Tom Nairn's Break-Up of Britain: Extract


With the result of the Scottish independence referendum a mere sleep away, we're revisiting Tom Nairn's Break-Up of Britain. Nairn has been an important influence on the debates around independence, referred to by Anthony Barnett as the "prophet of the break-up of Britain". See below for an extract from Break-Up of Britain discussing the move towards Scottish nationalism, or neo-nationalism, in the post-war period:

'Scotland is unique among European nations in its failure to develop a nationalist sentiment strong enough to be a vital factor in its affairs … The reason probably lies in the fact that no comprehensive-enough agency has emerged; and the commonsense of our people has rejected one-sided expedients incapable of addressing the organic complexity of our national life. For it must be recognized that the absence of nationalism is, paradoxically, a form of Scottish self-determination. If that self-determination, which … has reduced Scottish arts and affairs to a lamentable pass is to be induced to take different forms and express itself in a diametrically opposite direction to that which it has taken for the past two hundred and twenty years, the persuading programme must embody considerations of superior power to those which have so long ensured the opposite process. Scottish opinion is anachronism-proof in matters of this kind ...'

C.M. Grieve (Hugh MacDiarmid), Albyn, or Scotland and the Future (1927)

These ‘considerations of superior power’ were a long time coming to Scotland. However, they have finally arrived. And as they have come—half a century later than MacDiarmid imagined—that hard-headed, ‘anachronism-proof’ commonsense has indeed begun to shift its ground. The nostalgic literary nationalism he led from the 1920s onwards was not a ‘comprehensive-enough agency’ to do this. Neither were the political movements that accompanied it. The persuading programme which made the difference was the petroleum business: the largest, richest, most aggressive, and most international form of capitalism in the world.

The result is an astonishing situation. Although (as argued below) the new Scottish separatism of the 1970s is in some ways comparable to trends in Brittany, Catalonia, Wales and other regions of Western Europe, in certain respects it remains unique. Nowhere else has the transformation been so abrupt, or so extensive. Nowhere else have the essential forces at work displayed their nature so nakedly. Nowhere else—therefore—is the resultant conflict and political dilemma quite so clearly defined.

It is a substantially new dilemma. On the face of it what is happening may look like an episode of resurrection unequalled since Lazarus. But in fact, this is not only a chapter in the old book of European nationalism. Still less is it something comparable to contemporary national-liberation struggles in the Third World. Romantic interpretation along these lines are not lacking, of course. This is not surprising, because the conceptual language we have available is predominantly ‘nationalist’ in just this sense: it looks backwards, or out to those parts of the world still engaged in a life-or-death fight against backwardness. New movements cannot help wearing old clothes.

To Scotland’s remarkable and novel dilemma there corresponds a new political movement. Like the dilemma itself, it is in a number of ways analogous to historical or mainstream nationalism. But a more careful consideration shows its different place in history, and its different character and potential. As argued below, it deserves to be called ‘neo-nationalism’ rather than nationalism. For there is a new Polish, South Slav and other nationalisms of the 19th and early 20th centuries, or from such contemporary national struggles as those in Kurdistan, Eritrea, Bangladesh, and the Portugese colonies.

Let me try to summarise the difference, in a preliminary and quite incomplete fashion. ‘Nationalism’, in that sense which has dominated historical development since early in the 19th century, was in essence the forced reaction of one area after another to the spread of capitalism. This process has been awarded other titles too: ‘westernisation’, ‘modernisation’, or simply ‘development’. What matters here is that this complex, long-term movement arose chiefly in areas of what one may call absolute deprivation. They were overwhelmingly feudal, or pre-feudal, in social character. They were marked, that is, by illiteracy, landlord-rule, feeble urban development, primary poverty, and absence of the socioeconomic infrastructures which modernisation demands. This is of course why they became (and soon felt themselves to be) ‘backward’, or ‘underdeveloped’. It is why, equally, they were bound to fall victim to some variety of domination or ‘imperialism’—to which the only effective response was in most cases locally-based, popular struggle: nationalism.

Neo-nationalism arises at a different, much later point in the same general process. It remains comparable to elemental nationalism in being a forced by-product of the grotesquely uneven nature of capitalist development. As the latter’s blind, lurching progress impinges upon this or that region, it still poses a threat (or more exactly, a combined promise and threat) of modernisation, ‘imperialistic’ disruption of old ways, and so on. But this now occurs at a far more advanced stage of general development, in areas which long ago emerged from the absolute ‘backwardness’ just referred to. Located on the fringe of the new metropolitan growth zones, they suffer from a relative deprivation and are increasingly drawn to political action against this. This action is analogous to old-style nationalism, above all in its ideology. But, precisely because it starts from a higher level and belongs to a more advanced stage of capitalist evolution—to the age of multinationals and the effective internationalisation of capital—its real historical function will be different. The impact of the oil industry on Scotland and of the US multinationals on the French Midi is provoking a new Scottish and Occitanian separatism; but, to a greater extent than is realised, this is a sui generis phenomenon which should not be assimilated to classical European or Third World ‘nationalism’ at all.

It is the devastating rapidity and scale of the impact of these new conditions that has made Scotland into the exemplar of ‘neo-nationalism’ in this sense. One need only compare the oil industry’s arrival to the previous, gradual (and more generally characteristic infiltration of international corporations into the Scottish industrial belt during the 1950s, and 60s, to grasp this. Yet this is only one aspect of the situation.

For the dramatic developments of the past few years are busy transforming a deeper historical situation which was, itself, quite unique. MacDiarmid was not quite accurate in saying that Scotland was alone in failing ‘to develop a nationalist sentiment strong enough to be a vital factor in its affairs’, in the 19th century. In fact, Western Europe is a graveyard of historical nationalities which were suppressed or submerged by the rise of what became the 18th and 19th century ‘great powers’. Scotland’s real peculiarity lies elsewhere. It lies in the lateness with which such absorption occurred: at the beginning of the 18th century, rather than in the later Middle Ages. It lies in the manner of the fusion: there are many stateless nationalities in history, but only on Act of Union—a peculiarly patrician bargain between two ruling classes, which would have been unthinkable earlier, under absolute monarchy, and impossible later, when the age of democratic nationalism had arrived. And it lies in the results of the bargain: a nationality which resigned statehood but preserved an extraordinary amount of institutional and psychological baggage normally associated with independence—a decapitated national state, as it were, rather than an ordinary ‘assimilated’ nationality.

For two centuries after the Jacobinite Rebellion Of 1745-6, this freak by-product of European history posed no particular problem. The reason was simple: on the whole, the Union bargain worked as it had been intended to. Indeed it far surpassed the hopes placed in it. During the prolonged era of Anglo-Scots imperialist expansion, the Scottish ruling order found that it had given up statehood for a hugely profitable junior partnership in the New Rome. The oddity od the new Union has always posed grave cultural and psychological problems in Scotland—problems recognisable, as I shall go on to argue, through a characteristic series of sub-national deformations or ‘neuroses’. But it posed no real political problem for most of the time.

The political problem returned only with the post-World War II decline of the United Kingdom. This has been a slow process. The strength and stability of this old multi-national system, founded on its imperialist successes, has proved resistant to the collapse. None the less, as both great UK parties failed to do more than tamper with the underlying crisis, the slow foundering has begun to turn into a rout. In the early 1970s paralysis and incapacity have become undeniable, electorally as well as in terms of party strategies.

It is at this point that conditions have precipitated the neo-nationalist movement in Scotland. The oil industry has collided with the country at a moment of extreme and growing debility in the traditional political apparatus—in that conservative Unionism which a majority of Scots have supported, with little dissension, for two centuries. The consequence is perhaps the most startling aspect of the whole situation. The novel conflict in Scotland has cut into the palsied corpus of Unionism like a knife. More than any other factor, more even than the miners’ strikes of 1972 and 1974, it has exposed the senility of the old consensus and its two-party system.

Pious, somewhat sleekit debates about ‘Home Rule’ for Scotland and Wales have appeared and reappeared in imperial politics since the 1880s. It would have dumbfounded these earlier generations of Home Rulers to see the Greater Britain caving in before new nationalist demands. They sought a modest degree of self-governance in order to strengthen the Union, and Great-British nationalism. Nobody thought that one day UK parties would fall over one another in a competition to cede wider and wider powers, or that The Thunderer would declare defeat in advance, in a mood of world-weary resignation: 

'The Scots are all assembly men now. So the practical question is what kind of assembly. No stability could be expected from setting up a Scottish Assembly in a grudging spirit with the minimum powers that a reluctant government in London felt it had to concede. It is better to devolve the widest powers … It could be that once the Scottish people have taken one step along that road they will not be satisfied with any stopping place short of full independence. If so, it would be neither possible nor desirable to keep them within the United Kingdom …'
- Times, editorial of August 19th 1974, ‘All Assembly Men Now’.

See all of Tom Nairn's Verso books here, and his latest book Old Nations, Auld Enemies, New Times here.