Tom Nairn

Tom Nairn, whose books include The Break-Up of Britain and After Britain, is a fellow of the Academy of Social Sciences in Australia, and an honorary professor of government and international affairs at the University of Durham.

Much of the tale is conveyed by the covers. A sad, thoughtfully dithering photo of the prime minister fronts What Went Wrong, Gordon Brown? The cover of Christopher Harvie’s book features a cartoon from the Independent: an apocalyptic lightning flash strikes and anoints David Cameron, while Brown and Alistair Darling flee London as Parliament quakes against the background of a setting...

The Miners’ Strike took place 25 years ago: long enough for many readers to know practically nothing about it, and for others to have forgotten much of what seemed so important at the time. Both the books discussed here describe the strike as more like a civil war than an industrial dispute. It began in March 1984 and ended a year later, after a majority of the miners had gone back to...

Colin Kidd’s study of Scottish Unionism goes, as he himself insists, sternly against the prevailing ideological current, which is focused on the emergence of political nationalism in both Scotland and Wales. Kidd thinks his book will serve its purpose if it unsettles this debate, and brings about a revision of ‘the basic categories of political analysis’. These categories...

In Europe’s Inner Demons, Norman Cohn described the medieval witch craze as a ‘supreme example of a massive killing of innocent people by a bureaucracy acting in accordance with beliefs which, unknown or rejected in earlier centuries, had come to be taken for granted, as self-evident truths’. Of course popular beliefs had to fall into line with the bureaucracy’s...

Diary: the Australian elections

Tom Nairn, 13 December 2007

On voting day I took the Melbourne tram downtown, stopping only to glance in a bookseller’s window. It was good to see Peter Temple’s The Broken Shore holding its place in the bestseller list. 1 A good cop yarn set in Victoria, stylistically it is West Coast American, and has been received well there. But that’s not why it’s so popular here. The book sets out to...

Dans mes bras, un cyclone imaginaire flotte sur moi l’onde solitaire Je suis la rivière qui penche Le torrent qui s’élance Je murmure sous la glace, je connais les abîmes, les méandres irrésistibles, Dans mes bras tourbillonne un cyclone imperceptible, Sous mes pieds, des jardins imaginaires…

Anabase, ‘Le Bonheur flou’


More than a quarter of listeners asked last year in a Radio 4 poll who they thought was the most important philosopher for today’s world replied Karl Marx – he was easily the winner, ahead of Hume, Plato, Karl Popper and others. Asked to comment, Eric Hobsbawm said he thought that the fall of Soviet Communism had at last allowed people to disentangle Marxism from Moscow. Francis...

‘The long walk to justice doesn’t end at Gleneagles,’ Noreena Hertz warned protesters just before the recent G8 summit. ‘It only begins there.’ The official parade was in fact to end with a scamper, rather than a flourish, bearing an artfully prepared set-up into oblivion. As for the great anti-globalist parade, white-band-wearers ended up marking time more or...

“’Multitude’ is defined in Webster’s as ‘the state of being many’, with an implication of formlessness or indeterminacy: ‘a multitude of sins’ is probably its most common use. The same dictionary goes to Claud Cockburn for its adjectival example: ‘The mosquitoes were multitudinous and fierce.’ Hardt and Negri attempt a more positive definition, laying emphasis on signs of grace, and attendant democratic virtues. But this turns out to be curiously like the bus tours found in all big cities. Sightseers impatient for the general design get whisked at speed past famous landmarks, as the guide intones a suitable (often rather similar) judgment on each one, with too few dodgy jokes. The guides in this case are invariably erudite: their references take up 45 pages, and great efforts are made with innovative concepts such as network struggles, ‘swarm intelligence’, ‘biopower’ (’engaging social life in its entirety’), immaterial labour, and the multitudinous spirit as carnival (’a theory of organisation based on the freedom of singularities that converge in the production of the common: Long live movement! Long live carnival! Long live the common!’). The ‘monstrosity of the flesh’ gets a look-in as well, though rendered decent as Man, ‘the animal . . . that is changing its own species’.”

Diary: Australian Blues

Tom Nairn, 18 November 2004

The swagman he up and he jumped in the water-hole, Drowning himself by the coolibah tree, And his ghost may be heard as it sings by the billabong, Who’ll come a-waltzing Matilda with me?

‘Waltzing Matilda’, A.B. ‘Banjo’ Paterson (1895)

Three weeks before the American presidential vote, the political right was victorious in the Australian federal elections of 9...

In some ways, millennium absurdity has not yet ended. Although the Dome reached oblivion in record time, a deeper dimension of fever, wild surmise and unhinged ‘radicalism’ has remained, greatly intensified since 11 September 2001. Its future was prepared by the non-election of George W. Bush in 2000, equivalent to the failed coronation of a pope in 1000. Simultaneously, the...

The Departed Spirit

Tom Nairn, 30 October 1997

What was it that departed during the first week of September? Much of the country was not convulsed by grief, although we do not know the proportion that stayed unmoved, or even critical, and perceived the events as a Southern or heartland spectacle. Yet it appears to be true that even among the more detached, many found themselves touched by unsuspected melancholy, strangely coupled to a sense of liberation and change. An inescapable shift was occurring, displayed in unheard of symptoms like the applause in Westminster Abbey, as well as the mountains of flowers and poems.

Ghosts in the Palace

Tom Nairn, 24 April 1997

The first British election ever without the Monarchy: is this not how it’s likely to be remembered? The Italian phrase for it is better than ours: perdere la bussola, the loss not merely of bearings but of the compass itself. Queen Elizabeth II will still be around for the vote, I know, but as little more than an accusing spectre. Within less than half of her own reign the glamour of Monarchy has vanished. All that the Crown now accomplishes is to counterpoint and somehow exaggerate an ambient unreality: the new, motherless country left behind by its moral decease. Through Queenly spectacles the past looks at the shattered glass of Britain present, with a gaze already cold.

At the Fairground

Tom Nairn, 20 March 1997

If this new year was a precedent, there will be serious prophetic constipation till around 2001. The Independent on Sunday of 22 December last weighed in with a mere forty crystal-gazers, from Ian Angell, ‘darling of the doom-and-gloom conference circuit’, down to Theodore Zeldin’s ‘persuasively touchy-feely manifesto’, An Intimate History of Humanity. Yet quite a few gloomsters were not checked in, notably éminence noire Conor Cruise O’Brien. Was the Indie trying to cheer us up? Or perhaps it was offering a little consolation to those already suffering from the fin-de-siècle drowning sensation. More serious victims might also try turning to Martin Thom’s careful and deep fathoming of a similar great transition two hundred years ago: the birth of modern nationalism. There is more to be learned on that particular subject here than from most contemporary fulminations, not excluding my own. Then, too, in the decades following 1776 and 1789, the world passed through post-revolutionary rapids which permanently altered the shape and direction of the human river. Then, also, society (in particular the upper stratum) was suffering from manifestly lost bearings and complaining loudly about it. And then, as now, pundits of all lands found themselves blessed by the Zeitgeist, and redoubled their efforts until no open space was without its fairground tent and its impatient queues eager for lessons in portent-reading. As Martin Thom patiently points out over and over again, the trouble was not that the hucksters were mistaken. They were often quite right about what was going wrong. But that was unimportant, or at least ceasing to matter. As regards what was actually coming into being, on the other hand – the future pressing its way into the present through a myriad of unsuspected channels – they were mistaken, or at best accidentally half-right. In one sense that didn’t matter: they had spent the money long before anyone could sue them.’’

Cleaning Up

Tom Nairn, 3 October 1996

Northern Ireland, the Basque Country, Corsica, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Nagorno-Karabakh: this list of familiar trouble-spots is neither complete nor extended beyond Europe, in which case it would be at least eight times longer. Originally coined to describe the situation in Ireland, ‘troubles’ in this sense have multiplied and become global, notably since 1989. No serious newspaper and few TV bulletins are without their quota of violent trouble items, which often enough make up most of the news. Under such a barrage it is easy to feel ‘trouble’ as a climate of the age, and link it to one indiscriminate ‘-ism’ or another. Yet even from the restricted sample quoted something else, not so easily classified, may spring to the eye. Most such ethno-nationalist conflicts seem to happen in predominantly rural situations. Nor are they rural merely in the sense of being agricultural or non-urban – like East Anglia, say, or the Beauce plain in central France – they are areas where ‘rural’ tends to mean ‘peasant’: areas where a historical pattern of small landholding prevails, or has until recently prevailed, one marked by intense heritable rights, rigid morality or faith, customary exclusivity and an accompanying small-town or village culture.’

Diary: On Culloden

Tom Nairn, 9 May 1996

On 16 April, the anniversary of the Battle of Culloden:

Wanting to Be Special

Tom Nairn, 21 March 1996

Writing in the London Review of Books in 1994 (8 September) I was incautious enough to make some remarks about alternatives to Eurocentrism that history might have generated. For example Progress, like Homo sapiens himself, might have erupted out of Africa rather than from the areas north of it. In which case, instead of indulging in what Edward Said calls Orientalism, there might well be present-day pallid-skin observers – ‘fulminating over Septentrionalist delusions about colourlessness: the vacant brain-pans supposed natural to the pigmentally-challenged, with their slime-grey eyes, ratty hair and squeaky-voiced irrationality’. Or again, industrialisation might conceivably have emerged in primarily Chinese shape – from the human Middle Kingdom or heartland, rather than the remote archipelago-coast of Europe. Had this happened, there would today be critics on both sides of the 2000 AD development gap (no doubt differently dated) contorted with guilt and indignation over the romantic delusions of Occidentalism.

Upper and Lower Cases

Tom Nairn, 24 August 1995

Next time it will be different. Or so almost everyone in Scotland now believes, as they look forward to another election and back over the long trail of wreckage from 1979 to the present. The Conservative regime began by aborting Constitutional change and is ending in a state of Constitutional rigor mortis. John Major’s Government contemplates no political evolution whatever on the mainland, as distinct from in Ireland, and advertises this rigidity as ‘defence of the Union’. When it founders, however, such intransigence will be overtaken by long overdue movement, which can hardly fail to bring about parliaments in Wales and Scotland, as well as more European integration.

On the Threshold

Tom Nairn, 23 March 1995

Hyndford Street is a brick-built working-class row looking like hundreds of others. Yet it is to this terrain that the almost unbearable nostalgia of Van Morrison’s music always returns. The outside world now mainly sees Protestant Belfast in terms of Ian Paisley Snr, a man who believes that bridges are built primarily to let the Devil in. But the bridges of Morrison’s music have connected Hyndford Street outwards to a strange semi-mystical realm of angels, children and (ultimately) the Calvinist Nirvana of clear water and silence – Hymns to the Silence was his last double album:’

What nations are for

Tom Nairn, 8 September 1994

The politics of dispossession is nationalism – an over-generalisation which at once calls for precise qualification. It is quite true that not all nationalists are dispossessed: possessors have their own (often strident) variations on the theme. It is also true that nationality politics did not originate among the crushed and uprooted: indeed its primary source was the nouveaux riches or upwardly mobile of Early Modern times, in Holland, England and France.

It’s a Knock-Out

Tom Nairn, 27 May 1993

In his brilliant account of collapsing Yugoslavia, A Paper House, Mark Thompson meets a leader of the Vojvodina Ruthenes called Professor Julijan Tamas. Since 1989 this tiny people has been struggling back into political existence. In 1991 they managed to stage the first World Congress of Ruthenes and just before that the first Bible in Ruthenian had finally appeared. ‘“We want to create the conditions for an Epic of Gilgamesh for the Ruthenes,” said the Professor. I tried not to gape, while he eyed me shrewdly and sipped his whisky, sure of his effect.’

Demonising Nationalism

Tom Nairn, 25 February 1993

Two-and-a-half years ago Time Magazine published a feature on the future of the world. Being on the cover of Time has always been an American honour: the cover of 6 August 1990 carried a portrait of Nationalism.

The value and interest of the three examinations of Gramsci which I began to discuss last week in the first part of this article is that they concentrate upon his view of politics: nobody concerned with such problems can avoid finding almost every page of Gramsci and Marxist Theory and Gramsci’s Politics absorbing; as for Gramsci and the State, while it is undeniably a repository of some of the obscurest paragraphs ever written about the man, the reader will also discover the most monumental and exhaustive analysis of his life and ideas in relation to Third International Leninism. It is probably the most important book yet to appear in the dissident-Communist perspective. Fortunately David Fernbach’s translation makes it accessible (apart from a few Volapük lapses like ‘genial’ for génial) and copes ruggedly with the steeper philosophical faces.


Tom Nairn, 3 July 1980

As a child he was almost always alone. A tiny coffin and shroud stood in the house in Sardinia until he was 23, mute and awesome memorials to the time he almost bled to death, at the age of four. The frightful injury which had caused the haemorrhage left him a dwarf and a hunchback, in spite of repeated iodine rubs, and much familial pleading with the Holy Virgin.

Mrs Thatcher’s Spengler

Tom Nairn, 24 January 1980

In the Preface to Book I of The Decline of the West, Oswald Spengler proudly declared that his work was ‘a German Philosophy’. There was no incompatibility between this and a history of the world. For universal history showed the Germans to be the most important people in the ‘Faustian Civilisation’ of Europe, itself the motor of modern development. German philosophy alone had scaled the mental heights where the whole of this mighty process could be comprehended. Hence world-history was Teutonic self-understanding, and part of its preparation for dominance in the coming Age of Caesarism.



24 August 1995

It is truncating my article to the point of distortion to suggest as Tam Dalyell does (Letters, 21 September) that it assumes most Scots ‘now want the break-up of Britain’. No such assumption or statement appears there. What the majority certainly appears to want is a degree of collective responsibility for its own affairs – approximately along the lines now advocated by Dalyell’s...

The organisers of the Festival of Britain in 1951 knew what to celebrate. At the start of the opening ceremony – a service in St Paul’s – the King praised the nation’s...

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Throughout this book, the poet Douglas Dunn provides epigraphs and quotations. His final contribution occurs in the last section, ‘Epilogue: The Last Day’, a sort of diary of what Tom...

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I was just beginning to write about 1968 when I learned of the death in New Orleans of Ron Ridenhour, the GI who exposed the massacre at My Lai. He was only 52, which means that he was in his...

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R.W. Johnson, 7 July 1988

Tom Nairn has, for many years, been pondering the peculiarities of the British state with impressive intelligence and originality. His earlier work, The Break-Up of Britain, remains a landmark...

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