Tom Nairn Held a Mirror Up to a Britain in Decline
The Scottish writer Tom Nairn, who died last month, was the most perceptive critic of the pathologies of the British state. His writings on nationalism and the Labour Party are essential for anyone attempting to understand British society.
The United Kingdom, commentators are fond of remarking, is not properly speaking the name of a country but of a political settlement. Neither is Great Britain — an imperial moniker that denotes a territory whose borders have been drawn on the Welsh and the Jamaican coast — the name of a nation in any clear sense. It is instead a description of the projection of imperial power out of a core whose boundaries remain misty, miasmic, and amorphous. There is, therefore, something very anachronistic about Britain: it is a nation which seems to exist with one foot in modernity and another in a mutant feudal-imperial past.
No thinker has been more perceptive of the pathologies of Britain than the Scottish historian Tom Nairn (1932–2023), who died on January 21. The author of over ten books, Nairn dedicated his life to pointing out the fissures in this unhappy marriage of modernity and tradition at the heart of the British state. Looking back to the English Civil War and Glorious Revolution, he argued that Britain failed to develop a properly modern democratic culture because its early political tumult brought into power a nascent capitalist class protected by the fig leaf of a monarchy. Not in need of popular support to gain power, Britain’s hybrid ruling class — a strange fusion of the bourgeoise, gentry, and aristocracy — curtailed the emergence modern political institutions.
While other European nations developed bureaucracies and left-wing political parties shaped by modern ideas, Britain, an early industrializer, became a political laggard. A politics of compromise characterized the most progressive wings of Britain’s political class: eager to reform society but incapable of fundamentally altering the structure of the state. This was the view that Nairn held of the United Kingdom. The continued presence of support for Scottish independence, the general breakdown of public institutions, and the failure of Starmer’s Labour Party to mount a serious challenge to Conservative hegemony prove that Nairn’s diagnosis of the causes of Britain’s decay is of more value than ever.
Nairn was an eminent political theorist, historian, and essayist. Remarkably for a radical, he has been eulogized by members of Britain’s political establishment, such as the leader of the Scottish National Party (SNP) Nicola Sturgeon and the former Labour prime minister Gordon Brown. This is a testament to the endurance of the critiques he advanced against the British monarchy, his support for Scottish nationalism, his historical analysis of the Labour Party, and, most importantly, the part he played in outlining what came to be known as the Nairn-Anderson thesis.
The thesis, written alongside the historian and editor of the New Left Review (NLR) Perry Anderson in the 1960s, would span dozens of pages in the journal. The thesis would be composed of several essays in the NLR — most importantly “The British Political Elite” (1964), “Origins of the Present Crisis” (1964), and “The Nature of the Labour Party” (1964) — that sought to explain why Britain had found itself the unproductive “sick man of Europe” in the 1960s.
Nairn had a unique perspective on this decline — coming of age alongside what might be termed the second generation of modern Scottish nationalists. The first generation of cultural and political nationalists (including Sorley Maclean, Hugh MacDiarmid, Nan Shepherd, and Douglas Young) was born at the height of British imperial power in the 1890s, 1910s, and 1920s, and many of its members experienced service in World War II as nominally “British” troops. For this first generation, faced with a mostly intact British monolith, culture rather than politics became the medium of choice.
Nairn’s generation (including journalist Neal Ascherson, artist Alasdair Gray, and politician Winnie Ewing) were born in the 1930s and 1940s. This generation missed the war, and experienced decolonization, the 1960s counterculture, a cosmopolitan and slowly federalizing Europe, and the first debates about devolution in the 1970s. This would shape their distinctly political-cultural-historical and comparative critique of the constitutional bricolage that is the British state.
Nairn’s generation of nationalists, connected strongly to both the zenith and nadir of the British Empire, also understood clearly that Scotland was materially involved, as a junior partner at minimum, in colonization and imperialism. Scots had a leading role — first in Northern Ireland, and then the world — in the British imperial project. Indeed, Scots of Nairn’s generation, or their parents, often had firsthand experience of the empire. However, this experience differed widely. Working-class Scots were used as exported labor and cannon fodder while the elite functioned as a business, administrative, and officer class. For instance, Young, the leader of the SNP during the war years, grew up in Bengal and spoke Urdu, while Ascherson was drafted as a junior officer in the neocolonial Malayan Emergency (1948–1960) against communist insurgents.
Nairn, alongside Ascherson, would constantly be at odds with a later Scottish nationalism that, dressing up in liberal identity politics, is often mawkishly obsessed over victimhood, nostalgic Celtic identity, and English “colonization.” Instead, Nairn employed the term “self-colonization” to explain the destruction of the Gaelic language and the clearance of hundreds of thousands from the Scottish Highlands. This transformation was achieved not by alien English oppressors but through the economic reforms of a Gaelic nobility enacted with the help of Scottish lowlanders. In 1995, Nairn argued in the London Review of Books that:
In true colonial situations, the metropolis imposes its equalising will. But under self-colonisation, it may very well be those indirectly ruled who seek assimilation as the way to equal treatment. Nationalism’s aim is equality with one’s own first-class compartment. When the latter is ruled out, however, it may seem better to move into the majority’s indisputably first-class accommodation than to lapse visibly into the second-rate.
Scotland had been forced to share an admittedly rather cramped first-class carriage dominated by England — it had not, however, been kicked into the luggage hold.
Nairn, the Civic Versus the Collective
Indeed, Nairn’s lack of intense romanticism, regressive ethnic nationalism, or acceptance of narratives about English “colonization” came from a peripatetic (and often precarious) academic career and life spent across Europe. Nairn would struggle to find an academic foothold in the largely gatekept British academy, spending large periods as a night watchman. After rotating through European countries, he would involve himself in a student occupation while teaching at a north London art college in 1968.
According to Ascherson, a journalist and Nairn’s friend, this led to a blacklisting from British academia for thirty-three years and a consequent reengagement with the continent. The most important of these European positions was a job in 1970 with the Transnational Institute in Amsterdam, which was set up by disillusioned former Kennedy administration staffers to study underdevelopment and North-South relations. Nairn sought to steer it toward a new role as a think tank for the European Economic Community’s disorganized left — leaving after a disagreement in 1975.
The struggles of liberals and left-wingers in a slowly federalizing postwar continental Europe spurred his contrary hope for a modernized and virtuous Scottish republic. This developed a comparative instinct in him that was exercised across classes and nations. Noting the particular privileges of his own Scottish professional milieu, Nairn says in Faces of Nationalism (1997) that:
[Scottishness] is a structure, not a series of individual “sell-outs.” And the basis for it is inscribed into the circumstances of an early-modern nation-state decapitated and then offered — instead of oblivion — very substantial and long-lasting advantages. Though enjoyed by all classes, some have got a lot more out of it than others.
Nairn grew up surrounded by evidence of Scotland’s “long-lasting advantages” and unequal distribution of goods among its classes. He was born in Fife, a mining, fishing, and university county known during the twentieth century for its “Little Moscow” colliery communities and Communist MPs.
Nairn’s father was a local state school’s headmaster, part of that civic professional class of educators, lawyers, clergy, and journalists in Scotland that had retained its pre-union independence from British institutions. This class, rooted in the public sector and long-standing commercial companies, has provided the bedrock of Scotland’s dominant political blocs, from paternalistic Conservatism and New Labour to the modern SNP.
Nairn asserts in Faces of Nationalism that, by the twentieth century’s end, these institutions were “still national, though no longer nationalist.” Furthermore, their refusal to engage with political modernity produced “entrenched routines of a provincial sub-establishment.” Caught between an organized industrial proletariat and a once proudly independent civic professional and intellectual class, Nairn would fuse each ethos into a new socialist republican and civic nationalism.
Importantly, he would reject the mythology of an enduring civic Scottish collectivism, which he claimed had been invented in the 1980s at the behest of a professional bureaucracy threatened by Thatcher’s reforms. This professional class — Nairn’s class — and its mythologies about itself were dangerous. For instance, while he admired the democratic spirit of the Presbyterian Church and media in Scotland, he also noted their petty authoritarianism and tendency toward capitalist bureaucracy.
At his strongest, he proclaimed that: “Scotland will be free when the last minister is strangled by the last copy of the Sunday Post.” For Nairn, there was no guarantee of justice in independence, only the possibility. Indeed, the current dominance of a Conservative, rather than a progressive, opposition in the devolved parliament supports this conclusion: the inevitable collective Scottish state is a half-formed apparition.
Instead, Scotland was, according to Nairn, the land of “past tributes to greed and the capitalist road,” requiring a push toward a new political horizon. If the country could produce the classical economics of Adam Smith it might just surprise itself — once reconciled to a non-mythological past. However, the current trade-off in the Scottish parliament between, on the one hand, an SNP embroiled in a ghostly national ethos paired with neoliberal economics, and on the other, a Conservative opposition conjuring a spectral union while pushing a nearly identical set of material policies, left much to be desired at the end of Nairn’s life.
Nairn would move toward a new political horizon through a third notable influence, alongside the civic and proletarian ideas of his Fife home. This influence would change the way he thought about the status of the intellectual and how culture and politics interacted. In short, he would read the Italian theorist Antonio Gramsci. Nairn encountered Gramsci’s work in Italy where in 1957 he attended the Scuola Normale Superiore in Pisa, after stints at Edinburgh and Oxford under philosopher Iris Murdoch.
The Scuola Normale Superiore was founded by Napoleon as a training ground for cadres of Enlightenment teachers who were prepared with the intention of transforming Europe in his image. For Nairn, the civic vocation of the Scuola would again force him into tension with the more autodidactic intellectual traditions of the Italian Communist Party (PCI) and the beginnings of an Italian Autonomism that he encountered outside academia.
Nairn’s time in Pisa, and later Dijon in France, would help distance him from the sectarian battle between Trotskyism and Stalinism ongoing in the Anglophone world. Gramsci, and the PCI’s independence from the Soviet Comintern, would instead push him to think about how class alliances, engineered by intellectuals, could pursue socialist programs specific to the national particularities of Europe.
Early Work and the Nairn-Anderson Thesis
Returning from his studies on the continent fluent in Italian and French, Nairn would make an invaluable addition to the NLR in the 1960s — a review that had recently changed editorship from the cultural theorist Stuart Hall to the historian Perry Anderson. Anderson led the journal toward a totalizing and comparative analysis of global culture and politics. This analysis rejected the worldview of the communist Old Left and attempted to diagnose the crises of postwar capitalist modernity.
In formative essays like “Landed England” (1964), Nairn would follow Gramsci’s lead by forensically deconstructing the various moving parts of the English elite to reveal the system within. Focusing on the strange relics preserved in nineteenth-century rural England — the gentry, aristocracy, and semifeudal patronage — would lead Nairn and his peers to see British capitalism’s development as distinct from later iterations.
This distinction would be expressed in the Nairn-Anderson thesis. Distilled to its essence, the Nairn–Anderson thesis argues that Britain’s entrance into modernity was exceptional. Consequently, the British state’s decline will be as historically distinct as its rise. As Nairn wrote later in The Break-Up of Britain (1977): “In its fall as in its origins, the [British] empire differs from the others.” This difference came from the fact that, by industrializing early, the British elite gained a first-mover advantage over European competitors. Thus, the British state did not face the pressure of intense competition and avoided the need to modernize through total reform or liberal revolution. Crucially, with the marked exception of the repeal of the Corn Laws in the late 1840s (which ushered in the era of free trade), industrialists, so central to our image of nineteenth-century British capitalism, never united with the majority to create a developmental coalition against the aristocracy and landed gentry. Instead, they remained junior partners of the latter in a nation-building project held together by an imperialism which offshored social and economic pressures to the colonies.
According to Nairn, this led to a piecemeal reformation of the British state, which largely retained its feudal character. The comparatively early “liberal” revolutions in Britain, namely the English Civil War and the Glorious Revolution of the seventeenth century, produced an underpowered monarchy controlled by a proto-capitalist gentry. In “The British Political Elite” he argued that a precapitalist class had control over the first capitalist state: “In England the rural order preceding the rise of capitalism survived as the master. Not the peasantry but the aristocracy survived, in the face of the inevitable political feebleness of the emergent bourgeoisie, as the governors of the most dynamic capitalist system in the world.” This half-feudal, half-modern, gentry-led system retained a monarchy only to serve the function of “weening an unruly, half-revolutionary people away from its own past.”
To express this disconnect from the past, Anderson and Nairn would use the term “Ukania” as a shorthand for Britain. Ukania is a modification of Austrian author Robert Musil’s “Kakania” — a play on “ka und ka,” the idiomatic mode for “Kaiserlich und königlich” (Imperial and Royal) used by the doomed fin de siècle Austro-Hungarian Empire as an expression of power. However, it also phonetically mimics the word “shit” in demotic German.
Importantly, for both Anderson and Nairn, decline was not an excuse for wistful nostalgia or fascist palingenesis, but an opportunity for a full and complete modernization of a fragmented half-feudal island kingdom. However, for both writers, Britain’s impasse would not be solved by an inevitable developmental trajectory running on traditionally Marxist tracks. In 2020, Anderson published a lengthy follow-up to their original thesis entitled “Ukania Perpetua?” that recognized the intransigence of the trends they had identified in the 1960s.
For Anderson, only Brexit and Corbynism signified any break with the rot at the heart of Westminster that Nairn had depicted. However, both Corbynism and Brexit are being reabsorbed into the Westminster nexus, becoming fodder for the strategies of politicians or requiring compromise to survive. The Nairn-Anderson thesis, so totalizing in its effect, encompasses both the official opposition and the government. Because of this totalization, change, for Nairn, was not possible for forces endogenous to the British state.
Instead, only an exogenous shock might wake the population from sleep. This need for exogenous shock is demonstrable in the fact that five years of Corbyn’s leadership failed to swing the electorate decisively away from the Conservatives. Instead, it took a spike in UK gilt yields, depreciation in the value of the pound, rising interest rates, falling pension fund values, and the intervention of the International Monetary Fund (generated by the financial incompetence of the Truss government’s insane attempt at “Reaganism without the dollar”) to do what Labour, Corbyn, and Keir Starmer could not. Nairn often argued, expressing a half-formed accelerationism, that it might take a catastrophic outside defeat on Britain’s part to force both the Left and the Right, malformed by first-mover benefits, to enact proper constitutional and political reform.
The stasis Nairn described applied as much to the Labour Party and dominant forms of British socialism as it did to the whole ancien régime of the state. The UK’s early entry into industrial modernity affected everything from governing elites to the working-class trade unionists aiming to dethrone them. In essence, the Labour Party’s version of twentieth-century socialism was historically misaligned with contemporary economic and social pressures.
The chief cause of this misalignment was that the British working class emerged prior to the existence of a modern socialist movement. In its place were idealists like the English utopian Robert Owen, whose views were more a product of nineteenth-century empiricism than any real engagement with the working class. Deprived of intellectual guidance, the British working class was forced instead to make do with the ideas it found lying around. These were a combination of Victorian moralism and Methodism: two worldviews which had their origin amongst the more enlightened sections of the emergent bourgeoisie.
Famously, Friedrich Engels remarked:
The English proletariat is actually becoming more and more bourgeois, so that this most bourgeois of all nations is apparently aiming at the possession of a bourgeois aristocracy and a bourgeois proletariat as well as a bourgeoisie.
The culture incubated in the trade unionism of the nineteenth century was, according to Nairn, one which mimicked the ethos of the bourgeoisie. For instance, the Amalgamated Society of Engineers, a union of primarily factory workers and mechanics, treated its struggle for workers’ rights as an attempt to claim the privileges owed to skilled workers who should be entitled to protections against frauds.
Britain’s early industrialization meant that materialism, which became the outlook of the European socialist movements in the second half of the nineteenth century, was supplanted by a populist form of moralistic analysis stemming from Methodism in the trade unions and an elite technocratic and gradualist utilitarianism within the party cadres. Fabianism, the name which this approach took on in the late nineteenth and twentieth century, saw socialism not as something produced through the activity of workers but as part of the modernization project of capitalism: a germ in the seed of industrial society. This evolutionary view of socialism became the dominant worldview of the parliamentary Labour Party — though easily falsified by history, it was, nonetheless, a coherent outlook which never found serious opposition within the Left of the party.
The Left instead passively accepted this worldview, opposing its consequences but unable to mount a serious intellectual challenge to its hegemony. A common saying throughout the last century, repeated by a wide range of figures including Harold Wilson, was that “the British Labour Party owes more to Methodism than to Marxism.” The socialist Christian Labour MP Tony Benn would admit that Jesus was a larger influence than Marx, and that he had not gotten around to reading the Communist Manifesto until he was 51. Nairn would term this hostility to intellectualism — the product of decades of tutelage under a progressive bourgeoisie — “Labourism,” a worldview whose defining feature was a Left that took the position of a perpetual eunuch, deprived of the apparatus required to impose its will on a party in which it was confined (ironically, like the British bourgeoisie) to the role of junior partner.
The NLR would publish Nairn’s analysis of British socialism, as a logical corollary to the Nairn-Anderson thesis, in September 1964 as “The Nature of the Labour Party,” a sweeping sixty-page polemic published in two parts. This was a strange year to choose to lament the anachronistic constraints of the labor movement. Indeed, Harold Wilson, a technocratic and modernizing Labour prime minister from outside the dominant class, had just won the October 1964 general election against the aristocratic Alec Douglas-Home, fourteenth Earl of Home — ending thirteen years of Conservative rule.
However, Nairn was skeptical that Wilson would be able to break the postwar consensus. This consensus, at a basic level, was an unwritten compact between Left and Right. The Conservative Party would leave intact the 1945 Labour government’s welfare state and the Labour Party would restrain itself from reforming too much of Westminster’s constitution. For Nairn, the compact was smoothed by trade unionist MPs’ presence in the ritualized miasma of Westminster and socialist intellectuals’ education alongside conservative elites at Oxford and Cambridge. Attention to the role that the socialization of elites with one another played in the formation of their ideas was the source of Nairn’s most powerful insights. In effect, the entire spectrum of the British electoral left had been captured and institutionalized because there existed no separate sphere in which working-class culture and ideas could develop, independent of Fabianism and conservatism.
If Nairn was pessimistic about the intellectual content of “Labourism,” he was hesitantly positive about the Labour Party as an organization with mass appeal and membership. Within the structures of the party, Nairn saw a corrosive alternative to the Westminster state, a system he thought was about to collapse. As he wrote in “The Nature of the Labour Party,” the organization might still be a vehicle for innovation once Britain had broken up under its own contradictions or external shock:
The product of endless . . . political manoeuvrings and an infinity of sorry compromises . . . the Labour Party arrived haltingly and late upon the historical scene; yet its arrival also coincided with . . . wider stirrings in the consciousness of the masses . . . it powerfully developed this consciousness. The new horizons it offered were part mirage, part real. Time would disentangle the two.
Disentangling what was real and what was a mirage in British politics would become the main task of Nairn’s writing throughout the rest of the twentieth century. This skeptical optimism was the means through which Nairn encouraged his readers to understand political developments.
The Breakup or Breakdown of Britain?
Nairn’s predictions about the Wilson government were mostly right. The administration was revolutionary in transforming social policy around divorce, homosexuality, and abortion. It was half-heartedly reformist in its attempts to create high economic growth driven by technology, but incredibly meek in its attempts to reengineer the British constitution and state. By the end of the Wilson-Callaghan government in 1979, the House of Lords and monarchy still existed and there had been no real breakthrough in devolution for Scotland.
The pressures of an underperforming economy, the loss of status produced through decolonization, and increased union and cultural militancy now threatened a complacent Labour Party. Unable to stem the tide of the decline, the modern nation-building project attempted by the Wilson government proved ultimately to be a failure. Britain was incapable of restoring its global dominance in manufacturing and could not weaken the power of finance or the City of London over its economy. As the rapid and exceptional economic growth of the postwar years began to slow down, the last quarter of the twentieth century witnessed a victory of “real” postwar decline over a manufactured mirage of postimperial abundance.
In 1969, Wilson set up a Royal Commission on the Constitution, which recommended Scottish devolution in 1973. After this commission was rejected by the Conservative prime minister Edward Heath, support for the SNP surged to 30 percent in the October 1974 general election. During the aftershock of these events and the discovery and production of Scottish North Sea oil in 1976, Nairn wrote his most important book, The Break-Up of Britain. This work suggested that the British ancien régime, rife with contradictions and stagnation, would collapse into a set of progressive peripheral nations orbiting a reactionary English core.
Because of the discovery of North Sea oil, and the fact that mass deindustrialization across Northern English and Scottish cities had not yet been undertaken, Nairn’s view of the decline of the British state is distinctly characterized by the late welfarism and relative abundance of the 1970s. Nairn’s argument about “breakup” assumed the retention of European and Scottish wealth into the twenty-first century. This wealth would escape the constraining structure of a sclerotic UK that ran, begging bowl in hand, to the International Monetary Fund in 1976 to prevent a monetary policy crisis. Nairn’s argument rested on the false belief that uneven development in the UK would lead to an oil-rich urban Scottish central belt and an immiserated English metropole:
The factors operative are closer to those observable in Catalonia: a tendential relative “over-development.” Obviously linked to the exploitation of North Sea oil, this awareness has proved effective in the face of the English decline. It has awakened the Scottish bourgeoisie to new consciousness of its historic separateness, and fostered a frank discontent with the expiring British world.
Instead, the UK, post-Thatcher, has an extremely wealthy financial center in London, supported by a network of prosperous second-cities like Edinburgh, and a sprawling interconnected zone of deindustrialization stretching from Paisley and Greenock in Scotland to Sunderland and Stoke-on-Trent in England. So far, the fragmented economic landscape of the UK has not precluded the development of distinctly national politics in Scotland. The SNP retains support in both the wealthy suburbs of Glasgow and Edinburgh alongside the deindustrialized lowland towns and rural highland counties that make up the nation.
However, as the decline of the UK takes a further plunge in 2023, with stagnant wages and high inflation, the gulf between London and regional cities, regional cities and towns, towns and the countryside will increase. Ironically, the breakdown of Britain may prevent its total breakup. The chief aim of politics amidst a second wave of post–financial crisis austerity is a demand for funds from the national government to support the National Health Service and other public services.
Despite his preference for nationalism, Nairn understood these connections and the potential for cross-border pluralist populism. A reinvented Britain, rejecting the old way of doing things, need not be a collection of antithetical nation-states. Instead, as Nairn suggested in The Break-Up of Britain, if England could be pulled away from reactionary politics, something new might emerge: “[if] the English people finally shakes off the old hierarchical burden of the British state-system . . . the question would then arise of building up a new, fairer, more federal British order: not the dingy, fearful compromise of ‘devolution’ but a modern, European multinational state.” We, alongside Nairn, can but hope.