Deciding Britain’s Future: Tom Nairn, Gordon Brown, Marxism and Nationalism

I almost feel sorry for Brown, tasked with charting a course that will make Brexit work, keep the nations together and not negotiate with the Scottish government.

It is surely time to end the torture of this long saga. English democrats must look in the mirror. For there is only one serious argument deployed to shake the Scots from their demand for independence: the threat of breaking them on the economic wheel of English supremacy. How can we bear to threaten our neighbors in this way? A country that imposes itself on another can never itself be free – or a source of progress.

We English can no longer regard the process of the break-up of Britain as something made for us by peripheral nations. It was understandable when Nairn wrote ‘The Break-up of Britain’ in the 1970s. But because we failed to replace our historic constitutional arrangements with modern, proportionate and accountable democracy when New Labor had opportunity, we are now at the consequences discerned by Nairn 50 years ago. It was the English Revolution that caused the collapse of the United Kingdom. For Scotland, the escape route is obvious. For us English, the process will be harder but the first priority is to break the spell of Brexiters by leading the Union which is the source of their delusions towards a proud and pragmatic end. It is time for England to insist on the break-up of Great Britain and on our positive duty to urge Scotland to independence in Europe.

Anthony Barnett is co-founder of openDemocracy, his ‘Taking Control! Humanity and America after Trump and the Pandemic” will be published in the UK and US in March

[1] John Lloyd, “Should the knowledge of Auld be forgotten”, Cambridge, 2020, pp.161-2

[2] I am grateful to Perry Anderson and Susan Watkins for their assistance in digging through records dating back half a century ago and for pointing out misleading wording in an early draft – their fellowship assistance does not in any way imply their agreement with, or any approval of my story.

[3] Perry Anderson, ‘Ukania Perpetua?’, Sept-October 2020.

[4] Tom Nairn, ‘Deserted by History’, 2005 (an article featured in a discussion on ‘The Red Paper on Scotland’).

[5] Eric Hobsbawm “Some Thoughts on ‘The Breakup of Britain’, New Left Review 1/105, September-October 1977.

[6] Written with Angelo Quattrocchi, London 1969.

[7] Eric Hobsbawm, “The Age of Extremes”, New York 1994, p 286. In a brilliant chapter on the 60s in his autobiography, ‘Interesting Times’, he evokes his sympathy, his perplexity or his rejection of various revolutionary movements and notes his opposition to “Quebecers, Basques or Irish, whose political project strongly opposed me. Marxists are not separatist nationalists. The footnote refers the reader to “New Left Review, 1970”. Other footnotes are carefully detailed, but it seems he couldn’t even stand the mention of Nairn’s book which is named in the title of the article, so that too disappeared from the record. Richard Evan’s massive and infinitely detailed biography also fails to mention the clash with Nairn, ‘Eric Hobsbawm, A Life in History’, London, 2019.

[8] In a generous reference to my “Iron Britannia”, published in a special issue of the Review in 1982 and now reissued as “Faber Find”, Anderson describes it as “a farewell to the journal, Barnett leaving soon after” (Anderson , as above, footnote 18). In fact, it was my arrival as a writer in the Revue. I found leaving the following year painful. It is unlikely that the Revue and its publishing house would have survived the difficult decades of the 1980s and 1990s if its editors had given up their attachment to the “inner” anchorage of socialism. They have preserved the Review’s international coverage, documenting the struggles of other countries with great sympathy. This meant that ten years after his resignation from the editorial board, Nairn could resume writing for this book and Verso; who published “After Britain” in 2000 and “Pariah” in 2002 (with Nairn’s conclusion that neoliberalism like Leninism “rejected the autonomy of politics and culture as a threat to their integrity” p. 159) and now the reissue ‘The Break-Up of Brittany’. Moreover, Nairn’s crucial role in the intellectual birth of the NLR in 1964 with the “Nairn-Anderson theses” is recognized: his sobriquet of “Ukania” is seized upon. The review flew the flag of Nairn though without the mast, embracing its satire without endorsing its substance.

[9] Tom Nairn, “The Sole Survivor”, NLR 1/200, July-August 1993.

[10] Adam Tooze makes a similar, if less theorized, argument in a stunning response to an essay by Alex Hochuli on “Brazilization of the World.” Where he observes, “everyone now finds their nation doomed forever to remain the country of the future, one that will never reach its destination” (US Affairs, summer 2021). Tooze adds, “If our goal is not to use the ‘world’ as a foil on which to project national dramas, but to actually think about it, we will be better served not by setting standards, be it the Europe, the United States or Brazil, while relegating China, for example, to the category of exceptional Sonderweg. It is the process of unequal and combined development itself, the generator of similarity and difference, on which we should focus.

[11] Perry Anderson, NRL 1, January-February 2000. Elsewhere in London, the first business plans were being drawn up for an anti-neoliberal website, which would become openDemocracy.

[12] Perry Anderson, ‘Jottings on the Conjuncture’, New Left Review 48, November-December 2007.

[13] I benefited from reading Rory Scothorne’s important dissertation, “The Radical Left and the Impression of the Scottish Nation – Cultures of Left Nationalism, 1967-1983”.

[14] Tom Nairn, ‘Gordon Brown, Bard of Britishness‘, Cardiff 2006, pp.15-25.

[15] Gordon Brown, ‘My life, our time’, London 2017, p.55.

[16] See Ben Jackson, ‘The Case of Scottish Independence’, Cambridge 2020.

[17] Gordon Brown MP, ‘Constitutional Change and the Future of Britain’, March 9, 1992, first conference on sovereignty, The Charter 88 Trust.

[18] Tony Blair participated in the Sovereignty Lecture given by Shirley Williams on June 15, 1992. His first words to me were, “Where are all these people from? – there were about 700. When I told him it was a Charter 88 event, he said, “Come and see me”.

[19] “Bard of Britishness”, as quoted, p.14 fn.7.

[20] I document this in ‘Lure of Greatness’, London 2017, pp.154-158, 179-190.

[21] Gordon Brown, “My Life, Our Times”, London 2017, pp 273 and 261.

[22] Gordon Brown, “My Scotland, Our Britain: A Future to Share”, London, 2014, p.175.

[23] The Independent, May 27, 2009.

[24] For the wish and how it was born, Murray Foote, ‘Inside the Vow’, The Daily Record, September 17, 2015.

[25] Gordon Brown, as quoted, Salmond is quoted in an endnote, p.368, and Brown’s speech is reproduced in full at the beginning.

[26] See my ‘The Lure of Greatness’, London 2017, pp.171-2, also for the general constitutional and cultural collapse that led to and is now being intensified by Brexit.

[27] Andrew Bowie MP, ‘The Scotsman’, 11 October 2020.

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