The Early Days of a Better Nation

Wednesday, May 17, 2017

The Modern Bonnie Prince

A few weeks ago I took a box-load of books to the local charity shop, and predictably saw a book I had to buy. That copy of Tom Nairn's The Break-Up of Britain (1981) had evidently been donated by a studious and appreciative reader. Neatly ruled pencil lines mark almost every page.

Such a reader, once, was I. Nairn's 'Anatomy of the Labour Party' (1964), was my first exposure to the menacing shadows on that hoary institution's X-ray. 'Old and New Nationalism' whose first version I pored over in the biblically tiny print of The Red Paper on Scotland (1975, edited by Gordon Brown) had a lasting effect on how I (and many of its readers) think about Scotland. 'The Left Against Europe?' a book-length essay not in this collection, was a bracing heresy at the time and a cold shower today. Anyone who doubts the continuing pertinence of The Enchanted Glass, Nairn's book on the British monarchy, should read this and weep.

Not all the essays remain as insightful. 'Northern Ireland: Relic or Portent?' which I first read in the short-lived left-nationalist magazine Calgacus, struck me even then as interesting but wrong. On a re-read, it's still interesting, and not just wrong but wrong-headed. Its misprision of the Northern Irish Protestant community was ludicrous, its prescription of Ulster Protestant nationhood as the deplorable but unavoidable solution perverse.

That false note aside, the rest resonates. The eponymous break-up has moved from the reviews and journals to the daily front pages. Often enough, in the past forty years, Nairn's diagnosis seemed over-stated. Perhaps it was. There are only so many times you can sound the alarm about 'the crisis of the British state' without the villagers turning sceptical.

Now the wolf is at the door.

The other Saturday I went to the Edinburgh People's Festival's conference on The Life and Legacy of Antonio Gramsci. Among the featured speakers was Ray Burnett, author of a seminal essay that may have alerted Tom Nairn to the possibility of applying Gramsci's analytical tools to Scottish society. Talk about unacknowledged legislators! Nairn's understanding of the peculiarities of the Scottish has become the common sense of the Scottish intelligentsia.

But where has it got us? The left in Scotland is weaker than when it first focused its microscope on what Burnett called the ‘azoic complexity’ of civil society. For Gramsci the modern prince was the political party. That prince has sometimes proved a Borgia. In Scotland it is merely a Stuart.

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