WHERE to begin with Tom Nairn? There are three core texts: The Break-up Of Britain (1977), The Enchanted Glass (1988), and After Britain (2000). Collectively, these titles, with their various updates, introductions and postscripts, amount to more than 1000 pages. Then there are the shorter book-length essays or essay-length books, including The Left Against Europe (1973), Pariah: Misfortunes Of The British Kingdom (2002), and Gordon Brown: Bard Of Britishness (2006). Then there are the scattered flashes of journalism: columns for Question Magazine in the 1970s, commentary for The Scotsman in the 1990s, conversations with and observations for openDemocracy from 2001 onwards.

There’s more, of course. Nairn was a globe-straddling academic who taught and studied in Amsterdam, Italy, England, Ireland and Australia. His first piece for the New Left Review was published in 1962; his final public interview in The National in 2021. Between 1980 and 2010, he contributed 25 times to the London Review of Books. Nairn’s body of work, spanning six decades, is immense. No one wrote like Tom Nairn. No one thought like him. No one captured the overwhelming weirdness of British politics with the same caustic wit or depth of clarity.

I have Nairn lines lodged permanently in my head. “Surely there is no society, no landscape, more crassly impersonal than that of the Scottish industrial belt”; “History is largely a tale of groping in the dark”; “England is due a future – one that can smartly exorcise the ghosts of Balmoral and Windsor”. If a single theme runs through Nairn’s thinking, this is it. Britain’s national institutions are fossilized and defunct, he argued – nothing happens until they are dismantled and remade.

The National: Tom Nairn died on January 21Tom Nairn died on January 21

At the same time, I’m not sure “Nairnism” is really a thing. His writing is discursive rather than dogmatic. In 2016, he told me that being an ex-Marxist made him immune to “other enthusiasms, replacement philosophies, and ideologies.” Instead of issuing policy prescriptions, Nairn specialised in political criticism on an epic historical scale. The Break-up Of Britain may well be a prophetic account of the UK’s impending collapse. But it is also a sweeping survey of the country’s constitutional past. This applies, too, to The Enchanted Glass, a sprawling critique of the British monarchy (or of Britain’s obsession with the British monarchy). Anthony Barnett – one of Tom’s oldest and closest friends – put it best a few years ago. Nairn’s work, he wrote, is defined by a set of questions: “Why are we ruled in the specific way we are ruled? How do they get away with it? Why do we let them? These are questions about us as well as them, about our weakness and passivity as well as their capacity and self-interest.”

On Scotland, Nairn evaded nationalist caricature. Indeed, he was barely a nationalist at all. He saw Scotland’s exit from the Union as an unavoidable moment of reckoning in the stunted development of the British state. The major prize, however, was the end of “Anglo-Britishness” and its supporting ideological architecture, rooted in the Whitehall-Westminster-Oxbridge-City nexus. After the UK, he hoped that a new form of English nationhood would emerge free from “the last enchantments” of empire. England, he said, needed to “blossom independently.”

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Such nuances were lost on his critics, who invariably dismissed Nairn as an outrider for official Scottish nationalism. When the right-wing English journalist Stephen Pollard reviewed Pariah for the New Statesman in 2002, he said the book caused him actual physical distress. John Lloyd, in his 2020 bromide Should Auld Acquaintance Be Forgot: The Great Mistake Of Scottish Independence, accused Nairn of being full of “fury and scorn” for Britain. It was Nairn, Lloyd claimed, who had “laid down the battle lines of attack” on the Union and achieved something “many intellectuals desire; that is, to have a marked influence on a movement or period”. To both of these charges, Nairn would probably just have laughed and said: “Thanks.” In reality, he was completely unbiddable. He didn’t engage in party politics and certainly wasn’t a member of the SNP.

On that note, I hope it’s not sacrilegious to say that Nairn isn’t always easy to read. His early prose, in particular, is full of long multi-clausal sentences and complicated literary references – a hangover, perhaps, from his time studying aesthetic philosophy under the Irish novelist Iris Murdoch. And yet, it’s never not worth the effort. In 1970, he published an essay on the conservative romanticism of Enoch Powell. This remarkably prescient piece concluded with a warning: Powell’s racist appeal would become all the more potent during the latter stages of British decline, Nairn said. 45 years later, Brexit happened, followed by Boris Johnson.

The National: Crowds cheer as King Charles III and the Queen Consort arrive for a visit to Hillsborough Castle, Co Down. Picture date: Tuesday September 13, 2022..

Rory Scothorne recently suggested that Nairn’s judgments on Britain had been “parodically vindicated” by events, and it does often feel like we’re living through a protracted legitimacy crisis of precisely the sort Nairn anticipated 50 years ago. (The coronation of Charles III in May will provide the latest stress test of British ruling-class credibility.) Equally, Nairn was impatient for change and probably didn’t get to see as much of it as he would have liked. “Rather than squirming, [we] ought to have a plan for the day when our [leaders] admit that the old building is uninhabitable, and come out of it fighting,” he wrote in 1977.

Nairn might have been over-optimistic in his insistence that such an admission would, at some point, be made. But it doesn’t matter all that much. When I interviewed him in 2016, he thought the 2014 referendum would be the first of many attritional verdicts on Ukanian identity. “I personally see no alternative to [another vote], with or without support from south of the Border,” he told me. “However the question gets posed, referendum number two, three, four. We can only do our own thing and cope with the result.” Scotland features prominently in Nairn’s writing, but he was not a provincially Scottish writer. He had a way of taking you, the reader, out into the world, and bringing the world back in.


ONE among many proofs of Tom Nairn’s importance is the fact that so many people pretend to have read him. Invariably, they give themselves away – comprehension of Scottish nationalism’s most astute and revolutionary theorist, in this century or the last, is not something you can bluff.

Yet the fact such attempts are made speaks to the wider truth: Nairn’s towering body of work demanded – and still demands – to be reckoned with, even by his enemies, whose frustration has only grown and festered over the years, not least because the intellectual currents Nairn did so much to articulate have stubbornly refused to retreat into history. We are not short of those who resent still being forced to consider the question of independence, along with the inconvenient realities of the creaking, Ruritanian union which provokes it, while others bristle at the fact the most incisive way of doing so came through a Marxist lens.

As far as some people are concerned, these debates and ways of thinking should have died off years ago; now, following Nairn’s sad passing, they will outlive him. He cast such a shadow as to plunge the whole of the UK – “Ukania”, if you please – into perpetual twilight, from which it will not emerge any time soon. Of course, Nairn’s multifarious opponents could always try coming up with their own genius, but oddly they never seem to get around to it.

The National: Beyond
the giant

Among those who reach the age of 90, many will find the world changing around them, for better or worse, into something they do not recognise. Nairn had the opposite problem – he was forever waiting, patiently if not forgivingly – for the future to catch up with him. It has yet to do so, and we are all the poorer for it.

Even in the wake of his sudden absence, we find little he would not understand. Considering the advent of Thatcherism, he wrote that the Tories – “the party of Southern oligarchy,” as he put it – had “been unable to avoid a caricatural and dangerously naked version of traditional strategy”, which had “proved at once fatally destructive of Toryism’s old broad appeal, and another acid solvent of the consensus… A period of political emergency has clearly been opened.” Sound familiar?

I met him only once, briefly, at the launch of a collection of his essays co-edited by Jamie Maxwell and Peter Ramand, held shortly before the 2014 referendum. As I recall, the man himself didn’t say much, but instead spent most of the proceedings sitting quiet and venerable, while assorted speakers offered fulsome tributes and awkward rhetoric, none of which could match his own poeticism. A better metaphor for Nairn’s place within the Scottish nationalist left would be hard to find.

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Despite his inescapability, one of the great failures of the movement Nairn was a part of might be that he was not influential enough. This defiant cosmopolitan, so much of whose thinking was birthed within the intellectual hothouse of Italy, now leaves behind a Scottish left containing more than a few who have turned insular and wary of foreign influence. Where Nairn condemned certain Trotskyist conceptions of the proletariat as “rigorous neo-puritanism”, Scotland now has countless self-appointed gatekeepers, suspicious of the class authenticity of even the most precarious and immiserated among us. And the fact that the SNP are emphatically not a Marxist party does not require lengthy explanation.

IT would be easy – and not entirely untrue – to offer an epitaph for Nairn that condemns those who follow him as less brilliant, less assiduous, less willing to do the hard work and ask the hard questions. Yet Nairn never shied away from confronting contemporary circumstances, which should prompt us to consider our own. The conditions which allowed Nairn and his cohort – Stephen Maxwell, Neal Ascherson, Perry Anderson, even my own father – to write and think and argue either do not exist anymore, or if they do, endure uncertainly for only the lonely few. As the Italian Marxist theorist Antonio Gramsci – who did so much to inspire Nairn – knew painfully well, intellectuals cannot count on being pampered, but they must nevertheless find a place for themselves, difficult though that may be. Without it, we shall suffer not just from their absence, but from the lack of those who might join them in their endeavours, and all that they could achieve together.

I will not tell you how to interpret Tom Nairn; I will simply tell you to read him. That is the beginning. He did not pretend to know the end – “like everyone else”, he wrote in The Break-Up of Britain, “my back is turned to the future, and like most others I am chiefly conscious of the debris reaching skywards.” We have plenty of our own debris to be concerned about – but the future lies ahead, nevertheless.