Tom Nairn, political theorist, 1932-2023

In 1992, Gordon Brown, then a rising star of the UK Labour party, delivered a lecture on constitutional reform to a large audience in central London. Afterwards, Brown approached the organiser of the event, Anthony Barnett, who recalled: “His first words to me . . . were not about the thousand people but about one: ‘Was Tom Nairn here?’”

Last week, Brown hailed Nairn, who has died at the age of 90, as “a great writer [and] thinker”. Nicola Sturgeon, Scottish first minister, described him as “one of the greatest thinkers [and] political theorists . . . that Scotland has ever produced” — stirring tributes to the “intellectual godfather of the modern Scottish independence movement” who never held a permanent academic post in his native land.

Thomas Nairn was born in 1932 in Freuchie, Fife, where his father was the headmaster at a local school. Nairn studied philosophy at the University of Edinburgh and at Oxford, and in 1957 took up a scholarship at the Scuola Normale Superiore in Pisa, Italy. This Italian sojourn would have a lasting impact on him.

It was in Pisa that Nairn discovered the work of the Italian Marxist Antonio Gramsci, who died shortly after leaving a Fascist prison in 1937. He would later play a decisive role, along with Perry Anderson, in introducing Gramsci’s thought to the English-speaking world.

He thrived in the intellectual atmosphere surrounding the Italian Communist party, which was considerably less stultifying than its moribund, Moscow-centric counterparts in other western European countries.

Tariq Ali, the writer and leftwing activist, remembered meeting Nairn for the first time in 1968. “His interests were Italy and Gramsci, Marxism and the Labour party,” Ali said. “The fact that he was Scottish meant little to those who knew him at the time. That bit came later.”

Through the 1960s, Nairn ricocheted from one temporary teaching job to another, setting a peripatetic pattern that he would not break for the rest of his professional life. In 1968, he was dismissed from a post lecturing in sociology at Hornsey College of Art after he supported a weeks-long student occupation.

The principal focus of his work during this period was on developing, in tandem with Anderson, an account of the morbid symptoms of the British polity and the apparently inexorable decline of the British economy which came to be known as the “Nairn-Anderson thesis”.

This traced the crisis of Britain’s political economy back to its historical roots in the emergence of capitalism under a landed aristocracy. The absence in Britain of a “second” bourgeois revolution, of the sort that had delivered more “rational” states on the European continent, had lasting and deforming effects, Nairn and Anderson argued.

The thesis, though influential, was not without its critics. Most vocal among these was the historian EP Thompson, who found in Nairn and Anderson “a ruthlessness in their dismissal of the English experience, which stirs uneasy memories”.

After a period teaching at the Transnational Institute in Amsterdam, Nairn returned to Scotland in the mid-1970s. In 1975 he contributed to The Red Paper on Scotland, a collection of essays edited by Brown, who was then a youthful rector of Edinburgh university.

His return to his homeland coincided with the emergence of a new strain of Scottish nationalism very different to earlier forms propagated by what he memorably dismissed as “a junta of corporal punishers and Kirk-going cheese-parers”.

In his magnum opus, The Break-Up of Britain, published in 1977, Nairn argued that this “neo-nationalism” emerged not from the “Celtic bloodstream”, as more atavistic versions of Scottish self-assertion maintained, but from the “foundering of the British state” that he and Anderson had anatomised a decade earlier.

Other books followed, notably The Enchanted Glass: Britain and Its Monarchy in 1988, in which Nairn dismembered “crown ideology”, a distinctively British form of “surrogate nationalism”.

The Scottish independence referendum in 2014 placed Britain’s multinational state under unprecedented strain. But the union has not broken up — yet. Interviewed in 2020, Nairn insisted that it was only a matter of time. “In one form or another, break-up is likely to come about.”

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