Tom Nairn was shy of superlatives. The way post-Brexit British governments insist that every project is ‘world-beating’ or shows ‘global leadership’ made him smile. It’s just the language of the senile Ukanian state which has to believe in its own uniqueness, its non-pareil altitude above comparison. After his death last month, Tom was mourned as ‘Britain’s most important constitutional thinker’, or ‘Scotland’s greatest political philosopher since Hume and Ferguson’, but it would be truer to his own modesty to turn the figure round: it’s difficult to name anyone who has had more influence on British self-understanding than Tom Nairn.
It’s more than forty years since The Break-Up of Britain was published. Its presentation of the United Kingdom as an archaic, dysfunctional structure, pre-modern in its foundation and unfit to survive in a post-imperial world, was shocking back then but remains pretty convincing today. So much so that – especially for academics – its conclusions have been seen as an intellectual beaver-dam, holding up the flow of fresh ideas. But the beaver-dam remains, and the wetland behind it continues to fertilise ideas about Englishness and Britishness. Tom’s thinking, in that famous book and in his subsequent work, remains a dominant influence on almost all writing about ‘Anglitude’. But it’s absurd to think of him as anti-English. Quite the opposite. When he wrote the book, he saw Scottish independence as the crowbar needed to wrench open the suffocating coffin of Britishness, liberating the English to regain their own democratic identity. A generation later, in the New Labour epoch, Tom would erupt against Gordon Brown’s campaign to rally England, as well as Scotland, back into a proudly Union Jackist culture: ‘The drag queen was being artificially resurrected to prevent the majority national identity from winning any distinguishable or separate voice.’
For five happy years, I was one of four people who shared an Edinburgh flat with Tom. Always neatly dressed, his room immaculate and his few possessions as tidily ordered as a sailor’s, he radiated a gentle dignity. It was hard to guess that he was often in dire poverty, taking refuge in his own country from duns and spooks who had made him a wanderer across Europe. His fastidiousness, like his cooking talent, seemed Italian, imports from the beloved land which had given him his adventurous, optimistic Marxism. All of us in that flat relied on his comforting sense of humour – sardonic, but hard to associate with the sparkling ferocity of written Nairn polemic. I only once saw him raise his voice in anger. That was in his old age, at a Dundee meeting held in his honour. The matter of Scotland’s independence had been raised. Tom suddenly stood up and smote the chair he had been sitting on. ‘It’s now!’ he cried, in his deep Fifer’s voice. ‘The time is now!’
Eminent foreign Marxists, some of them on the run, came and went in the Edinburgh flat. But it’s one visitor from Glasgow whom I remember most vividly. Carol Craig wanted to meet Tom. Later, she would become a renowned preacher of wellbeing and denouncer of lovelessness and violence in Scottish family life. Now, she was very young, severe and beautiful. I sat them in opposite corners of our large sitting room. A long, uncompanionable silence followed as they watched each other. Then Carol leaned forward and said loudly: ‘They say you are an Althusserian! Is that so?’ A Scottish moment. Tom, for an instant unbalanced, waved his hands defensively. He said: ‘Ooh, well, now, I wouldn’t really say that I’d go that far, no …’ Unlike Althusser’s, his Marxism would grow almost unrecognisably open and eclectic. Many on the left never forgave him for writing that ‘the theory of nationalism represents Marxism’s great historical failure,’ or for his insistence that globalisation had liberating, progressive aspects. But many on the right, including Britain’s intelligence services and their clients, never forgave him either – for spreading seditious doctrines threatening to the kingdom.
In 1968 Tom was fired from Hornsey College of Art for taking part in a student occupation as a staff member. For the next 47 years this man, who was blatantly Scotland’s most significant political intellectual, with a long publications list and a hot international reputation, was boycotted. No British university dared offer him a permanent job. In 2016, Edinburgh University finally awarded him an honorary doctorate – at a private ceremony. No such thing as a higher education blacklist? No discreet security hints to university chancellors? Aye, right.
We were friends for almost half a century. The analysis of the British state expounded so long ago in New Left Review by Tom and Perry Anderson – the phoniness of the 1688 revolution, which merely transferred absolutism from divine-right kings to parliaments – converted my own politics for good. Tom’s iron optimism in moments of disaster was harder to share, though often justified over time. And his Scotland? Nobody belaboured Scottish failings more violently: the paralysing caution, the petty reasons given for not marching through open doors, the useless sentimentality of the early SNP. And yet he became the principal educator, the favourite ideologist, of the whole independence movement. Above all, his Gramscian teaching hit home: that politics are not enough, that to free Scotland from its ‘self-colonisation’ meant conquering the commanding heights of civil society and culture – theatre, media, even the Kirk – as much as mass demonstrations or election victories.
Foreign thoughts! I wish I had seen him walking in the Meadows in Edinburgh with the poet Hamish Henderson, one of Gramsci’s first translators. They talked in Italian, which seemed to them – this was the 1970s – the only language for discussing socialism, national liberation, the ferment of bourgeois Europe. As I’m told, Tom seemed transfigured as they argued in their Tuscan accents (Tom had studied in Pisa), gesticulating in a passionate, most un-Scottish way. How I wish I had seen that kind and brilliant man decolonising himself! He died before he could see his country reach independence. But his writings – sturdy, startling and as impatient for change as their author – will keep minds moving down that road.
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