Tom Nairn, 1932-2023: 'Britain will break up in the next 5 years'
As the UK’s inequalities become impossible to ignore, we must confront our demons and leave this elitist, absurd state behind for good.
The leading philosopher and friend of openDemocracy Tom Nairn has died at the age of 90. Nairn was one of the world's most important theorists of nationalism; British and Scottish nationalism in particular. His 1977 book 'The Break-Up of Britain' was described by openDemoracy's founder Anthony Barnett as "the most important book on British politics in the last half century". In the essay below, first published in 2020, Adam Ramsay drew on Nairn's ideas to argue for a radical rethinking of the British state. It contains what we believe to be Nairn's last interview. You can also read two decades of Nairn's writing for oD here.
I cried into my under-salted porridge.
We’d got back from a midwife’s appointment to find our free baby box from the Scottish government on the doorstep, and unpacking it brought a bubble of joy.
The basics were reassuring: ear and bath thermometers (we hadn’t thought of those), a changing mat, reusable nappy tokens, cheery gender-neutral baby grows. The box doubles as a cot.
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Books about hungry caterpillars and traffic awareness were nice, but it was the art that brought tears: a National Orchestra of Scotland app with music for your baby; a poem from the Makar, the national poet. And a picture from the National Gallery. “Hello wee one,” it says on the back. “We chose this print especially for you.”
The Scottish government says the box “is designed to give every single baby in Scotland an equal start in life”. But it does more than that. A nation is an imagined community, and the Scottish state has worked hard to ensure that we feel our child will be loved by that community.
We don’t hear that from the British state.
Before 2020, a poll showing Scottish independence ahead was like our men’s football team scoring: celebrated magnificently by fans, but not indicative of a consistent lead. But all 14 surveys since 1 June have independence ahead, on average by 7%.
Something is changing, and not just in Scotland. This autumn, the pro-Welsh independence group YesCymru has grown from 2,000 paid-up members to 16,000. As new member Siwan Clark told me, until recently, independence “wasn’t on the agenda ... Now, it’s crossed the threshold”. Support for Welsh independence has risen from 10% in 2012 to 23% today, not far off levels seen in Scotland before 2014.
That year, the year of Scotland’s independence referendum, polls in Northern Ireland said that 65% wanted to remain in the UK. By 2017, in the wake of Brexit, young Protestants in Coleraine were telling me that although it made them sad, joining Ireland to stay in the EU probably made sense. Support for the status quo has fallen to 34%, with 35% preferring a united Ireland outright.
“The gears have shifted so much,” said Seán Fearon, a Northern Irish climate activist and PhD student who I recently spoke to over Zoom. “Particularly among younger people, there is a much, much stronger desire for Irish unification.”
In the north of England, after the unlikely rebellion from Manchester’s mayor, Andy Burnham, over pandemic funding, a new party, the Northern Independence Party, has sprung up demanding an end to Westminster rule. Meanwhile Dick Cole, the leader of Mebyon Kernow (The Party for Cornwall), tells me that his home-rule party has had an injection of “new young members”, and says that a current Cornish council consultation has turned up significant support for “decisions in Cornwall being made in Cornwall”. “People want more power,” he said.
Over the past decade I’ve interviewed people from Derry to Norwich, Cardiff to Harris, Jerusalem to Madrid about the break-up of Britain. But my conversations for this piece uncovered a new mood among those who want to leave the UK: calm confidence that the centre cannot hold.
More and more people are seeing through the bluster of the ancient British state and concluding that their respective parts of the UK would be better off governing themselves. That the politics cultivated by Westminster does more harm than good, and that it’s time for something new. It’s harder than ever to avoid a simple truth: they’re right.
The unmaking of a state
The United Kingdom has been a contested idea ever since it began to form. But it was the Marxist theorist, Tom Nairn, who first seriously traced the current fault lines in his 1977 book ‘The Break-Up of Britain’. Now 88, he’s usually cautious about predicting timelines. But speaking to me for this piece, he finally got specific. “Within the next five years, in one form or another, break-up is likely to come about”.
As Nairn identified, some forces driving this process move slowly. One is geopolitics. Three centuries ago, English and Scottish elites joined forces to colonise the world. During the Cold War, Britain’s family of ‘home nations’ huddled under the protection of nuclear weapons. Today, after Iraq, Brexit and genuflecting to Trump, the advantages of presenting as British rather than, say, Scottish are fading.
Another is communications technology. Modern nations were birthed in part by 19th-century innovations such as the printing press, followed by radio and television in the century after. Social media disrupts that process. More than ever, people are inventing new identities and putting old ones to new use. Every Welsh independence supporter I interviewed mentioned the lack of a Welsh press. Their movement is gathering online. The production of ideas and identities is less top-down than ever.
Economics is yet another. In ‘The Break-up of Britain’, Nairn defined nationalism as “mobilisation against the unpalatable truth of grossly uneven development”. Waves of capitalism break differently on different shores, intensifying regional variations and driving demand for independent governance. If this is generally true, then it’s very true in the UK, Europe’s most geographically unequal country. The City in London and the housing bubble in the south-east suck in investment, wealth and youth, and blow out debt, austerity, stress and regret.
And there are events.
After the banks crashed, Scotland and Wales voted for the steady hand of Gordon Brown but got David Cameron’s axe. Social security was the duvet under which we all snuggled. It gave millions a direct relationship with the British state. But that security was snatched away by the humiliating cruelty of Universal Credit.
Older English voters, infuriated by the status quo but unable to escape the cage of the British state, broke their heads against its bars, and Brexited. A younger generation radicalised by reality – war, climate change, austerity, housing – spent a dozen desperate years demanding change. Corbynism was the Westminster establishment’s chance to compromise. It didn’t.
Then came the virus. For many, the pandemic has been one of those moments that clarifies a question: do we want decisions about our lives made in Westminster – or in Holyrood, the Senedd, Stormont, or the Oireachtas?
Healthcare, once seen by Westminster as a ‘soft’, feminised issue that could be safely devolved while the British state hung on to the big boy stuff like security, has turned out to be the defining factor. If you’re Scottish, your government has been blessed by comparison with Westminster. If you’re Welsh, your first minister is suddenly a prominent figure. In Northern Ireland, it makes practical sense to collaborate with Dublin, whatever your tradition – and if you’re English, you get jealous.
Whatever the failings of leaders in Scotland, Wales and Ireland, they have at least struck the right tone. They have given the impression that this crisis is something other than a chance to shake up our public services, and spray their mates with a fizz of private contracts.
Britain’s leaders, by contrast, shelter behind a myth of ‘competence’ and hard-headed realism. But the borders of their ‘real world’ don’t extend far beyond London’s Square Mile, the headquarters of corporations like Shell or BP, estate agents in the Home Counties, and the editorial offices of right-wing newspapers. COVID-19, however, shows that politics isn’t about their fictional universe. It’s about our lives. And deaths.
Every country is a card-house of contradictions; every nation a disputed story, every state, a battlefield of institutions. So most claims about Britain have some truth.
Unionists often say that the UK is about pooling and sharing resources. In a sense, they’re right. Much of modern Britain was built by Labour in 1945, with its institutions of organised justice. But that settlement is being dismantled.
For many, Britain is an aid-giving, democracy-defending global goodie. To see through this, we need to travel 5,000 miles away.
In 2016, 214,488 papers were leaked from the Panama-based law firm Mossack Fonseca, detailing an offshore network of secretive deals, money laundering and tax avoidance. Headlines shouted about dictators and drug lords in the Global South getting their comeuppance. But less widely reported was that most companies mentioned in the Panama papers were registered in the UK, its Overseas Territories or Crown Dependencies.
Last year, academics Reijer Hendrikse and Rodrigo Fernandez analysed this growing offshore world. “Together with the wealth of the world’s billionaire class”, they concluded, it now “effectively constitutes the backbone of global capitalism”.
After 1945, as former colonies wriggled free, Britain was reinvented as something approaching a modern nation-state. But Westminster’s imperial detritus – Bermuda, Gibraltar, the Cayman Islands, the British Virgin Islands and the Channel Islands – form the wheel turning Earth’s main money laundry. Hundreds of billions wash through it every year, wealth stolen from the workers of the world, impoverishing the planet.
Yet while London is the global financial hub through which much of this wealth travels, the vast majority of the population are excluded from it, regardless of their attachment to the stories and symbols of Britain.
It was spring 2015, at the depth of both Tory austerity and a grim hangover, when I first went to Cluan Place, east Belfast. Loyalist flags lined the fortified street and many of the women I spoke to checked their neighbours weren’t listening before whispering surprisingly similar opinions. As one put it, “I sometimes think that their lot” – nodding to the Sinn Fein-voting Short Strand over a vast iron fence – “do more for us than our lot.”
What’s now Northern Ireland has long been treated as a colony: first during the plantations, then as a useful ship-building outpost. When the minority Catholic population demanded civil rights in the 1960s, British soldiers who’d just put down an uprising in Kenya arrived to inflame the conflict.
But as the Cold War melted, geopolitics changed. Having fought and tortured to keep its Hibernian enclave, British enthusiasm waned. In November 1990, Thatcher’s Northern Ireland secretary Peter Brooke said the UK government had “no selfish strategic or economic interest” in Northern Ireland. The qualifying clause would prove redundant. It soon became clear that Britain had no interest in Northern Ireland.
There’s a sign on west Belfast’s Shankill Road telling you that you’re in “the heart of the British Empire”. In the community centre nearby, staffer Ian McLaughlin told me in 2018 that people regularly come in with post, asking: “here, what does that say?”. A 2015 study concluded that one in five Northern Irish adults has “very poor” literacy skills. Working-class loyalist communities were taught they could depend on jobs building ships – until they couldn’t. Their loyalty has not been reciprocated.
A year earlier, I had watched Theresa May detonating Article 50 on the TV of the Bogside Bar on Free Derry Corner, republican flags outside. The man who’d bought my pint showed me an old photo on the wall of a balaclava-covered teenager carrying a makeshift bomb. It was him. Headlines about hard borders flashed across the screen, and it was clear that May had just done more to unite Ireland than his old IRA comrades ever had.
But it’s not just Brexit. To the south, in the Republic of Ireland, an inquiry into child abuse crumpled the country’s once-dominant Catholic church. Magnificent referendums on marriage equality and abortion rights transformed its image.
In 2017, the year that unionist parties lost their majority in Northern Ireland’s assembly for the first time, Sinn Fein campaigned on a pro-LGBT rights platform. Taking their cue from the social changes across the border, the Irish republicans positioned themselves in stark contrast to the Democratic Unionist Party, which is still heavily influenced by its conservative religious roots, and uses its veto power to block reforms on gender and sexual equality.
Suddenly, Britain seems like the conservative backwater. Dublin rule no longer means Vatican rule. Ireland looks towards Europe, and the future.
Northern Ireland’s infrastructure looks more eastern European than western; the only decent trains go to Dublin. Around 21% of children live in absolute poverty. One in every 120 people there is homeless. More have died by suicide since the end of the civil war than died from violence during it, and more miles of security wall divide the two communities now than did twenty years ago.
I first met Seán Fearon when he was student president at Queen's University, Belfast. For him, Irish unity is not just about the 1.9 million people who live in the north joining a state of 4.7 million; it’s about “effectively restructuring that political configuration on the island of Ireland”, and bringing “an injection of new progressive ideas and new progressive, democratic weight”. The current arrangement, he told me, “is not capable of dealing with the climate crisis and the green economic transformation that has to happen.”
In December this year, Sinn Fein launched a campaign for a united Ireland. “A new Ireland,” it says on posters across Belfast “will work for you” – pledging “EU membership, jobs, prosperity, and an all-Ireland health service”.
“It’s time,” the party says, “to plan.”
What was once a fight about the past has become a debate about the future.
After the defeat
In Wales, socialists and progressives disappointed by Labour’s election defeat at the end of last year are starting to plan ahead, too.
Siwan Clark is one of the many young people who moved home for lockdown. A few years ago she had left Cardiff for London because of “a feeling that you have to be there, that it was the centre of things”. The pandemic has changed all that. “For a lot of people who've moved home, their sphere is turning to more local things,” she said to me over Zoom recently.
Before COVID, Clark said, she wouldn’t have expected most people in Wales to know the name of the first minister. (It’s Mark Drakeford.) “I was extremely ignorant about the Assembly. I just didn't really engage with it,” she said.
In London, she had joined Labour “in a rage” so that she could vote for Jeremy Corbyn during the post-Brexit leadership challenge. “I was so annoyed by that. I canvassed a lot in 2017. And a lot in 2019.”
Now 26 and back in Wales, Clark has joined Undod, the campaign for radical Welsh independence. Watching Labour’s disastrous result in the 2019 general election, then reading the leaked report that showed how some Labour staffers had allegedly worked to undermine Corbyn during the much closer 2017 contest, “I just became convinced that, firstly, he would never have been allowed to win. And even if he had somehow won, he would not have been allowed to govern. It would have collapsed,” she said.
“It’s not possible to build democratic socialism by using the institutions of the ancient British state, in the way that it’s not possible to induce a vulture to give milk,” said the Scottish journalist Neal Ascherson in 1985. It’s a quote with fresh relevance for millions of young people, for whom the defeat of Corbynism was a rough welcome to Westminster rule.
Look at a map of Britain, and you’ll see a pair of arms reaching out of north Wales to hug Ireland. Pwllheli, where Elin Hywel is a town councillor, is on the lower limb, the Llŷn Peninsula. It’s also where her party, Plaid Cymru, was founded.
With COVID-19 says Hywel, came the pandemic tourists. Thousands of people, escaping sweltering cities during the summer of 2020, drove to Wales. House prices and rents soared, and people who had grown up in this Welsh-speaking area found that their usual challenge – competing with second-homers – had suddenly got much harder.
It wasn’t just the housing shortage. Thousands arriving in the middle of a pandemic caused enormous stress. “They weren't recognising that people in these communities [...] were also trying to protect their own families and couldn't escape,” Hywel tells me.
“People feel out of control. They can't control all these things that are necessary for them to keep people that they love, safe,” she said. “The easiest way to bring that all into our control is to have independence.” The government in Cardiff, by contrast, “understand where we're coming from, not just seeing us as an area that's far enough away from everywhere.”
Chat about independence has started to make its way into everyday conversation, Hywel says, describing how a plasterer doing work on her kitchen was recently asking about YesCymru. He had been looking online, and wanted to know what it would mean for his family. “If it's not going to make a positive impact on people's lives, there's no point to independence,” says Hywel.
If it were counted on its own, Wales would be the poorest country in northern Europe. A third of Welsh children live in poverty. GDP per capita in west Wales and the Valleys is about 10% of that in inner west London.
There are two ways you can understand this data. If you have faith in the high priests of classical economics, and see wealth as the bread of heaven, granted by the Gods of the market, then independence is apostasy. It is the natural order that Wales is poor, and Welsh people should be grateful for leftovers.
If, on the other hand, you think that the wealth of nations is shaped by us mortals and how we organise ourselves into societies, then government policies and public institutions matter. If one part of the territory of a state is ten times poorer than another, then that state has failed utterly.
The fact that Wales is the poorest country in its region is, in other words, not a reason to keep things as they are, but cause to demand change. Other northern European countries that have tended to vote for social democrats over decades – such as the Nordic countries – have become the richest and most egalitarian places on earth.
Welsh voters have voted for progressive parties as often as Finnish voters. Yet year after year, they have had Conservative governments imposed on them; governments whose agenda has been to extract wealth from the UK periphery to prop up the housing and financial markets in the core: the Home Counties and the City.
Amelia Womack, deputy leader of the Green Party of England and Wales, grew up in Newport, south Wales, where she’s running for the Welsh parliament in May. “I think it's interesting the way our transport networks don't connect Wales,” she tells me. “[They] move goods, people and resources out of our country into England, making us better connected to London than [they connect] north and south [Wales], across our own communities”.
Despite backing Scottish independence, the Greens used to be vaguer about Wales. But this autumn, their conference took a clear position. As Womack put it to me: “Support[ing] communities across Wales while making sure that we tackle the ecological and climate emergencies can't be done within the current frameworks.” For real change, she says, “Welsh independence is the solution.”
The Welsh cultural theorist Raymond Williams coined the term “structure of feeling” to describe the different ideas vying to become common sense in a society at any one time. In just a couple of years, yearning for independence in his native country has gone from the quaint passion of a few hobbyists to a sensation running up its spine.
Welsh independence is far from inevitable. But many see it as an ejector seat, likely to be used if Scotland parachutes out of the union. And the situation here is changing rapidly.
“We’re going to get a vaccine in April, and a referendum on a referendum in May. I’d want to be Sturgeon not Boris Johnson in that situation,” says Jamie Maxwell, one of the most thoughtful observers of Scottish politics.
“Next year’s election,” he tells me, “is going to be quite an exciting moment. People around the world will be watching”.
It would be a shock if pro-independence parties – the SNP and the Greens – don’t win the most seats in the upcoming elections for the Scottish parliament. If they do, then a recent poll shows a significant majority also favour another independence referendum. Westminster can still refuse, but any debate about whether there’s a mandate for one will be over.
To Maxwell, the situation looks “a bit like Ireland at the start of the 20th century. You just feel like Scotland is heading towards some sort of denouement.”
A big part of that is Brexit. Miriam Brett grew up on Shetland, works in London as a political analyst and spoke to me in a personal capacity. For her, it’s not just Boris Johnson’s tone, but also the content of what he says that is turning minds against the union.
She says that for most Scots, Brexit represents a “broad restructuring of our economy. What will that mean for labour rights? What will that mean for climate and environment protections? What will that mean for regulations?” Without the tinted lenses of Anglo-British nationalism, people see it as the same Thatcherite economic agenda that most Scots have been rejecting for decades, she says.
Brett highlights something else, too. Brexit involves the UK reclaiming powers from Brussels, often in policy areas that currently sit within the purview of devolved administrations. With the controversial new Internal Market Bill, Westminster is grabbing many of those powers for itself, and has been accused by the Scottish government of reversing devolution. Scots don’t have a settled view on independence, but the vast majority feel pretty damned protective of our parliament.
And that fact in itself is also significant. Holyrood has produced a distinct political culture.
People I interview across England usually believe politicians are “all in it for themselves” or “all the same”, or that the system is broken. In January, before the pandemic, researchers at Edelman showed British people trust their institutions less than those of any other country they surveyed except Russia. Some 60% in the UK, and 70% of the wealthy and educated, think “democracy is losing its effectiveness as a form of government”.
Boris Johnson and his pals nurture an anti-politics energy. “If you don’t like this way of deciding things,” they imply, “then let the market do it, leave it to our class.”
In the 2019 election, Johnson didn’t promise to use politics to improve our lives. He suggested we vote politics away. “Get Brexit done” – the next clause remained unsaid – “and get on with our Christmas shopping.”
For people in England, with little experience of what a functional political system looks like, this was profoundly popular, and won him the election. But for 20 years, Scottish people have experienced an alternative set-up that seems to – sort-of – represent the country’s various views, and which at least runs parallel to a practical negotiation about how to live together.
Maxwell is perhaps a little more cynical. When I mention the baby box, he describes it as “an astute political gesture. Sturgeon is astute at political gestures.” It’s not, he points out, going to change the gap in life expectancy between my middle-class Edinburgh suburb of Portobello, and nearby impoverished Craigmillar.
Of course, he’s right. The SNP manages to balance the demands of the various opposing groups within Scottish society. But in the storms whipping the world, that’s not enough. You can’t tackle global heating while appeasing the North Sea oil industry. You can’t level up violent health inequalities without confronting the economic system making people sick. You can’t resolve the housing crisis without pissing off landlords.
But they benefit from comparison with Westminster, as well as from sloppy opposition in Holyrood. And the baby box is really nice. More importantly, it’s not about the SNP, but whether independence would allow for better political structures and cultures to replace those we have now. It wouldn’t be hard.
There are still barriers. For international recognition, Westminster has to approve a referendum, likely requiring an electoral majority, civil disobedience and deft international diplomacy. An EU customs border with England would mean looking more often across the North Sea and Irish Sea for trade. And we’d have to start our own currency, transferring our mortgages and savings into it.
In 2017, I went undercover to a fundraising dinner for the anti-independence group Scotland in Union. I didn’t get what I was looking for, but it was fascinating.
Addressing nuclear lobbyists, failed Labour MPs and bumbling toffs, the keynote speaker summed up his case against independence, recounting how a Scottish person had told him “the Highlands are beautiful, and so is the Devon coast”. I managed to resist blurting out that Norway’s Fjords are stunning, but I don’t yearn to govern them.
Unionists may get better organised. But a recent focus group of No to Yes swing voters run by an anti-independence think tank highlights the challenge: the pro-union case that voters are open to is a progressive, even socialist one. The British state can’t make that argument.
Instead, unionists rely on sentimental nationalism. And as they beg for British flags on vaccine vials, they couldn’t look more backwards.
Confronting our demons
Despite widespread distrust of the British state, many people find shelter in their British identity. While the vast majority of White people in England call themselves English first, about half of people of colour in England and Wales feel more British. Perhaps this is why some English progressives, of all ethnic backgrounds, feel Britishness suits them better than Englishness.
But as the hostile environment tightens the boundary around citizenship and Black Lives Matter unleashes fraught conversations about the legacy of empire, the idea that Britishness is progressive is becoming harder to sustain.
In the meantime, as people in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland edge towards forms of independence from Westminster, the question of England becomes harder to ignore.
As the first industrial nation, containing the most populous and wealthiest parts of the UK, “England” becomes the default in conversations about Britain. Often, the English idea of Britishness is really a kind of superiority complex: some English people don’t ‘feel’ English in the same way that White people don’t like being called White, or the way that my posh accent isn’t considered a ‘dialect’.
Yet as Anthony Barnett argues in ‘The Lure of Greatness’, his analysis of the right-wing upheavals of recent years, Britishness is a narcotic that distracts us from reality. For as long as the English middle class retains its attachment to aristocracy, empire and global greatness, the myths in which Britishness comes wrapped, England will be prevented from seeing itself as just another normal country – and one in which there is a serious imbalance of power.
In Scotland, we have our parliament protecting us from the British state, nurturing a different political culture. But the English – beyond a few flightless mayoralties and local government deliberately starved of power and resources – have no one to negotiate for them.
Low wages in England’s north-east and soaring homelessness in London are as much failings of the British state as poverty in Wales. The western part of inner London, with a GDP per capita of ten times west Wales and the Valleys, also includes the remains of Grenfell Tower. Just as Northern Ireland is cut up by fences, English towns are increasingly divided by barbed wire, CCTV and gated communities.
Opinion polls show that most people across the UK agree on most things. Like people across much of the West, broadly speaking, we’re liberal social democrats. Where people in England differ – why so many consistently vote Tory while most in Scotland and Wales don’t – is because the Conservatives are the party of Anglo-British nationalism.
That nationalism is a product of the British state’s archaic, elitist institutions, a legacy of monarchy and empire – and for the people of England to liberate themselves, they must free themselves from it. Confronting your demons is unpleasant, but the alternative is letting them govern you. And the prize is a chance to build a political system worth trusting.
Our baby is due on 8 January 2021. I hope they live well into the 2100s.
I hope they’re happy, and healthy, and don’t inherit my depression.
I hope that, as oceans rise and regimes fall, they live in a world that meets these challenges by unleashing the democratic genius and love of which humanity is capable.
I hope that, as technology once more transforms human experience, it is governed by the many, not the few.
I hope that, as they discover the world, they find something fresh and exciting, which everyone can shape, not governed from the musky corridors of long-crumbled empires.
Tom Nairn seems excited about that future. “No one has ever done this before. We’re making it up as we go along,” he told me. “What was once Great Britain, the British Empire, we’re struggling along to replace that with something else, with something new.
“Let’s go ahead, and see what comes out of the maelstrom.”
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