Revisiting Nairn’s Break-Up: What It Got Right and Wrong and Why It Still Matters
Review of Tom Nairn, The Break-Up of Britain: Crisis and Neo-nationalism, New Left Books; Verso Books 2021 edition.
At the end of the original edition of The Break-Up of Britain Tom Nairn’s thesis stands exhausted and staggering, one eye closed, lip swollen, breathing laboured. His final stab that perhaps the UK could have “a Yugoslav resolution not a Habsburg one” – and that as a good thing – is so far off what came after that it would it take only one last touch of a feather to put him on the canvass for the count. But, as the old saw has it, you should see the other guy.
The Break Up of Britain (boldly sans question mark) was a tremendous act of brush clearing, under the jungle of 1970s politics there were the ruins of an c waiting to be put on show in its crumbling glory. Most of the book is taken up fighting demons who have long since left the world – the deterministic primacy of class – a view shared between the children of the 2nd, 3rd and 4th internationals equally.
So much has changed since this book was first published. The total collapse of the old left-wing nostrums of the state running the commanding heights of the economy, a transformation of the mechanisms that make nationalism within states.
It was universally held that the revolutions of 1848, the old spring time of nations, the bourgeois revolutions, had been but an amuse-bouche for the main course – their time was gone. And then came 1989 when, mirabile dictu, it turns out that Poles quite fancied being Poles and Lithuanians, Lithuanians. And now, competing nationalisms define the UK.
Brexit and the Nairn-Anderson Theses
The celebrated Nairn-Anderson theses laid out that the core crisis of the British state was a constitutional one – that the UK had benefited from being the first state into modernity and had never internalised a process of adapting that state to the modern world. New institutional forms were extruded under pressure, but in a mixture, a matrix of archaisms. Adult suffrage and the Privy Council, parliamentary sovereignty, the Crown and the Crown-In-Parliament. Political instruments from the millennium-before-last, the Norman Orders-In-Council disguised as modern things with a ‘new’ name – Henry VIII powers.
In the UK in A Changing Europe Brexit Tory former minister Owen Paterson describes the Brexit trap the UK is caught in perfectly: “It was a decisive sovereign moment when Parliament, which was elected as a sovereign body, said it would give sovereign power, for a day, to the people to decide this massive question.”
Unfortunately, the people, having been given sovereignty, are not minded to give it back. Indeed the majority of the population believed they were already sovereign. The cry goes up “but they work for us” that goes up and again when the privileges and pomp of parliamentary sovereignty turn out to be venal turns. The reality is that the cat is out of the bag, 1848 meets the UK constitution – and the question of popular sovereignty remains. It is difficult to see how the circle can be squared. A new constitution requires the assent of ‘the people’ but which people? and what assent?
The nostrum that the British people were sovereign in 2016, and the Northern Irish too in 1973, 1975 and 1998; where the Scots and Welsh magically in retrospect weren’t in 1979, 1997 and 2011 or 2014 is bandied about in Westminster as if it matters.
Would a new constituted Union require the consent of all the four nations, or merely a majority of individual voters? Would it include a right to leave – as is guaranteed to Northern Ireland in the GFA? And on what basis? Who would write the constitution and who could summon them to do so? Where stands the Royal Family and the Lords? Its circles unsquared all round.
The Brexit process itself – the long years of wrangling in parliament was extraordinary. Nominally the UK constitution works in a straightforward way. The Government has a monopoly on legislation – the Parliament can only accept, reject, or amend and never, with minor exceptions, propose. During the Brexit debates the Parliament, by simple vote, took on the power to originate legislation. This is not a transformation from a caterpillar to a butterfly, but a cat into a dolphin and back.
The UK has been subject to a magic show of non-stick constitutionalism. Constitutional scholars differentiate between formal constitutional elements and norms. In the US Trump’s assault on democracy was preceded by two years of the erosion of norms – refusing confirmation of the opposition’s Supreme Court nominees, expanding the use of the filibuster, and gerrymandering. Trump was ultimately ejected by formal constitutional means but did fundamental damage on the way.
At the core of UK politics is that, at root, the constitution consists mostly of norms and only partly of formal constitutional elements. The UK is aconstitutional, not because it lacks a constitution but because it lacks a mechanism to change, and lacked a language to describe it.
We see this in the welter of constitutional change: EVEL is pronounced by Cameron and renounced by Gove. There used to be a fundamental core of the constitution – that servants of the crown cannot sit in Parliament. Having lost his Chief of Staff, a person previously clearly holding post as a crown servant, and unable to source another one, Johnson appoints an MP and Minister.
How the UK has changed
The nationalist palette of the old UK of GB & I has changed out of all recognition. The Irish Republic was once the catch-up kid, trailing in London and Belfast’s wake, no more. Scotland longs to be a normal country – in or out of the UK. Brexit has transformed the imagined community of the UK into retrofuturism – cosplaying the Corn Law League in a world in which tariffs have been mostly eliminated in the last 50 years – blissfully unaware of non-tariff barriers to trade.
Nairn’s analysis of the history of Ireland, north and south, remains pertinent, but transformed. A northern industrial society organised in defence of “the great industrial triangle of the Mersey, the Clyde and the Lagan” versus an agricultural society trying to modernise the old administrative city-state of Dublin.
The dynamic is now reversed, Dublin is the modern International city and Belfast the backwater; the Northern Ireland Agreement now offers the Northern bourgeoisie escape from a parochial Brexit state. But resolution remains elusive. A 26 county meatloaf republic – they would do anything for a 32 county republic but they won’t do that – that being that which is required to make it a warm home for a million Protestants, some armed.
Close your eyes and you might believe Hugh MacDiarmid was writing of the Brexiteers, the British nationalists:
And O! To think that there are members o’
St Andrew’s societies sleepin’ soon’,
Wha to the papers wrote afore they bedded
On regimental buttons or buckled shoon,
Or use o’ England whaur the U.K.’s meent,
Or this or that anent the Blue Saltire,
Recruitin’, pedigrees, and Gude kens what,
Filled wi’ a proper patriotic fire!
Brexit too is a bourach. The northern English looking at their potholed roads and smashed high streets, or good trains that go south to London and shite trains that run East-West are rightly angry and nostalgic for a 60s, 70s and 80s when it wasn’t like this.
The Westminster Brexiteers dream of a world power reborn – a dream popped irreversibly by the Ukrainian War. Famously the UK was a co-signatory of the Budapest Agreement that guaranteed Ukrainian integrity. A co-signatory with fellow nuclear Security Council members the US and Russia. Wither Budapest now?
Westminster constitutional politics is replaying the 1970s. The echt Ukanian response to a crisis is to rummage through the cupboard and make do. When the parliament at Stormont was collapsed instead of taking stock, understanding the consequences and acting on them, Westminster jury rigged the old Privy Council. Northern Ireland still got its Queen’s Speech, its 25 bills a year. Except instead of going through a parliamentary process, nearly all of them were taken as decrees under Order In Council with the merest parliamentary oversight.
The process of running two-parliaments-in-one sort of, half-worked, so why not reprise it for the successor to the European Parliament? What could go wrong with running a parliament-by-decree over a devolved state inside the British/English hybrid parliament? English Minsters using decrees to make pan-UK decisions whilst wearing the UK ministerial hats over the heads of their devolved colleagues won’t be stable.
How nationalism has changed since then
The fundamental basis of the means of production have changed too, in ways unforeseeable in 1979 – the shift from a physical to a digital economy is a fundamental shift to cultural (and hence national, or post-national) production. The old production of culture, the boundaries of which defined the classic age of nations, is over. There is no national press, nor national literature, nor national television. Digital goods fly over physical borders. The Anglosphere is a thing, and not on the lines of Churchill’s History Of The English Speaking People or CANZUK right-wing fantasists.
But in the age since the book was Britain the mechanisms for the creation of nationalisms have in themselves undergone massive structural transformation. The old Andersonian notions that institutions and borders are the key to communities imagining themselves has changed. A body of people reading from the same newspapers, watching amongst themselves the same TV listening among the same radio stations – and speaking the same language – has changed.
Much of the old nostrums of nationalism related to creating monolithic language communities – Magyarisation means speaking Hungarian – and blocking foreign news from national minorities crossing disputed borders. The internet has upturned all that. English is a Kunstsprache for many native speakers of other languages, the Anglosphere has been reborn as American media pours out into the UK, Canada and Australia.
New communities have been imagined, taking on some of the symbolic attributes of statehood, the gay rights flag, various trans flags fly alongside each other and national, regional and local symbols. The old age of nationalism – the notion of one people in one state, of cities consisting of people of one nationality – is also over. Nationalism in Europe was a struggle for control of a literate state by communities that spoke, or where centred in, different languages and religions.
Brexit has quickened the pulse. Things that were previously unsaid are now insisted upon, immigration is good, the EU as a institution of nation-states is important. The Ukrainian war, and the threat of Trump redux will result in stronger European institutions excluding the UK.
The great multi-lingual cities of the past were winnowed out, and a monotone world was created by networks of borders and passports – in Europe. In Africa where state boundaries but not national ones were established cities remained as they used to be in Europe, and as they are now returning. The European ethnic empires, empowered for their great effervescence in the late 19th century by their singular control of modern armaments brought themselves to a bloodbath when the scramble for African became the scramble for Alsace.
As soon as the Europeans relaxed their border controls, the human impulse, to wander, to run away, kicked in and European cities rediscovered their human variety – multi-national, multi-lingual and usually embedded in a monocultural rural matrix.
When the vector of modernisation was education and literacy then control of education and cultural production was the site of the core political struggle. Men in tweed didn’t dig up old graves and assign the bones and artefacts they contained to the birth of their political tradition irrationally but to own and control the road to modernity, to make them, their people, their language, their state the nucleus of modernisation.
In a world of near universal literacy this imperative slackens – the two faces of nationalism start to separate out. We are seeing the bare outlines of the post-national world emerging. The African Union is finding its way to a single African market with freedom of movement. Africa has mostly jumped over the one-people-one-state stage of history.
In Scotland the task of separating political from national rights has begun with voting rights being granted to all legal residents (including asylum seekers) – setting a new bar as the UK regresses and pulls political rights from EU citizens.
The EU model represents a rejig of traditional notions of separation of powers – a political tradition that is old an ancient, from the Spartan Dyarchy to the Roman Republic (and are prevalent in other political cultures around the world).
The European institutions take their architecture from the old European Coal and Steel Community – a body set up in response to the German rearmament crisis. A set of institutions that are based on distrust of all against all. In 1948 the French didn’t trust the Germans and the Germans didn’t trust the French. With the slow accretion of legal apparatus we now use the European framework to cheerfully not trust our own governments. It was a European Court the ended torture in the UK with the Hooded Men case and not the native legal establishment.
The next stage of evolution is the full expression of national and cultural rights disconnected from political ones. For a family to choose to have a French education while watching Finnish television and paying their council tax in Spanish in Scotland.
The Break Up of Britain will be remembered as the book that taught us to take nationalism seriously, to take constitutionalism seriously and to think institutionally.