What historians of modern Britain can learn from a Scottish nationalist

What historians of modern Britain can learn from a Scottish nationalist

This week, Tom Kelsey (King’s College London) examines the Nairn/Anderson thesis and its longevity.

What follows is a revised version of a paper given at the launch King’s Contemporary British History, a conference was organised to revisit the major debates of twentieth century British history. My panel looked again at the Nairn/Anderson thesis and I argued that the work of the Scottish nationalist Tom Nairn is of enduring value for historians of modern Britain. If you’d like to read more of the original works, see Perry Anderson’s ‘Origins of the Present Crisis’ and E. P. Thompson’s response ‘The Peculiarities of the English’. The must-read works of Tom Nairn are referred to in the text below.

‘The night-watchman state acquired traits of the welfare officer, but never of the engineer’. So claimed Perry Anderson, who alongside Tom Nairn, wrote powerful essays for the New Left Review criticising Britain’s antique state and its peculiarly unmodern form of capitalism. Britain needed to be technocratic and interventionist, but clung to economic liberalism. The Treasury and the City of London were much to blame, so too Britain’s educational system for producing an anti-scientific ruling elite.

We now know this is a highly misleading picture of modern Britain. Britain was, if anything, an oddly scientific nation during the twentieth century. Indeed, there were powerful technocratic strands within the British state, which was filled with experts and engineers. Even the night-watchman state had its Dreadnoughts. In the post-war period, Britain had a highly ambitious entrepreneurial state, which was at the heart of a distinctly nationalist economic strategy. British capitalism was not backwards, but research-intensive.

What, then, is left of Nairn and Anderson? Surely, these historiographical relics have no place in thinking about the future of research in twentieth century British history. Well, perhaps, but I’d like to make the case for the continuing relevance of Tom Nairn. Nairn is most well-known as a scholar of nationalism and particularly as an analyst of British nationalism, a rare thing. His most famous works include The Left against Europe, a book about Britain’s entry into the EEC, The Break-up of Britain, a collection of essays about the place of nationalism in modern British history, and The Enchanted Glass, a study of the British Monarchy.


These books remain essential reading because they show us the powerful, but rarely discussed, assumptions that have framed British political culture and, in doing so, Nairn renders the familiar not only strange, but distributing. By examining the Monarchy – the object at the heart of the British state and British national identity – Nairn exposes the absurdity of how an antique, aristocratic ruling structure that powerfully shores up a class society receives universal praise in Britain, often due to its claimed modernity. One only needs to turn to the monarchy-supporting Labour Party, who valorise an unwritten constitution that denies sovereignty to the people to appreciate that opposition to the narratives and institutions of the elite have been rare in twentieth century Britain. Indeed, the Labour Party and especially those on the Labour left put nation before class, governing and arguing in search of a national interest. Nairn stressed how it was Labour’s nationalism that really produced some powerful and bizarre ideological fictions. Britain should not join Europe because the EEC was a capitalist conspiracy. Unlike one of the most powerful capitalist nation the world has ever seen, Nairn asked? The sovereignty of Parliament was also scared to many of those on the Labour left. What about the power of interest groups inside and outside of the British state? Do they adhere to such visions of constitutional niceties? The British nation, Nairn argues again and again, never developed a democratic culture that sought to remake the state in the name of the working class. Twentieth century Britain was never a nation-state, but a state-nation.

Is it any surprise that a Marxist Scottish nationalism should have such a position? Well, no. But the point is that Nairn’s diagnosis of British political culture also applies to British historiography. Critical examination of the British elite and how it exercised its power remains rare. Much of the work we have often replicates the myths that the elite perpetuate about themselves. Ironically, this is true for the Nairn-Anderson thesis itself. Yet, once you ignore the declinist assumptions, Nairn’s work is highly useful because it breaks the sentimentality that can so often defines our national history. When we see Britain through Nairn’s eyes our nation looks like a foreign country, through his analysis we can see the power and perhaps the rarity of critical distance. You do not need to agree with the specifics of Nairn’s claims to see that explaining and examining the peculiar power of the British elite, as well as the emasculation of its opponents, remains an important task for future scholarship. But, of course, it would be naïve to suggest that this path will be easy. One cannot help but feel that something Nairn said of British political culture applies to historians and their relationship to elite power: ‘[the] appealing, romantic social peace is inseparable from the twilight’.

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