After Britain: New Labour and the return of Scotland
Tom Nairn Granta, 324pp, £15.99
The idea that the United Kingdom is an ancien regime on the edge of break-up is becoming commonplace, uniting commentators with little else in common. Some welcome the demise of Britishness; others view it as a looming catastrophe. There is no agreed view on why the British state is in crisis. Only one thing seems certain in this fashionable consensus: the dissolution of the UK, and with it the desuetude of Britishness, is inevitable.
If the belief that the UK is a doomed relic of Empire has become an idee recue, it is Tom Nairn, more than anyone else, who made it so. After Britain is a sequel to Nairn's seminal book, The Break-up of Britain, published over 20 years ago. Writing from a refreshingly quirky post-Marxist perspective, Nairn was one of the first to grasp that the old structures that held together the British multinational state were bound to unravel under democratic pressure. Nairn was able to anticipate the scale of the challenge to the British state, not only in Scotland but also in Ulster, partly because he took nationalism seriously. Nairn rejected the view of nationalist movements, purveyed by many thinkers on the liberal and Marxist left, as residues of tribal atavism. Rather, he understood national identities as distinctively modern expressions of an enduring human need. Nairn's prescience regarding the developments of the past 20 years is largely a by-product of this account of nationalism.
In The Break-Up of Britain, Nairn's grasp of the importance of nationalism gave him an edge that most commentators lacked. After Britain is a passionate polemic, muscularly written and packed with arresting apercus. No one can claim literacy in contemporary British politics who has not read it. Yet by the standards of Nairn's earlier work, this is a deeply disappointing book. Its analysis of Britain today trails uncomprehendingly in the wake of events. The constitutional reforms achieved during the past two years are analysed, and found wanting, by reference to the same model of Britain as a decomposing ancien regime that Nairn presented 20 years ago. The thought that the constitutional crisis he forecast then may now be in the past does not seem to have occurred to him as a serious possibility.
Nairn misreads the events of the past two years partly because, inspired by movements such as Charter 88, he has a fundamentalist view of constitutional change. Accordingly, he dismisses the devolution of power in Scotland set in place by the Blair government as a jerry-built halfway house between the unitary British state and full recovery of Scottish sovereignty. He is equally contemptuous of the settlement in Ulster, writing bizarrely that although the peace process "was made to look initially like a miraculous escape from deep-seated historical patterns . . . in the end it broke the back of Blair's all-round devolution project, and signalled the disintegration of the United Kingdom even more loudly than before". It is as if Nairn cannot be satisfied with anything short of the catastrophic fragmentation of the UK that he has long predicted.
Nairn's grudging view of the constitutional reforms of the past two years partly reflects his fetishistic reverence for constitutional formality. He cannot accept as genuine or potentially enduring any constitutional settlement that has been reached primarily through political negotiation. Here Nairn's attitude is reminiscent of the bourgeois legalism that old-fashioned Marxists loved to scorn. For Nairn, any programme of devolution that does not involve the machinery of a constitutional convention is bound to be fraudulent. The new Scottish Parliament cannot be other than a sham, if only because its creation did not include the renunciation of the Treaty of Union of 1707. Indeed it seems to be this legal detail, and not much else, that underpins Nairn's repeated and confident assertions that devolution in Scotland is no more than a stage on the way to the disintegration of the UK.
In fact, although there are already serious tensions in relations between the Westminster government and the new government in Edinburgh, there is nothing in Nairn's argument that shows the break-up of the UK to be inevitable, or even particularly likely. Much of his foreboding rests on an all-or-nothing view of sovereignty. But that anachronistic view obstructs an understanding of the reforms that have been achieved in the past couple of years. Think, for example, of the Irish peace process that Nairn so cavalierly dismisses. In the old language of sovereign statehood, the settlement that has been reached regarding the future of Northern Ireland is something akin to a co-sovereignty agreement between the UK and the Irish Republic. In the new context created by European institutions it amounts to a deeper mingling of sovereignties that are in some degree already pooled.
When sovereignty is fuzzy, as it is in the European Union, it makes little sense for nationalist movements to demand sovereign statehood. What is the point of seceding from the UK, if the new state that is thereby created gains practically nothing in terms of effective autonomy? If Scotland were to break away to become a "sovereign state", its defence policy would be subject, as it is now, to European strategic realities. Equally, the Scottish economy would be as much conditioned by the decisions of the European Central Bank outside the UK as in it. When no state possesses all its attributes, sovereign statehood ceases to be an overriding political objective. That is why independence is so low on the agenda of the Catalans, the Welsh and other European nationalist parties. The fuzziness of sovereignty today is one reason why Quebec has not separated from Canada. Why should Scotland be any different?
Nairn contends that the British case is sui generis. His only reason for making this claim, so far as I can see, is that, unlike other European states, Britain lacks a written constitution. But the blurring of sovereignty is a trend in many states regardless of their constitutional traditions. As Robert Cooper put it in his pioneering Demos monograph, The Post-Modern State and the World Order, since the end of the cold war the European state system has mutated. States no longer seek a balance of power as they did when there was a constant danger of war. Now that western Europe is a zone of peace, they seek security through mutual involvement in common institutions. In these circumstances the exclusive and unqualified territorial sovereignty given to nation states in the Treaty of Westphalia in 1648 has little meaning. National interest remains a potent force; but the contexts in which it is asserted have changed radically. The Franco-British conflict over beef is a dispute over the requirements of European law, not sovereignty.
If the idea of sovereign statehood that Nairn invokes belongs in the past, his view of society is sadly monocultural. Aside from a rather formulaic mention of the Stephen Lawrence case, there is no reference in After Britain to the UK's Asian or black communities. The England it suggests is an ironic take on that of Ealing Studios. The England that actually exists is passed over as if it does not matter. But to project the break-up of Britain without consider-ing how it harbours Europe's most multicultural society is to blot out one of its most attractive features.
It is true that many people have a waning sense of being British. Even so, there are millions of people in Britain today who are unwilling to think of themselves as being, solely or even mainly, English, Welsh, Irish or Scottish. Nairn considers the idea that states can shelter multiple identities only to reject it. Yet for many people, being British has an appeal precisely because it is not a blood-and-soil identity that excludes all others. Nairn is right to remind us that Britain originated in a unitary state that has passed away, but he seems scarcely to have noticed the country that Britain has become.