On with the Pooling and Merging

Neal Ascherson

  • After Britain: New Labour and the Return of Scotland by Tom Nairn
    Granta, 336 pp, £15.99, January 2000, ISBN 1 86207 293 0

Throughout this book, the poet Douglas Dunn provides epigraphs and quotations. His final contribution occurs in the last section, ‘Epilogue: The Last Day’, a sort of diary of what Tom Nairn did and felt on the unforgettable rainy Thursday of 6 May 1999. It was the first polling day for the reconvened Scottish Parliament. As Nairn drove back from Fife, where he had gone to say goodbye to a dying friend, he passed through some shaggy badlands country and was reminded of Dunn’s

Among bracken, in his hideouts of fern –
Gaberlunzie, half-life, national waif,
Earth-pirate of the thistle and the thorn.

The image, used again and again in Nairn’s reflections on Scotland here, is of Scottish social and political identity reduced by the Union to a rough-sleeping fugitive, a marginalised wanderer proper-thinking folk have learned to ignore. But now times have changed, and the way is open for the ‘national waif’ to repossess his home once more. As Nairn leaves the polling station, he has a quiet sense of arrival, of repatriation after a more than life-long journey or exile: ‘now here we were, returned from the hill and into the house at last – no longer gaberlunzies, the unclassifiable waifs of a half-forgotten realm.’ He writes that with unmistakable feeling, and in fact his own life has been something of a gaberlunzie existence across the forty years or more since he began as a political thinker.

It seems obvious now that he has been the most forceful and original mind to confront, demask and anatomise the British state. The perception that Great Britain was a multinational state and not a united nation had never quite been lost over the centuries, but it was Tom Nairn who almost single-handedly hammered this truth into the skull of British intellectuals and campaigners until it became – as it is today – practically uncontested by the political class. The widespread recognition that the English/ British ‘constitution’ is uniquely archaic and authoritarian, that this archaism derives from the incomplete English Revolution of the 17th century which merely transferred absolutism from Monarch to Parliament, and that the system-failure of British institutions is largely responsible for the debility of the economy in the later 20th century – all these flowed from the Gramscian revaluations of English/British history undertaken by Nairn and Perry Anderson in the 1960s. One solid and effective consequence of that recognition was Charter 88, a fresh campaign for constitutional reform which took shape in the late 1980s. Ten years before, in The Break-Up of Britain (1977), Nairn had put forward the proposition that the United Kingdom was ineluctably disintegrating. At the time, and especially after the advent of Mrs Thatcher, he was regarded in London as a Celtic-fringe fantasist or – worse – as a traitor to socialist internationalism. Today, it is possible to hear placid English voices on the radio, from Women’s Institutes and the like, discussing the break-up of the United Kingdom as if it had already taken place, while Britain-wide polls suggest – again without any evidence of panic – that Scotland’s independence is generally supposed to be inevitable. Meanwhile, those Old Left voices which used regularly to denounce all forms of nationalism as the prelude to fascism, racism and war (except for noble anti-colonial liberation struggles, of course) have fallen silent.

Tom Nairn has certainly not been right about everything. Britain, for instance, did not break up as fast and dramatically as he thought it would in the 1970s. And he wishes now that the young Nairn hadn’t uttered that line for which he will probably be anthologised – about Scotland not being free until the last minister of the Kirk has been strangled with the last copy of the Sunday Post. (As it turns out, the Post has done far less damage to democracy in Scotland over the last few years than the editorials in the Scotsman, while the Kirk effected a rapprochement with the nation by helping to guide the faithful across the desert between devolution Bills.) On the whole, though, Nairn can claim to have made sound prophecies and to have won most of his arguments – in that his side of them, in sense and language alike, has become the prevalent wisdom even when people do not know its source. But the price has been a wandering, unestablished waifdom and an indelible ‘subversive’ mark on his file. Most of his work has been written in Scotland, without support, often in poverty, while grants and jobs – such as they were – came from Italy, Holland, Ireland or Bohemia. Shamingly, it was not until the 1990s that a Scottish university dared to offer even a temporary job to the man who had been for twenty years the dominant political philosopher of his country, and an influence on the ideas of the post-1968 generation all over Western Europe.

Like many of Nairn’s works, After Britain is a bit of a composite. Several of its chapters started out as lectures and articles, but they have been reworked to bring them up to date and render them compatible and are accompanied by plenty of new material. The joins still show, but mostly in changes of tone; polemics of ferocious, Marxish satire alternating with personal, even confessional writing about this actually-existing Scotland. There would be loose ends, however, if the book had not been planned at an incredible conjuncture of history which plaits everything into relevance. The first year of the Scottish Parliament is involved with the enlargement of the European Union into a comity of small nations, with the expiring gasp of New Labour’s impulse towards constitutional reform, with the buckling of confidence in the survival of the United Kingdom as a state, let alone as a monarchy – and above all with the question of England, at last being voiced by ordinary English people and not only by Hague’s Tories in their new metamorphosis as the English National Party (ENP).

It isn’t surprising that England is one of Nairn’s preoccupations. ‘I wish they would get on with it,’ he writes at the end of the book. ‘Like the Scots, they no longer have all the time in the world. Europe will not wait for us.’ The emergence of England is inevitable (‘beyond Blair’s parody of Britain, a renovated England is certain’), perhaps guided by the growing movement for an English parliament, but Nairn has misgivings about what English nationalism will be like. If the English question is too much for the old British system to accommodate, then ‘England will return on the street corner, rather than via a maternity room with appropriate care and facilities.’ He promises to write more about ‘England-in-the-British-archipelago’ in a second book to follow. But he shares the worry of many English observers that reviving nationalism could take the form of a rabid, xenophobic Euroscepticism, a ‘weird hippogriff’ monster which would barricade England against the only transformative force which can rescue and modernise it – the influence of the European Union.

Already there are moans about the cosy, gossipy flavour of devolved political life in Scotland. But the sense that everyone knows everyone or at least kent their faithers has its allure too. It seems very good and native to me that the Chief Minister of Scotland, Donald Dewar, thought it natural to review Nairn’s book in a newspaper. Not that he liked it much. Nairn has no time for New Labour or Tony Blair, and – which vexes Donald Dewar – no gratitude either for the bold gift of devolution. The Chief Minister objects, predictably but pretty eloquently, to the Nairnite assumption that Scottish independence is predestined whether devolution ‘beds down’ and works smoothly or not. And he is stung by Nairn’s ‘dismissal of those who argue for the politics of social justice as distinct from the politics of identity. These are not alternatives, mutually exclusive, with one ruling out the other.’ It’s an odd remark: seeming to dissent from Nairn, Dewar is effectively agreeing with him that a policy of ‘social justice’ designed to bypass and supplant national aspirations in Scotland is condemned to fail. And that is just what this wise but lonely Chief Minister does think, unlike some of his more complacent Labour colleagues. ‘l was never likely to be on song with Nairn,’ he writes, but there is a tinge of regret to his words.

There are two dominating themes in this book. One is Scotland’s ‘return’, and the other is the nature of Blairism. Nairn is too honest not to remember that democracy-night in May 1997 as joyous and historic, as the overthrow of a citadel and the flinging-open of gates. The devolution Bills, the September referendum and the elections for the Welsh and Scottish legislatures all followed as consequences. But even before the referendum, critics – including people sympathetic to devolution – were saying that Blair had no real conception of the forces he was releasing. He thinks that he is making the United Kingdom stronger by reforming its absurd centralism. But an absurdity is just what the UK was founded on: a wildly asymmetrical multinational state façaded into an appearance of cohesion by the curtain-wall of a unitary political system. And if you bring reason and modernity into this old house, its roof will cave in.

Nairn takes an entirely merciless view of New Labour. He regards Blair’s reforms as pseudo-radical fiddling designed not to transform but to conserve the essentials of the British state system. He agrees that Blair ‘has reformed just enough to destabilise everything’, but he sees New Labour’s ‘pot-noodle regime’ as a reactionary government seeking to shore up and repair the old UK after the damage done by Thatcherite experiments. Its attempt to create new governing élites has failed, and instead the Party itself is mobilised to simulate the old caste-power, ‘interspersed with colourful appeals to the populace’. Blairism, though it began with one of those glad new mornings or ‘dawn choruses’ which occur pretty regularly in British politics, is in reality ‘another chapter of decline and fall, accompanied by ever wilder self-deceptions which are really compensations for a certain inescapable and shameful weakness of state’.

Donald Dewar finds Nairn’s antithetical habit of mind infuriating (as in ‘Youthism is not a bad term for the resultant terminal condition: a strategy of decrepitude’). But he is also bewildered by Nairn’s long and enjoyable resort to Robert Musil’s The Man without Qualities as a source of comparison. For Dewar, the parallels drawn with Musil’s disintegrating Austria-Hungary are ‘tendentious … who knows or cares?’ It may be a long novel for politicians with infernally little spare time, but it’s no exaggeration to say that Musil’s masterpiece really has been the rediscovery of the decade in Britain. Ukania’s own fin de siècle, seen through the lens of the millennium preparations, is prefigured with horrifying accuracy in this comedy about how a failing multinational state sets up a Great & Good committee to study ways of celebrating its own anniversary. The only reason to celebrate the Chief Minister’s resignation would be the chance it offered him to get stuck into The Man without Qualities and discover for himself how witty, how shockingly relevant it is in 21st-century Britain.

Scotland is the other concern of After Britain. And it is striking how the temperature of Nairn’s anticipation has dropped since he wrote The Break-Up of Britain, more than twenty years ago. Back then, he foresaw heavy and prolonged political confrontation before any version of autonomy was permitted to the lesser Ukanian nations. But now that particular struggle is almost over. Britain has in many important ways already broken up, with much less strife and huff-puffing than he predicted. The contests still unsettled – over a written British constitution, a second chamber, proportional representation for Westminster and so on – are coming to look like essentially English problems. They are worthwhile contests; this book is dedicated to Anthony Barnett, founding spirit of Charter 88, and it glows with admiration for This Time (1997), Barnett’s vain appeal to carry through the momentum of constitutional reform far beyond devolution. But these are battles whose outcomes no longer affect Scotland in any decisive way. Scotland has problems, but they are now problems of her own.

Readers waiting for Nairn to tell them whether the UK is about to collapse, or whether Scotland is about to become independent, will find themselves stranded. The sage has moved on. He no longer seriously doubts that Scotland will attain sovereignty within the European Union, and his concern is with how rather than if. Here he makes a couple of points which I have always thought dead right and highly important, but which have been suppressed because they are inconvenient both to Nationalists and Scottish Labour. One is that the Scottish public are not much interested in distinctions between supposedly incompatible variants of self-rule like devolution, independence, quasi-federalism and so on. What they want is to run their own affairs, never mind what the arrangement is called. As Nairn ‘Irishly’ sums it up: ‘in Scotland, Home Rule has been far too serious a matter to be distracted by Independence.’

The other point, also obvious for years but also fiercely resisted by unionists, regionalists, federalists and the rest, is that we live in a Europe where nation-states are still the units that count. There may be no such thing as total independence or sovereignty within the European Union, but as matters stand it is Britain which decides whether and how Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland and England itself will pool that sovereignty at Brussels. The Slovaks, some years ago, asked themselves why they should let Czechoslovakia negotiate the terms of their membership of the EU, when an independent Slovakia would do a better job. The Welsh and Scots are entitled to ask the same question. Isn’t there a daft, Lewis Carroll sort of case for attaining independence before going on to surrender it in the European Union? ‘So on with the pooling and merging, Britons,’ says Nairn. ‘Until this is achieved, however, and “Sovereignty” decently buried, could we on the periphery please have some ordinary, boring, narrow, dangerous, egotistical, potentially atavistic (etc) sovereignty?’

Nairn insists that Scotland ‘faces the problem of “reconstituting” a nation rather than that of straightforwardly building one in the historically more familiar sense’. The peculiar nature of the Union meant that the nation never ceased to exist, although its members paid for incorporation into ‘Britain’ with an enduring sense of pain and an endemic lack of confidence – ‘the river of loss: corrosive, numbing and seeping relentlessly through the foundations of every Scottish generation since then’. But he accepts that the 1707 Union was the only possible one. The gross disparity in size between England and the other limbs of Great Britain meant that no federal dispensation, no United Provinces solution, could ever have worked. So the English were only being realistic when they stuck to the principle of unitary and total sovereignty for the governance of the United Kingdom, while the Scottish hope to be treated as equal Union partners with England was always a delusion. ‘In Great Britain … there is simply nothing to be equal to.’

It follows that devolution itself must be a fatal misunderstanding of how this Union has worked. There are no halfway houses permitted in the 1707 deal, and ‘the logic of Anglo-British statehood … is now working in reverse … the very same factors which 300 years ago rendered “incorporation” inevitable are probably now working to make its contrary, separation, just as unavoidable’. Meanwhile, though, this devolved or autonomous or sovereign Scotland urgently needs a constitution, and Nairn wishes that this Scottish Parliament could have agreed to understand itself as a ‘constituent assembly’, the provisional gathering of representatives whose only task is to draft a constitution and put it to a referendum. Most of Scotland’s MPs – the Labour and Liberal Democrat ones – actually signed the 1988 Claim of Right, which said heretically that sovereignty in Scotland proceeded from the people and not from the Crown in Westminster. Maybe it should, but does it? Maybe the MPs grasped the un-Ukanian enormity of what they were signing, but probably they did not. Anyway, the case for a Scottish constitution or ‘basic law’ is not that it reaffirms ancient Caledonian doctrines. It is the need for a document which is Scottish rather than British, to regulate future relations not just with Westminster but with the other national components of the British state, or the Atlantic Archipelago or whatever it comes to be called, and eventually with Europe as well.

Will it happen? Not during Mr Blair’s watch, I think. Tom Nairn’s book is rich with good lines, and one of them sums up London’s distaste for writing down the rules of the game. ‘The abiding aim of British stateliness is to avoid being “pinned down” by that sort of thing. It continues to prefer the public-bar company of Edmund Burke to the saloon-bar rectitude of Tom Paine.’ Life after Britain, in other words, will be erratic and full of surprises.