Tom Nairn, FACES OF NATIONALISM: Janus Revisited, Verso, 1997, 246pp, £12.00
National identities, far from being ancient, can sometimes be constructed in a few months, with the help of intellectuals who can often be bought surprisingly cheaply. Where there is more than one national claim to the same patch of ground a Bosnian type conflict is a possibility. So nationalism has a bad name and few who study it are themselves nationalists. The admiring obituaries of Enoch Powell praised his “brilliant intellect” not his nationalist fantasies.
Tom Nairn is exceptional among academics in being an ardent nationalist. In this collection of essays, book reviews and talks written over a period of 18 years, he argues that nationalism is absolutely necessary for the transition to modernity. As it is the only game in town its absurdities don’t really matter. Sometimes, he accepts, building a nation takes bloody, even genocidal forms, as in Bosnia, but often it does not. Internationalists are people who have chosen to remain pure and impotent at the cost of insulating themselves from the real world. Consequently, the consternation felt by internationalists when their party leaderships lined up behind their ruling classes in 1914, was not just naive, but absurd. The majority of Social Democrats, it is implied, did the right, certainly the inevitable, thing in supporting their nation’s rulers. This view, unusual in academic writing, is of course, taken for granted by nationalist ideologues.
Nairn, seeing internationalism as absurd, equates Lenin’s attempt to build Bolshevik parties as a lunacy comparable to an expedition which the Nazis sent to to Tibet to search for traces of the Aryans, who they thought had come from another planet [p.123] He cheerfully admits that nationalist versions of history are largely invented, but this does not bother him. Peoples have to construct an identity from whatever materials are to hand. Those have to be found in the past or be invented, so people who sneer at invented “ancient traditions” such as Scots tartanry are missing the point.
Nairn makes the valid point that great nation chauvinists often adopt an internationalist rhetoric. Is he thinking of “B52 liberal” supporters of the Gulf War such as Anthony Barnett, whose help he acknowledges in his preface? Nairn denies that States must be of a certain size to be viable, citing Andorra and the Cayman Isles as proof. Curaçao is the official headquarters of George Soros’s Quantum Fund, his instrument for forcing Britain out of the ERM, so talk of a minimum size for a State is nonsense. Objections to the existence of tax havens for our rulers smacks of Great Power chauvinism as we would all like to avoid taxes [p.140].
The chapter ‘Ulster’, devoted to a celebration of the singer Van Morrison, is a Nineties version of hippy ‘Peace and Love’ without the aspirations for a different world. It seems to be inserted as a stepping stone before the final section on Scotland where full blown kitsch is mandatory. Yet there are similarities between Scotland and Northern Ireland which would be worth exploring. Both the IRA and the Protestant Para militarys have recruited from their co- religionists in Scotland. You would never guess that from Nairn’s account of either country.
Nairn’s Scotland is really Edinburgh, minus the Trainspotting milieu. The key social strata are ‘teachers, clerics, lawyers, journalists’ not capitalists or workers [p.188]. The plebeian world of factories, job centres, or council estates hardly intrudes. Neither do religious divisions, Orange Lodges or Masonic halls. A hilarious description of a dinner party [p.184] where Nairn and his friends agonise over the problem of Scottishness, is Posy Simmons country, moved a few hundred miles north. If you liked Gordon Morgan’s description of his “Political Cultural Milieu” in What Next? No. 4 you will enjoy Nairn even more. The author castigates the late Sir Nicholas Fairbairn, a colourful Tory MP famous for his reactionary views and for designing his own, tartan clothes. Fairbairn was merely an extreme example of a familiar type: The Scots landowner/ aristocrat complete with kilt and Etonian accent. As even Disneyland fantasies need to be updated, the archaic Billy Connolly should be melted down and replaced by a modern stereotype designed by Nairn and Morgan.
No one would be able to guess from the ecstatic description of the YES vote on the Scottish Assembly that most people do not see it as terribly important. Traditionally the labour movement distrusted kilted weirdo nationalists. The Stalinists were in favour of Devolution, but it was never one of their main concerns. Eighteen years of Conservative rule have persuaded a majority of Scots people that, on balance, an Assembly was worth backing, but it is not seen as the dawn of freedom, except in the Edinburgh professional circles Nairn describes.
We are not told what changes would take place when the nation becomes free. Would working people have more or fewer civil rights than at present? Would the draconian laws preventing trade union organising remain in place? Such questions are not important in Nairn’s schema: once national freedom is in place such problems will decline or vanish. Nairn refers approvingly to Blair’s ‘experiment with democracy’, i.e. the replacement of the Labour Party’s democratic procedures by direct communication with the leader. Nairn’s joy at the collapse of the USSR is heartfelt, surely a reflection of a belief that class politics are safely buried. ‘Democracy’ continually invoked, is seldom specified apart from the reference to New Labour.
The main problem with Faces of nationalism is the extreme variety of situations described. Andorra, Bosnia, Rwanda Scotland differ so greatly that there is little point in grouping them together. Desperate genocidal struggle and minor squabbles over patronage networks require different treatments. All that could give the book coherence would be the world view of the author. Nairn’s outlook is that of a conservative former New Leftist. He advocates nationalism for its own sake, not as a means to specific objectives. While he accepts that some of nationalism’s effects are horrific, Nairn is very Stoic about others people’s pain. The view is always from above. He examines the Israel/ Palestine struggle through a polemic between the exiled intellectual Edward Said and Ernest Gellner. The conflicts which include suicide bombers and deranged religious fanatics are not denied, but pushed to the edge of the picture. Nairn’s method is guaranteed to produce triviality. It prevents him asking why specific nationalisms emerge when they do. Did the emergence of Scots / Catalan/ Basque nationalism have anything to do with the problems of the larger States of which they are a part?
In the 21st century the multitude of small States, which Nairn hopes will emerge, will not be able to exercise real power, erect tariff barriers or be rude to the multi nationals, what will they do? It seems likely that they will bully their own citizens. Will Scotland have a tartan missile when it is accepted as a full member of the New World Order and allowed to contribute to the next Gulf War?