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.

The future

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.

Comments (8)

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  1. SleepingDog says:

    I am not sure I really follow this article, but the statement on, in “the late 19th century [European empires slaughtered Africans due to the formers’] singular control of modern armaments” seems worth querying. The idea communism created by European Latin-alphabet-printed-book culture spread technological advances which conferred military advantages, but actual battlefield victories were not always between disparately-armed forces.

    When looking for poetic coverage of the Tripartite Invasion of Egypt (aka Suez Crisis) in 1956, I came across not only references to previous British invasion of Egypt in 1882 (something to do with Emily Dickinson?), but specifically a William McGonagall poem fulsomely praising the mass-murderous exploits of Sir Garnet Wolseley and a Highland Brigade at the Battle of Tell El Kebir. Oh dear. Oh dear, oh dear.
    Anyway, according to Wikipedia, the forces had roughly equivalent artillery, and the Egyptians were armed with breech-loading rifles. If I had to guess the reason for many British imperial victories, I would guess that their classical military officer training borrowed from Julius Caesar, who saw no reason to keep his word to barbarians. Likewise, racist British imperial ideologies would have had no hesitation in fighting dirty against ‘savages’ with the impudence to defend their own lands against British aggression. And like the imperial Romans, they were happy to sacrifice as many of their colonial troops as necessary to achieve victory. Interestly, in devoting a whole chapter to the British invasion of Egypt, John Newsinger in The Blood Never Dried: A People’s History of the British Empire (2nd edition, 2013) writes that the House of Commons voted massively for the invasion which ended in the massacre at Tel-el-Kebir, Queen Victoria and Gladstone (who benefited financially) congratulated themselves, but contemporary critics called it a bondholder’s war, apparently vindicated by later research, though the Suez Canal was a strategic element.

    I would suggest sometimes such battles are decided more by luck, and with the advantages of imperial resources and military control of the seas, sometimes the British only needed to be lucky once in a campaign to seize control over the territory they were invading, whereas the defenders had to win every battle to successfully resist (after all, they could not very well capture the British capital).

    If only McGonagall, poet of Empire, Knight of the White Elephant of Burmah, had been more truthful…

    1. 220305 says:

      ‘I am not sure I really follow this article…’

      Basically, what Gordon’s saying is that the UK has an unwritten constitution (a constitution that consists mostly of underdefined conventions rather than hard-and-fast rules and that, as a consequence, evolves more by accident than design) and that this makes it difficult to use the monopoly on violence that is ‘the state’ to modernise our civil society in ways that would conform it to the sort of civil society that emerged in other European countries after the revolutions of 1848.

      This is the thesis that Tom Nairn developed with Perry Anderson in the New Left Review from around 1962. The hope is that, by re-enacting the Springtime of Nations of 1848, Scotland might precipitate the sort of constitutional change that Britain needs to become more Europeanly modern in the institutions of its civil society. It’s a frequent theme in Bella; indeed, it’s one of the distinctive narratives of its civic nationalism.

      1. florian albert says:

        According to your analysis of Tom Nairn’s thinking, the UK’s lack of a written constitution makes it difficult to ‘to use the monopoly on violence that is ‘the state’ to modernise our civil society.’

        Having a written constitution did not protect German civil society from being taken over – and (just about) destroyed by Hitler. The Soviet Union followed up its promulgation of a written constitution in 1936 with the murder of 681,000 of its citizens in the following two years.

        In the 174 years since the 1848 Revolutions, the UK can reasonably claim to have a superior, though far from spotless, record as a civil society – modernized or not – than most major European states.

        1. 220306 says:

          It’s a moot point whether the fact, that the UK’s constitution is so comparatively underdefined, has enabled our civil society to remain more independent of government than those of other, more modern countries. It cuts both ways: yes, it means that our communities are less globally regulated by business and ideological interest (which global regulation of our lives is the Scylla that liberals worry about); but it can also leave those same communities more vulnerable locally to the violence of unregulated business and ideological interests (which bellum omnium contra omnes is the Charybdis that authoritarians worry about).

          The trick might be to limit the power of government by constitutional means to the policing of our liberty in civil society; that is, to constitute our public decision-making in such ways that minimise the risk of tyranny.

        2. Niemand says:

          Interesting comment. I am inclined to agree and have never been convinced by this ‘must have a written constitution’ line. Just looking across to the US shows what a terrible strait jacket such a thing can become and has led to a society of almost religiously sanctified public gun violence and ‘freedom’ of expression to spread the worst kinds of societally destructive lies, enshrined in the very building blocks of the state itself.

          One other confusing thing for me is can you have an unwritten constitution? You ether have one which by definition must be written down to be of any use, or you don’t. The UK has no constitution just a series of precedents that are drawn on to (supposedly) help consistency and fairness.

          I am not sure what has caused the current desire to codify things so much, especially wrongdoing and the obsession with defining different kinds of hate, something I naturally rebel against as it always ignores the most vital thing – context, reducing expression to a context free ciphers of absolute ossified meaning. It claims that some (groups of) words have no context that gives them meaning (other than some historically defined and completely and permanently fixed understanding). This approach is primarily used to further political ends and silence enemies rather than spread tolerance, understanding and less hate. I see the idea of a written constitution held in reverence like the Ten Commandments literally carved in stone, as very similar – ultimately nothing like as helpful as people think.

          1. SleepingDog says:

            @Niemand, from a political science point of view, the USA is almost as an extreme outlier (certainly in privatised gun violence) as the British Empire/UK, and one could argue that the USAmerican gun lobby’s interpretation of the 2nd Amendment right to bear arms is exceeding perverse, even if it is backed by their Supreme Court. The world norm is codified constitutions, much more recent than the USA’s.
            One could argue that the recent political events in the USA included both an attack on the constitution (partly in order to maximise executive power), and a sign that their Constitution has not be updated to catch up with the rest of the world, and fix some of the problems that have developed or been uncovered in the years since foundation and the bill of rights (back when the USA was formally a patriarchal, landed-citizen, slave state).

            In fact, there are a very large number of international codified agreements which have widespread global support, but the USA is an outlier in failing to ratify many of these (which would have force of law in the USA if it did). You can look these up on the UN’s OHCHR interactive dashboard. A miserable total of 5 treaties for the USA (Tunisia, for example, has ratified 15). Look at the details, and see how much of an oddball/rogue state the USA actually is. It is noteworthy to look at nationally-specified exceptions and whether optional clauses were accepted or not. It is through a codified constitution or international treaties that environmental protections are best laid out, and we may be moving towards that.

            Of course, whatever the British imperial theocratic quasi-constitution is thought to be by various ‘experts’ or interested parties, in practice it allows established anti-democratic power to be exercised with a cloak of extreme secrecy, which is why the British Empire can continue to fight multiple covert wars and conduct as many clandestine operations against designated enemies foreign and domestic as the monarch wishes or allows, which have caused or been a primary factor in perhaps 10 million deaths around the world since 1945, much of course in the reign of the current Queen. War, diplomacy (including international treaties and alliances), espionage, national security, territories… all these and more are the province of the monarch, not the democratic realm in the UK.

            I think you are confused about the nature of codified constitutions, which generally form important restraints on executive, legislative and judicial powers, so that ad hoc laws cannot legally be passed that infringe the rights, liberties, protections and duties which the Constitution species, typically in clear and concise language that can often straightforwardly be used in the courts of law and public opinion. It was of course Europe as well as the UN which helped establish such constraints in the UK, but after Brexit these are being broken and the hounds of hell released.

          2. 220306 says:

            The constitution of a state is just the way in which it’s organised. This can be codified (‘written’) or not (‘unwritten’). The organisation of nearly all modern states is codified; only those of Israel, New Zealand, and the UK is not. The UK constitution exists only as a loose and more or less indeterminate collection of conventions, customs, laws, precedents, and treaties.

            There are pros and cons to having either a ‘written’ or an ‘unwritten’ constitution.

            Written constitutions can be easily consulted and appealed to. They’re also difficult to tamper with. They set clear limits on the powers of the respective offices of government. However, they can also be difficult to amend. They can enshrine inequalities in their language and/or the cultural presuppositions on which their articles depend.

            Unwritten constitutions, on the other hand, are more amenable to evolution over the longer term in response to cultural change; the UK constitution is sometimes described as a ‘living constitution’ because it evolves and adapts to reflect changing social attitudes. However, unwritten constitutions are less accessible, transparent, and intelligible. They can also leave the separation of powers between the respective offices of government ambiguous and uncertain and, therefore, a potential source of conflict between those offices to the weakening of government as a whole.

            Anyhow: the salient question is not whether or not we in Scotland should have a written constitution, but is rather whether or not we should have a constitution that organises our public decision-making in such ways that minimise the risk of tyranny. Weakening government as much as it can possibly be weakened without losing its capacity to function as the governance of our public affairs is one way of minimising that risk.

        3. SleepingDog says:

          @florian albert, since 1848? The British response (or lack of it) to the Irish Potato Famine was ongoing, the British authorities’ resistance to women’s political equality had dug in for the long haul (until communists and socialists made the breakthroughs though being invaded by the British amongst others), the British continued to commit atrocities on a vast scale in the Second Opium war 1856–1860, and in the Great Indian Rebellion of 1857–58, continued their punitive expeditions, colonial wars, wars with other empires, oppressions/murder/torture/robbery of other peoples, and so on and so forth. I don’t think the trustees of the British Museum woke up one day in 1849 (or and day since) and thought: blimey, we’ve got a real supply problem on our hands.

          A written constitution is not a magic spell. Its rules are not the laws of physics. But in any case, Hitler created or manipulated events to justify the tearing up the German constitution precisely because he could not rule as Führer within it.

          (One helpful set of suggestions on how not to lose democracy in a fire is provided by Elaine Scarry in Thinking in an Emergency).
          Putin similarly contrived a public overthrow of constitutional safeguards against executive power with constitutional amendments to the Russian Constitution allowing him to serve more than two terms as President (so the problem was parliament). The problem for the British public is that there are few constitutional safeguards against executive power because its imperial quasi-constitution is based on theocratic (that is, divine right) hereditary monarchy, and much of executive power, including in the key areas specified elsewhere, rests with the royal prerogative, not with the people. Henry VIII created a totalitarian state and embryonic empire in England, and we are still oppressed by the extreme anti-democratic Henry VIII powers.

          The extreme and notorious corruption of the British parliament is hardly a shining example to the rest of the world. Chartism did not succeed in its goals in 1848. Its capital London was a horrorshow of inequality, poverty, squalor and despair where the wretched led short, miserable lives. Children were beaten and abused at home, in domestic service, in workplaces, in orphanages and in education when they were still in its institutions. The British had and still have a ‘public’ (that is, private) boarding school system whose horrific model they exported round the world, which is not shared by our European neighbours. It may be that social advances (at least before they were rolled back in some cases) in our European neighbours were beacons of hope for the benighted inhabitants of Britain, which typically have less centralised powers and state propaganda machines, and spend less on militarism. Indeed, fundamental restrictions on militarism itself is one of the important features of many codified constitutions.

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