18 May, 2024


Tom Nairn, AJ Wilson & Break-Up Narratives

By Rajan Philips

Rajan Philips

Tom Nairn, widely known for his 1977 book, The Break-up of Britain, considered by many as “the most significant book on British politics of the past half-century,” passed away on January 21, in Edinburgh, Scotland. He was ninety years old and had become a “guru figure” for Scottish Nationalists over the last few decades. Tributes have poured in from across Scotland’s political spectrum, both nationalists and unionists, including First Minister Nicola Sturgeon who would have been seven years old when Break-up first appeared, her predecessor Alex Salmond, as well as former Prime Minister Gordon Brown, the Scotsman from Glasgow. To writer David Greig, Nairn was “Scotland’s intellectual engine of civic contemporary nationalism.” Others have called Nairn, Scotland’s greatest modern philosopher. 

The break-up book was not primarily an exposition or celebration of Scottish nationalism, but a breakdown of the crisis of the British State. In his 1977 introduction, Nairn acknowledges that “although no main part of the book was written in Scotland, that country’s problems were never far from the inspiration of all of them.” The introduction includes a list of Scottish intellectuals who helped him with comments and suggestions for the book, and the list includes Gordon Brown. Brown would have been twenty six then, still six years before becoming a Member of Parliament, and was working on his PhD thesis at the University of Edinburgh, titled The Labour Party and Political Change in Scotland 1918–1929. The two had collaborated earlier, in 1975, in publishing the “The Red Paper on Scotland”, which Brown edited and to which Nairn was the lead contributor.

Gordon Brown stayed with the Labour Party in Scotland and in Britain, to become Britain’s longest serving Chancellor of the Exchequer and later Prime Minister. Nairn broke away first facilitating the formation of the Scottish Labour Party and then blessing its incorporation within the Scottish Nationalist Party. Brown’s passionate campaign against independence during the 2014 referendum was a factor in 55% of the people of Scotland voting against independence, a verdict that left Nairn hugely disappointed. Brown was generous in his adulation of Tom Nairn after his death, describing him as “a great writer, thinker, intellectual and good man,” and acknowledging that Nairn “disagreed with me on many things but his books and scholarship will long be remembered.” Anthony Barnett, a former co-editor of the New Left Review, has called Tom Nairn and Gordon Brown “two towering political intellectuals,” who for nearly half a century “have wrestled over and shaped the Left’s view of the United Kingdom.” One of them (Brown) “directly shaped the Kingdom itself,” while the other (Nairn) played a direct “role in the emergence of modern Scotland.” Their “joint story” remains to be told. 

Their story would be similar to the often-told Canadian story of Pierre Trudeau and Rene Levesque, two French Canadians and their intellectual and political fight over the status of Quebec in Canada. Here again, Trudeau as Prime Minister of Canada was able to thwart the attempt of Levesque, as the Premier of Quebec, to achieve quasi-separation for his Province through a constitutional arrangement called “sovereignty association.” As a political intellectual, Trudeau was quite dismissive of the statist aspirations of nationalism and characteristically said: “It is not the concept of nation that is retrograde, but its claim to sovereignty.”     

Wilson’s Break-up

Eleven years after the publication of The Break-up of Britain, AJ Wilson published the first of his trilogy on the Sinhalese-Tamil conflict in Sri Lanka and titled it, The Break-up of Sri Lanka, perhaps emulating Nairn’s break-up title in Britain. Professor Wilson was not an advocate of political causes but a respected academic and Sri Lanka’s pre-eminent political scientist. The fact that Wilson was the son-in-law of SJV Chelvanayakam, Q.C., the father-figure leader of non-violent Tamil politics, did not diminish his reputation as an objective and detached academic. The affinal relationship certainly gave Wilson an intimate view of decision making in Tamil politics even as it gave him uniquely congenial access to Sri Lanka’s political leaders across the island’s many divides. Wilson was known for his affinity toward and admiration for Leftist leaders, NM Perera and Bernard Soysa; and his writings showed intellectual empathy for Prime Minister SWRD Bandaranaike and his well-intended, but failed, efforts to reconcile Sinhala-Tamil differences.

A product first of the University of Ceylon and then the London School of Economics, where he obtained his PhD and DSc, Professor Wilson had contributed immensely to the cause of political education in Sri Lanka directly as a teacher of several hundreds of political science students at Peradeniya, and indirectly through his popular and comprehensive textbook, Introduction to Civics and Government, that reached several thousands of students, in all three languages, in Sri Lanka’s schools until the book was banned by ultranationalist ignoramuses at the Department of Education in the early 1960s. Nonetheless, the book was more than a textbook and remained a constant companion for Sri Lanka’s political intellectuals like Rev. Paul Caspersz and Upali Cooray. 

Wilson left Peradeniya in 1973 to accept the position as Chair of Political Science at the University of New Brunswick, Fredericton, Canada, where he remained until his retirement in 1993. Wilson’s break-up book directly arose out of his experience as a constitutional advisor to President Jayewardene between 1978 and 1983, and as a mediator between the President and the TULF leaders. The book is a historical narrative written by an academic from the standpoint of a political participant-observer. It is worth noting that the mediation over Sri Lanka’s national problem became totally out-sourced,  post-Wilson and post-1983.  

Now, several decades after the publications of the two break-up books and notwithstanding their premonitory titles, there has been no break-up either in Britain or in Sri Lanka. That is one superficial way of looking at it. A different view would be that over the last three decades there have been significant changes to the ruling structures of the two countries and they have contributed to the two states remaining unbroken. The truth is also that neither book carried a prognostic message or warning, but rather a critique and an analysis of the crisis in which each state was, and continues to be, embedded. 

Tom Nairn went on to live for forty five years after the first break-up edition, revisited, modified or reinforced his arguments against a backdrop of rapid world changes, and wrote and published prolifically. Among the more significant books that followed the break-up are: The Enchanted Glass (1988), a substantive critique of and a polemical satire on the British monarchy; Faces of Nationalism (1997), in which Nairn widens his gaze beyond the British isles to make sense of the explosions of nationalism accompanying the implosions of the Soviet Union and Yugoslavia; and After Britain: and New Labour and the Return of Scotland (2000), a masterpiece on Blair’s “pseudo-conservative” Labourists  as logical successors to Thatcher’s “pseudo-radical” Tories. In 2008, he targeted Gordon Brown, when he was Prime Minister, with an essay, Gordon Brown: The Bard of Britishness, which was published by the Institute of Welsh Affairs, as a  symposium including responses to Nairn by others. As well, a new Verso edition of the Break-up was published in January 2022, forty five years after its first appearance.  

Professor Wilson passed way in 2000, twelve years after the publication of The Break of Sri Lanka in 1988. He was in poor health but managed to publish two more books, to complete the trilogy and add to his impressive collection of nearly a dozen books on Sri Lankan politics. The second of the trilogy, published in 1994, was a political biography:  SJV Chelvanayakam and the Crisis of Sri Lankan Tamil Nationalism, 1947-1977. His last word was published in 2000: Sri Lankan Tamil Nationalism: Its Origins and Development in the 19th and 20th Centuries. In between, he wrote articles to the Lanka Guardian and the Tamil Times, expressing his opinion on political events, including the one that he wrote with some optimism for positive changes when Chandrika Kumaratunga became Sri Lanka’s President in 1994. 

Nairn and Nationalism

Tom Nairn was born in Freuchie, Fife County, Scotland, not far from St. Andrews. After high school, he went first to Edinburgh College of Art but changed course for a degree in philosophy at the University of Edinburgh, followed by a stint at Oxford. Already steeped in Scottish history and culture, along with those of the Kingdom and the Empire, Nairn went to Italy on a British Council scholarship, where he learnt Italian and took to Gramsci. He would later recall that “If you were a Marxist [in Britain] you were a Stalinist or a Trotskyist, … but I was insulated against that by my Italian experience.” He was a compulsive writer, an academic and an activist. His academic activism, while a lecturer in 1968 at Hornsey College of Art, north London, in support of a sit-in protest, led to an administrative dismissal and quiet disbarment from teaching in British institutions. As a peripatetic academic, he roamed from Europe to Australia, before returning home to teach and write. 

Nairn was a natural fit to the group of leftist intellectuals and activists who took over the publication of journal New Left Review (NLR), in London, in the 1970s. The journal had been in publication from 1960, launched by a group of British Marxists who, on the one hand, rejected the politics of the Labour Party and the legacy of Stalinism in the Communist Party of Great Britain, and, on the other, identified themselves wholeheartedly with the then vigorous Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament. The NLR became a conduit in English for the continental schools of Marxism and a respected forum for disseminating and debating the writings of interwar and postwar Marxists and progressive intellectuals like Antonio Gramsci, Gyorgy Lukacs, Karl and Hedda Korsch, Jean Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir, EP Thompson, Louis Althusser, Nicos Poulantzas, Jurgen Habermas, and Charles Taylor. 

The 1970s NLR group included, besides Tom Nairn, Perry Anderson, Robin Blackburn, Anthony Barnett, Fred Halliday, Nicolas Krasso, and Tariq Ali among others. Sri Lanka’s Upali Cooray, Marxist and Labour Lawyer, was active in the NLR circle. By the 1970s, NLR began taking positions in British politics and Anderson and Nairn formulated the famous Anderson-Nairn thesis on the decline and fall of Britain. The NLR supported Britain joining the European Community, setting itself apart from many in the Labour Party and much of the British Left at that time. Tom Nairn wrote and published a special issue of the journal in 1972, titled, “The Left against Europe?” 

The Break-up of Britain, Nairn’s magnum opus, is a collection of articles that he wrote to the New Left Review (NLR) between 1970 and 1977. The articles were written at different times – 1970, 1974, 1975 and 1976, during a decade of alternating governments and severe political and economic crises. The book was published two years before Margaret Thatcher became Prime Minister. A postscript was added to the 1981 edition by which time Margaret Thatcher was into her third year as Prime Minister. 

The book’s chapter headings are indicative of Nairn’s diagnoses of the crisis of Britain’s multi-national state. The first chapter, perhaps written last in 1976, was aptly titled “The Twilight of the British State.” There were two chapters on Scotland (Scotland and Europe, and Old and New Scottish Nationalism); two on England (English Nationalism: the case of Enoch Powell, and the English Enigma); one each on Wales (Culture and Politics in Wales) and Northern Ireland (Relic or Portent?); a penultimate chapter titled, Supra-Nationalism and Europe; and the final chapter: The Modern Janus, a powerful reflection on Marxism and nationalism that begins challengingly, “The theory of nationalism represents Marxism’s great historical failure.” 

For students of nationalism, the Break-up’s publication presaged a surge of writings in English on the theory and manifestations of nationalism. Two pathbreaking books appeared in 1983. Benedict Anderson’s (older brother of Perry Anderson) Imagined Communities, brought into relief two principal processes of nation making. ‘Print capitalism’ that led to mass production of newspapers and novels in the hitherto vernaculars of the world, and ‘pilgrimage’ that made modern nomads out of state functionaries, and the two together enabled and facilitated the contemporaneous collective imagination of hitherto disparate groups of people. Anderson’s “preciously written” book somewhat overshadowed Ernest Gellner’s Nations and Nationalism that was also published in 1983. 

Gellner’s assertive thesis is that the emergence of nations and nationalisms became feasible only because of industrialization and modernization. Gellner’s student, Anthony Smith, countered Gellner and asserted the ethnic-primordiality of nations in his book, The Ethnic Origins of Nations, published in 1986. Tom Nairn’s writings could be seen as synthesizing the two, modernity and pre-modernity, privileging the former without dismissing the latter. Esoterically speaking, modernity and post-modernity have made possible the national survival of many cultural groups which in Engels’s dismissive description should have been reduced to becoming “ethnographic monuments.”  

Tom Nairn is considered to be among the four most cited writers on nationalism along with Benedict Anderson, Ernest Gellner and Anthony Smith. Many others have since enriched the universe of writings on nationalism. Two outstanding books on nationalism in the industrial cradle of Western Europe are, Patrick Geary’s (2002) The Myth of Nations: The Medieval Origins of Europe; and Joep Leerssen’s (2006, first published in the Dutch-language) National Thought in Europe: A Cultural History. Books on nationalism in postcolonial societies outside South Asia, include, Robert J. Foster’s (1995) edited symposium, Nation Making: Emergent Identities in Postcolonial Melanesia; Neil Lazarus’s (1999) Nationalism and Cultural Practice in the Postcolonial World; and Anthony Reid’s (2010) Imperial Alchemy: Nationalism and Political Identity in Southeast Asia.   

A common feature of late-twentieth century writings on nationalism is the emphasis on culture and the reliance on cultural anthropology. Intervening at the political-intellectual level was Eric Hobsbawm, a contemporary of Ceylon’s Pieter Keuneman and India’s Mohan Kumaramangalam at Cambridge, Marxist and prolific historian, and an intellectual of the British Communist Party who fought Stalinism from within the Party. In his 1991 book, Nations and Nationalism Since 1780: Programme, Myth, Reality, and other writings, Hobsbawm countered the statist (and break-up) assertions of nationalism by powerfully pointing out the hopeless stalemates that contending national polities might generate if every national group, including majority groups, were to insist on a state of its own and reject any and all compromising alternatives. Hobsbawm’s warning comes alive in the two break-up narratives of Britain and Sri Lanka. A dubiously redeeming feature in Britain has been what Nain called the ‘English Enigma,’ a peculiar, imperially sustained, and culturally snobbish abstinence from nationalism by the English people, as opposed to the nationalist aspirations of the Scottish, Irish, and Welsh people. The tragically opposite indulgence in nationalisms has been the story of post-independence Sri Lanka. More on that – Next Week.  

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Latest comments

  • 4

    “The fact that Wilson was the son-in-law of SJV Chelvanayakam, Q.C., the father-figure leader of non-violent Tamil politics, did not diminish his reputation as an objective and detached academic.”
    What he did in 1980 to persuade the TULF to accept the DDCs did expose him thoroughly as JRJ’s man.
    “Objective and detached”? Check his views on socialism and the Left.

    • 2

      it was a tactical move on the part of TULF. JR came to power with a formidable majority and ready to crush all oppositions. That three member commision was headed by AJ Wilson with Neelan Thiruchelvam as a member.

      It was a realistic move on the part Wilson and TULF had no alternative but to accept the recommendation and try to find solutions to the vexed problem,

      • 3

        Tactical move? Be kind. This is serious business and do not make me laugh.
        The Tamil youth rightly saw through the farce as a surrender.
        The TULF was in a pickle after 1977, since its leader had lost interest in Tamil Eelam after he secured not merely his seat but also became leader of the opposition.
        JRJ used his friendship with AJW (who was also his accomplice) to persuade the FP which was then sending friendly signals to the left parties.
        Whatever was realistic for Wilson was not the TULF.
        We saw what followed: the burning of the Jaffna Library.
        The TULF became a joke in the North as the DDCs proved to be an utter fake.
        So what was the solution that this accomplice of JRJ find?

  • 3

    “Now, several decades after the publications of the two break-up books and notwithstanding their premonitory titles, there has been no break-up either in Britain or in Sri Lanka.”
    UK saved its unity albeit temporarily with a Scottish Parliament. The demand is just as strong as earlier this century.
    SL is a very deeply divided society. Secession is a political manifestation, but the divisions are deeper. But no nationalist of any description is interested in repairing.

  • 3

    The ” the nationalist aspirations of the Scottish, Irish, and Welsh people” are vastly different.
    Ireland was a colony and its people were treated worse than even people of darker complexion.
    Scottish nationalism did not stop the Scots from their contribution to expand the empire.
    The Welsh showed more resistance on the language front than the others whose languages were effectively stubbed out by the English.. They did not demand secession but were assertive of autonomy.

    • 2

      Ireland was the first to rebel against , fought and established Irish republic at the commencement of the 20th century forcing the Bristish to keep Northern Ireland with them.
      ,History is a bitch and sometimes rational explanations may not be possible for strange behavior of nations. Years earlier how the British wanted to join EU desperately against stiff opposition of General De Gaulle.

  • 2

    Rajan Philips still live in the era of nation States- breaking up nations into smaller manageable units that could be manipulated easily.
    Now we had passed that stage and live in the era of Unions- European Union ,United states of America, ASEAN .UK did a blunder by breaking up from EU.
    Canada, UK and Sri Lanka still remains united because future is in the unions and integration!

    • 1

      You have touched on a topic I am sensitive too.
      “UK did a blunder by breaking up from EU”.
      It is difficult for us to understand the degree of care the Britishers took to arrive at that decision.
      Let me leave it at that.

      • 1

        “It is difficult for us to understand the degree of care the Britishers took to arrive at that decision.”
        Care was taken by a group of conspirators– Cambridge Analytica being a key player –who lied to the public about EU.
        “degree of care”– Have any idea of what Brexit achieved for UK?

      • 2

        The leadership of both the Tories and the labor were against Brexit at the beginning, but the rank and file from both parties rebelled against and voted for Brexi..

    • 1

      If the”future is in the unions and integration” why did UK quit EU?
      The only union possible for Canada was NAFTA superseded by USMCA in 2020. Now Mexico is starting to have some doubts.
      Sri Lanka? Did it have any idea of what was happening to it over the past four decades?

      • 3

        Why UK did it is a puzzle. The votes in the referendum were very close and Scotland and Northern Ireland were against leaving EU

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