Review: Breaking up Britain

Gerry Hassan
7 May 2009

"The contrast [over the last 25 years] has been between a determined (if stricken) agent of history and a mere sleep-walker. In 1977 the Cold War political palsy still prevailed, a profound inertia favouring all the tropes of states, parties and intellectuals I have described. By 2000 most instinctive allegiance to ‘establishments' had drained away, leaving hollow routines and vacant symbols behind. A combination of official servility with violent socio-economic changes led to universal ‘apathy'; but such withdrawal is also a still voiceless wish for better political things - for democratic nations that peoples can more honourably call their own."

Tom Nairn, The Break-up of Britain, 2003 on the difference between the context of the first and latest edition

Breaking Up Britain summons in its introduction The Break-up of Britain, Tom Nairn's powerful and controversial thesis, written over the course of a series of inter-lapping domestic and global crises in the 1970s and originally published in the year of the Queen's Jubilee.

Here in part lies the problem for the outset. Nairn's thesis was not just a blast from a northern outpost about Scottish nationalism, but a counterblast about the whole edifice. Nairn examined and took apart the English, Welsh and Northern Irish dimensions, while addressing the problematic nature of the British state and irrevocable way in which the European project challenged this and the small nation, little islander British left..

I feel at the outset quite a degree of unease with the number of official party perspectives littering this book. Four out of sixteen chapters come from such sources: Gerry Adams (Sinn Fein), Leanne Wood (Plaid Cymru), Salma Yaqoob (Respect) and Richard Thomson (SNP), the first three all elected representatives, the latter hoping to be at the next UK election. And I can't imagine I am the only one feeling a tad uncomfortable at the inclusion of Gerry Adams. Dialogue and engagement are necessary, but there is something profoundly nasty and nauseating at the heart of Sinn Finn's politics which is vindicated in some way by being included.

The Missing Stories of Britain

Given the time and space I am going to concentrate on two areas which I see as problematic: one core to its argument, and the other more emblematic.

The first is the missing British dimension. Breaking Up Britain is a set of 4 by 4 conversations. Thus, we have the four nations of the UK each having their own parallel conversations alongside four cross-cutting themes: national identity, civic nationalism, exclusions of nationalism, and states of independence. There is a clumsy, closed nature to these non-conversations, which don't engage with each other or across nations, and instead sit like a choreographed set of peace or endgame discussions, but without the context or drama.

This cannot be rectified by just stating or believing that the British story is dead, which seems to be the collection's attempt to answer this issue. The old British story might well be dead, and I for one think it is, but that is a very different proposition to assuming that Britain as an entity is over.

For a start it is possible that the old Frankenstein beast can stumble on half-dead - going through the motions with an element or memory of life or energy still in it somewhere - continuing its role and functions in part for want of an alternative.

Secondly, even in a Break Up State an element and articulation of Britishness will continue into the foreseeable future - culturally, socially, economically and politically. This is I think a significant omission and flawed assumption at the heart of the book, which is representative of a small rump of a left which has switched from believing in the inevitability of socialism to one which believes in the Break up as its new historic project.

Twenty years ago, two Scottish writers, Craig Beveridge and Ronald Turnbull wrote a fascinating book on Scottish culture and nationalism which launched a powerful and savage critique of Tom Nairn and Nairnism. They argued that Nairn had shifted from his early 1960s writings and a Marxist determinism focused on class to a nationalist determinism centred on nation and stressing Scottish autonomy and statehood. It was a little bit of a caricature, but it contains some elements of truth, and certainly caught a wider truth, that can now be found in Breaking Up Britain.

Whither Radical Scotland?

Finally, there is the Scottish section of the book which throws up all sorts of questions, in part representing that left journey, and in part, celebrating the last forty years of the rising Scottish dimension without critical examination. None of the four chapters on Scotland come from any of the key or influential commentators over the last decade.

Kevin Williamson and Gregor Gall have a romanticism about Scottish radicalism, its history, place and stories, which has for too long been part of the culture of the Scottish left, and an over-interest in the Scottish Socialist Party, which briefly shot to prominence, managing to win just over 6% of the vote in one election before falling apart and into oblivion. This is a story which occurs to many anti-system and flash parties the world over: the UK Independence Party aided by the charisma and glow of Robert Kilroy Silk (someone with many characteristics in common with Tommy Sheridan, one time leader of the SSP), managed to win 18% in the 2004 Euro elections, and similarly feel apart in a farcical leadership conflict. But lefties don't write and obsess about the appeal and nature of UKIP the way they like to do about the SSP.

Instead, too many thinking-lefties assume that if only the SSP had been different and not a vehicle for a messianic, machismo, workerist leader, it could have become a potent, permanent force - rarely considering that, maybe, to a part of its constituency all, or some, of these things were positive factors. Maybe there is a demand for a politics part-machismo, part-populist and anti-democratic, which was filled with contradictions and which would have always when confronted with them, faced crisis?

There are all sorts of caricatures in these essays which make up the ‘left Scotland' account of recent times. Williamson calls the Thatcher years ‘the dark years' when we can surely recognise this far away that there was an upside in Scotland as well as a downside - the death of the insular, clientist Labour local state being one.

There is no acknowledgement of the power of Scottish conservatism within the heart of Scottish radicalism, whether it in Labour, STUC or self-styled ‘outside left'. Scottish progressive opinion has had a whole host of complacencies and orthodoxies: thinking itself radical, when it has been unimaginative, lacking understanding of diversity and new social movements, and having an ill-ease about plurality beyond its cosy ‘civic Scotland' conversations or propagating workerist myths. There is a deep and powerful pseudo-leftism in Scotland which this kind of romanticism validates: invoking ‘Red Clydeside' and ancient battles while upholding some of the most mean spirited, right-wing politics anywhere in the UK.

The Lesley Riddoch and Richard Thomson chapters feed into the ‘official story' of civic Scotland. The Thomson chapter is interesting for promising in its title to explore, ‘the social democratisation of the SNP'. Sadly, it offers no definition of social democracy or the SNP's understanding and advancement of it.

This lack of focus mirrors the paucity of the SNP's thinking. The party is not at its roots and in its ethos - about social democracy, but nationalism, nationhood and statehood. Its late embrace of it, while genuine, is a problematic one, at a point where social democracy is in crisis the world over. In part, while this leftward shift was a genuine one by the Nationalists, it was also a positioning one to outflank Labour. Thomson talks of ‘the power of Scottishness' and this puts the emphasis in his argument revealingly in the right place, namely, priotising national identity above political values and policies.

There is no exploration in this chapter or others of the uneasy alliance in the SNP as in Labour of social democratic thinking and neo-liberal logic, and that all these parties have given voice to the global governing credo which has bought about such widespread damage and dislocation.

There are many subtleties, insights and reflections contained in the essays within this collection, and I apologise for not giving time and space to them. Several of the chapters challenge or divert from the core argument; Arthur Aughey and John Osmond being two examples, but they cannot break out of the structure of the book. Mark Perryman deserves plaudits and encouragement over his many political interventions over the last decade, and in particular, his want to explore a sense of English space, identity and politics.

However, I can't help but feel that there is something profoundly frustrating and lacking from the central arguments of this book, while at the same time feeling a little guilty for being critical of such a worthy project. What it boils down to is that there is a false promise at the core of this project: of giving us the hope of an exploration of the decoupling of the Ukanian state, but then offering nothing of the kind. More than that the prospectus which the book starts out from is shaky: assuming that we can just bury the rotting carcases of the Imperial British State and move into the sunny uplands of small nation, civic minded nationalisms.

It is going to be a much more messy, contradictory and difficult endgame: the sinking below the waves of the good ship Late Britannia could take a lot of us with it and we will need to think about many more unpleasant and problematic issues than addressed in this collection, if we are to take to the lifeboats in time.

Gerry Hassan is a writer, commentator and researcher who has written extensively on Scottish and UK politics. His books include After Blair: Politics after the New Labour Decade and The Scottish Labour Party: History, Institutions and Ideas. He published the third revised edition of Tom Nairn's The Break-up of Britain and his The Modern SNP: From Protest to Power is published by Edinburgh University Press in October this year. Gerry can be contacted on: [email protected]

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