Gerry Hassan: Tom Nairn’s contribution to our intellectual life, such as his deadly critique of the British State, merits proper recognition
THE United Kingdom this year will showcase itself to the world, hoping that the Diamond Jubilee celebrations and London Olympic Games lift the domestic gloom, aid business and bring the tourists flocking.
One man who has spent his life cutting through the national mystique, hyperbole and veneer of tradition is Tom Nairn, who later this year turns 80. Nairn has, over his rich intellectual life, written on numerous aspects of British society: the nature of the Union; the symbolism of the monarchy; and the reality of Britain under Blair and Brown. On a more international canvas, he has contributed extensively to studies of nationalism and globalisation and addressed the theme of the Left and Europe.
His greatest book, The Break-up of Britain was published as a counterblast to the Queen’s Silver Jubilee of 1977, a more lasting challenge than the Sex Pistols’ God Save The Queen of the same year.
The book isn’t solely focused on Scotland’s renegotiation of its place in the Union state. Instead it addresses the tectonic plates shifting underneath the UK-anian surface of unity, which were slowly beginning to pull the whole, undemocratic edifice apart.
Nairn argued the British state was a backward, Ruritarian creation, which had come to being in the age before democratic republicanism or modern nationalism. And that it remained a state which wasn’t a nation state, didn’t engage in a bourgeois revolution in the 18th century, and didn’t, at the political dimension, ever become a full democracy, with its half elected parliament and unelected head of state.
This prescient analysis predicted the story of the pointless late exercise of New Labour, Blair and Brown in nation building and erecting Britishness as a political project, something taken to extremes by Brown who tried to brand everything in the colours of the Union Flag.
Nairn’s nuanced account tells of the slow disconnection of Scottish, Welsh, Irish and even English nationalist voices from the British state, foretells the story of what would become Thatcherism, and recognises the impact of the European dimension and globalisation on these isles.
The book caused a minor storm in 1977, provoking historian Eric Hobsbawm to write a stinging review in which he dismissed Nairn for replacing the “historical determinism” of Marxism with one of nationalism, dismissed an independent Scotland as “the Kuwait of the North”, and then pleaded with the Scots to remain in the UK to aid the prospects of the occasional, supposedly progressive majority in the House of Commons.
A decade later, Nairn cast his eye directly on the British monarchy in The Enchanted Glass, a book which poses that the House of Windsor is a central pillar of “the glamour of backwardness” pivotal to Britishness.
The monarchy wasn’t some amusing sideshow which left-wingers could work their way around. It was a fundamental part of the British state and how it gained legitimacy and power, from telling us who and where we were in the world to the dubious use of “Crown powers” by the executive.
Previously Nairn had demolished the insular nature of the British Left with their obsessions in the 1960s and 1970s with “socialism in one country”. He savaged the Left’s myopia of believing change could be gained through parliamentary sovereignty and British exceptionalism, prefiguring the Left’s embrace of Europe in the 1980s.
Subsequent studies looked at the atrophied state of Britain in the midst of supposed “renewal” and constitutional reform and at the Blair-Bush axis of war setting off on the road to Kabul and Baghdad.
In this last decade, Nairn has turned to issues of globalisation and the relationship between uneven development and nationalism. He has used this to rail against what he called “the hyper empires of capital” of the current global class.
Nairn has long championed self-government, but has been a critic of all parties and traditions, at points being hardest on the SNP when it refused to join the Constitutional Convention in 1989.
He has drawn from and cross-fertilised a range of rich traditions, Marxist, nationalist, republican, development studies and many more. A significant swathe of us who grew up under the shadow of Thatcherism, a generation of New Left, radical, impatient nationalists and home rulers who became academics, journalists, artists and even politicians, could be seen intellectually as Tom Nairn’s children.
As Nairn turns 80, it is worth noting that the settled institutions of establishment Scotland, the universities and bodies such as the Royal Society of Edinburgh have never appropriately honoured his work. Edinburgh University did give him a part-time post in the 1990s, but he had to go to the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology to receive due recognition and a professorship.
There is a typical Scottish parable in this, of not honouring and celebrating our talents and bright minds who are lauded the world over, and of the supposed young radicals of the 1980s, who got their feet in academic or media institutions, and turned their backs on the man who had nourished and stimulated their minds, to become the new establishment.
Given Nairn’s standing and role in bringing about self-government, the time is appropriate for institutions to think best how to mark this. Perhaps a Tom Nairn chair at Glasgow or Edinburgh universities and a major international gathering of thinkers reflecting on Tom’s interests, covering Scotland, the British state, Europe, globalisation and post-colonial studies? What better way to mark the Scots intellectual tradition, reflecting on who we are, but also how we see ourselves across the globe? It would be good if, as well as the Scotland Week and Global Scot initiatives, we took time to remember Nairn and reflect on a life well spent reimagining the Scotland and wider world of the mind.
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