She also loves Tom Nairn. (Photo by Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images)

September 8, 2021   6 mins

Nicola Sturgeon has yet again declared that an independence referendum is at the heart of her government’s programme. “Our democratic mandate,” she said yesterday, “is to allow people to decide the country’s future is beyond question.” And now that she has the zombie Scottish Greens in her grasp as junior partners in a coalition, getting a majority for holding a referendum (“Covid permitting”) is, for the moment, beyond question.

Depressingly for thoughtful nationalists, the folly of independence is now also passing into the “beyond question” area. Scots-born, Ivy League economist Mark Blyth, who recently (remarkably) accepted a role as an adviser to Sturgeon, claimed that the endlessly repeated trope that an independent Scotland would quickly become like Denmark and other Scandinavian states was impossible, and that plans for an independent economy showed “a complete lack of specificity”. In earlier comments Blyth said that the effect of independence on the Scots economy would be like “Brexit times ten”.

That Scotland should now be careening towards an economic train wreck has many authors. But one above all stands out, for imbuing the country with a heady, and electorally powerful mixture of Anglo-hatred, romanticism and boundless faith in European Union membership.

The mixture was concocted over 40 years ago by the Scots writer and academic Tom Nairn, who will be 90 next year. He can reflect that his writings — especially The Break Up of Britain (1977) and to a lesser extent After Britain (2000) — provided Scottish nationalism, the most potent of European secessionist movements, with a framework within which secession could be seen as essential for Scots’ self-respect. Though a Marxist, his is not primarily a programme for a more equitable economy, or a march through the institutions to craft a political system dominated by the working classes. It is most powerfully a textbook for despising England.

He has been adamant that his polemics are not anti-English, and has pointed to polls showing that Scots don’t hate English people – denials which are echoed by First Minister Nicola Sturgeon (her now shamed predecessor, Alex Salmond, is a different matter). But that is not the point.

Scots can be as friendly to the English as they like, but England can only be seen as a ball and chain round Scots legs. In The Break-Up, Nairn’s favourite trope is firing off baroque fusillades of abuse aimed at the degraded husk of England — and the Britain it dominates — which now finds itself “a creaking English snail-shell of archaic pieties, deferential observance and numbing self-inhibition”; a country of  “rapidly accelerating backwardness, economic stagnation, social decay and cultural despair;” “a sinking paddle wheel state”, a “palsied corpus of Unionism”, an “indefensible and inadaptable relic, neither properly archaic not properly modern”, requiring “a motorised wheelchair and a decent burial” within the “hopelessly decaying institutions of a lost imperial state”.

As well as hopelessly decaying, England is hopelessly racist. In After Britain, Nairn yokes a “malign Euro-scepticism” to England’s “own brutish (racial) prejudice” and “post-imperial exclusiveness” — and produces the murder of Stephen Lawrence in south London as the prime example. Yet it was a murder which produced an outpouring of revulsion from all layers of British society, a report accusing the Metropolitan Police of institutional racism, a campaign by the Daily Mail — that most English of papers — to bring the culprits, at first acquitted, to justice, an appointment of Stephen’s mother, Doreen, to the peerage and the funding of a Stephen Lawrence Trust. The Lawrence killing showed the opposite of Nairn’s slur: it showed an English population, with a proportionately much higher number of people of colour than Scotland, appalled by it: in 2012, nearly 20 years after the event, a poll showed 66% of the British thought the sentences on the two men convicted too lenient, while two per cent thought them too harsh.

The casual attribution of a racism, which infects all of society, is indicative of Nairn’s style: sweeping generalisations of social malignity as a kind of jelly to hold his abuse. In The Break-Up, he devotes a chapter to the former cabinet minister Enoch Powell, finding that a speech Powell gave on empire in 1964 — ironically, in Dublin — had the effect of re-creating English “in the obscene form of racism”. Powell was in Nairn’s eyes England’s “nemesis”. When, in 1968, he gave a speech presaging “rivers of blood”, Edward Heath, the party leader, quickly fired him from the shadow cabinet.

But even when Nairn was writing The Break-Up in the mid-late Seventies, it should have been obvious that English nationalism was a weak thing, that liberal, leftist and much centre-right opinion recoiled from racism and that institutions as the universities, the broadcasters (BBC and ITV), the trade unions, the churches and business corporations were similarly minded. Yet, 23 years later, in After Britain, the same urge to paint England as mired in “brutish prejudice” is peddled.

Nairn’s other large gift to contemporary nationalism is to propose that nationalism is next to socialism. Complaining, in The Break-Up, of Marxism’s “notorious inability to come to terms with modern nationalism”, he emends that fault, claiming that his analysis, which has shown the “moribund nature” of the British, has given the Scots “good reason to want out, and good cause for claiming that their exit is a progressive action.” He continues: “Lenin argued that nationalist upheavals could contribute to socialist revolution… in the great centres.” Lenin does argue, in The Right of Nations to Self-Determination (1914) that national revolution leading to secession can be supported by revolutionary socialists on democratic grounds: but stresses that this can only be a transitional phase from “a completely victorious and consolidated socialism to complete communism”. To invoke approval of the main creator of the Soviet Union shows an ambition for a socialist Scotland of the “vote once, and forever” variety.

The SNP, which Nairn has consistently and enthusiastically supported, has never been socialist: it had been, for much of its history, incoherently pro-free market. Even Salmond, a little before taking power, commended the economic policies of Margaret Thatcher, until forced to retract. Nicola Sturgeon’s social democratic stance is largely window dressing: in its governing years, since 2007, it has presided over a sharp decline in the quality of education in schools — once a source of pride: a recent survey by Legatum found it the worst in the UK, hurting the poorest children most. Health care is better — but drug use is the highest in Europe, children in care are double the UK national average, its biggest city, Glasgow, has record rates of murder, knife crime and domestic abuse, local government has been enfeebled by the centralising policies of the SNP and investment prospects are the weakest in the UK. Socialism of any kind is neither an option nor a real ambition of the nationalists: were it to become independent, it would be forced to compete with Ireland in providing a low-tax environment for mobile corporations.

Europe is seen as the saviour — built up by Salmond’s rhetoric, mimicked by Sturgeon, focusing on vague issues like “ideals”: as she put it in 2019 in a speech at the European Policy Centre, “the basic values” are common, these being “an idealism to the EU project which appeals strongly to us… it is, at its heart, a peace project”. But it is not a peace project: its core mission to replace European states’ nationalisms by an all-Europe federation.

Nairn has a long and consistent attachment to Europe, publishing, in 1972, “The Left against Europe” as a special issue of New Left Review, using the insights and policies of the then-powerful Italian Communist Party, which argued that Europe’s states must transcend “narrow national limits” in order to confront the international trends governed by capitalist integration. The SNP did a U-turn — Salmond, who took the leadership in the early Eighties, was among the first to grasp that the leaving of the British union, fearsome for a majority of Scots (as the 2014 referendum on independence showed) would be moderated by the prospect of a safe and “progressive” European home.

But Europe is not a home for secessionist regions or nations: many, especially the Spanish and the Belgians, look on Scots nationalism as a threatening example for their own secessionist-tending movements. Even if no veto is wielded over its entry bid, it will — as Fabian Zuleeg, director of the Centre where Sturgeon spoke, has made clear — be required to “uphold and defend the principles of European integration, not least in accepting the terms and conditions of membership in full… shoring up stability and highlighting the benefits of EU membership”. Thus no opt outs, no long-term avoidance of membership of the Eurozone nor Schengen, no special treatment. Nor, for that matter, the  £10-12 billion a year, presently paid from the UK Treasury under the Barnet formula, from EU funds; and a hard border with the rest of the UK. States are about power, and the ability to enforce policies; and the EU, as a would-be state, can be no exception.

In this, Nairn has broken with his former comrade, the long-time editor of the New Left Review, Perry Anderson — whose voluminous and often savage critiques of the EU posits it as an undemocratic and undemocratisable monster, with a parliament as ‘“the least consequential component of the Union” which provides “the appearance of a democratic assembly behind which oligarchic coteries are comfortably entrenched.” Wolfgang Streeck, a former director of Germany’s foremost sociological centre, the Max Planck Institute and a Review contributor, writes that “there is no supranationalism (in the EU) at all, or only as a veil behind which the real action, national and international, takes place. France sees Europe as an extended playing field for its global ambitions; Germany needs the European Union to secure production sites for its industries… and Italy needs ‘Europe’, in particular Germany, for its survival as a capitalist nation-state and economy.”

What does it need Scotland for? Only as an irritant to the rest of the UK, but it must be a well behaved irritant. Streeck and Anderson’s hard-headed assessments are a reproof to Nairn’s — and Sturgeon’s — cloudy romanticism. In this, as in his view of England, as in his ambitions for socialism, Nairn operates in a sphere of abstract utopianism, and has taught the nationalists to do likewise — at least in public. It has worked: romance, idealism, anti-Englishness, national pride, a mixture which has succeeded so far, beyond what even Nairn could have dreamed. But is it now, itself, in the kind of decline it attributes to England? That’s another day’s work.

John Lloyd is a contributing editor to the Financial Times and is writing a book on the rise of the New Right in Europe.