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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I was never a Nairn fan for some reason, but 30 years ago his ideas were definitely in my head - I used to tell anyone who'd listen that the Left really needed to embrace a progressive form of English nationalism, essentially because the cool kids in Scotland and Wales were doing it. Everyone told me I was (a) wrapping myself in the Butcher's Apron and (b) at risk of aligning myself with the kind of people who wanted to wrap themselves in the Butcher's Apron; after a couple of years of dismissing this boring, predictable, old-school Marxist objection, I realised it was also correct. In retrospect I'm just glad I was a couple of decades ahead of Sunny Hundal, John Harris and friends. (Here's what I think of John Harris.)

The other day Pat Kane (for it is he) asked me what I thought of SNP/Scottish Green 'civic nationalism' - couldn't it be a progressive force? couldn't something like it work in England as well, and might that not be what people like Harris were finding their way towards? I had to think about it - I'll give Pat that - but ultimately it was a No from me. Quoting myself:

I don’t see it as civic nationalism, because I don’t see that political forces in England are operating in a context where civic nationalism has any work to do. Civic nationalism, as distinct from ethnic ditto, comes into play when you’re building a new state and new institutions, and in that – necessarily short-lived – context it can be a powerful, transformative force. Once your state’s there, though – as the English state effectively already is – civic nationalism is a force for conservatism, for the preservation of the status quo. This isn’t a bad thing, necessarily – it’s not a force for reaction, as ethnic nationalism so often is – but it’s not radical, progressive or creative. In fact, the danger with civic nationalism is that after a while it’s not anything, and its structures and tropes get taken over by the angrier and more energetic forces of ethnic nationalism (federal Yugoslavia and Serb nationalism, Britain and English nationalism). That’s not to say that ethnic nationalism is inherently a bad thing, either. It’s not a bad thing when it’s in the hands of powerless and/or minority groups, used to combat political exclusion and repression; as such it can be a force for justice, or at least for the disruption of injustice. But, by the same token, ethnic nationalism in the hands of the boss nationality is poison.

Which brings us to where you are in Scotland. Not for me to judge, but from here it looks rather as if you're reaching that stage of decadent civic nationalism - the state's there, kind of, so now what? And in the mean time the nationalist project has swallowed the Left whole. Careful which basket you put your eggs in.

Thanks for the comment, Phil - I've been following your recent blog posts with interest, and the only reason I haven't commented was that the posts left me too much to think about, and little to say other than well said that man.

A confession, of sorts. Two pints after a lively panel discussion on Scottish independence, I found myself saying to Sarah Beattie-Smith of the Scottish Greens, 'London is my world city, Blake is my prophet, Cromwell is my liberator, and Winstanley and Morris and Pollitt are my comrades. And you can't take that from me!'

To which Sarah replied mildly that nobody could, and nobody intended to, take it from me.

So I find in myself a 'structure of feeling' which is kind of like 'a progressive British national consciousness' but I have not the slightest intention of doing anything political with it.

But seriously - if you're still here, Phil - a few further thoughts on the dangers of nationalism with nothing left to do. The idea that the Left should construct a progressive form of English (and Scottish) nationalism has of course deep and old roots in the position of a working class whose political horizon is the nation state in which they live. And after all the first attempt at popularizing Marx's ideas for an English audience was called Britain for the British (by Hyndman) and one of the most successful socialist books of its day was Blatchford's Merrie England. But more recently, and further to the left, it goes back to the people's fronts of the 1930s and the peace fronts of the 1950s. In its Scottish iteration it can be pinned quite firmly on the CPGB of the 1980s, via the STUC and the Labour left.

Once you say, as we all did at the time, 'Scotland votes Labour and gets Tory', you have more or less sold the pass to the nationalists, regardless of your intention; and in time, your intention catches up with your practice, as for so many here in Scotland it has.

One of the lesser ironies is that the one time when a progressive national united front was possible and necessary, in 1940, the actual CPGB was otherwise engaged and the actual builders of the armed wing of that front, Tom Wintringham and Bert 'Yank' Levy, were drawing the attention of the Home Guard sharply to the lessons of the Spanish Civil War, Sandino's struggle in Nicargua, and the Chinese and Soviet partisans.

I should look for a copy of Tom Nairn's The Break-Up of Britain soonest possible.

For what it's worth, Corbyn's speech after the Manchester bomb made me feel proud to be British, and I have never felt that before being a scottish nationalist.
He spoke of a people united and helping each other that really appealed, a nation you belonged to by what you do not blood or religion.

Is that not a civic nationalism?

Scotland and Ireland achieved a state of moribund nationalism through James II, and evidently much more ill-used under the Wiliiamites and Hanovers. Who could love the work of Cumberland? My family on both sides of the Celtic Sea chose to rise with Jamie, and our fortunes fell at Aughrim. After some cheery your analogy is an apt one. Yet, if Scotland and Ireland once again had a monarch, whom to acclaim? Gordon Sumner? Rod Stewart? One of the Iberain O'Neills? I look forward to spending my spare coin on a tome or two of yours.

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