Repeat to fade. Stephen Pollard on Tom Nairn's latest sour whinge

Pariah: misfortunes of the British kingdom

Tom Nairn <em>Verso, 170pp, £13</em>

ISBN 1859846572

I cannot remember ever before feeling pain when reading a book. Boredom, yes. Annoyance, yes. But not real, physical pain. Pariah, however, is so turgid, so overwritten, so trite, so predictable and above all so deeply, deeply pointless that, as I forced myself through yet another of its 170 pages (one hundred and seventy: it doesn't sound a lot but, trust me, it makes Clarissa feel like a sprint), I began to ache, and not just in my head.

For some reason, Nairn has something of a reputation as a polemicist. A prerequisite, one would have thought, is the ability to write sentences that carry the reader along, rather than make you shudder in horror. This is a characteristic paragraph:

Now shorn of overseas territories, the outreach of a revived commercial imperium of course sought the maximum in prestige and post-colonial standing. Being placed "in the sun" and salient on the world stage does remain quite important to capital of this kind. It was not eclipsed by the loss of India, and certainly not by the crocodile tears of the Hong Kong withdrawal in 1998. The fundamental role of the United Kingdom state and its ideology, Britishness, is to hold eclipse in that sense at bay. A measure of democracy has come to be required for that task - but only the clinical minimum dosage recently praised by Prof Eric Hobsbawm, in an essay just before the election.

Are you still there? What does that mean? There is no context, no explanation. Capital of what kind? What is Britishness as an ideology? What is the clinical minimum dosage of democracy? Nairn certainly doesn't make it clear, and I'm afraid I really can't be bothered to find out.

Nairn's thesis, such as it is, is that - yawn - "Britain has actually ceased to exist". Well, well, just what we need - another book on "whither Britain". He at least has the virtue of making no bones about hating his country, or "Britain", as he refers to it. (Nairn's most irritating habit is putting words in inverted commas. There is scarcely a sentence without one: he talks of the Tory "recovery" in 1979, of how devolution was meant to offer voters a new "voice", of the conclusion of the devolution "process". Why the inverted commas? As my teacher used to say, it isn't funny, and it isn't clever.)

At one point, he casually drops in his prescription for our supposed ills: "The future of the archipelago lies in . . . a collection of (relatively) small independent or near-independent states, eight or nine in number, with a collective mutual interest in good relations, and a variety of common links to the European Union . . ." Gee, Tom, thanks. I'll get my passport application ready. I look forward to living in the People's European Republic of West Mercia.

Nairn simply hates Britain (oops, "Britain"). He sneers at Tony Blair for saying, after the Nice summit, that he fought to "get the best out of Europe for Britain and exercise real authority and influence in Europe . . . Britain is a world power." Nairn is so suffused with contempt for Britain and the British that he does not even bother to explain why he so objects to Blair's formulation, as if the Prime Minister's words were so laughable that they do the job for him. Sorry, they may make your friends on the New Left Review squirm, but to the rest of us, they are unexceptional.

Please, please don't look at this book. With one in five of the adult population functionally illiterate, "Britain" cannot afford to lose any of those of us who can read, and if you start Pariah you may, like me, start losing the will to live. But this book does at least have one use. Reading it, I learnt how to control my pain, an exercise that I hope to be able to repeat next time I visit the dentist.

Stephen Pollard is a political commentator and broadcaster

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