Tom Nairn

Born: 2 June 1932

Died: 21 January 2023

Tom Nairn, who has died aged 90, was a titan of the independence movement, a prolific and at times radical scholar who confidently and consistently predicted the end of United Kingdom.

Upon his passing, First Minister Nicola Sturgeon called him “one of the greatest thinkers, political theorists and intellectuals that Scotland has ever produced” while Alex Salmond credited him with “providing the intellectual base which turned Scottish nationalism from a romantic notion to a powerful left wing challenge to the British state”. Gordon Brown, for whose The Red Paper on Scotland Nairn wrote an influential essay, wrote: “He disagreed with me on many things but his books and scholarship will long be remembered.”

Nairn studied philosophy at both Edinburgh and Oxford, before being awarded a scholarship at the Scuola Normale Superiore in Pisa. It was he was heavily influenced by the writings of Antonio Gramsci, who wrote of the importance of culture and academia in maintaining bourgeois power – and the necessity of forming counter-hegemonic structures to challenge this.

Historian Perry Anderson said: “The first full-fledged attempt to apply Gramscian concepts and a framework to the realities of British society and history must have been the ones pioneered by Tom.”

Using those concepts, Nairn developed with Anderson his theory of British politics, arguing that Britain never had to modernise the way other capitalist economies did – thus leaving it simultaneously moving into the modern age while longing for the ‘glories’ of the past.

Read More: The big interview: Tom Nairn

In his essay, The Modern Janus, Nairn argued for the necessity of nationalism in the modern world, in sharp contrast to majority leftist opinion of the time. He described the issues as “Marxism’s greatest historical failure”, arguing that nationalism, rather than being an aberration, is the natural form of development for modernising societies. Indeed, he argued that the British state’s failure to become a modern bourgeois democracy could only be remedied with its break-up, something which would benefit not just Scotland but the rest of the Kingdom.

He wrote that Marxism’s leading thinkers “did not pay sufficient attention to the subject, dealing with it incidentally or tangentially rather than head-on”. Marx and Engels responding in The Communist Manifesto to the charge they wished to abolish countries and nationality wrote: “working men have no nation, we cannot take from them what they haven’t got”. Vladimir Lenin, in contrast to thinkers like Rosa Luxemburg, viewed nationalism as being potentially useful to revolutionary strategy but agonised over how a socialist state, dominated by one nationality, could avoid falling victim to a kind of bourgeois, narrow nationalism. Addressing the ‘National Question’ in 1903 he wrote that the “positive and principal task to further the self-determination of the proletariat in each nationality rather than that of peoples or nations… it is only in isolated and exceptional cases that we can advance and actively support demands conducive to the establishment of a new class state”.

For Nairn nationalism – which he viewed as “at once progressive and regressive” – was the natural form of development for modernising societies. His 1977 magnum opus The Break-Up of Britain argued that the struggle for socialism must be combined with a drive for independence as the British state “has entered into a historical cul-de-sac from which no exit is visible”.

Read More: Tributes paid to professor Tom Nairn

Nairn was in opposition to another leftist orthodoxy of the post-war period, namely Britain’s entry into what would become Common Market. While the Labour movement of the time preached ‘keep Britain independent’, he believed entering such a community could only bolster solidarity between European working classes.

He wrote: “Whatever the shortcomings and contradictions of the new Europe, it is still a modern, voluntary, genuinely multi-national organization, capable of farther progress and influence. By contrast, the United Kingdom long ago ceased to be a multi-national entity in any ennobling or forward-looking sense: the nerve of its larger unity passed away with empire, and should not be mourned or resuscitated for that reason.”

It was this world view that led to Nairn being dubbed the ‘Godfather of modern Scottish independence’. Where separatists had focused on historical claims of oppression, ignoring Scotland’s willing and lucrative participation in empire, Nairn urged the left to view in revolutionary terms: his vision was not an anti-English one but rather “a radical, left-directed break-through at the centre, in which the English people finally shakes off the old hierarchical burden of the British state-system”.

During the 1980s his contributions to academia were few, with Nairn nursing his wife, Christine, at their home in St Monans as she battled multiple sclerosis. She passed away in 1992.

Read More: The Scots killed fighting in the Russian Civil War

With the end of the Cold War, Nairn distanced himself from Marxism, arguing not for nationalism as an alternative road to socialism but as a fundamental truth of human nature, believing “small battalions are… on the whole better than the large”.

Though the break-up of the UK has taken longer than Nairn, who in later years lectured at the University of Durham, prophesised, he witnessed and was unmoved by defeat in the 2014 independence referendum. He said in 2016 the state of the union “(is) as hopeless as it ever was, but it’s being prolonged because no one can think of an alternative for the 80 per cent majority, which is the English, God bless them”.

Far from being a defeat, he argued, 2014 had established “the right to secede via popular vote”.

Tom Nairn is survived by his partner Millicent Petrie and his two children, Rachel and Greig.