Tom Nairn’s spirit endures but can his work continue?

by Sean Bell

According to legend, the Partisan Review editor William Phillips, after enduring a Marxist tirade from the critic Kenneth Tynan, wearily replied that Tynan’s arguments were so old, he’d forgotten the answers to them. Tom Nairn’s enemies, by contrast, didn’t have that excuse — they never had any answers for his arguments.

Instead, they had the edifice of the British state — crumbling, absurdly Ruritanian, Escher-like in its illogic, but sadly enduring, nevertheless. To hold off Nairn’s intellectual attacks and the collapse he foresaw, all they could do was tend nervously to that UKanian status quo… and ignore everything else inconvenient.

It seems there are still those who prefer to ignore Tom Nairn. When I arrived at the inaugural ‘The Break-Up of Britain?’ conference, it transpired that I was apparently the only representative of the Scottish press not speaking on a panel in attendance (more fool them — I had the free sandwiches all to myself).

This sparsity of hacks did nothing to thin the audience; Edinburgh’s Assembly Rooms is not the kind of place one rents out for a dozen friends and their dog, yet the opulent main hall was easily filled, with almost 700 people estimated to have turned up on a rainy Saturday morning. The event they have come for has been named after Nairn’s most famous work, but also for a development many still hope to see. With the question of how the latter may be brought to pass as thorny as ever, it makes sense that we should look to the late writer and theorist who seemed to see everything coming.

That said, this is not NairnCon ’23, a nostalgic and fannish commemoration (there were enough of those in the days following Nairn’s passing in January of this year, mine among them) but something markedly more ambitious: an effort to continue the work which Nairn laboured over for more than half a century — the role and nature of nationalism in the world, unravelling the baroque fiction of ‘the United Kingdom’ and explicating the inevitability of its decline — in recognition that its relevance and necessity have not dulled in the meantime. This is no small task.

While the scope of the conference appeared almost unfeasibly vast, things began appropriately enough with a tribute to the man himself from Princeton University’s Professor Will Storrar, a friend of Nairn’s who described the speed with which the symposium had been arranged as an “intellectual coup d’état”.

Storrar, a former parish minister himself, fondly recalled Nairn’s famous declaration that Scotland “will be reborn when the last minister is strangled with the last copy of the Sunday Post”. Thereafter, Storrar said, Nairn was wont to answer to telephone as “chief officer of the strangling classes”.

The journalist Julie Davidson once remarked that there are only four intellectuals in Scotland, “and they’re all Tom Nairn”. Storrar made the case that this was more than a joke; in Nairn, he identified the European, the Revolutionary, the Anthropologist, and the Unknown Citizen. The last of these, Storrar argued, may be the most unrecognised, but not the most unimportant: though not a member of any party, Nairn took part in the democratic agitation of the “Home Rule generation” which fought for a Scottish Assembly and eventually delivered a Scottish Parliament. He did not, Storrar emphasised, do this alone: “It turns out we’re all Tom Nairn.” It’s certainly a nice thought, and a reminder that even intellectuals who approach their role with a Gramscian seriousness are but an aspect of wider forces.

It was impossible not to be curious about how ongoing international developments would be reflected in the discussions on offer: while we were sipping our coffee and shaking off the Edinburgh drizzle, genocide was — is — being committed in Gaza. That reality weighed heavily on the proceedings and did not remain unspoken for long: in his opening remarks, panel chair and openDemocracy correspondent Adam Ramsay stated that multiple cousins of his half-Palestinian nephew now number among the dead.

Lest anyone mistake what was to follow for merely academic, Ramsay made the point as clearly as one can: “The failure of the British state to condemn those actions as war crimes in Gaza,” he said, “has demonstrated to many of us why we’re here today.”

Pictured: A Palestine protester holds up a placard condemning Rishi Sunak and Keir Starmer in Edinburgh Waverley station.

Part of the appeal of Nairn’s cosmopolitan polemic was its ability to rise above the parochial trappings of partisan politics, but few of us have that luxury. During a panel on the future of the British state, it was perhaps inevitable that the subject would turn to those political parties tied inexorably to it.

The writer, academic and Scottish Labour member Rory Scothorne clearly knew what to expect from this audience, and thus embarked upon his qualified defence of the Labour Party as a vehicle for advancing independence with the good-natured optimism of a condemned Christian entering the Colosseum.

At one point, Red Pepper founding editor Hilary Wainwright recalled a slogan of May ’68: “I take my desires for reality, because I believe in the reality of my desires.” The view of reality Scothorne presented — that the British state has only two real parties of government, and working within the only one even slightly amenable to reforming that state may be necessary in order to dismantle it — collided with the desires of those assembled, with somewhat fractious results. Scothorne acknowledged that “part of being in the Labour Party is hating the Labour Party” — though judging by the response from the audience, it is entirely possible to do this from the outside, too — and encouraged the party under Starmer to “stop being suckers.” We wait with bated breath.

The nature of UK politics — not quite a two-party system, but close enough to operate like one — is well-known and much lamented. Yet it is still difficult to credit the notion that Labour — which my father once described as “not a movement, but a series of small jerks” — can be a vehicle for constitutional change when its current leader has done absolutely everything he can to deny that very possibility.

Later, during a panel titled — aspirationally, perhaps — ‘the SNP after Sturgeon and Labour after Starmer’, the journalist Joyce McMillan correctly warned that there is a cohort within the SNP working to push the party to the right — what she called a “Kate Forbes-Fergus Ewing sort of direction”. This may give too much credit to their coherence and competence (Ewing, in particular, isn’t so much an ideological current as a puddle); still, it is a sign of how bereft contemporary political discourse in Scotland has become that hearing a dedicated fossil fuel industry stooge and an unblinking social conservative actually described out loud as ‘right-wing’ is a gratifying novelty.

Most of the analysis of Brexit and its consequences from figures such as Green MP Caroline Lucas and former Plaid Cymru leader Leanne Wood would not have been out of place at any SNP conference over the past few years and thus felt very familiar, while pro-independence commentator Lesley Riddoch’s speech was virtually a 2014 time capsule/tribute act: Hey kids, remember Nordic social democracy?

Riddoch is nothing if not consistent, but there is no reason to believe that reflects anything but sincerity. The same could be said of the frequent allusions to Brexit and the complicated impact it has had on both the independence movement and the broader UK left; all pretty uncontroversial, but given the context, it was hard to ignore how slight and defensive these voices seemed — especially when compared with the fiery socialist defence of European integration Nairn put forward over 40 years ago. Then again, given the nature of the conference, there were always going to be times when the absence of his voice was keenly felt.

In that absence, one thing which united speakers across the various panels was that none pretended to speak for Nairn, or confused their perspective with his own; no one can or should speak for the dead whereof their work does not speak for itself. To do so at an event held in Nairn’s honour would be grossly disrespectful to say the least, as Rory Scothorne evidently understood when panel chair Pat Kane asked him to imagine what views Tom Nairn might hold if he was a young person today. With what I can only describe as Herculean restraint, Scothorne gently replied that this was a “silly question”.

“In all the ways that matter, the conference was a tremendous success — discursive, energetic, convivial and pluralistic.”

In all the ways that matter, the conference was a tremendous success — discursive, energetic, convivial and pluralistic. The qualification I must add is that there is a limit to what a conference can do. Such a symposium would have little to discuss if it were not for the work which provided its basis. A conference cannot take the place of a serious, in-depth piece of study, any more than a quick article, podcast or social media post.

In between panels, I was able to talk briefly with an activist of my acquaintance, and remembered once warning him that the independence movement which emerged from 2014 — now largely frustrated and burnt out after years of on a perpetual war-footing, at once unable to exhale or move forward — would eventually suffer for lack of the serious intellectual graft upon which Nairn’s reputation was built. My generation (nominally young in 2014, now undeniably not) has yet to produce its big book — a work of equal significance to The Break-Up of Britain or Stephen Maxwell’s The Case for Left-Wing Nationalism. We’ve tweeted a lot, but that doesn’t really cut it.

I made this point without reproach, because the intellectual, cultural and academic environment that allowed Nairn, Maxwell and others of that cohort to flourish and do their work — work which endures, even when they do not — barely exists any more, as my own cohort needs no reminding. There are precious few places where one can find the time and resources to simply think and write; they shrink daily, and we are all suffering for it. A nation’s intellect is being starved into submission.

Many have spoken of how the currents of ’68 inspired Nairn; almost in thanks, his work preserved the radicalism of Les Soixante-Huitards long after the uprisings were over and its leaders grew old and grey — not as a monument to the romantic past, but as a living system of ideas, carved with furious, precise and poetic articulacy, ready to be applied by all with the wit and will to do so.

As we sat in the Assembly Rooms, today’s youth — in Edinburgh and around the world — were marching in solidarity with the Palestinian people, clear and fearlessly uncompromising about what their liberation would require and entail. They, too, deserve to have their radicalism preserved in a form that will last forever.

Which raises the question: by who?



Sean Bell is a writer and journalist based in Edinburgh. His work has appeared in The National, The Herald, Source and Jacobin.

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