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Nairn in Darkness and Light – Scottish Review of Books
by SRB

Nairn in Darkness and Light

November 11, 2014 | by SRB

AMID the chatter and babble of the referendum debate, certain words and phrases rang out and were repeated, over and over. But among those echoing words, surely few were used as inconsistently or confusingly as the one around which, in a sense, the whole conversation revolved: nationalism. This inconsistency was most striking among Yes campaigners. For while some were keen to defend the virtues of the ‘civic’ from the reputation of the ‘ethnic’, many were equally keen to distance themselves altogether. ‘I am not a nationalist, but…’ was as common a refrain as ‘I hate all nationalism, so…’.

What was clear throughout, then, was that this remains a difficult and, for many, a dirty word. What was equally clear was the lack of thinking that surrounds it. Over the past five decades, Tom Nairn has worked to counter this lack of thinking. Few have written as cogently and comprehensively about nationalism, and few have explored so thoroughly this country’s ‘odd historical sidestream’ or its slow crawl back towards self-rule.

Just a few days before the referendum, Luath Press published this weighty anthology of Nairn’s essays which, if the introduction is anything to go by, is aimed primarily at ‘younger readers’ not already familiar with his work. The thirty pieces collected here first appeared between 1964 and April of this year, and together they provide a clear outline of how his thinking has developed and why it has endured. Though they cover a range of topics, from the Royal Family to 9/11, Europe and Enoch Powell, the principle focus throughout is what Nairn calls the ‘Modern Janus’: nationalism, and its Scottish strain in particular.

Though it does little service to his precision and subtlety to summarise, his basic argument is that Scottish nationalism, unlike many other varieties, has not grown from oppression or exploitation. Instead, it is a response to the failure of the British state, post-empire. It is ‘at once a product of the collapse of the system, and the sharpest possible comment on the advanced state of this collapse’. Much of his historical analysis focuses on the peculiarities of the Scottish example – why, for instance, nationalism did not take hold here in the nineteenth century, when it was spreading across much of the rest of Europe. The nation’s economic success in the previous century; the emigration, to England and beyond, of the intelligentsia; and the subsequent failure of ‘a higher romantic-national and intellectual culture’ to develop: each contributed, he argues, to this tardiness.

In his introduction to this collection, Anthony Barnett, founder of openDemocracy, writes that ‘despite his unmatched scholarship and range of reading, anything that risks turning Tom into an academic would give a false impression. Tom is a writer. He is a writer first and foremost. You should bathe in his prose, let it take its time, and indulge yourself in it. Don’t read him for a quick steer.’ On that final point at least, Barnett is right. A ‘quick steer’ is the last thing to expect from this book. But first and foremost Nairn is a thinker, not a writer; his words are a vehicle for his thoughts, and one is struck most often by the cargo not the carriage. The essays that first appeared in the New Left Review in particular are, as one expects from that publication, demanding, and the ‘younger readers’ to whom this book is addressed may be forgiven for imagining, now and then, that they are drowning rather than bathing. This is not, though, a criticism. ‘Difficult’ may not be a label that sells many books, but neither should it be considered a health warning. What is worthwhile is often challenging, and Nairn is certainly both.

There are, however, several pieces collected here in a rather different and more accessible style. The short essays originally published in the Scotsman in the early 1990s are provocative and enjoyable, and likewise the articles that first appeared in Question Magazine. The most exhilarating among these is also the most personal. In ‘The New Exiles’, published in 1976, Nairn visits two of his university friends, Jonathan and Susan Barker, originally from England but then residing in a remote part of northern Scotland. These friends loved the country, he writes – they moved north for that reason – but talk of devolution at the time horrified them, to a degree that was almost comic in its extremity. ‘I’m afraid of the knock on the door, really afraid,’ Jonathan claimed, conjuring images of a ‘racial purification squad, with an expulsion order’. The Barkers considered any talk of devolution to be ‘sinister’, and Nairn, in his essay, seeks to unpick and understand their concern. How could his friends, who had been so welcomed in this country, be so gripped by anxiety? It is difficult not to wonder what effect this essay had on their friendship, for Nairn’s conclusion is not a comfortable one. The Barkers, he writes, had an ‘imperialism of outlook’. Their love for Scotland ‘had retained within itself some elements of unconscious superiority. With the due qualifications, it had not been wholly unlike the profound affection felt by so many British imperialists for India’. When Nairn moved to England, he claims, he went through a process of ‘adaptation, alienation and self-definition’. The Barkers, moving north, had not.

Time and again, Nairn underlines his belief that Scottish nationalism is not, in fact, anti-English, either in its origins or its manifestations. ‘Only if the entire English nation by some unimaginable act relegated itself to the ranks of the Damned would it be likely to turn “anti-English”,’ he writes. Elsewhere, the fundamental point is reiterated: ‘the key to these neo-nationalist renaissances [in Scotland and Wales] lies in the slow foundering of the British state, not in the Celtic bloodstream’. To focus on ‘ethnicity’ is to miss the point entirely.

While times have changed much since Nairn began writing, and while his own thinking has likewise evolved in those years, many of the observations collected here seem as relevant today as they ever were. Some, perhaps, more so. Many of the arguments employed by the No campaign in the run up to this year’s referendum had been considered and dismissed by Nairn years ago. In ‘The Twilight of the British State’, published first in 1977, he identifies one of the key ideas that ‘obfuscated’ the logic of those opposing Scottish independence; that is, ‘the concept of the viable larger unit’. According to this argument, if something works on a big scale, it is probably unworkable on a smaller one. ‘“Surely we’re better all together, in one big unit?”’ the thinking goes. It is, he argues ‘spurious’ logic. ‘In their own day, the Napoleonic Empire, the Hapsburg Empire, Tsardom, Hitler’s New Europe and the old British Empire were “justified” by precisely similar arguments; and in certain of these cases the “internationalist” defence was put forward by manifestly sincere, progressive thinkers.’

 Similarly, there is what might perhaps be called the ‘solidarity argument’ (usually employed by those to whom ‘solidarity’ means voting Labour and nothing more). In 1992, Nairn devoted a column to the claims, made then by Brian Wilson MP, that Scottish voters have a moral responsibility towards the ‘ordinary people’ of England. In an article for the New Statesman, Wilson had accused the SNP of wanting to leave ‘the English to their fate’ (that fate, of course, being the Conservative party). Twenty years later, Wilson and others are still peddling that argument, driven by an ‘astounding moral nationalism’, to which they seem entirely oblivious. Their belief is that Scotland and the Labour Party have ‘a universal mission: the salvation of England, no less’.

Though a long-time critic of Labour in Scotland, Nairn has, for much of the past half century, been equally or more critical of the SNP. That antipathy towards a party he once accused of ‘sectarian infantilism’ has softened over time however. Back in 1968, Nairn proposed a leftist or ‘Socialist Nationalism’ to counter the ‘delusions’ he identified in mainstream SNP thinking. In somewhat uncharacteristically ardent terms, he insisted that ‘such a Nationalism must exist by sharply combatting the overpowering past which conventional Nationalism drools over, that it must see cultural liberation from Scotland’s pervasive myths as a precondition of political action, and that it must utterly condemn the kind of garrulous, narcissistic windbaggery to which the intelligentsia has so often resorted.’

But in the most recent piece in the book first published this year on the openDemocracy website, Nairn writes in support of the Scottish government’s ‘White Paper’ on independence. A Yes vote in the referendum, he argued, was now necessary. It was a chance for the country to move forward, towards a ‘new form of self-rule’. There is, in this piece, an impatience rarely evident in his work. ‘Let’s do it’ he wrote, ‘rather than hang around for more decades of brooding about it, and trying to summon up enough self-confidence to take on the new age.’ This is not the impatience of a youthful flag-waver in George Square; it is, rather, that of a man in his eighties who has, for fifty years, argued that the end of the British state is nigh. 

The result of September’s vote would probably not have surprised Tom Nairn – after all, he was always sensitive to what he calls the ‘self-colonisation’ of Scots – but it would, no doubt, have been a disappointment. Rather than choosing to ‘resume’ independence, the electorate instead chose to cling on to the crumbling edifice of the United Kingdom. Yet it is a testament to the strength and breadth of his political analysis over the years that, while a Yes vote would have been a validation of his arguments, the No vote was perhaps equally so. His work, and this book, will continue to be essential reading for anyone wishing to understand the road this country has taken and the direction in which it is travelling.


Tom Nairn

Luath Press, £16.99, ISBN 9781910021644, PP420

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