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The sorcerer’s birthday: notes from the apprentice

About the author
Tom Nairn is an expert on nationalism, British institutions and Scotland. He is Research Professor in the Politics Department of Durham University and was a Professor of Nationalism and Social Diversity at the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology, from 2002 until January 2010.

Anthony is Anglo-Britain's outstanding example of "the culture of critique". From New Left Review via Charter 88 through to www.opendemocracy.net, he has, better than anyone else, represented a left-of-centre effort to at once preserve and renovate the inherited cultural and political structures of Britain - that is, of the multinational apparatus built upon the 1707 Treaty of Union with Scotland, as well as of its earlier extensions of Wales and Ireland. His hope has been that farther extension into European Union may continue and reinvigorate that culture, rather than leading to its demise: an inspiring and outward-looking campaign that has mobilized thousands of colleagues, followers and emulators, and generated hope and creativity against a background of decay, retreat and ultimate folly.

Also in openDemocracy:

"Anthony Barnett: a radical's fanfare" (28 November 2007)

I'm one of the thousands who have benefited in this way, as well as an old friend. If I say "innumerable" that's what I mean: I can't begin to list either the times or the exact content of his advice and his recommendations, from the 1960s up to (almost!) the present. He has usually been right. More widely, his achievements in books, writings and working projects speak for themselves, and have altered the mentalité within many people work and think. Such efforts are all the more praiseworthy for the formidable obstacles they have been working against.

Tom Nairn is an expert on globalisation, nationalism, British institutions and Scotland. He is professor of globalisation at the Globalism Research Centre, RMIT University, Melbourne, Australia. His many books include Faces of Nationalism: Janus Revisited (Verso, 1998), After Britain (Granta, 2000) and Pariah: Misfortunes of the British Kingdom (Verso, 2002), and Global Matrix: Nationalism, Globalism and State-terrorism (Pluto Press, 2005)

Among Tom Nairn's articles on openDemocracy:

"Pariah Kingdom" (24 May 2001)

"The party is over" (22 May 2002)

"America vs Globalisation" (a five-part essay, January-February 2003)

"Britain's tipping-point election" (26 June 2005)

"After the G8 and 7/7: an age of 'democratic warming'" (10 July 2005)

"Ending the big 'ism" (26 January 2006)

"The Queen: an elegiac prophecy" (27 September 2006)

"Not on your life" (14 May 2007)

What are these obstacles and limits? The arguments around "culture of critique" have gone on mainly in the United States, brought to wider attention through the temporary ascendancy of Bush-era neo-conservatism. Re-focused on the United Kingdom case, one salient difference is the strong conservatism of the southern-English Jewish inheritance: what one might call the Disraelian tradition. It goes without saying that, as in America, both right and left currents have fought over this background. The late Ralph Miliband's castigation of Parliamentary Socialism (for example) was on Anthony's own ground. Had some kink in the space-time continuum let Ralph glimpse his offspring actively rebuilding the old Brit-brute, and standing up for it abroad, he'd have been beside himself.

However, from the great Victorian and down through Thatcherite figures like Keith Joseph and Michael Howard, that inheritance has in the main replaced "critique" with "critical support" for an idealised status quo - with emphasis on the state. An earlier imperial framework may have disappeared; but the multinational core endures, and much of the UK's dire anachronism continues to inform the latter. Margaret Thatcher and Tony Blair radicalism kept it running, and the Gordon Brown régime seeks actively to reanimate it.

Anthony has always thought and acted against "Iron Britannia" and its successors, and urged a more strongly European version of modernity as its successor. Regrettably, all too much of the Anglo intelligentsia, Jewish and gentile alike, has stuck to "If it ain't broken...", with (alas) increased support from other ethnic sources, like Neil Kinnock's Welsh, the Brown/Alistair Darling Scots, and Ian Paisley's Ulster Protestantism. It's now as if the older camp-followers have taken over the camp itself, sometimes in alliance with new immigrants: the multiculturalism of a family mausoleum. Thus over-compensating, self-interested minorities of minorities keep terminal Britishry going, more effectively than the re-invented legends of Gordon Brown.

I suppose this is where I've come to disagree with Anthony, like some other openDemocracy adherents. It has become too late for zomboid Britain. Only "little England" - always 85% of the deal - can help everyone escape from the living-dead Iron-Brit embrace, preferably in association with the archipelago's smaller countries advancing to independence on their own, new terms. Westminster should long ago have followed Monarchy out into the builder's skip, and been replaced by a confederal deal of some kind - a Council not of mythical "Isles", but of equal, sovereign countries.

Anthony's efforts at radical-British reform may sometimes give the impression of a one-man band, playing too loudly to counter the vast forces blaring away on the other side. Well, I don't care: it has been the best music around, and for rather a long time. I still love it, and him, and want to go on hearing what will, in the longer run, be acknowledged as England's finest rather than Britannia's last gasp. Audiences will go on listening and remembering that, when Gordon Brown's spluttering bagpipes are no more than a half-forgotten episode of downfall.


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