Introducing Tom Nairn, prophet of the break-up of Britain

Tom Nairn is introduced to a young generation by an old friend

Anthony Barnett
Anthony Barnett
13 September 2014

If there is a single writer and thinker who has set the movement for an independent Scotland in the larger picture of a failing 'Ukania' and the rising place of civic nationalism within globalisation, it is without doubt, Tom Nairn. Tom is a regular contributor to openDemocracy and has been since it started in 2001. On Monday 15 September, a collection of his essays will be published by Luath Press in Edinburgh, Old Nations, Auld Enemies, New Times, to which all are invited.

The collection has an introduction by Anthony Barnett, founder of openDemocracy, and here it is.

"History is largely a tale of groping in the dark, a condition no person or class can miraculously escape from."

Tom Nairn

I’d like to address this introduction to younger readers unfamiliar with Tom Nairn. You have the opportunity to greet a commanding European thinker who in person is gentle, modest and unassuming. I envy you the chance to read for the first time his wonderful, withering exasperation with the status quo. And the style of his argument: persistent, careful, demonstrative (in the sense of saying, “Look! This is how it is.”), and hard, urging us to stand up like humans from our bent, servile posture before the powers that are screwing up our lives.

Introductions to a collection usually go on about the range of the author’s work and the intellectual path down which he has proceeded, or in Tom’s case led the way. But despite his unmatched scholarship and range of reading, anything that risks turning Tom into an academic would give a false impression. Tom is a writer.  He is a writer first and foremost. You should bathe in his prose, let it take its time, and indulge yourself in it. Don’t read him for a quick steer.

For Tom has a rare quality as a writer that is quite disturbing and difficult to accept, until you do; then laughter sets in and the world is never quite the same again. For in addition to being a writer Tom is a thinker. The supreme quality of his prose, whether in the form of anger, humour, seriousness or sarcasm, is that he shares his thinking with us. He searches for meaning and the real forces behind and within what is going on, and so teaches us too how to think. Or, as he might put it, to grope better in the darkness. 

You might regard thinking as trivial or technical. But this depends on what you are trying to think about. Many philosophers, like the professional ones who fill university departments today, form a kind of conspiracy against thinking, as do most newspapers - all forms of sensationalism and celebrity culture. Tom, however, seeks to uncover the meaning of what is going on. Nothing could be more ambitious or necessary. Which is why there are no university departments openly dedicated to ‘The study of what is going on’. That would be far too dangerous! Only a few exist where such work is pursued covertly. 

What do I mean by “What is going on?” I mean that Tom asks:  Why are we ruled in the specific way we are ruled? How do they get away with it? Why do we let them? These are questions about ourselves as well as them, about our weakness and passivity as well as their capacity and self-interest. 

A fascinating example is provided in this collection with Tom’s 1971 essay on Enoch Powell. Perhaps you are young enough never to have heard of Powell and his ‘Rivers of Blood’ speech opposing immigration. When he was in the Conservative opposition’s Shadow Cabinet he issued a dire warning in Birmingham, "As I look ahead, I am filled with foreboding; like the Roman, I seem to see 'the River Tiber foaming with much blood.'" Expelled from the Conservative front bench he nonetheless became a defining politician of the right and an instant bogeyman to the left. Tom engages with Powell and asks what it means that this bizarre figure could become such an influence.

In these days of stand-up comics. to say it is a polemic suggests taking up a position, making a shocking counter-attack for the sake of effect, in short posturing. What Tom does is quite different: he engages. He sucks in Enoch Powell, he reads his early poetry, he rolls him around his mouth, he tastes his toxic allure, he probes its attraction for British rule, he compares him to other types of far right leaders and then he spits him out.

This rare quality of engagement, of never reducing opponents to their shadow and considering all their living features and capacity to endure – unless we do something about it! – makes Tom as unpredictable as reality itself. You can see in this collection how he began as a Marxist, that is to say writing from the point of view of a body of thought taken to be correct. The more he engaged the more he abandoned the core Marxist belief that the meaning of history is known and that capitalism is having its grave dug by the working class it created; that this singular, proletarian class has no nation, and that like religion and aristocratic flim-flam, nationalism is a false-consciousness. Much later, he penned a fine critique of Hart and Negri’s attempt to recreate the proletariat as the global multitude.

But this shift in Tom’s thinking was not an abandonment of the method that Marx pioneered, the method of historical materialism. While Tom supports small nation civic nationalism, he investigates its economic advantages in relation to the direction of the modern world, he seeks out its deeper function and unravels its historical nature. He never takes such nationalism at its own word. He strongly backs civic nationalism, but not as a nationalist, for his perspective is international. He does not wear the Saltire as a badge of rank or any kind of uniform from which all else is judged. An intellectual of the left he is, but there is nothing of the policeman about Tom Nairn.

A small example, not to be found here, may illustrate his sensitivity to the historical influences that shape nationalism. In 1976 he went to a conference in Nicosia, Cyprus, on the fate of small nations. It took place soon after Turkey had invaded and captured the north of the island. Tom sets out how the Greeks had developed one of the earliest nationalisms in Europe at the beginning of the nineteenth century. Because it was so early it could take the form of a romantic pan-Hellenism. The Greek community in Cyprus, however, had suffered the longest colonial experience of any country in Europe, through to 1960 - with British rule generating political lethargy within a relatively developed society. With independence, the Greek-Cypriots could not resist adopting pan-Hellenism as their nationalism, for they had none of their own. This then threatened the defensive nationalism of the Turkish minority - a nationalism that was historically as late as Greece’s was early. I won’t continue to try and précis Tom’s analysis. This is enough to illustrate his approach. Nationalism always presents itself as an unchanging essence, especially for its ethnic proponents. But it is in fact never such, being always a historically contingent and economically shaped reality. This does not make it ‘false’. On the contrary, because it is man-made it is all the more real for us – and can be more or less humane. At the same time, as a product of us humans in response to global development as we experience it in our very different ways, it also draws upon our shared nature.

Another reflection on this theme of humanity, progress and reaction to it, but this time central because about a turning point in world affairs, is Tom’s article on 9/11. It was published in the openDemocracy debate, four weeks after the World Trade Towers were brought down. ‘Hooligans of the Absolute’ is a robust dismissal of panic and alarmism and a devastating observation of the cost to the Middle East of its failure to develop secular nationalism. A far-sighted response it draws on a deep theme in his writing: confidence in the long-term positive emancipation of global development.

It’s an outlook that distinguishes Tom from many on the traditional and ecological lefts. Historically, the left felt confident about progress. We the progressives would shape the future. Today, the pessimism of defeat has captured the heart of many on the left, after the disasters of Communism, the collapse of social democracy and the impotence of Green politics. The result is a sometimes bitter contempt for the modern world. Tom does not share this attitude at all. Always seeking the forces that will shake and eventually break the existing order for the better, today in his work on globalization he embraces the energy and real achievements of digital capitalism and the vital spirits of its popular cultures.   

Any country that can produce a Tom Nairn deserves a fully independent place in world affairs, however modest. Likewise, a country that does not produce a political writer with such cultural depth, international range, profound reading, openness to argument, impatience with the status quo, biting wit and humane sympathy, may not deserve its independence. Such a country is England, alas. And this, as Tom has pointed out consistently and eloquently, is the heart of the problem with Britain that Scotland now suffers. (Not only Scotland of course.)

His wake up call to Scotland was a basso profondo within a wider chorus. His wake up call to my country, England, strikes a few lonely echoes against a stony reception - even when his diagnosis of the deep hysteria of the British elite is so well observed. Yet everyone in London who reads about politics is uneasily aware that he is the author of The Break-Up of Britain. The first to see it coming. And it is coming, in one way or another…

You can excuse his impatience for that book was published getting on for forty years ago – way before you were born! But his seeing further and better has not stopped him from continuing to engage with the way that breathing fossil, the British constitution, “a Coelacanth” Tom calls it, is actually lived - and how its history, interests and ideologies continue to entrap us.

His engagement with this, as across all his writings, is never morbid but never denies how close it gets to dancing with the dead. For Tom engages to make us free, self-governing and more human. He writes to rid us from stultified ways of thinking and the fetters of prejudice, clichés and received ideas of all kinds, from where so ever they come. In an era where every down-at-heel politico waves his or her ‘values’ at us like used five pound notes, Tom’s writing is a genuine ethics: here is how to think, argue and stand up for ourselves. You may be young, you may be inexperienced, but don’t let this prevent you from adopting a fully upright posture as you move forward, as you must, into the dark.


Launch Event: Tom Nairn: Old Nations, Auld Enemies, New Times: Selected Essays
Monday September 15, 18:30 - 21:00, New College, Martin Hall, Edinburgh
Dear Friend,
I would like to invite you to the launch of Old Nations, Auld Enemies, New Times, a collection of essays by Tom Nairn that Pete Ramand and I have been editing for the past nine months.
Pete Ramand – a founder member of the Radical Independence Campaign – and I will introduce and chair the event. Speakers will include writer and polemicist Tariq Ali, anti-nuclear activist Isobel Lindsay and constitutional reform campaigner Anthony Barnett, who has written the foreword to the book.
Making a rare public appearance, Tom himself will also say a few words.
There will be an opportunity for questions and contributions from the audience, and a drinks reception in the Rainey Hall afterwards.
For the last fifty years Nairn has been one of Britain’s most consistently provocative and influential voices. Old Nations, Auld Enemies, New Times brings together, for the first time, the full span of his work, from his ground-breaking analysis of the British state in the 1960s and ‘70s to his more recent examinations of globalisation, the English question and the independence referendum.
I hope you can join us for what promises to be one of the most exciting literary and media events of the referendum debate so far.

Tickets are free but must be reserved. Book now by clicking here.

Kind regards,
Jamie Maxwell

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