Tom Nairn: A Guide for a Journey around the Ruins of Britain

Britain is not in a good place. The everyday challenges that people face are the worst in peacetime. A belief in a positive future is hard for many to believe in. Statistics show a country plagued by endemic low growth, falling living standards, crumbling public services, and increasing poverty and inequality.

The last time the UK faced existential crisis in the 1970s it earned the moniker ‘the sick man of Europe’ and The Sun’s rebuked Jim Callaghan’s Labour Government in the headline ‘Crisis? What Crisis?’ to show their out-of-touch nature. Yet that decade – characterised by ‘the winter of discontent’ of 1978-79, two miners’ strikes and the three-day week – saw higher growth and rising wages compared to now. There was lower poverty and inequality, with 1976-1977 seeing the lowest recorded inequality in UK history.

Such historical insights rarely attract serious analysis and understanding. Instead, superficial takes which accentuate a political and economic culture defined by short-termism are the norm. Very few perspectives even make the connection and lineage between the crises of the 1970s and of the present, and consider the common characteristics and factors.

One political writer and thinker who consistently offered a longer timescale and lens that went to the roots of the British malaise was Tom Nairn who died at the weekend aged 90. It is difficult to measure the influence and impact of Tom, as well to write about someone who was a friend for thirty-five years. But it can be inarguably said that Tom contributed to changing the contours of a host of debates including how Scotland understands itself, the nature of the UK, the evolution and dynamics of nationalisms and their relationship with global capitalism.

The Break-Up of Britain thesis

Nairn’s great magnum opus was The Break-Up of Britain, first published in 1977, and which went through four editions: the third published by myself in 2002, the last in 2021 with a foreword by Anthony Barnett. Subsequent books such as After Britain: New Labour and the Return of Scotland (2000) and Pariah: Misfortunes of the British Kingdom (2002) updated his critique of what he called ‘Ukania’, while ‘The Enchanted Glass’ (1988) located monarchy as central to the creation of ‘the glamour of backwardness’ which offered protection and a veneer to the undemocratic, unreformed state and political system.

Nairn’s thesis on Britain was complex and layered, often reduced by critics (who often had never read the book) to a determinist take that predicted a formal break-up of the UK which could then be easily dismissed.

He posed that the UK was at its core a deeply feudal state, that had not completely escaped the throws of absolutism and embraced the claims and reach of democracy. An aspect of this was that the UK never had a fully-fledged bourgeois revolution which overthrew aristocratic power; instead the rising power of the bourgeoisie was accommodated within the existing pre-democratic order and economic system.

If this all sounds a bit abstract and archaic and not very relevant to present day concerns, the repercussions of the above still ripple down through the centuries and decades to 21st century Britain.

The British state today is still characterised by backwardness, its reactionary nature and anti-democracy. As Nairn put it the monarchical state has been used first, to incorporate the forces of progress in the 20th century and tame them, and then second, to act as a catalyst for the reconfiguration of power which happened in the latter half of the 20th century and early 21st century, and which has twisted and deformed society, life chances and opportunities.

The disruption of the last few decades in the UK, and globally from the 1970s, is often in the non-Nairn world portrayed as a shock and something which emerged from nowhere. This is one of many areas where Nairn can act as a guide: not just about the UK but about the dynamics of global capitalism.

The UK political settlement of 1945-75, now widely described as ‘the post-war consensus’, was one where the forces of Labour and progress had undertaken an explicit accommodation with the ancien regime, ‘the conservative nation’ of privilege and power, and anti-democracy. Labour under the likes of Clement Attlee and Harold Wilson took the view that if their party captured central organs of the state that they could then use them to push through progressive change, despite the lack of democracy at the heart of the state.

This labourist compromise delivered in the benign political and economic age of the immediate decades after 1945, was based on a series of tensions and fissures. These include the limited democracy in the British state and political order; nature of the managed international capitalist order from Bretton Woods in 1944 to the 1970s which allowed for a degree of social democracy; and British capitalism and the power of finance capital, rentierism and short-term speculation. 

One defining dimension over the arc of the 19th and 20th centuries is that the Labour Party and wider forces of the labour movement were invited into the political system on the terms of the elites and dominant classes. This has had huge consequences. It has meant that Labour and centre-left politics have been incorporated and forced to change to the prevailing ethos of a political order built to maintain privilege, inequality and deference, hence blunting through the decades its radical edge.


Nairn’s thesis in The Break-Up of Britain framed the multi-national basis of the UK, and the widening faultlines in the 1970s which saw a rising Scottish, Welsh and Irish dimensions, alongside the emergence of a right-wing English nationalism – first under Enoch Powell, then subsequently, Margaret Thatcher. He presciently argued that this latter force would increasingly unbalance the union and define itself in opposition to the increasingly integrationist European project. This acute, penetrating analysis has been much born out in subsequent decades, and still has relevance to the future of the UK.

Nairn on Scotland

A distinct strand and interest of Tom’s writings over six decades was that of Scotland – its place in the union; the nature of its politics, ideas and civil society; the rise of Scottish nationalism, autonomy and self-government – and reflecting on all this in the context of the above take of the UK.

In the 1960s he was initially very critical of the SNP, Scottish nationalism and the self-government debate as they emerged from the shadows, seeing them as representing forces of reaction and anti-progress, but he quickly changed as the decade and politics evolved.

As with his analysis of the UK, Nairn placed these forces within a longer historical analysis, which addressed the nature of the Treaty of Union of 1707 and the semi-autonomy and preservation of civil society institutions which it had maintained. This was alongside Scotland becoming an integral part of the imperial project and idea of ‘Britishness’, in a land which did not exhibit a popular political nationalism for most of the 18th and 19th centuries. 

In Nairn’s take as he came to understand late 20th century Scotland, the nationalism that emerged was not from the world of 1789 or 1848 but of the present, and hence, what he called ‘neo-nationalism’. While critics of nationalism in Scotland and elsewhere such as the historian Eric Hobsbawm railed against it as a backward phenomenon and a relic from early ages which had to be defeated by modernity, Nairn saw things very differently.

Scottish nationalism in modern times was a product of the negotiated autonomy of our society, the nature of Ukania, and the uneven development of the capitalist order. Hence, it was not in many respects a cry to return to some romantic past but a clarion call to reject the pre-democracy of the UK and embrace progress, modernity and being a European nation.

This does not mean that Nairn was completely uncritical of Scottish nationalism and in particular the SNP. The latter in its slow evolution, from the mid-1960s electoral breakthrough to the arrival of the Scottish Parliament in 1999 and the coming to power of the SNP in 2007, often felt the force of Nairn’s polemic. This was particularly so when the party failed to be open and generous and to engage with the wider forces of home rule, such as in 1989 when it refused to join the cross-party Scottish Constitutional Convention.

Nairn noted the evolution of a more confident, progressive, pro-European SNP in recent decades; in particular under Alex Salmond’s period as First Minister. But he would have noted in Nicola Sturgeon’s near decade as First Minister the return to a politics of closure, control and not opening up, trusting others or building popular alliances. Indeed, in the current SNP there is much in common with the politics of managerialism and lack of imagination seen in how Scottish Labour ran Scotland at its peak: something undoubtedly Nairn in previous decades would have addressed via his powerful rhetoric.

Few have covered such a wide and ambitious canvas as Tom Nairn. It is true to say that no comparable figures emerged in post-war Scottish public life, the nearest being in an untheoretical way his colleague and friend Neal Ascherson. Rather the only other figures in the English-speaking world with some kind of equivalence to Nairn are those other ‘new left’ pioneers Stuart Hall, Raymond Williams and E.P. Thompson, and internationally, Zygmunt Bauman and Jurgen Habermas – all of whom apart from Habermas are sadly gone. There are others for whom one could make the case but overall he is in rarefied company.

Such a rich life of ideas and writing begs the question – what do we do about the legacy of Tom Nairn after Tom? Firstly, as this essay began we can utilise his work to understand and navigate a way out of the UK’s current ruins and wreckage. We cannot comprehend the current crumbling order just by reference to the present-day Tories or even going back to Thatcherism, but have to understand that longer Nairnesque perspective.

Second, all through his adult life Tom asked difficult, sometimes even impertinent questions challenging orthodoxies and those with office and authority. That is a good example of how intellectuals should be – not bowing to the claptrap and pretences of any given moment.

He did understand the deep dynamics we are living through, and would if he were here today be asking penetrating questions of the SNP, its leadership, the Scottish Parliament, forces of self-government, and those in British Labour and elsewhere who define themselves as part of the forces of progress.

Why, Tom, would have asked, are all of you (Labour, Lib Dems, SNP, Greens and others) still so beholden to the forces of the ancien regime, conservatism and deference, which means that ultimately you have accepted that you are passive spectators rather than active agents in making the future?

One answer is that Tom has bequeathed us not only his example and legacy, but a set of intellectual tools and wider spirit, which allow us not only to answer that and to know the fossilised carapace that we are living in, but to know what we must do to tear it down, escape and breathe in the fresh air of the present day.

See also:

Tom Nairn: The Twilight of the British State from Verso

On Tom Nairn (1932–2023) – by Jonathon Shafi (

The detective of world history by Rory Scothorne

Comments (16)

Join the Discussion

Your email address will not be published.

  1. Alasdair Macdonald says:

    The main reason I think Tom Nairn’s insightful analyses have not had the impact that they could have had beyond academic circles and friends like Mr Hassan (no criticism is implied here) is in my view down to his writing style. It is far too allusive and the meaning is not obvious at a first, or even second or third reading. Sometimes I found myself researching the source of his metaphor instead of persevering with the thread of his argument, because what the thread was, was occluded by floury language.

    Contrast his writing style with the clarity of his contemporary and intellectual fellow Neal Ascherson and it is clear why the latter has been more successful. Social class differences between the two undoubtedly had a strong influence in how each was accepted by the powerful and influential in society and explains much of the reason for Nairn’s physical distance from Scotland.

    I think we owe a debt of gratitude to both and I hope that in the future Nairn becomes the prophet in his own land that he deserves to be.

  2. Derek says:

    In the context of global warming, low growth isn’t a bad thing, is it?

  3. Fay Kennedy says:

    Interesting comments and great piece by Mr. Hassan. I will return to Tom Nairn as have found him not easy whereas Ascherson am very partial too and recommend to anyone interested in Scotland.

    1. Ascherson was a journalist (a great journalist). Nairn is a political philosopher and by definition dealing with more complex themes and ideas.

      1. florian albert says:

        I became interested in political philosophy as a result of being taught by, and reading books by, a political philosopher – Professor D D Raphael – who dealt with ‘complex themes and ideas’ and was able to make them comprehensible. Subsequently, I have had little sympathy for those academics whose works are difficult to comprehend.

        1. Many find Nairn a great and vert comprehensible writer.

  4. James Dow says:

    It’s Scotlands brilliant young adults that will inherit the responsibility of delivering a humane honest compassionate Scotland dominated by a sense of integrity and purpose. A Sovereign Scotland will show case to the World a perfect example of how the whole world should embrace the Scottish way. The delivery of Sovereignty is irreversible as more and more young adults are added to Scottish society, on the flip side their Grandparents who were intimidated by Gordon Browns fear campaign and also tended to be Royalist and accepted British as an identity are gone of fading away. Every day the numbers are adding up for an overwhelming number of independence supporters. By the way no Scot requires the secondary identity of being British especially considering no such homogeneous people exist . But distinctive Scots certainly do. British as a collective identity is a wholly political construct, one designed to blend distinctive Scots into the blandness that is England.

  5. florian albert says:

    Tom Nairn’s significance was that he helped turn the Scottish Left away from class politics towards the politics of constitutional reform and of national identity. (I accept that he believed his proposals would in fact strengthen, rather than weaken, the Left in Scotland.)
    In post-industrial Scotland, which emerged from the mid-1980s on, a new Left emerged which had little contact with what remained of the industrial working class. This Left had its core support in the middle class public sector unions, particularly in education.
    By 2023 the results of this can be seen clearly. It is a Left which is largely content with the economic status quo. It has few, if any, radical policies
    to put before the voters. Thus, it is a Left which sits out elections, leaving the field clear to SNP and SLAB. Neither of these is remotely radical or left wing.

  6. johnny english says:

    Missing from this fascinating piece and from all similar works is the self awareness that scottish nationalism is built on a foundation of anti-English racism as demonstrated in this article. Racists judge their enemies using derogatory stereotypes and hassan demonstrates that quality here; he – citing nairn – says arrogantly that English ‘nationalism’ is a successor to Enoch Powell. England is of course multicultural in a ways that scots cant even comprehend let alone emulate so this is some conceit and it is verbalised to hide the truth that English ‘nationalism’ is nothing more than a reaction to the ridiculous and insulting inequality served on them by devolution and the suppression of English identity and refusal to represent England politically, which is the fault of the scots in large part. Never mind. We live in an era of total piety where even the smallest grain of racism is intolerable and there is absolutely no way that ‘celtic’ racism will be tolerated. It is indeed time to let in the fresh air and let out the hot and rancid air of scottish racism. That bigotry and prejudice is racism. ‘celtic’ racism is racism. the era or appeasing ‘celtic’ racism is over

    1. Gerry Hassan says:

      It is always good to be challenged and challenged from fresh angles. But the charge that the main body of Scottish independence, Tom Nairn or myself are informed or guilty of an ‘anti-English racism’ is ridiculous.

      For example, take the evidence. There is nothing in the writings of Tom Nairn or myself to support such a hyperbolic charge. What is true as I made clear in another piece on Tom Nairn’s writings is that some critiques have chosen to caricature him to try to diminish his impact. John Lloyd in his recent book on the case for the union calls Nairn in his writing ‘anti-English’, but then produces no supporting evidence. And to take one citation used to challenge myself: I do not write or claim that ‘English nationalism is a successor to Enoch Powell’; rather I did write about ‘a right-wing English nationalism – first under Enoch Powell, then subsequently Margaret Thatcher’ – clearly meaning one strand and not talking for all English nationalisms.

      Where I think there is terrain to investigate and challenge Scottish independence and Nairn is on how there can be a tendency to pose an English essentialism and an English singularity to the exclusion of other Englands. This is a prevailing problem in Scotland and one I have written about over many years; what sometimes happens in summarising things is in terms of contextualising English political traditions that it is possible to talk abt the dominant strands without acknowledging counter-strands. Thus the political scientist Bernard Crick called the rise of an absolutist parliamentary sovereignty (which was a major factor in Brexit) ‘the English ideology’ – when he did not mean this spoke for all England despite the overbearing claims in the tendency he was describing.

      But in Fintan O’Toole’s book length take on England and Brexit he talks only about one England – the reactionary, backward looking Tory one – and in 300 pages does not acknowledge other Englands such as that of the centre-left and liberal tendencies. Thus, he does not anywhere investigate the dynamic of the rise of this reactionary English perspective and its marginalisation of other Englands. This in my judgement is a slam dunk case of posing an English exceptionalism and trying to problematise England which is inaccurate. It is not and would not be seen by anyone – and has not as far as I know – as a form of racism.

      Thank you for the challenge but in the end while it is refreshing to be challenged from such an angle I don’t think it really stands up on the terrain you identify.

      1. johnny english says:

        Having lived through decades of scottish nationalism and a lifetime of the irish version, it seems ridiculous to characterise the endemic, perpetual hostility and prejudice practiced by the ‘celts’ towards the English as anything other than racism. If this is not racism then what noun describes it? If there is anything of interest in it, it is the way that this bigotry has for years hidden in plain sight behind words like ‘banter’, ‘history’, ‘politics’, ‘trouble’, ‘jest a wee joak’, ‘culture’ and the like. When you break the spell and name it for what it is, you see it as just plain-old, black-and-white, common-or-garden racism. You can see it in action here : racism conjures up derogatory racial stereotypes of its enemies and then smites them down; a passtime that your good self has indulged in prolifically throughout your career, which nairn’s work is struck through with and which is the bedrock of fintan the fool’s babblings – brilliant that you chose to use fintan as an example to deny the charge of racism 😀 good one, gerry. a more perfect example one couldn’t hope to find. This textbook racism is of course massively institutionalised and hence those with it in their DNA are unable to see it, feel it or hear it even when e.g. they sing their racist anthem or e.g. when they sneer at the English minstrels that they cast onto their racist stages.

        The key issue for you and your kind though is this: times have changed and w.r.t. racism, times have changed _a lot_. We live in an era of BLM, micro-aggressions, subconscious-bias training, systemic racism; an era where the English football team get on their knees to racism before each match; where England and the world’s greatest ever racer Lewis Hamilton gets on his knees to racism before each race; where Starmer the future PM gets on his knees to racism; where the entire population are ordered onto their knees to show respect for racism. There isn’t any way that ‘celtic’ racism can be tolerated in this world is there? should we get on our knees to racism but doff our caps to the never-ending racist aggressions of the ‘celts’ while we are down there? I don’t think so. That perpetual hostility, bigotry and prejudice that the ‘celts’ practice towards the English isn’t a wee joak, it isn’t politics, it isn’t trouble. its racism. pure and simple and you won’t find a clearer example of it in this part of the world. you and nairn are on the wrong side of history. TimesUp. The era of appeasing ‘celtic’ racism is over

        1. Gerry Hassan says:

          I note that as you swing about making generalised examples of ‘anti-English racism’ that you do not actually provide any concrete examples.

          To take some cases. The one attempted citation of myself on one variant of English nationalism is a misquote from yourself when I make clear I am talking abt one expression of English nationalism. Similarly, with Fintan O’Toole: just because you don’t like someone’s take you don’t have the right to just label them as ‘racist’. Every opinion you disagree with cannot be just blanket labelled ‘racist’ – and demeans and diminishes the word when white nationalism, white supremacy and fascism are commonplace in the world.

          Two quick comments. There is clearly a problem in any politics dominated by the mutual claims of nationalism and Scotland has a debate defined by Scottish and British nationalism (unionism). That has profound limitations, a sense of entitlement and self-congratulation in each, all of which reinforces a conservatism behind Scotland’s public progressive credentials. Just throwing abt the charge ‘racism’ does not get you very far, when we have other huge challenges in public life.

          Second, you pose the view that Scotland is somehow preventing England from expressing itself and that this is ‘the fault of the Scots in large part.’ That is a complete distortion of the dynamics of the union: a Scotland of 5.5 million and an England of 55 million plus. It is England as a polity and public opinion which dominates the union: one example of which is Brexit. It is of course an England which does not speak collectively and explicitly as an England as a nation – instead being subsumed in the idea of the UK. But that is not due to the Scots but a choice of part of England. A bit of transference going on there in your take and blame shifting for the existing state of affairs

          I would in conclusion ask why you are so insistent to willfully misrepresent and caricature Scotland and make such charges? And feel it appropriate to do so without supporting evidence? None of this really helps anyone -in Scotland or wider UK have a better debate or society. Or challenge those that pose an English essentialism and singularity on the one hand; or the dynamics of a debate defined by Scottish and British nationalism on the other hand.

          I will leave it there for now – and hope against the evidence so far that you might reflect on the above.

  7. johnny english says:

    To Gerry:
    aha. the old ‘racism? what racism?’ response. I gave you several examples of it but you can’t see them because of the institutionalisation. So lets just focus on one very particular example that is in the meeja right now: scotland’s racist anthem. this is as clearly defined as any example of racism can be, but people indoctrinated by it will deny it regardless of the evidence. watch and learn – on 3/9/21, scotland’s very own parliament had one of its most pious debates, posing the notion that singing songs about sending people home was racist. this debate was lead by scotland hyper-pious first minister; strutting about and scowling as usual – it was agreed unanimously and with gusto that singing songs about sending people home was indeed racist and it was minuted as so by scotland’s very own parliament. on-the-books. forever. SINGING SOONGS ABOUT SENDING PEOPLE HOME IS RACIST – the same sentiment was echoed by nationalist scotland’s political class and throughout scotland’s meeja: SINGING SOONGS ABOUT SENDING PEOPLE HOME IS RACIST. all good. what could possibly go wrong? – BUT! Hang on! Isn’t scotland’s own anthem singing about sending the English home to think again? why, yes it is. so scotland’s anthem _must_ therefore be racist. yes. it must. SINGING SOONGS ABOUT SENDING PEOPLE HOME IS RACIST Here is a proof of said racism. and it is also a proof of the denial of said racism by those indoctrinated with it as you will now demonstrate. Done Some of your other points closed off: – what is ‘celtic’ nationalism if not white nationalism and white supremacy. the whole ideology is founded on the mythical notion that there is a ‘celtic’ race who are a pure, white, indigenous inhabitants of the land and that mudblooded England has no celtic tradition. nice one, gerry – you try to use standard-issue tit-for-tattery and suggest that scottish nationalism is mirrored by some imaginary british nationalism. This is a comparison of chalk and cheese; the only people calling themselves nationalist and practicing it are scottish nationalists – the devolution swindle was enacted by a scottish-london government where the scots and london helped themselves to their own private nation states while denying any form of representation to England. we never forget our history in these islands and we never forgive it and this grubby act will be remembered for as long as bannockburn; brexit is the backwash; hope you like the result – why make these points? because racism is wrong. always. in all its forms

    1. Wul says:

      You don’t half talk a lot of pish, Johnny.

      You are challenged to give examples of the “anti-English racism” you describe and the best example you can come up with is the lyric of 45-year old popular folk song that describes sending an invading King’s army “homewards” to “think again” after defeat in a 300 year old battle?
      After 15 years of contemporary Scotland electing and re-electing a “national”, independence-seeking party into government, a referendum on Scottish independence in 2014 and decades of constitutional debate and disagreement, that’s your prime example? Can you see that your argument is somewhat weak?

      Can you provide evidence of quotes, references, policy decisions, laws, newspaper articles, speeches etc which support your claim of rampant anti-English racism? Let’s see it.

  8. Paddy Farrington says:

    I agree with most of this but wonder at the characterisation of Sturgeon as an unimaginative managerialist. This does not fit with the evidence, notably the alliance with the Scottish Greens, not to mention policies like trans rights.

  9. George S Gordon says:

    By devious means, the topic led me to “Gordon Brown, Bard of Britishness”, written by Tom Nairn in 2006. The paperback is hard to get hold of, but my discovery was published in Wales by The Institute of Welsh Affairs –

    It includes responses from a wide range of contributors, including Leighton Andrews AM, and from Vernon Bogdanor to Neil Ascherson. What more could you wish, particularly in view of the preferences expressed here for the latter. For me, Neil Ascherson’s prose may be less academic, but I much prefer Tom Nairn’s discussion of Gordon Brown.

Help keep our journalism independent

We don’t take any advertising, we don’t hide behind a pay wall and we don’t keep harassing you for crowd-funding. We’re entirely dependent on our readers to support us.

Subscribe to regular bella in your inbox

Don’t miss a single article. Enter your email address on our subscribe page by clicking the button below. It is completely free and you can easily unsubscribe at any time.