Tom Nairn is a leading Scottish author and academic, and a prominent intellectual behind the case for Scottish independence. He turns 90 next year. John Lloyd, contributing editor to the Financial Times, sheds light on Nairn’s writing, which he argues “is not primarily a programme for a more equitable economy, or a march through the institutions to craft a political system dominated by the working classes. It is most powerfully a textbook for despising England."
"In The Break-Up, Nairn’s favourite trope is firing off baroque fusillades of abuse aimed at the degraded husk of England — and the Britain it dominates — which now finds itself “a creaking English snail-shell of archaic pieties, deferential observance and numbing self-inhibition”; a country of “rapidly accelerating backwardness, economic stagnation, social decay and cultural despair;” “a sinking paddle wheel state”, a “palsied corpus of Unionism”, an “indefensible and inadaptable relic, neither properly archaic not properly modern”, requiring “a motorised wheelchair and a decent burial” within the “hopelessly decaying institutions of a lost imperial state”.
As well as hopelessly decaying, England is hopelessly racist. In After Britain, Nairn yokes a “malign Euro-scepticism” to England’s “own brutish (racial) prejudice” and “post-imperial exclusiveness” — and produces the murder of Stephen Lawrence in south London as the prime example. Yet it was a murder which produced an outpouring of revulsion from all layers of British society, a report accusing the Metropolitan Police of institutional racism, a campaign by the Daily Mail — that most English of papers — to bring the culprits, at first acquitted, to justice, an appointment of Stephen’s mother, Doreen, to the peerage and the funding of a Stephen Lawrence Trust. The Lawrence killing showed the opposite of Nairn’s slur: it showed an English population, with a proportionately much higher number of people of colour than Scotland, appalled by it: in 2012, nearly 20 years after the event, a poll showed 66% of the British thought the sentences on the two men convicted too lenient, while two per cent thought them too harsh.”
On Europe, Nairn has a long and consistent attachment, but as John Lloyd goes on to argue, it is ‘not a home for secessionist regions or nations: many, especially the Spanish and the Belgians, look on Scots nationalism as a threatening example for their own secessionist-tending movements. Even if no veto is wielded over its entry bid, it will — as Fabian Zuleeg, director of the Centre where Sturgeon spoke, has made clear — be required to “uphold and defend the principles of European integration, not least in accepting the terms and conditions of membership in full… shoring up stability and highlighting the benefits of EU membership”.
Thus no opt outs, no long-term avoidance of membership of the Eurozone nor Schengen, no special treatment. Nor, for that matter, the £10-12 billion a year, presently paid from the UK Treasury under the Barnet formula, from EU funds; and a hard border with the rest of the UK. States are about power, and the ability to enforce policies; and the EU, as a would-be state, can be no exception.”
All of which should provide a sharp reproof to Nairn’s ‘cloudy romanticism’ over Europe. But, according to Lloyd, ‘Nairn operates in a sphere of abstract utopianism, and has taught the nationalists to do likewise — at least in public. It has worked: romance, idealism, anti-Englishness, national pride, a mixture which has succeeded so far, beyond what even Nairn could have dreamed. But is it now, itself, in the kind of decline it attributes to England? That’s another day’s work.”
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