openDemocracyUK: Analysis

Deciding Britain’s Future: ​​Tom Nairn, Gordon Brown, Marxism and Nationalism

An account of the origins and influence of the most important book on British politics for 50 years

Anthony Barnett
Anthony Barnett
30 January 2022, 8.00am
Political theorist and writer Tom Nairn had a lasting effect on former British prime minister Gordon Brown
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Anthony Barnett/Iain Masterton/Alamy Live News. All rights reserved

Because of the impact it has already had and because its influence continues to grow, Tom Nairn’s ‘The Break-Up of Britain’, first published in 1977, is the most significant book on British politics of the past half-century, even though it is not a famous best-seller. Today, its republication by Verso signals the post-Brexit renewal of a call to arms initially issued in the maelstrom of the 1970s.

Scottish journalist Alex Massie recently deployed a familiar, knee-jerk dismissal: “It is forty-three years since Nairn published ‘The Break-Up of Britain’ yet here we are not broken up”. The book’s title, however, is not a news story. It does not predict the imminent fragmentation of the UK but insists upon the long-term unsustainability of Britain’s Westminster state. Three key sentences at the end of the chapter on ‘The English Enigma’ capture Nairn’s perspective: “The English revolution is the most important element in the general upheaval of British affairs described in this book. It is also the hardest to foresee, and will take longest to achieve. Upon its character – conservative nationalist reaction or socialist advance – will depend the future political rearrangement of the British Isles as federation, confederation, or modernised multi-national state”. When Massie himself reflected on the traumatic nature of the UK’s 2016 Brexit referendum in The Sunday Times, he described it as “a very English revolution”. One that has “sparked nationalist revivals in Wales, Northern Ireland and Scotland that are, in part, reactions to England’s assertion of its prerogatives”.

Nairn was the first to see that there had to be an English revolution – as part of a British process that will determine the future of the UK. Writing from the Left, he feared a reactionary outcome. Since the 1960s he has been a forensic critic of the never-ending ‘revivalism’ of the Anglo-British state leading to an increasingly authoritarian parody of historic greatness. Today, it has led to the Johnson regime – which is all the more dangerous for being beyond parody – and its ongoing ‘assertion’ of its prerogatives. This will prove intolerable to majorities in Scotland, Northern Ireland and Wales. So, unless England can find the stomach to reverse the present reactionary course of its Brexit-Britishness, disintegration is certain within the next five to thirty-five years.

‘Certain’ is a strong word. At the time of writing, the remnants of the Westminster political-media caste are doing everything they can to head off demands for another independence referendum in Scotland. The most often repeated justification is that the one in 2014, which resulted in a vote for the Union of 55% to 45%, was a ‘once in a lifetime’ opportunity. However, this concedes the right to another referendum when today’s younger generation takes over in Edinburgh, a generation that overwhelmingly supports liberation from Downing Street. And their desire for national self-determination as a European country stems not from romantic tartanry, which Nairn excoriates, but from the reprehensible nature of today’s British regime.

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Young English readers may not be aware of Nairn’s standing in these arguments, now coming back to life. A recent survey records his impact within Scotland and therefore Britain: John Lloyd’s ‘Should Auld Acquaintance Be Forgot: The Great Mistake Of Scottish Independence’. A long-time reporter for the Financial Times, Lloyd’s purpose is to preserve Britain by inquiring into the threat posed by Scottish independence. In a chapter on the growth of a self-conscious Scottish political culture, he says of Tom Nairn, “This one Scots writer has been more influential in the nationalist cause than any other: one who has achieved what many intellectuals desire; that is, to have a marked influence on a movement or a period… He is the one who has laid down the battle lines of attack, on the Union and on England”.[1]

What is it that makes for Nairn’s success when, since Tom Paine and Percy Shelley hurled themselves fruitlessly against the monstrosities of British power, generation upon generation of radicals have until now failed to make any lasting impression, with the sole exception of the suffragettes and despite the success of the anticolonial movements?

I set out my initial answer to this question in my introduction to the new Verso edition of ‘The Break-up of Britain’. Briefly, the answer is four-fold. First: commitment. Nairn demands a new politics of democratic, national independence from the Union state. Lloyd is right to see his argument as a call to battle against the incubus of Whitehall, Westminster and Windsor. But not against England. On the contrary, Nairn is positively in favour of England. His arguments are a starting point for English liberation. His pathbreaking chapter on Enoch Powell in ‘Break-up of Britain’ exposed and repudiated Powell’s attempt to racialise English identity – and it was originally written in 1970. Speaking personally, it is among my fellow countrywomen and men south of the border that I would most like to see new readers enjoy Nairn as an inspiration for England to find its multi-ethnic voice: ecological, networked, liberty-loving, European and republican.

Second: real-time analysis. Nairn’s commitment is not underwritten by dogmatism but by an ongoing, open-minded and self-reflective engagement. The book itself gathers essays published across a seven-year period, and the new edition includes reassessments from 1981 and 2003. Nor was this process confined to ‘Break-Up’. He deepened his analysis in 1988 with ‘The Enchanted Glass’, a pioneering study of the monarchy, in which he decodes the way “Crown ideology” is a “surrogate nationalism” for Britain. In 1999, ‘Break-Up’ was reworked in ‘After Britain’. In 2002, he set out his contempt for Tony Blair’s pseudo-modernisation in ‘Pariah: Misfortunes of the British Kingdom’. Nairn’s motivation is always to work out how to move forward in a profoundly changing world. This is the beating heart of his method. He expressed it strongly in 1972 in ‘The Left Against Europe?’, a dissection of the futility of left-wing opposition to EU membership. Here he insists, ‘To be in favour of Europe … does not imply surrender to, or alliance with, the left’s enemies. It means exactly the opposite. It signals recognising and meeting them as enemies for what they are, upon the terrain of reality and the future.” This is Nairn’s theme: “Recognise one’s opponents on the terrain of reality.” Integral to it is a moral quality perhaps best described as determined modesty – a recognition that we do not know what this reality will deliver. You can hear it for yourself in an interview he gave in 2020, to openDemocracy editor Adam Ramsay.

Third: a theory of nationalism. At the centre of Nairn’s originality is his insistence on nationalism as an inescapable necessity that has a dual-nature – captured in his image of it as a two-faced Janus, the Roman god of doorways, that looks towards both past and future. It is a conception that repudiates the idea that there are intrinsically progressive or ‘good’ nationalisms, such as the independence struggles against colonialism, and essentially xenophobic or ‘bad’ nationalisms, such as fascist or populist regimes. Nationalism, Nairn argues, is always both good and bad. It must draw on particularistic and exclusivist elements from the past as it seeks a larger meaning for all in the future. Furthermore, this dual character originates with the force that generates nationalism: the impossibility of any escape from the uneven development of capitalism. Every nationalism denies this and emphasises its own intrinsic positivity, the vulnerability of ‘its own people’ and its essential, non-economic, being. Nairn will have none of such bullshit. This is a paradox if you assume nationalism means proclaiming you are special – such as ‘world-beating’ in the case of Brexit Britain – for his argument reveals that nationalism is a way of being normal. In 2018, Rosemary Bechler rebuked my over-simplified claims for the Janus theory and pointed out that “it is no easy matter to differentiate between the good and bad varieties” as they “mutate” into each other “pretty quickly”. This is indeed the point. Nairn’s theory allows him to vigorously oppose what Bechler graphically describes as “the monolithic national us”. Rory Scothorne put it succinctly in a recent New Statesman profile of him. Nairn seeks a nationalism that is a “transforming… ongoing self-determination… that opens up collective identity to the creative involvement of as many participants and experiences as possible”.

As a description of nationalism, it still surprises. Not only because it repudiates the notion of an essential ‘national soul’ but more important because it sprang like a fresh stream out of and against the resistant rockface of Marxism. It continues to challenge everyone to swim in its waters, especially leftists, as it proposes a different kind of historical materialism. And especially now when debate over the nature of nationalism gains a new relevance thanks to the interconnected rise of internet populism, driven by oligarch corruption, great power chauvinism in China, Russia and India, unresolved hankering for sovereignty across Europe and the calvary of an America having its right to vote dismantled by Trumpism.

The fourth reason for Nairn’s continued relevance is his role in the emergence of modern Scotland. For nearly half a century, two towering political intellectuals have wrestled over and shaped the Left’s view of the United Kingdom, while one of them had directly shaped the Kingdom itself. The joint story of Tom Nairn and Gordon Brown has never been told as such. It starts with their 1975 collaboration in Edinburgh on ‘The Red Paper on Scotland’, which Brown edited and in which Nairn was the lead contributor. Today, both have retired to their Scottish homeland having failed to save it from the insurgency of Anglo-British reaction. Yet the difference between them remains the defining one for those living in the archipelago of Ireland, Scotland, England and Wales. For the vortex of reaction currently sucking us all into the jaws of Brexit will eventually consume itself. After which, and however long it takes, a left-of-centre government will emerge in Westminster to shape all the four nations of the Kingdom with a framework that will be either Brownite or Nairnite. An account of the contested birth of Nairn’s arguments may help illuminate the still unresolved issues now posed anew in this ongoing contest.

The book that wasn’t

In the list of contributors to ‘The Red Paper on Scotland’, Nairn is described as “author of… a forthcoming study ‘The Modern Janus: Nationalism and Uneven Development’”. It is a book that never appeared. More than ten years ago, I was moving some old files and discovered a folder containing a pale carbon copy of the manuscript. I had no memory of reading it. But I got it digitalised and sent it electronically to Nairn saying it should be published, for the record. He felt it would have to be brought up to date. This proved an impossible task and the manuscript remains confined to the phantom zone.

It is short, calm and careful. It would have been comparable in length to political scientist and historian Benedict Anderson’s path-breaking 1983 ‘Imagined Communities’. It sets out Nairn’s initial exploration of the nature of nationalism and theories of it. It has sections on war, the specificity of French nationalism, the family, why Marx and Engels were wrong in the Communist Manifesto to refer to “the practical absence of the family among the proletarians”, and how this links to their inability to grasp the nature of nationalism. It sets out why “There is no escape from nationalism because the conditions of uneven development are inescapable – not because ‘human nature’ thirsts for this particular kind of belonging.” It concludes, “Theory has still to catch up with the overwhelming and revolutionary transformation brought by capitalist industrialisation… As far as nationalism is concerned, the facts are a radical critique of it [Marxism] (and of the western intellectual tradition it embodies), as much as it is a radical critique of the facts.” It thus sets out Nairn’s break from orthodoxy.

I referred to the manuscript in the initial draft of my introduction to the new edition of ‘Break-up’ and this led to an uncovering of some of its history – not only had I in fact read it, I’d participated in a debate about it.[2] In 1974, Nairn sent the manuscript to New Left Books, which was then run by New Left Review (and would later become Verso). He got back lengthy comments from five of us who were on the Review’s editorial committee including its editor Perry Anderson and from social anthropologist Ernest Gellner. The official response was summed up in a letter from Fred Halliday “on behalf of the collective”. This welcomed the book as “a major intellectual and political step forward” and “precisely the kind of creative and original Marxism for which NLB was created”. Two “amplifications” were essential, however: “the argument must balance its philosophical discussion by a discussion of actual history”. Second, “the degree to which nationalism was encouraged to counter socialism” had to be documented. A “discussion of the relationship of socialism (underlined) and capitalism” was needed to “settle accounts with the dominant ambiguities. The discussion of this question should occupy a central place in the development of the argument.”

The manuscript’s central argument, however, is that nationalism was not encouraged instrumentally to counter the threat of socialism. Rather, nationalism shaped capitalism itself:

The point is not that the bourgeois ruling classes forced nationalism down the throats of the new proletariat, as a stratagem to impede class conflict; this is no more than another rationalistic myth of what took place. Nationalism was the real condition of existence for the ruling classes as well – and one for which, in other respects, capitalism had to pay an appalling price as its onward march degenerated into the berserk drunken shambles of the imperialist epoch.

There could not be a rational “settlement of accounts” such as the editors demanded because, “The paradox around which the whole thematic of nationalism revolves” is the irrationality of capitalism:

capitalist ‘modernisation’ was the seeming triumph of reason, in terms of its own self-conceived categories and the long tradition it issued from – but the material impact of this triumph as it made its forced graft onto the pre-existing body of human society was the very opposite…. The only certainty attached to the process is that the ‘synthesis’ will be some sort of contradictory abortion like the ones we live in.

In effect, the two “amplifications” demanded by the collective called for a different book.

Nairn replied, but not to Halliday or ‘the collective’ but, on Christmas Day 1974, with a long, hand-written letter to Anderson, whose 7,500-word response he singled out for thanks. Anderson, it seems, had reproached Nairn’s over-sociological approach, omissions and pessimism. Nairn replied: “it's quite true that as it stands, the essay is very pessimistic; but if it takes [your] points properly into account, it will be even more pessimistic. As a matter of fact, the distortions in it arrive from the extreme depression induced by the effort of writing it, and the constant temptations to flinch away from it. That is, from the almost unbearable strain of trying not to fall into a sort of Nietzschean gloom.” And, Nairn continues, “any Marxist critique of nationalism inevitably turns into the opposite: a critique of Marxism itself, seen for the first time, quite nakedly as a ‘historical phenomenon’.”

Later in his letter to Anderson, he writes, “It takes little effort to see here the resurfacing of the same dialogue as was provoked by your essay on Western Marxism. The ‘defeat’ and ‘failure’ which made the conditions of the latter are the same thing as any study of nationalism has to confront… I think this is the real dread underlying a good deal of the composition of ‘The Modern Janus’. While your comments are extremely helpful, they have been so – as you see – mainly in the sense of helping me to define better what the anxiety consists in.” Nairn then concludes,

More practically speaking, I will obviously just have to try and do what Gellner calls ‘a not very radical… rewrite’, adding the bibliography and a new introduction. But I hope to get some comments from Alvin Gouldner and Ralph Miliband before settling down to do this. It's very unlikely they will be as helpful, as constructive, and as cogent as your own.

With that, the book disappeared.

With hindsight, perhaps one reason for this was the growing, underlying difference of perspective which Nairn refers to when he mentions the “dialogue” over Anderson’s ‘Western Marxism’. Earlier in the year Anderson had circulated a manuscript on Western Marxism for publication as a long article in New Left Review. It was a commanding ‘reconnaissance’ of the European Marxist thinkers such as Gramsci, Sartre, Marcuse, Adorno and Althusser, who had been introduced systematically into the English-speaking world by the Review under Anderson’s editorship. At the same time, the essay was designed as a ‘rupture’ from them. It characterises their shared obliqueness of language, obsession with method and “pessimism” as stemming from their isolation from working-class resistance and the crushing weight of defeat. Now, Anderson argued, we can break from their pessimism and the oppression of defeat due to the resurgence of working-class militancy at last freed from Stalinism by May 1968. Thanks to this it is possible to turn to the original, confident tradition of Marxism in “the theory and legacy of Trotsky”.

Nairn’s response was intended for the pages of the Review to ensure Anderson’s essay was presented as part of a debate not the definition of a line. It celebrated the brilliant illumination of Anderson’s overview of the Western Marxists as a magnificent example of theoretical iconoclasm. But Nairn questioned whether the heritage of the revolutionary Marxism of 1917 could have “survived… essentially intact”. In Nairn’s view, “it is very unlikely that Trotskyism, in any of its forms, will furnish a new ‘starting point’”. His argument remains a crucial one for the Left today and deserves to be quoted in full:

Put very summarily, the alternative explanation of revolutionary defeat goes like this: the crucial revolution in the West – upon which everything depended, even in pre-1917 Bolshevik ideology – did not fail because of the failure and ‘degeneration’ of the Russian Revolution, and corrupt or absent Western leadership; it had already failed, in 1914, when the working classes of the great Western nations went to war with one another; this failure was rooted in the whole character of capitalism's social evolution within these nations, and obviously goes back into the 19th century at the very least, as far as the Franco-Prussian war and the collapse of the First International; it is this primal failure which, in turn, explains what happened in Russia, and the impotence of the Western ‘revolutionary’ leadership during the era of crisis after the war, when revolution was apparently possible: given this, there is of course no particular reason to believe that the formations associated with the revolution in Russia – Trotskyism or Leninism or Stalinism – in any sense constitute a key for us today, in the West. We may learn a great deal from them, by critical study – but this is quite different from the usual attitude, that a starting point is somehow necessarily contained within them, and that without such life-line continuity the revolutionary movement is bound to founder.

Nairn rubs his point home by comparing two key dates:

The crucial moment in this retrospect is August, 1914, and not October 1917. It was the war itself, not the revolutionary aftermath and its immense difficulties. It was the war which gave rise to 1917, and made the revolution ‘impossible’ by destroying the nerve of the revolutionary movements in the West. The ‘defeat’ lay upon a far deeper level, and raised (as it still raises) much deeper, more disquieting questions concerning marxism, its relationship to nationalism, and the conditions of revolution.

Anderson seems to have adjusted a few of the formulations that Nairn queried. But he pulled the essay from the Review and published it in 1976 as a book: ‘Considerations on Western Marxism’, essentially unchanged. There was no public dialogue and Nairn’s response, from which I’ve just quoted, never saw the light of day.

The non-appearance of the book on nationalism was more important. It seems to have been part of a reluctance by the Review editors to publish Nairn’s critique of Marxism at its full volume. At the same time, Nairn was based in Scotland, active in developing the new left-wing case for independence. He is by temperament fatalistic. Perhaps he found it hard to insist on the publication of an argument whose nature stressed that we are in no position to assert conclusions. He had promised to revise and resubmit ‘The Modern Janus: Nationalism and Uneven Development’ but seems not to have done so. There was no great effort to ensure it was published by the author and therefore no confrontation of the kind that stays in the mind.

If Nairn abandoned it, the ‘collective’ pushed the manuscript away. Here was a brilliantly written challenge to socialist orthodoxy and a political time-bomb that would have been a commercial success. Instead, while the nations of the UK were subjected to Nairn’s gaze in the essays in ‘The Break-up of Britain’, Marxism was protected from his interrogation. Reading my own internal comments from the time (I’ve not seen the others) I feel like shaking young Anthony Barnett to wake him up, see what was going on and reverse it!

Apparently, Nairn took an advance for a book on Scotland and then the idea emerged to collect his essays in ‘The Break-Up of Britain’. (Although these do not include his 1970 analysis of ‘The Fateful Meridian’, a superb re-working of modern British history in response to E. P. Thompson, that shows how the “revolutionary future” Marx and Engels looked forward to in ‘The Communist Manifesto’ had already been preempted – an analysis that perhaps prepared the way for his analysis of nationalism).

But Nairn did write a fresh concluding section for ‘The Break-up of Britain’ called ‘The Modern Janus’. To mark the book’s publication New Left Review ran it as an article. It has a striking opening sentence: “The theory of nationalism represents Marxism’s great historical failure.” It draws on the unpublished book. Those who want to grasp the challenge it poses can turn to the final pages, where Nairn warns against seeking to understand the world today by looking back to Marxist or socialist traditions: “the result is bound to be the perpetuation of sectarian theology in some form, however refined”. Instead, Nairn insists, we must ground our ideas and arguments externally.

The chapter says nothing about Britain or its constituent countries. But it plays a crucial part in the influence of ‘The Break-Up of Britain’. For it initiates the method Nairn arrived at in order to make his analysis: the rethinking that he was obliged to undertake once he had realised that for all his unequalled grasp of Marx and Gramsci and modern European thought, he could not deny or explain the centrality of the nation in political change. At the same time, his warning against the “perpetuation of sectarian theology in some form, however refined”, cannot but be read as a reprimand to the way the manuscript of ‘The Modern Janus: Nationalism and Uneven Development’ had been treated.

Question mark?

Nairn’s turn away from traditional Marxism continued to arouse intense anxiety amongst his comrades on New Left Review. This can be glimpsed through the story of the question mark. When it was being prepared for publication, Nairn came under pressure from his editors to turn the book’s title, ‘The Break-Up of Britain’, into a question. He refused. Both his 1981 and 2003 reflections on it open with an account of the clash over whether there should be a question mark after the title – and show how intense the argument was. Adding a question mark, Nairn says, would have turned the book into a “querulous” investigation rather than a claim of necessity. Urging it on the author didn’t just mean the publishers were worried Britain might not break up, even if they thought it was a good idea and the argument brilliantly written. It signalled their concern that such a “peremptory assertion” of the politics of nationalism was dubious. Blow me down, in late 2020 Perry Anderson published a long overview of the history of the Review’s coverage of Britain and says,

But as the title of ‘The Break-Up of Britain’, question-mark declined, would indicate, the coming of an independent Scotland was held too certain. Between prevision and consummation there would be so protracted a delay that in the interim, the original connection between nationalism and socialism in this prospect slipped, hopes in the former eclipsing conceptions of the latter…[3]

After 45 years, the argument over the question mark still continues! And Anderson gave his own article a title that is a Latinised mirror image of Nairn’s – ‘Ukania Perpetua?’ – to which he added the querulous wiggle that Nairn spurned.

At the heart of the disagreement is that Nairn’s claims seem to offer ‘support’ for nationalism when his purpose was always “to stake out the Left’s claim upon that [national] identity, and thus prevent it from capsizing into the possession of the Right.”[4] Despite this, and his insistence on the intrinsically dual, Janus-faced nature of nationalism, he was castigated for painting nationalism red. The words are those of the famous Marxist historian Eric Hobsbawm, whose long, cruel and patronising assault on ‘The Break-Up of Britain’ was published in New Left Review immediately after the book appeared. It was less a review than an excommunication. “Books like Nairn’s… are… a symptom of the sickness of which they purport to be the cure”, Hobsbawm pronounced. The need for “a continued re-thinking and development of the Marxist analysis [was] self-evident”, but “I cannot see that Nairn has made a useful or convincing contribution to this.” He concluded with a call to resist Nairn’s claims in the name of Lenin himself. Quoting the Russian leader’s 1920 admonition, “Do not paint nationalism red,” Hobsbawm insisted, “The warning still stands.”[5]

No counter to this extraordinary attempt to annihilate the relevance of seven years of work by the most prolific member of the Review’s editorial committee seems to have been commissioned. Hobsbawm remained implacable in his hostility to Nairn. In his history of the modern world, ‘The Age of Extremes, 1914-1991’, he expresses his disdain for the claims of 1968 by stating abruptly, “So 1968 was neither an end nor a beginning.” It is an obvious put down of Nairn’s brilliant short polemic on that year, ‘The Beginning of the End.’ [6] No reference is made to its existence, however, and none of Nairn’s books appear in the 22 pages of the volume’s bibliography.[7] From the perspective of Communism, Tom Nairn qualified for the airbrush treatment.

It is ironic that when progressive English women and men deny they feel English they are expressing English nationalism

After ‘The Break-Up of Britain’ was published in 1977, Nairn wrote a couple of pieces in the Review including a short polemic in 1981 on ‘The Crisis of the British State’, which attacks the continued failures of Labourism and ends with a jab at Hobsbawm. Four months later, all such debate about Labour’s future became redundant as the Falklands/Malvinas were invaded and the war that followed entrenched Margaret Thatcher for a decade. For various reasons a commission was established to consider the dangers facing the Review. It led to Fred Halliday and I, who were both active members of the Review’s editorial committee, resigning from it. This led to a mass exodus of its largely passive, more distinguished members, including Juliet Mitchell, Peter Wollen, Jon Halliday and Gareth Stedman Jones, as well as Tom Nairn. Politically, it is fair to say that those who stayed placed their ‘centre of gravity’ within the orthodox socialist tradition, while the ‘primary focus’ of those who left was external – but disparate and without a single, shared perspective.[8] Possibly I was the only one convinced by Nairn’s arguments on the centrality of national, constitutional change, and that 1914 not 1917 was the starting point of modern politics. I found a temporary outlet in the New Statesman and began to write a fortnightly diary as ‘Islander’. I tried to ensure Nairn and others had a commercial publishing home with the Tigerstripe imprint of Chatto & Windus. This didn’t last, but ‘The Enchanted Glass’ emerged from it to be published later by Neil Belton. Nairn did not return to publishing in the Review until asked to contribute to the 200th issue in 1993, when he wrote a hilarious account of how his personal prediction of a national government in 1979 was utterly wrong as he had failed to foresee the reign of Thatcher.[9]

Globality

Some of the main arguments Nairn laid down in his ‘Janus’ manuscript were published. He discussed why “the spread of capitalism as a rational and universal ordering of society… led to the dementia of chauvinism and war”, in his essay on Scotland and Europe included in ‘Break-up’. His contrast of 1914 and 1917 appears in a critique of internationalism that was published in Berlin in 1978 and Edinburgh in 1979 and republished in his 1997 ‘Faces of Nationalism’, where he notes that it made “no impact upon opinion”. Perhaps because it was removed from its polemical context.

Nairn’s intellectual focus turned to the relationship of nationalism to an increasingly globalised capitalism. The starting point for this is his insistence that nationalism does not emerge from the inner essence of society, even though this is what each nationalism claims for itself, but is a product of the world system: “It is the forest which ‘explains’ the trees.” To describe this as the mere outcome of ‘combined, uneven development’ suggests it is just contingent, an interruption on a singular underlying path to modernity. Were this so then ‘nationalism’ would indeed be a diversion from the unfolding of true internationalism and socialism itself. In Nairn’s perspective, however, the ‘uneven-and-combined’ becomes the actual nature of development –not a detour but its perpetual destination.[10] No single, unified world humanity awaits us (an argument I restate in my upcoming book, ‘Taking Control!: Humanity and America after Trump and the Pandemic’).

But what is the social material that generates differences? Nairn came to regard his initial approach as over-emphasising the economic, and developed a theory of the diversification of humanity in which inter-nationality replaces internationalism.

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Perry Anderson was one of the few to recognise the ambition of his approach. When New Left Review relaunched at the onset of the new millennium, Anderson marked the occasion with an assessment of the situation for the Left on a world scale. No longer did he criticise others for pessimism. Instead, with bleak abandonment of any signs of hope, Anderson declared that “For the first time since the Reformation, there are no longer any significant oppositions – that is, systematic rival outlooks – within the thought-world of the West… neo-liberalism as a set of principles rules undivided across the globe: the most successful ideology in world history”.[11] Seven years later, he published another overview. He discounted the effectiveness of leftist resistance such as the World Social Forum; foresaw US humiliation in Iraq; was confident that the irrational grip of Israel’s predatory domination of Washington’s Middle East policies would fail to shake America’s world role; and less than a year away from the great crash, correctly identified the weakest link in world capitalism as its financial sector. “Blind expansion of credit has fuelled a housing bubble… in the short run the realm of money appears the most likely to trigger such instabilities as are to come”.

Anderson then asks if there are any bodies of thought that propose a possible way out. He identifies four, by: Hardt and Negri, Giovanni Arrighi, Malcolm Bull and Tom Nairn. Nairn’s argument, he writes, is “that nations, not classes, would become the moving forces of history, and the bearers of the democratic revolution for which [Marx] fought”. According to Nairn’s analysis, America’s grip on power will slip. Then, the “deeper logic” of modernity requires “a diversity of democratic nations to be humanly bearable, as an anthropological necessity”. Otherwise, the loss of boundaries would be “incompatible with any kind of identity”. It follows, therefore, Anderson concludes, that according to Nairn, “No social or cultural homogeneity awaits us at the supposed end of history.”[12]

His neat summary displays Anderson’s capacity for encapsulating another’s theory and viewpoint. There is no hint of either agreement or disagreement in the presentation. He simply recognises that while the other three foresee an emancipation from the rule of capital leading to a unified humanity, only Nairn insists upon a materialist but non-Marxian worldview in which non-economic differences remain integral to any human future.

The salute throws a brief light of vindication on the unpublished manuscript of ‘The Modern Janus: Nationalism and Uneven Development’. Alone among the Review’s founding cluster of talents, Nairn began to articulate a comprehensive theory of the future. It may not be a “systemic, rival outlook” to the rule of capital. But no effective challenge to the power of capital will be mounted until it can encompass Nairn’s insistence on the heteroclite, always deviant nature of development. Against this, dogmas whether of orthodoxy or identity, currently taking an unhinged character in the binary code of social media, are the death knells of democracy not to speak of socialism.

At the same time, Anderson’s acknowledgment of his once irreplaceable comrade from the early days of the Review demonstrates the care each has taken to try and protect themselves and each other from the inhuman bitterness of leftist disputes. I have resurrected a profound argument from the archives of half a century ago because they relate so directly to current preoccupations, and because I find myself still learning from them.

Tom Nairn and Gordon Brown

At the centre of such preoccupations, if you are a citizen of the UK, is the United Kingdom’s national question, now overdetermined by our relationship with Europe. For Brexit to succeed, according to its own logic, Britain must negotiate with the world and the EU as ‘one sovereignty’. Which means Westminster has to squeeze their autonomy out of the devolved nations. But why should the Scots, Welsh and Northern Irish submit to this when Brexit is not going to succeed because it is in effect a system failure?

The smaller nations, however, do not have the strength to leave an England that refuses to be England. An England willingly controlled by a junta of hedge funds, media tycoons, journalist-politicians and Blairite chancers, who together refuse to accept the status of being like other nations and won’t discard the parody of greatness and Union Jacks (that would have appalled the traditional elite). An England, in other words, that finds the prospect of welcoming collaboration with its smaller neighbours in freedom intolerable, because they have to ‘be British’ otherwise England can’t be.

That my compatriots on the Left still fail to embrace the need to be English as the essential preliminary to casting aside the stifling pretensions of Great Britain never fails to astonish me. I tried to engage with the writer and broadcaster Paul Mason on the question as he posed it with exemplary clarity, and I set out the argument (but he didn’t respond). From the most widely read veterans of my generation of the ‘New Left’ to the social media savvy of the Novara generation, socialists who are born and bred here declare that they ‘don’t feel English’, as if this settles the national question for them and indeed demonstrates how they are ‘above’ mere nationalism. It is astonishing because they would not for a moment regard feelings – important as they are – as the final arbiter of economic realities. Nationalism is as modern as capitalism and mobilises equivalent material interests, more so in that they are military as well as economic. One’s national feeling is as much a historic outcome subject to interrogation and analysis as one’s class position. Not so, it seems, if you are an English progressive. In no other country do intellectuals abnegate their nationality in such unison. The explanation is well established. Historically, as ‘God’s Own Country’ the English had the supreme advantage of being the first movers of nationalism. Everyone else had to strive to achieve their national independence while England’s priority meant it was born with it. Our historic privilege meant we had no need to ‘be nationalist’. The irony, which is as clear as daylight to our neighbours, is that when progressive English women and men deny they feel English they are expressing English nationalism.

Historically, its primacy meant a relative lack of chauvinism. This led to a comparatively liberal, capacious and non-exclusive regime, open to all, provided they knew how to behave as ‘chaps’. It lent the Empire flexibility and opened it to recruitment. Many English found the snobbery unbearable and, as the Empire folded, emigrated to Australia, Canada and New Zealand, or to the US if they were in the creative professions. But for outsiders it presented an opportunity, for the Scots especially (and Irish Protestants in the armed forces). Provided they believed in Great Britain, no position — cabinet secretary, prime minister or Queen consort — was closed to Scots with ambition and with the advantage over native English of the overview and diligence that can motivate those from the margins. Gordon Brown is an outstanding example.

The Red Paper

In 1975, Brown was an exceptionally able and indefatigable 24-year-old. He had already been elected as socialist Rector of Edinburgh University, was a committed member of the Labour Party and had set his hopes on becoming Britain’s prime minister. Nairn was 43, a master of European thought who had helped launch Britain’s post-war Gramscian Marxism ten years before in New Left Review and regarded the labour movement’s corporate loyalty to the regime as an impediment of progress. Each was an outstanding political shaper of their respective generations. They came together in ‘The Red Paper on Scotland’. It was hardly luxurious. The cheap red ink on the spine of my copy is now bleached light pink. Physically, it is almost unreadable. Twenty-eight essays are jammed into 368 pages of poor quality paper set in near-minuscule 7 point. It has 29 contributors. All are men. Among them, Robin Cook, already an MP who went on to be New Labour’s Foreign Secretary; Vince Cable, who became secretary of state for business in the Cameron-Clegg coalition and was briefly leader of the Liberal Democrats; the playwright John McGrath, whom I’ll discuss below; Jim Sillars who would soon found the Scottish Labour Party and then join the Scottish National Party (SNP), and 25 others including Nairn, whose essay with its far-sighted title ‘Old Nationalism And New Nationalism’ opens the book, after Gordon Brown’s ‘Editor’s introduction’. [13]

At a conference on ‘The Red Paper’ a quarter-century later, Nairn recalled the “abiding impulse and spirit” of the experience of working on the collection as it came together. Brown’s “appetite for dialogue and openness to ideas” led to a joint experience that “managed to convey an inchoate and yet unforgettable sense of a possible new Scotland… red or reddish in hue, and so quite distinct from older rural and conservative styles of nationalism”. Brown was “a synthesiser of ideas rather than an originator” but, Nairn continues, “it must be recognised, a synthesiser of a very imaginative and generous sort. There was a potential for leadership even then implicit in his willingness to seek and stress positive elements”. And he goes on to add that Brown is someone “whom one would one day like to welcome back on deck”. [14]

Their collaboration around ‘The Red Paper’ proved to be a rare moment when a gathering that was full of progressive opportunity actually became an historic starting point. There were three reasons for this. First, thanks to Brown’s reaching out to every possible ally, it brought together left-wing figures from the Scottish Nationalist Party, the Labour Party, the Liberals and Marxist activists, and in so doing created the lived experience of a progressive Scotland. It created an arena for the new sense of Scottishness that was not intrinsically backward-looking and parochial.

Second, Nairn’s contribution was a powerful essay that set out, in a single sweeping overview, themes with which every conscious Scot is now familiar. In a compressed history he showed how, uniquely, a genuine Scottish nation was able to thrive and survive within Britain for three centuries and, more important politically, why the nature of its future nationalism would be decided by its external relationships. At a time when the SNP, like most of the English Left, was opposed to membership of what is now the EU, Nairn wrote in ‘The Red Paper’:

My view is … that self-governing Scotland should try at all costs not only to stay in Europe but to help the Common Market grow into a federal or confederal system of States … a new interdependence where our nationhood will count, rather than towards mere isolation; towards Europe as well as towards self-rule.

Today, the attractions for Scotland of becoming a European state alongside the 15 member states with populations of less than ten million is obvious. In 1975 the idea of membership was transformative. Pure independence would lead to fanaticism. Gaining independence within a European association of sovereignties would not stir the blood, but this was the point – it was practical, collaborative and forward-looking. Slowly, a new generation of SNP’s leaders began to shift the party away from opposition to Europe until in 1988 it embraced Nairn’s view and its policy became ‘Independence in Europe’. It ejected Braveheart bloviating and this opened the road to the SNP becoming the government of Scotland.

Ironically, the third long-term influence of ‘The Red Paper’ collaboration was Gordon Brown’s importation of a form of the same Nairnite argument into Labour, then utterly dominant in Scotland and temporarily the governing party in London. To be its best, Brown argued, Scotland needed to be part of a larger union. He thus embraced the case that its internal character would be determined by its external destination. But also that any such larger union would have to recognise the need for Scottish self-expression within it and therefore Labour had to support devolution.

It was thanks to Labour’s commitment to devolution that the political metabolism north of the border began to develop a different heartbeat to that of the south. It’s impossible to grasp the importance of this without understanding two defining aspects of the early 1970s. First, the self-belief on the Left that it represented hope and the future while Tories and conservatism were made of dead wood; even while the Labour leadership under Harold Wilson (then prime minister thanks to the militancy of the miners ) was tired and useless. A striking example of the form of confidence this generated can be seen in John McGrath’s contribution to ‘The Red Paper’. A Liverpool born, English playwright who was a success in British TV, McGrath’s agent was Clive Goodwin, who founded the revolutionary ‘Black Dwarf’ newspaper in 1968 (I worked on it with McGrath during its final issues). A passionate socialist, McGrath wanted a theatre that broke the separation of the proscenium arch and engaged with working-class audiences. He was married to Scottish actor Liz MacLennan and together they created 7:84 (named because of the claim that 7% of the population of Britain owned 84% of the wealth). In 1973, McGrath wrote ‘The Cheviot, the Stag and the Black, Black Oil’, in which MacLennan acted. The play was an effective, multimedia, Brechtian drama of the history of Scotland, which they toured around far-flung localities of Scotland to widespread acclaim. It forges a class-conscious story of popular resistance, from the Crown’s clearances of the Highlands to the US multinationals exploiting the coming North Sea bonanza. It gave a modern form to the traditional Scottish cèilidh along with a contemporary, anti-American message. In his ‘Red Paper’ essay, McGrath insists that only “socialist internationalism” can deliver Scotland the independence it needs.

This was the heady atmosphere, with the Left energised by the radical upsurge of the Sixties that was the context for ‘The Red Paper’. And at a time when sectarianism was on the rise, Brown, like McGrath, brought people together, even telling the country’s ultra-left Marxist pamphleteers that Scotland needed them. While Nairn concludes his contribution by stating “as clearly as possible” the necessity of independence, Brown simply notes that, “Nairn’s prediction that nationalism may now be unstoppable arises from greater pessimism - the failures of socialism and the successful adaptation of international capitalism”. But he gave Nairn’s essay pride of place as the opening chapter. And all involved in the “joint experience” of ‘The Red Paper’ agreed that Scotland needed its own national parliament, whether or not it should remain within the United Kingdom.

Which brings us to the second defining aspect of the Seventies. The entire period can be understood as one where ruling systems everywhere sought to extinguish demands for political self-government and democracy inspired by the Sixties (I also discuss this in ‘Taking Control!’). In the UK, the Labour Party was the main agent of the repression of radical impulses, drawing on its history of anti-Communism. However, in Scotland it faced an exceptional challenge. A centre-Right party had surfed the revolutionary zeitgeist with the cry of self-determination. When the SNP’s Winnie Ewing won the Hamilton by-election in 1967, gaining the party’s first seat in the House of Commons, the Scottish nationalists pre-empted the upsurge that followed the French May. Furthermore, unlike the far-Left, they posed a direct electoral challenge. Labour’s traditional figures in Scotland continued to oppose any concessions and wanted to simply crush all talk of devolution. But Brown saw that this would be fatal. “I entered into perhaps the most divisive debate I had seen in Scotland — championing the case for devolution,” is how he recalls the Scottish Labour Conference of 1976. And this while resistance to devolution within Labour across the whole of the UK was “fierce”.[15]

I greeted Brown as he came down from the stage, thunderous applause ringing in our ears. His first words were, ‘Was Tom here?’

In the background, the post-war settlement was unravelling. In 1975, the year of ‘The Red Paper’, annual inflation across the UK was 24%, and in 1976, 16.5%. Meanwhile, North Sea Oil was yet to come on stream but offered a leap into modernity for Scotland. Out of this combination of current failure and future prospect, Labour embraced Scottish devolution. Others have told the history of the next two decades that led to the opening of the Scottish parliament in 1999, when Winnie Ewing herself declared, “the Scottish parliament, which adjourned on 25 March 1707, is hereby reconvened”.[16] It was a double-edged achievement by the New Labour government of which Brown was the co-architect. In terms of the British state the aim was preservative. To concede a devolved assembly so as to renew the Union and preserve it from separatism by recognising the essential need for Scotland to find a home and a voice within it. So conceived it was a familiar exercise in damage limitation: of change intended to safeguard the fundamentals of British power. But within Scotland Labour became the unlikely vehicle for a genuinely transformative process. By creating a new centre of power with its parliamentary legitimacy based on 75% voter support in the 1997 referendum and ongoing proportional representation, not the winner-takes-all routines of Westminster, a new political culture was given defining institutional expression. In this way, Brown helped to create the constitutional crisis he has made it his life’s work to resolve.

Prime minister

Gordon Brown never forgot Tom Nairn. At the end of the 1980s I was tasked with turning Charter 88, whose call for a written constitution had been instantly supported by more than 5,000 people, into a viable, ongoing campaign. I had helped the group’s main creator, Stuart Weir, with the drafting of its original statement and suggested the phrase “Three hundred years of unwritten rule from above is enough,” consciously mainlining Nairn into the document. To ensure the campaign was kept alive with new thinking, I persuaded Brown to give the first of a series of Sovereignty lectures. Just before the 1992 general election, he addressed 900 people packed into the Logan Hall in London, in a session chaired by Beverly Anderson with Helena Kennedy and Will Hutton as respondents. Brown emphasised Labour’s commitment to reforms that included a Scottish parliament and argued that they should “point towards” a written constitution:

… the current movement for constitutional reform is of historic importance. It signals the demand for a decisive shift in the balance of power in Britain, a long overdue transfer of sovereignty from those who govern to those who are governed, from an ancient and indefensible Crown sovereignty to a modern, popular sovereignty, not just tidying up our constitution but transforming it….

I have put forward the idea of a new settlement, based on two requirements: the first that the individual is protected against the state, and the second that the individual is empowered.. as part of our community.[17]

As I greeted Brown to thank him when came down from the stage, thunderous applause still ringing in our ears, his first words were, “Was Tom here?”[18]

He was. But let’s skip forward to another, equally packed London conference hall 14 years later in January 2006, where Brown, now chancellor of the exchequer and about to become the next prime minister was again the keynote speaker with Nairn in the audience. It was a Fabian conference on ‘Who do we want to be? The Future of Britishness’ organised by Sunder Katwala. Brown played the British card, with a Union Jack on the stage drained of the passion of empowering democracy. Nairn thought it contemptible. In ‘Gordon Brown: Bard of Britishness’ he described Brown’s proposed “New-Britishness” with its humiliating display of Union-Jackery as “the fag end of ’nineties ideological fashion, maggot-ridden mutton posturing as the spring lamb of globalisation”.[19]

Far from integrating Labour’s constitutional reforms into a ‘new settlement’ that Brown called for, Tony Blair had done the opposite after he became prime minister in 1997. He oversaw the implementation of Labour’s commitments to far-reaching constitutional changes, such as parliaments in Scotland and Wales and a London mayor legitimised by referendums, a Human Rights Act, Freedom of Information and expelling hereditary peers from the Lords. But under the mantra of ‘modernisation’ he used them to shatter traditional checks and balances while in the background he terminated cabinet government.[20] The result really did become an ‘elected dictatorship’. Perhaps the most terrible example was with respect to Afghanistan when, as Gordon Brown wrote in his 2017 autobiography, “Without a cabinet decision, we had moved from a peacemaking operation focused on development to all-out combat, from counter terrorism to counter insurgency” (my italics). Nearly 500 British service people were to die as a result. In the autobiography, Brown also notes that he and Blair never disparaged each other in public.[21] But three years earlier, he had reflected, “We missed one opportunity in the first decade of the century to… define what holds us together as a nation”.[22]

Gordon Brown smiles behind a podium, 2008
Gordon Brown, the newly appointed prime minister, on stage at the Labour Party conference in September 2008
|
Chris Bull / Alamy Stock Photo

In 2008, he became prime minister. Finally, the opportunity was now Brown’s to make good. He was in a position to initiate the ‘definition’ of what holds Britain together, something he had spent a political career preparing for. In his first speech to the Commons as prime minister, he announced his intention to do so along with some immediate reforms of Number 10’s patronage. It is true that a journey of a thousand miles begins with only a single step. But this has to be followed by a second and Brown’s was not.

Before Brown entered Number 10, Nairn warned against any pseudo-federal fog machine clunking back into action. Real democratic reforms could be ‘greeted with relief’ but if the motive was overall regime preservation our response should be: “Not on your life!”. (Nairn’s emphasis.) I published it in openDemocracy. But I decided that if Brown was serious about releasing popular democratic energy he should be helped. I collaborated with Michael Wills, Brown’s minister for justice in charge of democratic reform, in what, for openDemocracy, was a big effort to release the potential of the web in support of the government’s proclaimed strategy. It came to nothing. Brown had put Jack Straw in overall charge of the department and Straw’s commitment to reform can be gauged from the fact that as Lord Chancellor at the 2007 opening of Parliament he reintroduced walking backwards from the Queen.

In 2009 when The Independent asked all the three major party leaders, Brown, Cameron and Clegg, for their responses to the MPs’ expenses crisis, Brown wrote that he was a “long-standing supporter of Charter 88”, and “There is no option I will not consider if it redistributes power. What has always been clear to me is that we must look at new ways in which the political elites can be made accountable…”.[23] But by then, he had blown his credibility as a democratic reformer and went down to defeat in the 2010 election.

The Vow

A year later, the SNP under Alex Salmond took 22 seats from Labour in the Scottish elections to gain an outright majority in the Holyrood parliament. With support for independence running at only 35%, new prime minister David Cameron felt it was safe to agree to Salmond’s demand for a referendum. Held two years later, in 2014, Scottish opinion swung against remaining in the UK, first to 45% support for Yes for independence and then, 10 days before the referendum, a Sunday Times poll reported a 51% majority for Yes.

Brown scrambled to save the day. He oversaw the drafting of ‘The Vow’, signed by the three main English party leaders ( Cameron, Labour’s Ed Miliband and the Liberal Democrat’s Nick Clegg), which was splashed across the front page of Scotland’s the Daily Record two days before the vote. It stated: “We are agreed that the Scottish Parliament is permanent and extensive new powers for the Parliament will be delivered…”.[24] Brown himself made an epic speech emphasising that Scottishness thrived as part of a greater union. If there was a last-minute surge for independence it was turned back.

Across the period of the referendum, Brown also wrote a 350-page book, ‘My Scotland, Our Britain’. The title deliberately lays claim to the UK as a whole from his northern redoubt. He quotes Salmond as saying, “The Vow was decisive” as it persuaded swing voters they could get genuine self-government without risking independence.[25] When it comes to Nairn, Brown attacks his claim that in an age of globalisation small states have the economic advantage and attempts to disprove this with a barrage of economic indicators. But he avoids the thrust of Nairn’s argument; that smallness no longer means being unviable.

Brown seemed to be vindicated. Whether or not it made a difference to the vote, the Vow did ensure Scotland got more powers and a form of entrenchment of its Parliament.[26] His brand of Unionism strengthened Scottish distinctiveness within a British polity of unequal partnerships. Then Brexit torpedoed the principle of shared authority. Being forced to leave the EU was a democratic outrage for Scotland, which voted by 62% to 38% to remain. This is the least of it, as Brexit is intrinsically an ongoing, centralising project antagonistic to expressions of Scottish economic autonomy and distinctiveness. Its character was displayed by Andrew Bowie, one of the six remaining Scottish Conservative MPs, who in 2020 told his countrymen, “The UK government is back in Scotland. Get used to it” and insisted that the UK is “one nation”.[27] A colonial tone has entered Tory talk about Britain for those who are not English. The Vow has been binned. With it goes Brown’s appealing narrative – his ‘story of Britain’. The call for nationalist-unionism that Brown deploys now makes far more sense within the EU than inside a Brexit Britain that demands obedience. An ironic vindication of Nairn.

The difference between the two formidable ‘Red Paper’ collaborators continued. A week before the 6 May 2021 elections to the Scottish parliament – which returned a majority of MSPs committed to independence – Nairn joined signatories from every EU member state in support of the Europe for Scotland appeal. This calls on European leaders to offer Scotland generous terms in advance should it wish to rejoin the EU. By contrast, after the result, Brown announced in the Guardian that he would turn Our Scottish Future, which he founded, into a campaign to make “the UK more acceptable to all of its constituent parts”.

The shared opposition to the greater enemy remains: a reactionary English revolution taking the form of an all-British Brexit. And the primary object of Brown’s ire is Brexit’s oppressive “muscular unionism”. Brown attacks it for, in effect, driving his fellow citizens onto Nairn’s side.

Apparently we are to believe that Keir Starmer will come to the rescue. The Labour leader has just undertaken a major repositioning heralded as his breakthrough into becoming a credible future prime minister. Speaking in Birmingham on 4 January 2022 he offered the country his “new contract” to create a “new Britain” that will “make Brexit work”. It has three “living principles”: Security, Prosperity and Respect. But not democracy. He positioned himself as the successor to the Labour governments of Attlee, Wilson and Blair and lists their stand-out achievements. But Attlee’s is not praised for ensuring Indian independence; nor is Wilson’s for decriminalising homosexuality; nor is Blair’s for devolution, the Human Rights Act and Freedom of Information. Is there a pattern here? There sure is. Starmer’s cortex has been hardened by the old Labour notion that voters are not interested in issues of power and freedom – even after more than half of them voted to ‘take back control’, the most democratic, constitutional battle cry ever.

How can there be a ‘new Britain’ based on such feeble principles and lack of passion? You may have guessed the answer. It is Gordon Brown. Starmer said:

But I believe in our union of nations. I believe we are better together than any of us would be apart. I believe that each nation can speak with a progressive voice.

But we need a new and durable constitutional settlement. Which is why I am delighted that Gordon Brown’s Commission on the Future of the UK will chart a new course for our union of nations.

I almost feel sorry for Brown, given responsibility for charting a course that will make Brexit work, retain the union of nations, and not negotiate with the government of Scotland.

Surely it is time to end the torture of this protracted saga. English democrats need to look into the mirror. For there is only one serious argument being deployed to shake the Scots out of their demand for independence: the threat to break them on the economic wheel of English supremacy. How can we abide by threatening our neighbours in this manner? A country that imposes itself on another can never itself be free – or a home of progress.

We English can no longer look on the process of the break-up of Britain as something being done to us by the peripheral nations. This was understandable when Nairn wrote ‘The Break-up of Britain’ in the 1970s. But because we failed to replace our historic constitutional arrangements with modern, proportionate and accountable democracy when New Labour had the opportunity, we have now entered the consequences discerned by Nairn 50 years ago. It is the English revolution that is causing the breakdown of the United Kingdom. For Scotland, the escape route is obvious. For us English, the process will be harder but the first priority is to shatter the spell of the Brexiteers by bringing the Union that is the source of their delusions to a proud and business-like end. It is time for England to insist on the break-up of Britain and our positive duty to urge Scotland on to independence in Europe.


Anthony Barnett is a co-founder of openDemocracy, his ’Taking Control! Humanity and America after Trump and the Pandemic’ will be published in the UK and USA in March


[1] John Lloyd, ‘Should Auld Acquaintance be Forgot’, Cambridge, 2020, pp.161-2

[2] I am grateful to Perry Anderson and Susan Watkins for help in excavating archives from half a century ago and pointing out misleading formulations in an early draft – their comradely aid in no way implies their agreement with, or any endorsement whatsoever, of my account.

[3] Perry Anderson, ‘Ukania Perpetua?’, Sept-Oct 2020.

[4] Tom Nairn, ‘Deserted by History’, 2005 (a paper delivered to a discussion of ‘The Red Paper on Scotland’).

[5] Eric Hobsbawm ‘Some Reflections on 'The Break-up of Britain', New Left Review 1/105, Sept-Oct 1977.

[6] Written with Angelo Quattrocchi, London 1969.

[7] Eric Hobsbawm, ‘The Age of Extremes’, New York 1994, p 286. In a genial chapter on the Sixties in his autobiography, ‘Interesting Times’, he discusses his sympathy, bafflement or rejection of various revolutionary movements and notes his opposition to the “Quebecois, Basque or Irish, to whose political project I was strongly opposed. Marxists are not separatist nationalists.” The footnote sends the reader to “New Left Review, 1970”. Other footnotes are carefully detailed, but it seems he could not abide even the mention of Nairn’s book which is named in the article’s title, so this too disappeared from the record. Nor does Richard Evan’s massive and endlessly detailed biography mention the clash with Nairn, ‘Eric Hobsbawm, A Life in History’, London, 2019.

[8] In a generous reference to my ‘Iron Britannia’, published as a special issue of the Review in 1982 and now reissued as a ‘Faber Find’, Anderson describes it as a ‘farewell to the journal, Barnett leaving shortly thereafter’ (Anderson, as above, footnote 18). In fact, it was my arrival as a writer in the Review. I found leaving the following year painful. It is unlikely that the Review and its publishing house would have survived the difficult decades of the Eighties and Nineties had its editors surrendered their commitment to socialism’s ‘interior’ anchorage. They preserved the Review’s international coverage, documenting the struggles of other countries with great sympathy. It meant that ten years after his resignation from the editorial committee Nairn was able to return to writing for it and Verso; which published ‘After Britain’ in 2000 and ‘Pariah’ in 2002 (with Nairn’s conclusion that neoliberalism like Leninism “rejected the autonomy of politics and culture as a threat to their integrity” p.159) and now the reissue ‘The Break-Up of Britain’. In addition, Nairn’s crucial role in the intellectual birth of the NLR in 1964 with the ‘Nairn-Anderson Theses’ was recognised: his sobriquet of ‘Ukania’ was seized upon. The Review flew the flag of Nairn if without the flagpole, embracing his satire without endorsing its substance.

[9] Tom Nairn, ‘The Sole Survivor’, NLR 1/200, July-Aug 1993.

[10] Adam Tooze makes a similar if less theorised argument in a breathtaking response to an essay by Alex Hochuli on ‘The Brazilianization of the world.’ Where he observes, “everyone now finds their nation doomed forever to remain the country of the future, the one that never reaches its destination” (American Affairs, Summer 2021). Tooze adds: “if our aim is not to use ‘the world’ as a foil onto which to project national dramas, but to actually think about it, we will be better served not by defining norms, whether they be Western Europe, the US or Brazil, whilst relegating China, for instance, to the category of exceptional Sonderweg. It is the process of uneven and combined development itself, the generator of similarity and difference that we should be focusing on.”

[11] Perry Anderson, NRL 1, Jan-Feb 2000. Elsewhere in London the first business plans for an anti-neoliberal website were being hatched, that would become openDemocracy.

[12] Perry Anderson, ‘Jottings on the Conjuncture’, New Left Review 48, Nov-Dec 2007.

[13] I have benefited from reading Rory Scothorne’s important PhD, ‘The Radical Left and the Scottish Nation Print-Cultures of Left-Wing Nationalism, 1967-1983’.

[14] Tom Nairn, ‘Gordon Brown, Bard of Britishness’, Cardiff 2006, pp.15-25.

[15] Gordon Brown, ‘My Life, Our Times’, London 2017, p.55.

[16] See Ben Jackson, ‘The Case for Scottish Independence’, Cambridge 2020.

[17] Gordon Brown MP, ‘Constitutional Change and the Future of Britain’, 9 March 1992, The First Sovereignty Lecture, The Charter 88 Trust.

[18] Tony Blair was a respondent at the Sovereignty Lecture given by Shirley Williams on 15 June 1992. His first words to me were, “Where did all these people come from?” – there were about 700. When I told him it was a Charter 88 event he replied, “Come and see me”.

[19] ‘Bard of Britishness‘, as cited, p.14 fn.7.

[20] I document this in ‘Lure of Greatness’, London 2017, pp.154-158, 179-190.

[21] Gordon Brown, ‘My Life, Our Times‘, London 2017, pp 273 and 261.

[22] Gordon Brown, ‘My Scotland, Our Britain: A Future Worth Sharing’, London, 2014, p.175.

[23] The Independent, 27 May 2009.

[24] For the Vow and how it came about, Murray Foote, ‘Inside the Vow’, The Daily Record, 17 Sept 2015.

[25] Gordon Brown, as cited, Salmond is quoted in an Endnote, p.368, and Brown’s speech is reproduced in full at the front.

[26] See my ‘The Lure of Greatness’, London 2017, pp.171-2, also for the general constitutional and cultural breakdown that led to and is now being intensified by Brexit.

[27] Andrew Bowie MP, ‘The Scotsman’, 11 October 2020.

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