Who was Tom Nairn? One of the great political thinkers of his age, we mark his passing away with an introductory examination of his work – almost a Nairn For Beginners. These reviews/summaries of some of his most important works are excerpted from Tartan Pimps, a 2010 book by Mitch Miller and Johnny Rodger, which examined how the new Scottish politics were written into being.
Nairn’s first full-length publication was an analysis of the failure of the left in the UK to ‘win’ the debate about Britain’s entry to the then EEC (or, Common Market) in 1971. The book was published in 1973 by Pelican but the text had first appeared as an extended article in New Left Review in 1972. As such the analysis had the benefit of hindsight and came out only once the debate appeared to have already finished, and the early 70s broad left – who had more or less weighed in unanimously behind the Labour Party (and CPGB) against membership – had already ‘lost’ as Britain had been taken into the EEC by Edward Heath’s Tory Party.
Nonetheless when in 1975 the Labour party back in power got to stoke up the debate again and run a referendum over Britain’s membership, Nairn’s book may have been one of the most important influences in softening the left’s antipathy to all things European. At any rate, for those of us who were either not born or were too young to remember the issues at stake, Nairn’s deft separating out of the sheep from the goats of pre-Thatcher British leftist politics answers a lot of questions for our understanding of just where we are at today, and how we got here.
Nairn adequately details how not only were the left in his opinion, on the ‘wrong’ side of the debate, but the ‘debate’ itself never really happened. He outlines the parameters of the lack of real debate. In the first place any questioning of the ‘no’ campaign was perceived as threatening the ‘unity at all costs’ of the left front, and as being ‘uncomradely’ (and it is surely the cosy, folksy ring to us of this last word, shorn now of all its frightful Stalinist connotations, that shows us just how much British politics have changed in four decades). Nairn goes further then, and asks whether any real national ‘debate’ can ever truly be staged through party political channels alone? He points to the pre-1914 crisis in British imperialism for example, and reminds us that the ‘debate’ then was carried on by strikes, mobs, suffragettes, artists and music hall songs, as well as by editorialists and parliamentarians:
They propelled society forward willy-nilly, and forced people to think new thoughts and act originally.
Finally, one other major structural factor that prejudiced against the possibility of honest, full and open debate, was Marxism’s complex relationship to, and indeed, its ‘blind spot’ of, nationalism. The role of nationalism in Nairn’s discussion here is not unrelated to the concerns of his later books cited below, but is more understated. Nationalism here, that is to say, is not so much the cure, but part of the problem, or at any rate, one of the keys to understanding the problem.
In this sense, for Nairn, the important power blocks in the European ‘debate’ can be deconstructed in terms of the way in which they represent respectively ‘nation’ and ‘class’.
The main promoters of EEC entry, the London ‘City’, the most successful financial sector in global capitalism, had according to Nairn, been effectively the ‘chief broker’ to the most successful capitalist economy, the USA, since the British Empire had started to crumble. The City, offshore wheelers and dealers, clearly do not act on behalf of the nation, but of capital and the class that owns it. And as the USA by the early 70s had long been entangled Vietnam crisis, the City needed new expanding markets (eg. EEC) freed up for its operations.
The Tory Party, while claiming at large to operate on behalf of the whole nation – one nation Toryism, and all that – in fact, according to Nairn, really only represents the interests of the capital owning classes, and thus at this stage were largely pro-EEC (apart from a Powellite fringe). This analysis of the Tories’ real interests may have had some revelatory power for the politically slow in the early 70s, but since the Thatcher years surely only the extremely complacent and the insane could still be in any doubt over it.
Nairn’s dissection of the Labour Party’s respective relationships to nation and class is the real object of this study, and as such they will not suffer summation in such a small review. Nonetheless, there are certain features whose importance ought not to go unstressed. At the most basic level, Labour, even by its very name, represents itself as operating in the interests of class. In effect however, through the various periods of Labour governments, and also in this phoney EEC debate, it is demonstrated that the Labour Party has to lean heavily on its resources as a national voice in order to establish some sort of wider credibility in its relationship with the state:
Labour is, to employ one of its own historic programme-words in a different sense, the nationalization of class.
The left’s evidently incoherent attack on Europe thus seemed at once to be based on the notion of protecting ‘national sovereignty’, and a vague preference to operate ‘internationally’ rather than as a member of a closed economic gentlemen’s club; and bizarrely, on the idea that the continental countries were both more nationalistic and capitalist than Great Britain (although as Nairn points out, no such charge was made against the internationalist USA).
The arguments in this book lay out a British political landscape which from the 21st century vantage point we can’t help but feel is separated from us by a Hadrian’s Wall of Thatcherism. Events have outmanoeuvred much of the debate. That’s not to say however that it is in any way irrelevant; and oddly, there turn out to be very few clangers amongst Nairn’s bold assertions and predictions from yesteryear – although writing ‘the now-outmoded currency-crankery of Milton Friedman’s Chicago School’ in 1972 does seem a bit previous – not to say, hubristic – now. Ultimately this work also allows us to understand much about the background to the post-1997 governments – how Tony Blair became leader, how he managed to drop Clause IV, and how the ‘betrayal’ of class by Labour leaders is ‘a structural fact and not a moral problem’. It’s a text that is of vital importance to political historians, and gives insight into a way of life that, for Nairn, just keeps on collapsing . . .
I first studied Scottish politics and government in CSYS Modern Studies, strangely appropriate as CSYS was a victim of the British establishment. The qualification allowed Scottish sixth year pupils to study a single area in considerable depth at University Level. Superior to A-Level and more advanced than Higher, English universities nevertheless refused to recognise it. Scottish institutions refused to see beyond the shorthand formula that was 4+ Highers and followed suit, thus ensuring the qualification would gain no credibility.
The existence of a different way of doing things in Scotland (such as CSYS) and the inability of the British establishment to recognise these heterodoxies were an abiding theme of the many studies that began to appear in the late 70s and throughout the Thatcher and Major eras. Henry Drucker, Lindsay Paterson, Christopher Harvie, James Kellas, David McCrone, Arthur Midwinter and Alice Brown all appeared in my CSYS syllabus, trailblazing academics whose chosen theme made them maverick, and whose scrupulous study effectively wrote a devolved Scotland into existence. They did so by turning the national question on its head to suggest home rule was merely bringing a ‘phantom’ polity within the unitary British system into the light of day. Influenced by the Prague school of social scientists under Ernst Gellner, they conceived of nationalism in very different terms to the traditional ‘big guns’ school of social studies as typified by AJP Taylor.
The infusion of the Prague school may have had a lot to do with the frequently émigré Nairn. Whereas the likes of Kellas were solid empirical technicians able to parse the mechanics of non-statehood, Tom Nairn was soaked in European thought (his first published work was a study of 1968) and engaged with the issue through theory, consciousness and existential satisfaction. The Break-Up of Britain is his seminal work and is as much a hex as a title, maybe even an order or a signal to some hidden demolitionist. It is also, ironically, the bridge between Nairn’s summation of socialist thought on and in relation to the continent, and his emergence as the most internationally recognised of Scotland’s nationalist, devolutionist or post-nationalist academics.
At the risk of being reductionist, there are three essential chapters in this book. The first, entitled ‘The Twilight of the British State’ persuades us that the British political system is in state of terminal decline due to profound inconsistencies, structural weaknesses and the vested interests of its gentry-bourgeoisie. There then follows a series of case studies of nationalisms within the constituents of the United Kingdom before the crucial theoretical meat of ‘The Modern Janus’, and a Postscript added in 1981. A sort of reversed – or exploded – sandwich, if you will.
Nairn wrote about break-up in the late 1970s, when nationalism was equated with atavism and irrationality and the majority of Nairn’s Marxist colleagues believed it be an irrelevance. Nairn turns this around to argue that nationalism has been a widespread response to modern development with as rational a basis as any other social and political movement. Furthermore, there is a common underlying pattern to any nationalism you care to study, namely the uneven development of capitalism and industrialisation since the 18th century. Development was not easily exportable; it tended to be clustered in particular countries that had the civil, political and social mechanisms to sustain it and spread the benefits – what monetarists describe as trickle down.
But transposing this model elsewhere, to countries within the great colonial empire or the less developed European nations created and nurtured nationalism. What Nairn describes as ‘peripheric elites’ (a term that can include Scotland or Catalonia, in a way ‘postcolonial’ cannot) could be co-opted into the imperial capitalist system, but were, as time wore on, faced with large sections of their own population who saw such a system as a hog roast to which they are not invited – and in which case carved up too rich a meat for local palates. The solution Nairn posits, was to seek out a political ideology that could appeal across class divides and reassure local interests. This nationalism can be understood in two ways –- as nationalism – that part of the ideology based on the particularities of a country, a culture, a region – and nationalism, a widespread phenomena manifest in many different sites and situations linked by these commonly identified features – all of which Nairn finds in distorted form, within the apparatus of the British state.
It is, by Nairn’s own admission, a commonsensical analysis that seems perfectly rational within the neo-Marxist framework he constructs (although if you scratch the surface of his British empiricism, you see a lot of Gramsci in the mix), and importantly, nationalism is not necessarily an evil, or a relic, or a reaction against progress. In Nairn’s analysis, the ‘Modern Janus’ is as necessary a mitigant to the development of capital as the organisation of labour. Like Janus, it is two-faced and two-sided, potentially chaotic and destructive, but cannot be dismissed. Indeed, while his call for break-up may seem premature, his analysis of nationalism as an active force has been borne out by the post-Soviet experience and is also reflected in theories of globalism, specifically, Amy Chua’s World on Fire (see The Drouth issue 12) which argues that the current development of global markets exacerbates ethnic tensions because the control of capital is unevenly distributed between ethnic groups. In such a reading nationalism is an attractive option in that it at least provides structure and civic discipline to what are potentially, savage responses to an arbitrary and vampiric international system.
At the time (and to an extent, to this day), such a thesis went against the grain of British Marxists – their ‘blind spot’ – and constitutional analysts – who simply could not take the notion of constitutional change seriously. As we now know it provided a weighty intellectual basis upon which nationalists could carve out a space where they could also be socialists or social democrats without becoming paradoxical. The opinions voiced in Gordon Brown’s Red Paper on Scotland (see The Drouth issue 21) raise a useful yardstick to where Nairn’s writings led the debate; in 1975 socialist authors such as John McGrath were convinced that socialists could not by definition, be Scottish nationalists – even though there were many writing in that very same book who clearly were. This myth – that all left-leaning nationalists must be hiding a deep, dark secret – persists today and is retold at every opportunity by the ailing Scottish Labour Establishment as some sort of popular bogey story.
Of course, Nairn includes the other constituent states of the UK in his analysis, holding up Scotland as a prime example and expressing eloquently England’s own sense of confusion over its identity. It is a little surprising that Northern Ireland should deserve one chapter whereas both Scotland and England are essayed in two, which raises the question as to whether Nairn is deliberately, and perhaps dishonestly, recasting the union as a straight opposition between Scotland-and-Englandshire. But his assessment of the British state as a sick, stumbling morass holding back social progress and incapable of reform is persuasive, frequently devastating, and while it may not have changed unionists into separatists, it demonstrated very clearly why at least devolution should be included on the progressive agenda. In so doing it made nationalism that bit more acceptable, largely because it tied its concerns to the pressing social and economic problems current in Britain at the time, rather than the nostalgic rumblings of the Northern Brits. It is the ultimate reversal, wherein the supposedly solid British State is held up as muddy, occluded and superficial and nationalism the solid, crystalline point to puncture the layers of façade, all the way through to the Enchanted Glass …
Nairn’s 1988 publication The Enchanted Glass: Britain and its Monarchy remains perhaps his most important and influential book and established his reputation as not just a political writer but a constitutionalist of insight and understanding. In many ways the British constitutionalist has to be a deeper and broader thinker than his/her colleagues elsewhere in the world simply because the multi-national British state is founded on the rocky enigma of no written constitution.
Nairn, as his blurb says, ‘refuses to treat the Royal Family as a jokey leftover from feudalism or a mere tourist attraction.’ Instead he is able to show how Monarchy had a vital role in maintaining the post-1688 settlement in ‘United Kingdom’ politics. Basically the Nairn view seems to be that with the Glorious Revolution and the coronation of William and Mary, and the 1707 Union following close behind it, an early modern constitution regarding relationships between territories, classes and power structures was established. The new ‘constitutional’ monarchy was the figurehead of this new politics, and the power was basically held and wielded by an alliance of new-money merchant capitalists and older order landed aristocrats, all centred on London. The monarchy thus acting at the alliance’s, or city’s, behest is on the one hand very different from other ancient régime monarchies, but on the other hand, is used as a bulwark to defend this early modern oligarchy against further modernisation and democratisation as threatened by the revolutions of 1776, 1789, 1848, and so on. This is one of the reasons why the constitution for this arrangement was never, and never could be, written.
The monarchy instead provides this protection against democratisation for the ruling classes by creating a mystical symbol of an ancient, traditional, goodly, organic and natural order for the whole ‘nation’ to cohere around. Needless to say the actual royal families (those imported from Holland and Hannover, etc.) have nothing to do with feudalism, or ancient tradition, and as Nairn says, ‘still less to do with folk or ethnic tradition.’ To illustrate this point, Nairn describes, for example, the ‘Prince of Wales’ Investiture’ as a ‘pantomime drag’ wholly invented in the early 20th century by Lloyd George and others for whatever cymric expediencies, and even decried by the then Duke of Windsor, its first victim, as a ‘preposterous rig’.
But nor is Windsor-bashing just a simple matter of trashing the neo-traditional fetishes (the gold coaches, the corgis, the kilts, the polo ponies, etc.), for the point about English/Britishness is that the monarchy is at the mystical heart of it; it embodies its very ineffable nature. There is no material heart to stab here. And in fact there is no small irony in the fact that for this country with no written constitution, the task of defending the mystical wonders of this unwritten constitution has fallen to writers. From Edmund Burke to George Orwell, ruling class writers have extolled the natural unwritten ‘traditions’ (invented since 1688) of this country’s political habits, and inveighed against those philistine wreckers – usually humourless continental types too – the modernisers and democratisers. But if all this homespun British common sense – and the principles which Nairn borrows from Musil’s depiction of the decaying Hapsburg Empire to describe it, ‘muddling through’, ‘not too much’, and ‘decent chaps in control’ – appeals precisely to the anti-intellectualism of middle England, then again the irony is that as a tradition it is a truly intellectualised one, with Leavis working up our redemption from vulgar ‘-isms’ and ‘-ologues’, by way of a tradition of literature, that is etiquette, manners and good writing style, a more gentle and imaginative British moral culture (so God Bless Jane and save her from Hegel’s sentences!).
The book has dated slightly since the death of Diana and the certain decline of the royal family’s fortunes throughout the 90s. But one of the most delightful aspects of the text resides in the terse dismissals Nairn dishes out to all those he clearly considers as establishment lackeys. Beside Burke, Orwell and Leavis, he rudely sees off the likes of Roy Jenkins, Roger Scruton, T S Eliot and Peregrine Worsthorne. And Nairn doesn’t let his internationalism get in the way of a lowland Scot’s justified criticism, as all the foreigners who sucked up with the toffs – Wittgenstein, Popper, Berlin, Gombrich and Eysenck, are also subject to his intemperately scratchy pen. Some people might want to protest that it’s just not cricket, Tom.
But up here we all happen to be enjoying it massively – until that is, we start to wonder if all this schadenfreude is not just feeding the giant scotch chip on the shooder. But then, of course it is! And so what? Tom’s refusing to give it manners and good style in the gentle British imaginative moral way. Boo hoo we cried, or was it ha ha – ’cause as Hegel himself said, invective is a valid part of the dialectic. Didn’t he say that? Or was it Harry Lauder? Jane Austen perhaps? Never MacDiarmid, surely? Or maybe it was Queen Victoria (aka la vieille ogresse aux dents jaunes)?
Janus, as any fule no, was the Roman God of gates, doors, ends and beginnings. He, as a figure, or perhaps an alter ego, is also central to the evolution of Nairn’s increasingly layered and metaphorical vocabulary. Judging by the range and scope of the targets in this book the ‘Modern Janus’ of the title is a double-head spinning right and left, gobbing corrosive spitballs at nationalists, centrists and historians of the grand battalion school. While the right wing is not ignored, it is Nairn’s colleagues on the left, including many connected to the New Left Review, who have the toughest time of it in this series of thematic essays and impressions. Freed from the empirical constraints of mapping the British political system – already done, thoroughly in the foregoing – Faces of Nationalism allows Nairn to dismantle what he sees as errors in progressive thought and refine a unified theory of nationalism.
In The Enchanted Glass Nairn had already established an idea of the British state system as a perverse, protectionist racket (UKania) or ‘pseudo-transcendence’ run by an ulterior colonial elite and their ‘symbol operators’. The role of this servitor tier in the system is of particular interest to Nairn, who seems to respond in kind, being himself one of the more sophisticated symbol operators. He still makes his points through facts – many impressively erudite and occasionally esoteric – and analysis (especially fine on his mentor Gellner), but he is also one of the few writers in this particular field – one which necessarily, contends with myth and metaphor as used by state interests – comfortable in expressing, as well as explaining his thought. Two-faced, in the best, hearth-God sense of the word. It goes beyond analogy into the realm of symbol, notions such as ‘the Janus’ of nationalism scrape at more platonic, even poetic truths. Chapter titles such as ‘The Owl of Minerva’ give a flavour of the almost Carlyle-like language, and the equally Carlyle-like modus operandi, deploying powerful language to will the faux-generosity of internationalism into oblivion:
Who does not know the internationalist sectarian, sternly weighing distant triumphs of the Movement against the humiliations at home? His national proletariat is a permanent disappointment and reproach. Unable to dismiss it, he is compelled none the less to make the situation more palatable by an exaggeration of the distant view. The revolution is always better from somewhere else.
The ‘old Janus’ of internationalism is simultaneously nihilistic and romantic – at home the proles zone out to primetime telly and fill their bellies, whereas in Chiapas/Venezuala/Burma/anywhere conveniently distant they are lean, committed and heroic. Read the above, then read the second edition of the Red Paper on Scotland (2005)which resurrected an age-old conceit of the Scottish left – its sacred duty to bolster the cause of English socialism. Cut ties with the union and so the logic goes, you cut ties with the fragile progressive cause south of the Tweed – and so Scottish sovereignty is a necessary sacrifice (an argument has been recently reconfigured, at least in its basic structures, along multicultural lines). In Nairn’s book this flagellant tendency explains why so many on the left are hostile to his understanding of nationalism – but beyond that it is surely prophetic, diagnosing the structural weaknesses that saw the left buckle in the face of growing conservatism and market fundamentalism.
Of course, leftists who use internationalism as an excuse to hate the homeland present an easy target. Nairn also takes on some that are more surprising, even sacrosanct to the emerging consensus over Scotland’s social and political existence. Take for example, his scathing analysis of the notion of ‘civil society’ and its Orwellian emphasis on ‘decency’:
… a basically resentful dependence of collective impotence, and the turgid misery of bureaucracy or low politics. On its own, cut off by these strange conditions from normal or high politics, civil society itself can amount to a kind of ailment, a practically pathological condition of claustrophobia, cringing parochialism and dismal self-absorption.
Given that the existence of a demonstrably separate Scottish civil society powered many of the arguments for home rule, the Scottish reader must wonder at a deeper meaning behind this. Janus necessarily turns his face home; the ‘low politics’ of the first batch of MSPs (the very first to be declared in 1999 was Tom McCabe, a Labour councillor also responsible for administering the count). High politics may well mean control over social security policy, or perhaps the ability to opt in or out of potentially destructive wars. Written in 1997 on the eve of the British General Election, this passage seems to pre-empt the sense of anti-climax over devolution’s freshman year even as it dares to be hopeful of what the election might bring.
Being a sage is never easy, and Nairn over-extends the neck on occasion as events, inevitably, overtake him – where for example, would he place Islamic internationalism and pan-Arab idealism in his analysis of a future where:
the contestant worlds and the end of prehistory seem to be those of ethnic nationality politics and a civic or identity politics more worthy of modernity’s garden …
But, says Nairn, what about home? Progress’ journey must begin there, hence the end section which deals exclusively with Scotland. This might be attributed to an authorial peccadillo, but there is surely more to it than that, for Scotland appears in chapters on Andorra, Palestine and Micro-nations. Surely Nairn as symbol operator has supplanted the imperialist notion of Scotland the Brave with ‘Scotland the Lab’? Once, the Enlightenment era white-hot centre of proto-Ukania and an Internationalism purged of its Scotticisms, now the post-electronic, post-genetic mould and test-site for a necessary alchemic fusion of ‘primordialism’ and ‘modernism’. Whether it convinces is up to the reader, but it is impossible not to admire Nairn’s ability to turn the backward glance into a Parthian shot.
Having established his credentials as British socialism’s Evel Knievel, a sort of neck-always-at-least-on-the-line sage, Nairn seems, by now, unable to do without a daredevil prediction or two. Not that he’s ever wrong … but he has to keep proving to himself that the old magic is still there. That, at any rate, is the feel of the book After Britain: New Labour and the Return of Scotland written around the turn of the century when Britain’s traditional set of constitutional settlements and agreements (ie. London knows best) appeared to be going haywire. This book, not really a book at all, but a collection of essays of varying length and relevance – one originally a speech given to the 70th anniversary bash of the Scottish National Party, and another a paper of ‘Evidence Given to the House of Commons Select Committee on Scottish Affairs’ – claims in some way to be an update of the Break-up of Britain.
What Nairn really does with this rushed and mixed cauldron of letters is wag a cassandric finger and shake the hoary wizard’s locks at us in warning. For the radical reforms that we thought to see unfolding before our millennial eyes with New Labour were in fact, no such thing; this was not at all Nairn’s long-predicted ‘Break-up’, but a dastardly spell and a trick, a final last desperate set of phoney radical measures designed to shore up power in London.
This may all seem obvious to us now, but Nairn was quick and eager to seize on the clues even back then. England’s establishment, for its own reasons, has preferred to pretend on the one hand that Scotland’s restlessness is a symptom of an endlessly weak and failing, ethnic and national liberation struggle; and on the other that Scotland’s position is somehow similar to autonomous regions in truly modern democracies (principally Germany and Spain) across Europe (just waiting, that is, for a hand up from daddy). The problem with these simultaneously held yet mutually exclusive views are that they ignore, and are uncomfortable with, the reality of Scotland’s status as an imperfectly absorbed state in the process of reconstituting itself (according to Nairn). Thus Nairn can talk about an ‘underground topography’ of remnants and effects of former Scottish statehood which have refused to wither away; and with this sense of crippled and crippling continuity, he can speak in the same breath as it were, of Lockhart and Fletcher, and of O’Hagan and Dunn, as if all those writers were sitting together counselling one another on the pathological effects of this underground disfigurement.
This has also meant that London has been able to ignore the work of Scottish thinkers, writers, social scientists and politicians – mainly those named above at the beginning of MM’s Break-Up of Britain review who worked in the 70s and 80s to establish that sovereignty was located in the will of the Scottish people– and claim in effect, that it gave devolution to Scotland.
As Nairn says:
Revolutions from above can happen; but feigned or non-revolutions from above have been more common.
So when Blair made the slip with that remark about the ‘Parish Council’, and then when all his talk about a ‘Council of the Isles’ giving everybody their word was quietly dropped altogether, we should like Nairn, have seen Blair immediately for what he was. Namely, the radical preserver of ‘the heartland’s continuity … undiminished at the centre stage of the world’. It’s a great tradition, after all, following that tried and tested maxim of British constitutionalism, the one uttered by the Great Cham himself, telling us that ‘the man who is tired of London is tired of life’.
There is lots of related stuff here which is interesting in an anecdotal sense – on the West Lothian Question (or, how England always deserves the best); on the endless Local Government rejigging to avoid facing up to real constitutional problems until the poll tax fiasco stuffed that game; on the spectre of Thatcher; and the prospect of English indifference turning to blame and panic (as it did with the Irish). It’s all good but there’s not much new now, and that’s the problem with this sort of literary cobbling – too much old cobblers.
Tom Nairn is, unquestionably, dogged in pursuit. With Pariah, his quest to kill off phoney internationalism, cod traditions and sham democracy and replace it with a self-aware, mature form of nationalism finds yet another channel. It is a reprise, an instalment, another chapter in the perpetual drafting of Nairn’s book. This consistency has made it impossible for him to critique the Blair government without, inexorably, returning to the position of Scotland within the union. Pariah presents us with the problem of the ‘parody Britain’ created by the New Labour project – elitist, facile, seemingly social democratic yet riddled with contradictions, and, in a remarkably short space of 162 pages the solution any assiduous Nairn reader has come to expect.
There is an honour in pursuing a theme, in rigorously engaging with a subject over the fullness of time, in recapitulating and re-assessing ideas in the light of emerging evidence. Unfortunately Pariah gives the impression that Nairn’s attitudes already hardened a long time ago and that this is a serving of that very Blairite confection, policy-based evidence. Like much of the later Nairn, Pariah is not a book but an essay double-spaced and large-typed, and all of the facts available on Blair’s brand of modernisation are strained through the tight holes of Nairn’s prejudgements as to the moribundity of the union. What we are left with is seemingly assembled according to the sticky-backed plastic recycling ethos of that junior bastion of bourgeois Britain, Blue Peter – ‘one I made earlier’.
In its favour, it reads well, replete with the expressive, explosive, ‘garlicky’ and goading language Nairn has made his own. It works rather well as a brainy, slightly hallucinogenic satire on ‘Redemption Britain’– a post-Imperial Britain ‘refreshed’ and ‘absolved’ by adding the prefixes ‘new’ and ‘modern’ wherever the English language will permit (and frequently where it will not …). Nairn’s analysis is perceptive and occasionally lacerating but relies for all its punch-lines on sharing Nairn’s givens – which are here left unsubstantiated, so that only the patient work of years re-treading the back catalogue will flesh the bones. Nothing wrong with that, but in the confines of such a short book the anger and hate condenses and overspills. The jokes – especially the construct of a ‘music hall Britain’ – rapidly outstay their welcome and smack of the very elitism Nairn eschews, so that the overall result resembles some sort of erudite voodoo curse. Or, to find an analogy closer to home, the po-mo equivalent to that celebrated vindiction of Scot against Scot:
I curse their head and all the hairs of their head; I curse their face, their brain (innermost thoughts), their mouth, their nose, their tongue, their teeth, their forehead, their shoulders, their breast, their heart, their stomach, their back, their womb …
This grandiose and elaborate curse is emblazoned across Carlisle’s ‘Cursing Stone’, a modern sculpture that commemorates Bishop Dunbar’s famed invective against his fellow Scots – reivers who switched sides between Edinburgh and London as it suited them, blackmailing the national interest. As to the identity of their modern equivalent – with whom Nairn truly has the biggest beef – then the reader need only move on to the subsequent Gordon Brown Bard of Britishness to learn whose briskets he’d dearly love to baste.
The ‘Reiver gambit’ should be familiar to anyone who has followed the ins and outs of the Scottish Labour party; but Nairn’s persistent hexing of the new ‘synthetic’ establishment created by the Blair government suffers in comparison to the establishment it assails, for said establishment can afford to sit tight, stay complacent. Nairn appears angry, sour, messianic yet vitriolic. One senses a shift here from analyst to magus, from science to spell-casting, hubble, bubble and all that. It is dangerously close to enchantment – a very Nairnian evil – but is at least far, as yet, from becoming ‘sound and fury’. There are some very astute satirical moments in Pariah, and the best use for this book is as an often hugely funny Devil’s Dictionary of British Politics.
Almost without meaning to, Nairn and his contemporaries created a new ‘republic of letters’ where they wrote Scotland back into being. The book continues to be written as it must be, but Nairn’s chapters seem increasingly repetitious. Is Pariah all Scotland’s foremost public intellectual has to contribute to debates over politics and power in the early century; of the decline in parliamentary (Embra, London or elsewhere?) scrutiny; of global terrorism and its structures or of the role of the corporation and its relationship to polity, individuals and development? Surely not? Somewhere along the way we have fallen through the wardrobe from languid Ukania to frosty Nairnia, where theory becomes theology, invective incantation and Nairn rules his see as a speilcasting bishop, custodian of a prayer-book now wearing a little thin.
Main Image: Tom Nairn Verso Author photo