Gerry Hassan pays tribute to Tom Nairn who turns 80 this year
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.
Over his rich intellectual life Nairn has written on numerous aspects of British society, including 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 potent and long lasting challenge than the Sex Pistols God Save the Queen of the same year. Published by Verso, it is now shamefully out of print.
The Break-up of Britain isn’t a book solely focused on Scotland’s renegotiation of its place in the union state. Instead it addresses the tectonic plates shifting underneath the ‘Ukanian’ surface of unity which were slowly beginning to pull the whole undemocratic edifice apart. Nairn argued that the British state was a backward, Ruritarian creation, one which had come to fruition in the age before democratic republicanism or modern day nationalism. He pointed out that it remained a state which wasn’t a nation state, didn’t engage in a bourgeois revolution in the 18th Century, and – with a half elected Parliament and an unelected head of state – didn’t ever become a full democracy.
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. This was taken to ludicrous extremes by Brown as he desperately tried to brand everything he could in the colours of the union flag.
What is fascinating about Break-up is how perceptive and nuanced an account it provides. He 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.
Nairn’s book caused a minor storm in 1977. It provoked historian Eric Hobsbawm to write a stinging review in which he dismissed Nairn for replacing the ‘historical determinism’ of Marxism with one of nationalism. He also dismissed Scottish independence 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 subject of the British monarchy in The Enchanted Glass, a book, reissued last year, which poses that the House of Windsor is a central pillar of “the glamour of backwardness”, and pivotal to Britishness. As an institution the monarchy wasn’t some amusing irrelevant sideshow which left-wingers could accommodate or 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 in his usual iconoclastic style demolished the insular nature of the British left with their obsessions in the 1960s and 1970s of ‘socialism in one country’. He savaged the left’s myopia of believing change could be gained through parliamentary sovereignty and British exceptionalism, an account which prefigured 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 as the Blair-Bush axis of war set off on the road to Kabul and Baghdad. In this last decade he has turned to issues of globalisation and the relationship between uneven economic 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 been a champion of Scottish self-government, but has been a critic and provoker of all parties and traditions, at points being hardest on the SNP when they refused to join the Constitutional Convention in 1989.
Many of us who have contributed to the Scottish debate these last few decades feel fortunate and privileged to have grown up politically influenced by Tom’s work and knowing him personally. 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 in the 1980s, a generation of new left, radical, impatient nationalists and home rulers who became academics, journalists, artists and the occasional politician, could in effect be seen intellectually as Tom Nairn’s children.
As Tom turns 80 it is worth noting that the settled institutions of establishment Scotland, the universities and august bodies such as the Royal Society of Edinburgh have never appropriately marked or honoured Nairn’s work. Edinburgh University did give him a part-time post in the early 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. Another account would recognise that some of the supposed young radicals of the 1980s once they got their feet in academic or media institutions turned their back on the man who had nourished and stimulated their minds. This is another Scots story: of the young turks incorporated and turned into the next establishment.
When we consider Nairn’s range, influence and global standing, along with the not inconsiderable fact that he has played a major role in bringing about where Scottish self-government finds itself today, the time is appropriate for the institutions of our public life to think best how to mark this.
Perhaps we could have a Tom Nairn chair at Glasgow or Edinburgh universities, and a major international gathering of writers and thinkers reflecting on Tom’s influence and 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 and have contributed to international debates?
We should be doing this unapologetically because in today’s risk averse and specialist world Tom has fussed different disciplines and reached out to numerous audiences. It would be good if as well as the ‘Scotland Week’ and ‘Global Scot’ initiatives we took a little time to remember and reflect on a life well spent reimagining the Scotland and wider world of the mind.
If the pleasure of reading Tom for the first time still awaits you, I’d recommend his little read but fabulously far-sighted, typically stringent and, above all, confident response to 9/11 that was published in openDemocracy at the time – Hooligans of the Absolute: Black Pluto’s door after 11 September.