You can tell that Britain’s liberal intelligentsia is having an identity crisis by the number of opinion pieces devoted to the need for a new “national story”. Last September Andrew Marr wrote in the New Statesman that “no country which lacks an agreed national story can feel complete”. Weeks later a column in Prospect solemnly declared that “Labour has to start telling a story about Britain’s past, present and – more importantly – its future.” At the end of January, the Guardian registered its first twinge of editorial concern over Keir Starmer’s leadership of Labour, exhorting him to “tell a story about why Labour is better for Britain than the Conservatives”.
But it is writers, not politicians, that are supposed to be the nation’s designated storytellers. Their public legitimacy is built on the idea that they are not simply telling the national story but, in doing so, giving some kind of deeper, shared meaning to national facts. Now that the facts are glaringly incompatible with any kind of hopeful, progressive national story, those writers are left begging their politicians – Starmer in particular, whose technocratic posturing leaves little room for poetry – to intervene.
Underneath all the angst about Labour’s narrative deficiencies is an unavoidable fact. With the economic fallout from Brexit and the pandemic looming, and British politics dominated by a seemingly unbreakable Conservative voting bloc that is turbo-charging support for Scottish independence, it has become almost impossible to imagine a route from here to a coherent British identity that is both left-leaning and popular.
Enter Tom Nairn. With optimism scarce among left-wingers and liberals alike, the 89-year-old Scottish political theorist’s sombre vision of British decline, crisis and break-up is enjoying a burst of attention. The journalist Gavin Esler’s new book How Britain Ends is the latest of several in recent years to draw inspiration from Nairn’s 1977 breakthrough The Break-up of Britain, a new edition of which was published in April. It’s not just the strength of Scottish nationalism driving Nairn’s popularity: two recent books on England, Alex Niven’s New Model Island and Tom Hazeldine’s The Northern Question, also pay tribute to Nairn’s formative influence.
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His most powerful and prophetic insight in Break-up was that it was not any particular part of Britain that would be the root cause of fragmentation, but the general structure of the whole. He is perhaps Britain’s most perceptive and ambitious national storyteller, an audaciously creative stylist capable of weaving together history, sociology, philosophy, psychoanalysis and piercing cultural criticism to chart the rise and fall of what he calls “Ukania” – a characteristically playful riff on “Kakania”, Robert Musil’s term for the collapsing Austro-Hungarian empire in The Man Without Qualities. The trouble with Nairn, as far as Britain’s “progressive patriots” are concerned, is that his version of the British story is too much like real life: it ends.
But if Nairn is such a master-narrator of Ukanian decline, why has he not been embraced by conservatives, for whom national decline and its reversal has long been a central concern? Partly, it’s because he is – or at least was – a man of the revolutionary left. The Break-up of Britain was not just an intervention in Marxist thought, but – as he put it in a letter to one critic – “Leninist”, seeking to update and adapt Lenin’s own analysis of the troublesome “national question” for the final third of the 20th century. Even after drifting away from “Marxism” in the 1980s, his work has remained in the broad tradition of radical historical materialism, tempering historical fatalism with political optimism: what distinguishes his prophecy from the Cassandras of the right is that he sees Britain’s disintegration as a fundamentally positive development.
This may seem unsurprising from a thinker who is an overt Scottish nationalist. Yet it cannot be boiled down to mere intellectual separatism. Nairn stands out from so many other intellectuals because of his ability to imagine a better future “after Britain” – the title of another of his books – for everyone living in it, not just the Scots.
He is vicious in his criticism of rose- tinted visions of a communitarian “national family”, which its apologists counterpose to the variants of mass, populist nationalism that usually underpin state formation and legitimacy. Britain does have its own nationalism, he argues, but far from being uniquely sanguine, liberal or inclusive, it is outdated, anti-democratic and intellectually sterile. Every constituent part of Britain would benefit from its end, and here Nairn comes close to another Leninist formula, the “revolutionary defeatism” that the Bolshevik leader advocated for the Russian empire during the First World War. Nairn suggests that Britain, rarely defeated throughout its history, has for centuries been in a kind of cold war with modernity itself, and its subjects – still deprived of full-fledged republican citizenship – would benefit from being on the losing side at last.
Since Britain voted to leave the EU, a new cultural conservatism has taken hold, which insists that the left hates Britain and wishes to destroy it. With Nairn, they have a point. According to the intellectual historian Wade Matthews, “hatred of Britain has constituted the defining feature of Nairn’s contribution to New Left political thought”. Yet Matthews notes that he “has always sought to hate Britain properly”; Nairn’s disdain is for the self-deluding culture and composition of the British state and its elites, rather than the people subjected to their authority. He has nevertheless tended self-consciously to embrace the stereotype of the distanciated cosmopolitan intellectual, and his concerns and style reflect an international, journeyman career that left him unimpressed by Britain’s claims to unique enlightenment.
Freuchie, the small Fife town where Nairn was born in 1932, is almost the polar opposite of a bustling cosmopolis. Nor was it one of the radical mining communities – known as “Little Moscows” – for which interwar Fife was famous. Nairn’s father was a local head teacher, making him a scion of Scotland’s distinctive professional stratum, that quietly assertive layer of the middle class whose public service ethos still defines Scotland’s centuries-old institutional autonomy. Familiarity with this specifically Scottish class background may have pre-programmed him for a kind of outsider nationalism, for it sat uneasily between the worlds of big-state bureaucrats, public schools and proletarians in which the identities of postwar English politics were forged.
After studying philosophy at Edinburgh and Oxford he was awarded a British Council scholarship in 1957 to the Scuola Normale Superiore in Pisa, where his political development began to flourish. There, he discovered in the Italian Communist Party (PCI) a culturally literate and intellectually ambitious mass politics, rooted both in local communities and a transnational, European vision of socialism.
Nairn is often described as a shy, private figure – “famously very silent”, according to his friend Anthony Barnett – which is difficult to reconcile with the fiery polemicist that appears in his written work. Yet Barnett, a veteran campaigner for constitutional reform, told me that as soon as Nairn begins speaking Italian he transforms into a model European intellectual: “He becomes verbose, there’s a personality change.” Neal Ascherson, another friend and collaborator with whom Nairn shared an Edinburgh flat in the 1970s, described him as “an excellent cook”, with a “spare, almost austere good taste in whatever he possessed” – characteristics that, he suggested, may also derive from Nairn’s fondness for Italy.
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This internal, personal Italy seems to have become a source of intellectual and spiritual resistance that has survived the countless uprootings of Nairn’s quasi-nomadic career. He spent the 1960s flitting between jobs and places, pursuing further study in Dijon before teaching at the University of Birmingham and Hornsey College of Art in north London, even supporting himself for a while as a nightwatchman. In an essay on his time guarding warehouses, he reflected upon encountering a fellow Scot: in the attempts of “Jock” to work diligently, Nairn “could sense the centuries of Kirk bells tolling somewhere… he was blinded by the grave-miasma of an ancestral work-religion, with its Clock-God groaning prohibitions out of the clouds”. This “thirst for alienation” horrified Nairn. Among the many ways Britain compared unfavourably to Italy, its workhorse Protestantism – so vital to the success of the Union, as the historians Colin Kidd and Linda Colley have argued – was surely not insignificant.
The relative intellectual and political heterodoxy of Italian communism also helped Nairn to avoid the dogmatic sectarianism that he saw in the British radical left of the time: “If you were a Marxist [in Britain] you were a Stalinist or a Trotskyist,” Nairn recalled in an interview in 2016, “but I was insulated against that by my Italian experience… there was a much wider intellectual, cultural atmosphere that one could go on breathing.” Nairn may have described Break-up as “Leninist”, but he has never concealed his disdain for the predominant variants of organised Marxism.
Stalinism’s crimes were well known by the late 1950s, but Nairn was also dismissive of the “gross deformations of Trotskyism” that claimed to offer a revolutionary alternative. In 1968 he condemned the “rigorous neo-puritanism” of Trotskyists’ insistence that only the working class could make revolution happen, which he saw as a cover for “instant and total subordination to the sect”. Those sects were too sure of themselves, too reluctant to be surprised, to make themselves truly useful when the future erupted into the present.
Italy provided him with an alternative tradition of Marxist thought in the form of Antonio Gramsci. Gramsci’s emphasis on the political importance of culture and intellectuals in the construction of class alliances, and on the distinctive characteristics and history of national societies, offered Nairn a way out of the barren dichotomy between Stalin and Trotsky.
The Sardinian theorist and politician, imprisoned by Mussolini while leader of the PCI, had been introduced in small doses and without much fanfare into British socialist thinking in the 1950s. Yet it was Nairn who made him truly relevant to Britain. “The first full-fledged attempt to apply Gramscian concepts and a framework to the realities of British society and history must have been the ones pioneered by Tom,” said the historian Perry Anderson, who alongside Nairn has been a leading figure in the journal New Left Review (NLR) since the early 1960s. Though Nairn “knew Gramsci’s work incredibly well”, he did not take the dry, philological approach to Gramsci with which many scholars have sought to clarify the often cryptic formulations of his Prison Notebooks: “He was too creative to do that… [Gramsci] was like a second nature to him, whose ideas came through quite naturally and spontaneously.”
The politics Nairn had acquired in Italy drew him towards the London-based New Left, where he soon became a vital part of NLR’s ambitious attempt to re-theorise British history and politics. This project began with two of Nairn’s own articles in 1963 – one for the PCI’s Il Contemporaneo, the other his second piece for NLR, titled “Landed England” – on the structure of the Anglo-British ruling class.
These works captured a significant shift in NLR’s emphasis. The journal’s previous iteration, under the editorship of Stuart Hall, incorporated former Communist Party of Great Britain members such as EP Thompson, Christopher Hill and John Saville. They sought to restate a distinctive English radical tradition that could underpin a kind of left-wing patriotism, connecting this to New Left movements such as the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament. Nairn, on the other hand, focused on the development of elites, the character of the state, and their changing position within an integrated “world-system” of capitalist geopolitics. His concern was not with whether Britain’s peoples had radical potential, but what stopped them from realising it.
He shared this focus with Anderson, who replaced Hall as NLR editor at the beginning of the 1960s. Anderson, another polyglot, cosmopolitan intellectual, told me that from the start, Nairn was viewed as a “senior figure” at the journal, both more knowledgeable and – via his Italian and French connections – more experienced in the European Marxist tradition with which the New Left was increasingly preoccupied.
Nairn not only brought Gramsci into British thought, but also alerted his colleagues to the French Marxist Louis Althusser, who became a powerful and controversial influence in the 1970s and 1980s. “We were a little in awe of him,” recalled Anderson. Not only was Nairn about a decade older than much of NLR’s inner circle of precocious twenty-somethings, but he also had “the slight foreignness of the Scot – there was a distinctive national style about him”.
Between the two of them, Nairn and Anderson produced a series of articles on British history that became known as the “Nairn-Anderson theses”. With typical attention to historical irony, these located Britain’s political conservatism in its status as an economic pioneer. “The English political class, because of the peculiar circumstances attending its birth, was conservative from the outset,” Nairn wrote in “Landed England”. Here, the stagnation of British politics in the postwar era was traced back to the birth of capitalism itself.
The world-conquering force of English – and shortly thereafter British – capitalism was such that it never had to “modernise” in the way that every other competitor did. Instead, Britain preserved itself in a kind of “transitional” aspic, neither pre-modern nor fully modern. Those on the receiving end of enclosure, clearance and proletarianisation may have found their worlds turned upside down, but for Nairn and Anderson mere immiseration was never enough to radicalise national politics: in the absence of a life-or-death struggle between bourgeois and aristocrat, in which the bourgeoisie had to drag the whole of the people into political life for support, no tradition of genuine popular sovereignty could fully establish itself.
Instead, the God-given authority of the monarch was simply smuggled into the modern world under parliamentary disguise. Westminster is thus empowered – via Crown-in-Parliament – to act as a sort of corporate deity, making and unmaking laws and structures as it pleases, with the royal family sticking around to inject what Nairn calls “the glamour of backwardness” and an aura of timeless familial stability into the arrangement. Parliament’s authority floats down from above, not up from below, and comes to a rest high above the people; the electorate’s power to choose representatives every few years is little more than a consolation prize for the lack of any other popular involvement in the actual system by which the people are governed.
Much of Nairn’s analysis was almost parodically vindicated by Brexit, the great constitutional upheaval of our times. A consultative referendum – a clumsy charade of actual popular sovereignty – set the stage for three years of parliamentary wrangling in the name of restoring parliamentary sovereignty to its full might, the twists and turns of which were determined largely by the arithmetic of the House of Commons. At no point in the national angst about “the will of the people” was there any serious question as to why someone called Elizabeth Windsor should be involved in such an issue – her authority called upon to prorogue parliament illegally, no less – on the basis of who her father was. Nairn’s point in The Enchanted Glass (1988), his acclaimed study of British statehood, is that members of the royal family are not a quirky add-on to a normal regime; in their exceptional status and their phoney familiarity, they serve as a national totem, giving meaning and coherence to the system. They indicate to their subjects that Britain is not like other states, and thus need not be held to similar standards. By proving that we do things differently here, they help us to avoid the realisation that we actually do things worse. It is royalty, above all, that makes Britain’s conservative constitution popular, despite the lack of popular authorship or involvement.
This failure to rationalise political life and place it on the abstract, universal and impersonal basis of a modern constitution has dampened British intellectual life, especially in its socialist variant. In his critique of “Labourism” – perhaps the most sustained and rigorous of any left-wing thinker – Nairn suggests that Britain’s working class developed too early to benefit from the formative influence of Marxism, settling instead into Labour’s blend of quasi-religious moralism and liberal “empiricism”.
“British socialism” became trapped within a conservative vision of class that refuses to claim the whole of society for itself. The missing ingredient, which Nairn and his colleagues at NLR sought to import from European thinkers – especially Hegel, Lukács, Gramsci and Althusser – was the question of totality. Labour and the wider left may have had various ideological bugbears, from economic inequality to imperialism, but for Nairn they have failed to grasp these issues within their proper context: the structural crisis of the British state within a transformed world order. Labour in the 1920s, 1940s and 1960s found itself simultaneously arguing for Britain to remain a world power while being hamstrung by crises born of a ludicrously overvalued currency – one of the country’s last vestiges of world-power status.
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The necessary self-delusion of popular Britishness remains crucial to understanding Labour’s contemporary failures: the party simply could not tell a positive story about membership of the EU, for that would require explaining – and justifying – the considerable limits of British power to a culture primed for dreams of maritime greatness. Efforts to triangulate by claiming that Labour could “lead” Europe were no match for the primordial myth of a nation forged in the transition from one order to the next, with its history-proof ideology of “muddling through” that renders the national spirit impervious to defeat.
Corbynism suffered, too, from the extraordinary passivity of British popular consciousness. Jeremy Corbyn’s idea that politics should be a mass activity, demanding ongoing collective struggle, remains almost laughable in a culture schooled in Oscar Wilde’s dictum that socialism takes up too many evenings. Instead, Britain’s few serious structural adjustments have tended to emanate from within the elite. When the modernising pressures of the postwar order began to threaten the social peace, it was the right under Margaret Thatcher who purged the old country-estate muddlers from power and rebooted the Ukanian bourgeoisie at the labour movement’s expense. For Nairn, the decades since have represented another effort to steady the ship, re-establishing the cod-solidarities of the “national family” and adapting the constitution to compensate the peripheral nations of the UK for Thatcher’s centrally driven overhaul.
Nairn’s story of Britain, and especially of England, is undoubtedly hard to take for those who seek the warm resolution of national romance. In 1965 EP Thompson produced a scything critique of the Nairn-Anderson theses titled “The Peculiarities of the English”, accusing its authors of “a rather unwholesome obsession with power” and a “ruthlessness in their dismissal of the English experience”.
Yet Nairn’s emphasis on Britain’s deep, determining structures of power, over and against popular or individual agency, is not as totalising as it might seem. He participated enthusiastically in the utopianism of 1968, and was fired from his teaching job at Hornsey for his involvement in a lengthy occupation of the college by its staff and students. His optimism was expressed in a book co-authored with Angelo Quattrocchi, The Beginning of the End (1968), in which he declared that “whereas all other revolutions were inevitably struggles against impossible odds, where a great deal of the revolutionary vision was certain to be lost… the new revolution will – on the contrary – exceed every vision, break every obstacle, and realise the dreams of maturity, of which we are as yet scarcely conscious”. To some extent the Hornsey occupation was Nairn’s May Revolt, a utopian experiment in self-directed education, art and work, styling itself as an “anti-institution”.
Neal Ascherson suggested to me that after his sacking, Nairn may have been blacklisted from academia for his radicalism. In an essay on Nairn’s life and influence, Ascherson asks how else could 33 years have passed in which “no university dared to offer tenure or a teaching post to the man who was blatantly Scotland’s – indeed Britain’s – leading political theorist”, until he eventually found a chair at Melbourne? There may also have been a temperamental element in play. It was “grotesque”, Anderson remarked, that someone of Nairn’s stature should have been condemned to decades of penury, but his isolation may have had something to do with “Tom’s reserve – his creditable absence of standard Anglo-sociability”. This lack of careerism was also noted by Barnett: “Tom himself has this great mixture of being utterly single-minded, and yet – he’s not resigned, but he just accepts things. I don’t think he tried to get back into academia, I don’t think he hammered on the door… He took his own course.”
If Nairn is fatalistic, it is a fatalism founded more on optimism than despair. Where EP Thompson went digging for hope in the English past, Nairn has usually borrowed it from the future. He may be fond of prophecy, but he is also remarkably at ease with a kind of radical uncertainty. This optimism found new justifications after the dreams of 1968 were punctured. In 1970 Barnett found Nairn a job in Amsterdam at the Transnational Institute (TNI), which had been established by disillusioned figures in the US Democratic Party to study and support Third World radicalism. Nairn, however, was more than ever preoccupied with Europe. He sought to turn the TNI into a think tank for an integrated European left, which put him at odds with the institute’s objectives, and he left in the mid-1970s.
His 1972 essay “The Left Against Europe?” denounced left-wing opposition to the European Economic Community, which he believed could impose a more totalising, international perspective on British culture from the outside. In one of several early acknowledgements of globalisation, he argued that the nation state was losing its importance, and the Common Market could help the British left to rediscover a “concrete internationalism” that directly reflected the new transnational political economy.
The real focus of Nairn’s optimism since 1968, however, has been Scotland. In 1970 he declared: “I will not admit that the great dreams of May 1968 are foreign to us, that the great words on the Sorbonne walls would not be at home on the walls of Aberdeen or St Andrews, or that Linwood and Dundee could not be Flins and Nantes.” This was curiously at odds with his otherwise piercing critiques of Scotland’s own cultural and political conservatism, and as the afterglow of 1968 faded he settled upon a more compromising variant of hopeful determinism. Scottish nationalism, however ideologically disappointing it might be, nevertheless offered the best way of bridging the Ukanian moat, allowing the multiple identities trapped inside it to acquaint themselves with modernity at last.
European integration was again vital here, for it promised to force Scottish nationalism outwards to the wider world, avoiding the chauvinist insularity that would stem from a more outright separatism. It was also Europe that finally drove Nairn away from the British left. “It was not until the experience of the anti-Common-Market campaign that I saw, belatedly and naively, the kind of hopeless nationalist nostalgia which actually sustained British socialism,” he wrote in 1976. The overwhelming Englishness of this nostalgia was anathema to Nairn’s own identity: “Closed in the British eggshell until that moment, it had not occurred to me… that I would not like English socialism very much.”
These factors inspired Nairn’s sole venture into party politics – in 1976 he joined the Scottish Labour Party (SLP), a left-wing split from Labour led by Jim Sillars. Aided by Nairn’s influence, the SLP advocated “maximum” devolution as a route to “independence in Europe”, distinguishing itself from the Eurosceptic SNP as well as Labour’s half-hearted support for a Scottish Assembly. The SLP quickly collapsed after a vicious internal spat over Trotskyist “entryism” – in which Nairn took the leadership’s side against the Trotskyists – but many of its pioneering ideas eventually reached the mainstream of Labour and SNP politics.
Nairn was not just becoming an intellectual advocate of Scottish nationalism, but a leading proponent of nationalism in general. In 1975 he published an essay titled “The Modern Janus”, a startling, heretical critique of Marxist approaches to the national question. In it, he drew on the work of the sociologist Ernest Gellner, who argued that nationalism emerged as a means of adapting distinctive cultural communities to the requirements of industrial society.
Gellner’s theory offered an explanation for nationalism’s undeniable ability to thrive within, rather than simply against, the processes of globalisation. It was through nationalism that modernity – encompassing everything from capitalist industry to the centralised state – ultimately spread itself across the world. It offered discrete ethnic communities, in Nairn’s summary, the promise of “progress on their own terms”, drawing on imagined pasts to give native meaning – and consent – to a strange, arriving future. It would be good, Nairn suggested, for this process to be normalised rather than feared. Attempting to stifle nationalist roads to modernity risked warping them into darker shapes, while left-wing efforts to bypass them would leave socialists hopelessly detached from popular identities.
Nairn’s theory of nationalism is also a tacit acceptance of substantial limits on collective agency, and here we find a more pessimistic side to his thought. In “The Modern Janus”, he articulates this via Walter Benjamin’s famous “Angel of History” image, in which the angel finds itself “turned towards the past”, blown backwards by a “storm from paradise”, observing all of history as “one single catastrophe which keeps piling wreckage upon wreckage”. That storm, Benjamin wrote, “is what we call progress”. Yet for Nairn, hope could still be found if the left was only brave enough to discover its own limits “beyond the wreckage”.
The motif of history as a kind of storm recurs throughout Nairn’s work, and offers a vital insight into the undercurrents of his thought: the storm, for Nairn, is not just fearsome but invigorating, fraught with both danger and potential. In a rare interview in December 2020, Nairn said that “within the next five years, in one form or another, break-up is likely to come about”. So far, so fatalistic; but then Nairn offered a quiet celebration of Scotland’s ambiguous future: “Let’s go ahead, and see what comes out of the maelstrom.”
Nationalist politicians and intellectuals occasionally talk about “utilitarian” and “existential” variants of Scottish nationalism, distinguishing between those for whom independence is a means to an end, and those for whom it is an end in itself (First Minister Nicola Sturgeon describes herself as a bit of both). Nairn is not quite an existential nationalist, but he is clearly a national existentialist. He argues that nations, as bounded cultural communities, ought to make and remake their own collective meaning in the here and now, relentlessly transforming themselves in dialogue with the world beyond, rather than clinging to the comfort blanket of inherited myth. This embrace of the strange and unknown is perhaps Nairn’s greatest contribution to the debate about Britain’s future, and underpins a vision of radical, progressive nationalism that much of the British left seems to find impossible to imagine.
Nairn’s nationalism is not about supremacy or even separation, but permanent and ongoing self-determination. This is almost an anti-nationalist nationalism, for in Nairn’s view, “patriotic” myths only stifle real self-determination beneath artificial certainties. He encourages and pursues the kind of existential uncertainty that opens up collective identity to the creative involvement of as many participants and experiences as possible. The contemporary relevance of this project, in an age of statue-topplers and knee-takers, is another testament to the revolutionary inventiveness of Nairn’s own nationalism. Nations, for Nairn, offer the broadest kind of community – a “limited infinity”, as the Scottish poet Hugh MacDiarmid put it – in which such a process of collective self-fashioning can happen on truly democratic grounds.
But for this collective self-fashioning to occur, certain conditions must be in place, and chief among these is a truly popular involvement in the life of the nation – a modern, socialist republicanism, stripped of formal privilege, in which the whole citizenry subordinates the nation state to its will. The trouble with Britain, for Nairn, is that it is programmed to do things the other way round. He shows us that a progressive British revolution in “the heartland” is vanishingly unlikely, and that if no such revolution takes place, then “a conservative counter-revolution will… Who, in that case, can deny [the minority nations] effective self-determination, not as a moral piety but as an urgently necessary step?” Those words, prophetic in 1977, are no less true today. Before new, better stories can be told, the old one has to end.
This article appears in the 28 Jul 2021 issue of the New Statesman, Summer special