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.
Tom Nairn: The Twilight of the British State from Verso