The worth of nations

August 11, 1995

Rob Brown reports on the career of Tom Nairn, the Scottish writer and academic who believes that resurgent nationalism does not need to be nasty

Those who check the planet's pulse by tuning into TV news bulletins might easily concur with Cassandras who contend that the post-cold war world is fast descending into chaos and barbarism. The horrific images beamed by satellite out of Bosnia suggest that the new springtime of nations is going to be nasty, brutish and long.

But talk to Tom Nairn and you may snap out of such apocalyptic ponderings. Formerly one of the new left's most prominent thinkers, Nairn is now a leading authority on nationalism and ethnic conflict. However, in stark contrast to many others in what is suddenly a highly topical specialism, he is not unduly disturbed by current developments in eastern Europe. "The shocked, semi-hysterical response of the west to the eastern rebirth has plunged it into the style of unreason once supposed typical of wild-eyed chauvinists and patriotic poets," he has written with characteristic vitriol.

Distancing himself from the pessimistic outpourings of self-styled "internationals", Nairn maintains that we are on the threshold of "a more varied, more emphatically nationalist world which, notwithstanding the abcess in Bosnia, will turn out to be more than just disorder and atavism."

Now Nairn has a perfect platform from which to advance this cheery world view. With the assistance of the London-based think tank Demos, he has just negotiated a three-year contract with Edinburgh University to head a new one- year masters degree in nationalism studies.

His appointment, at the age of 63, will be celebrated by those who consider Nairn to have been, up to now, a prophet without honour in his native land. The distinguished newspaper commentator Neal Ascherson has described as "scandalous" the fact that no university in Scotland previously saw fit to employ the man whom Anthony Barnett, co-ordinator of Charter 88, has hailed as "the wisest thinker about contemporary affairs in Britain".

R. W. Johnson, fellow of Magdalen College, Oxford, is another fan. "Tom Nairn has for many years been writing about the peculiarities of the British state with impressive intelligence and originality from a Marxist and Scottish Nationalist vantage point," he has written.

If the Scots ever opt for independence there should, suggests this admirer, be a special place on the nationalist intellectual pantheon for Nairn. As Johnson points out: "His writing could only be Scots, in its humour and literacy, its Protestant sharpness and its sheer knobbly refusal - refusal not only of monarchy, but of the world of Sunday supplements, of the smart left (as part of smart London) and of southern ease and southern comfort."

Nairn's working life has been anything but easy or comfortable. His new position is the first regular academic post he has held since 1968, when he lost his employment at Hornsey College of Art. The Department of General Studies, in which he had been a lecturer for two years, was disbanded in that year after a series of student occupations which he had supported.

Since then he has lived by his wits. Rescued initially by a maverick American millionaire called Samuel Rubin, who employed him in a left-wing think-tank in Amsterdam, Nairn returned to Edinburgh in 1975 to establish the Scottish International Institute. Although only a shoestring organisation, it allowed him to make a major contribution to the debate about Britain's constitutional future.

His collection of essays on neo-nationalism, The Break-up of Britain was acclaimed in 1977 by every serious publication from The Economist to The Guardian. But Nairn's cerebral assaults on Britain's ancien regime were largely abandoned after his partner Christine, a London school teacher who had moved up to Scotland with him, was stricken with multiple sclerosis. They moved to St Monance, a picturesque fishing village in Fife, where he nursed her for the last ten years of her life. "I was in a curious sense retired, or voluntarily imprisoned, for the best part of a decade," he reflects, without any trace of bitterness.

Putting personal tragedy behind him - a subsequent partner died from cancer - Nairn turned to independent television production in the late 1980s. He acted as a consultant for a Channel Four film about Antonio Gramsci, the Italian Marxist whose writings had a profound influence upon his early thinking. Then he supervised a film version of The Enchanted Glass, his own book about Britain and the monarchy. He was also commissioned to write a fortnightly column for The Scotsman, in which he eloquently expressed the case for a new constitutional settlement.

But such freelancing has proved far from lucrative, forcing him to lead a frugal lifestyle in Livingston New Town, which he described as "a famously classless site located in the black hole between Glasgow and Edinburgh".

Out of that black hole, however, have poured some of the most provocative and stimulating contributions to the debate about the New World Disorder. He may not have had the most fashionable of addresses, but invitations have never stopped arriving on his doorstep from centres of learning keen to have Nairn address them on his favourite themes of nationalism and ethnic conflict.

Two years ago he was invited to take up a research post at the Central European University in Prague, a private foundation funded by George Soros, the philanthropic currency speculator. Nairn decided to return to Scotland after just one academic term, determined to set up a similar study centre in his native land, but one which would combine research with teaching. "Edinburgh is a highly appropriate place in which to study nationalism," he enthuses in the course prospectus. "It is the capital of a stateless nation where nationalism is a developing question."

Yet he would not have dared propose such a course even a decade ago. "It is not so long ago that the very notion of nationalism studies at Edinburgh University would have been regarded as an outrage," he observes. "The whole subject of nationalism used to be regarded as more or less taboo in academic circles."

The renewed ethnic feuding, anti-Semitism and irredentism which have erupted in parts of eastern Europe since the collapse of Communism did not come as a grave shock to Nairn. "As a young and middle-aged Marxist I always thought nationality was undervalued and under-analysed in comparison with class," says Nairn. The main task of theories of nationalism today, he maintains, should be "to advance beyond the old contraposition of being 'for or against' this phenomenon, as if it were some kind of moral ailment."

Nationalism, he contends, is not now (and never was in the past) a deviant or accidental departure from "what should have happened". "It is no counter- current or side-eddy, interfering with the majestic mainstream of Progress. Nationalism is the mainstream, and it's time we recognised the fact."

The emphasis of Nairn's course will be on civic as opposed to ethnic nationalism. He agrees with the central argument expounded by Michael Ignatieff in his six-part television series Blood and Belonging that civic nationalism is the only effective antidote to ethnic nationalism. (Civic nationalism envisages the nation as a community of equal citizens united, regardless of race, colour, gender or language, in a patriotic attachment to a shared set of political values. Ethnic nationalists, on the other hand, appeal to blood loyalty and conduct their affairs in the interests of the ethnic majority.) "Our view is that nationalism doesn't need to be nasty," explains David McCrone, head of Edinburgh University's sociology department, who will team up with Nairn to teach the core subjects. "We don't plan to take an entirely uncritical approach to nationalism, but we'll certainly challenge the conventional view that it is a sort of taboo subject."

Nairn assisted McCrone last year in teaching a course on the sociology of nationalism to undergraduates. "The level of interest among the students was striking," he says. "I'd expected the normal gradient, but they kept on turning up for the lectures." Many were doubtless startled to find that Tom Nairn in person is totally different from Tom Nairn in print. His kind and avuncular demeanour can become as a shock to those who have only previously encountered him through his essays. Then again, the central argument of Nairn's withering polemics is that nationalists can be nice.

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