the only nation whose fans would understand Afrikaans – to the final in post-apartheid South Africa? What of another irony, that the Dutch and the Spanish should contest this year's final, after their mutual history of protracted wars? With the difference that this time the Spanish won. I would also note that when this war finally ended in 1648, it was resolved in the Treaty of Westphalia, which is widely seen as establishing the pre-eminence of the nation-state.

The perfect world is often regarded as one where all national borders have vanished and all national identities are subsumed into a common humanity. Some see the European Union and the United States as prototypes tending in that direction. That's not how I see it. All my travels, all the post-Cold War border changes and, on a small scale, all the positive effects of British devolution suggest to me that the nation, and the nation-state, will not be so easily erased. The EU has tamed, but will not destroy, the Westphalian system, nor does it have to. Big or small, the nation is thriving. And I rather suspect that, for a few more days at least, the Spanish would not have it any other way.

A toxic confusion of genius and the law

The US request to extradite Roman Polanski aroused ferocious emotions, as will the Swiss decision to refuse it. On the one side, a vast congregation of artists and film people argued that genius was entitled to play by other rules. On the other side, supporting the US authorities, were those who insisted that everyone, genius or not, must face the consequences of their actions.

I fall into neither camp. I do not believe that genius, however great, absolves anyone of legal or moral responsibility for what they do. But I absolutely support the Swiss in their refusal to deliver up Polanski. Why? First, because the charges go back more than 30 years; even in the morally conservative United States, the 1970s were different times. Second, because his conviction, for unlawful sex (with a 13-year-old), was part of a plea-bargain – an aspect of the US court system that does justice no favours. It allows serious criminals to accept a lesser charge so the prosecution can secure a conviction, while encouraging the innocent to admit guilt to get everything over with. I don't know which category, if either, covers Polanski. What I do know is that this is an iniquitous system that, alas, is gaining ground here. And third, as I understand it, Polanski had a certain reputation. The charges were brought after a photo-shoot. It is not to blame the 13-year-old to ask how it was that she came into his company and who was responsible for her at the time.

The Swiss rejected the US extradition request on the technical grounds that information about Polanski's sentencing was incomplete. The only question I have is why it took them so long to make up their mind.

Time to add a fourth French virtue

Tomorrow the French will celebrate Bastille Day, without – for austerity reasons – the usual big party at the Elysée, but with the probably much more expensive military parade that precedes it. As always, there will be much self-congratulatory talk of Liberté, Egalité and Fraternité. In France recently, however, I found a fourth French virtue that austerity was bringing to the fore. Visiting the open-day at a favourite vineyard, we were greeted and praised for our fidelité. We were paid the same compliment at a hotel we returned to, where the proprietors regretted that dinner would be a little late, as they had had to go to town to sign all the documents to transfer ownership. Monsieur had a heart complaint and they had decided, regretfully, to retire. Fidelité might not seem an obviously French virtue when it relates to romance. When it means loyalty in a broader sense, it undoubtedly is.

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