The United Kingdom, within living memory the ruler of history’s largest empire, is disintegrating. The proximate cause is Brexit, the 2016 referendum vote by 52:48 to leave the European Union: Scotland voted 62:38 to remain, as did Northern Ireland, 56-44; Wales, like England, voted Leave 53-47, but the underlying problem is centuries old. It lies in the very nature and organisation of the British state, as Tom Nairn shows in this updated edition of an almost prescient work first published in 1977 — and in doing so he combines often stunning writing with immense knowledge of literature, history, and political philosophy.
English oligarchic dominance
England’s oligarchy preceded industrial capitalism. The 1688 compact between an emerging bourgeois class, the landed aristocracy, and the monarch created a ‘pre-democratic constitutional state’, in which a supposedly sovereign parliament free of any legislative constraints ostensibly legitimates the government.
That is still the form of the British state — over 330 years later. A patrician elite notable for ‘powerful and pervasive informality’ controls institutions of state, the private sector, the private schools, and the old universities. As there is no written constitution, major changes are usually piecemeal and always potentially reversible responses to internal crises, but this is not an absolutist state; it shaped industrial capitalism to suit its social order, and it created the City of London, long a global financial hub, which has immense influence within the patriciate.
Imperial conquest was foundational to the wealth and stability of what in 1707 became the United Kingdom; by the late 18th century, the English ruling class had established a defining myth: if a fair case is put, ‘a team of decent chaps up there will do the possible’. The largest opposition assemblage, British Labourism, looks permanently mired in ‘cringing conservatism’ towards an immobile social hierarchy.
The three other nations
Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland all differ significantly from England. The 1707 Treaty of Union between the English and Scottish parliaments preserved Scotland’s legal and judicial systems, its education system, and the Church of Scotland; a strong middle class ran those institutions and the administrative apparatus. (The 1320 Arbroath Declaration states that the Scottish people are sovereign.)
18th-century Scotland also had a rising bourgeoisie, and — unlike England — a genuine intelligentsia, one of the greatest intellectual classes of its time. The Scottish ruling class, however, subordinated statehood to participation in the English and colonial markets, and the brutal Highland clearances meant that the Lowlands benefited most from industrialisation, though the patriciate feared the new proletariat.
For Nairn, the discovery of seabed oil in the early 1970s catalysed Scottish neo-nationalism as the post-war British consensus and the economy crumbled. By the 1970s the pro-independence Scottish National Party were a parliamentary force, though London controls oil-drilling licences and takes all British oil revenues. (Since 2015, the SNP have had a dominant position in the Scottish Parliament, created in 1998, and in the 59 Scottish seats currently at Westminster. Scotland has access to vast sources of renewable energy, and has water — which England needs; Scottish public thinking, strongly in favour of EU accession, also features post-independence reconstitution.)
In contrast, Welsh nationalism has been a response to forced underdevelopment, depopulation, and cultural oppression. Wales (subordinated by England in the 13th century) played its part in the industrial revolution, but its main agents thereof were the South Wales-based English and Anglicised bourgeoisie. Welsh speakers kept their language alive through, for example, the annual Eisteddfod, the University Colleges of Wales, and great museums; crucially, Welsh also became the language of the industrial valleys. The 1998 creation of the devolved Welsh Senedd may have lessened the risk of extreme nationalism, but calls for Welsh independence are growing.
It is in Northern Ireland — Ulster — that religion and the relation to Westminster still form a potentially explosive combination. In the 17th century, England settled the province, often violently, with mainland Protestants, in an Anglicising and purportedly civilising mission, and to forestall Catholic attempts on the English crown. The entrenched Protestant community united all its social classes, and benefited greatly from empire-fuelled industrial expansion. Nairn is equally severe on the ‘reactionary and obscurantist’ Catholicism which dominated Ulster Catholics and the Irish Republic until well into the 1960s, and notes that Ulster’s Protestant majority have always dreaded abandonment by Westminster.
On current evidence, the U.K. is bereft of the institutional or political-cultural resources it now needs. The old order, ‘a composite of archaism, incorrigible economic failure, backward-looking complacency, indurate social conservatism, and blind will to survive in the same historic form’, has generated its own atavism; Nairn reproduces his caustic 1970 commentary on the ‘cynical opportunist’ Enoch Powell, born to lower-middle-class parents in the industrial Midlands but so driven by an imagined English rural idyll that he caused incalculable harm with his openly racist rantings — themselves a smokescreen for a failed attempt to seize the Conservative Party leadership. (Today, the old order’s response consists of legislation which more and more blatantly centralises power in the hands of the executive.)
Nairn has made a priceless contribution towards a desperately needed new discourse. The existing one is progressively collapsing; even the hallowed doctrine of parliamentary sovereignty has been exposed as a near-fiction. The Crown’s 67 million British subjects, this reviewer included, are living in interesting times.
The Break-up of Britain: Crisis and Neo-Nationalism ; Tom Nairn, Verso Books, £16.99.
The reviewer is a former Visiting Professor at IIT Madras.