Tom Nairn, who has died at the age of 90, was a political philosopher and major figure in the “new left” politics of the 1960s. Subsequently, his advocacy of nationalism as a progressive force gave him guru status within the nationalist movement in his native Scotland.
The journalist Neal Ascherson, his old friend, described Nairn’s as “the most forceful and original mind to confront, demask and anatomise the British state”, not least by promoting awareness that “Great Britain was a multinational state and not a united nation”.
Nairn’s best-known work, The Break-Up of Britain (1977), is a collection of essays written for the New Left Review over the preceding decade. They reflected Nairn’s basic contention that the British economy was hopelessly mired in its post-imperial inheritance and class-ridden social structures, which had, in turn, inhibited the working class’s revolutionary potential.
He was particularly disappointed in the English working class. This “titanic social force” thrown up by the Industrial Revolution had “quickly turned into an apparently docile class. It embraced one species of moderate reformism after another [and] became a consciously subordinate part of bourgeois society.”
Through New Left Review, such themes developed into the “Nairn-Anderson thesis” in partnership with Perry Anderson, who edited the journal from 1962. It bemoaned the perceived failures of “labourism”, which Nairn attributed, inter alia, to Labour’s “well-known antipathy to theory” and the dominant influence of trade unions, whose leaders he dismissed as “the dead souls of labourism”.
Nairn wrote prolifically and fluently until his health deteriorated over recent years. As his Marxism receded, his hopes for Britain’s disintegration became increasingly vested in political nationalism while some of his favoured targets, notably the House of Windsor (subject of his 1988 book The Enchanted Glass), contributed generously to their own increasing frailty.
Born in Freuchie, Fife, Tom was the son of Katherine (nee Herd) and David Nairn, a primary school teacher. He was educated at Dunfermline high school and went first to Edinburgh College of Art before changing course and taking a philosophy degree (1956) at the University of Edinburgh.
Crucially, a British Council scholarship took him the following year to the Scuola Normale Superiore in Pisa, where he learned Italian, discovered Marxism and explored the writings of Antonio Gramsci. This was a massively influential period in his life, as Gramsci’s emphasis on culture and national identities as well as class opened up a third Marxist road.
“If you were a Marxist [in Britain] you were a Stalinist or a Trotskyist,” Nairn recalled much later, “but I was insulated against that by my Italian experience … there was a much wider intellectual, cultural atmosphere that one could go on breathing.” Nairn and Anderson did much to enhance awareness of Gramsci within the British left.
By 1968, while great events unfolded in Paris, Nairn was a sociology lecturer at Hornsey College of Art, north London, and supportive of a celebrated sit-in, becoming one of four academics subsequently let go through “reorganisation”. The lessons he drew from this episode exposed Nairn’s writings on the nature of the education system to a wider audience through the New Statesman, to which he became a regular contributor.
Tariq Ali, then a prominent figure in London left circles, recalled from that era: “His interests were Italy and Gramsci, Marxism and the Labour party. The fact that he was Scottish meant little to those who knew him at the time. That bit came later.”
Nairn returned to Scotland in the mid-1970s when the appeal of the somewhat materialistic “Scotland’s Oil” slogan had temporarily boosted the electoral fortunes of the Scottish nationalists. The “breakup of Britain” at that point seemed a distinct possibility and Nairn saw potential for synergies between his two political preoccupations.
“Is it really impossible,” he wondered, “that Scotland, which has dwelt so long and so hopelessly on the idea of a nation, should produce a liberated and revolutionary nationalism worthy of the name and the times?”
He threw in his lot with a breakaway Scottish Labour party founded in 1976 by Jim Sillars, which attracted academics and journalists in droves but was quickly debilitated by ultra-left entryism and wound up after the 1979 election. It was Nairn’s only active involvement in party politics, though his critiques continued to influence Scottish nationalist thinking and positioning.
He withdrew from prominence in the 1980s, largely because his partner, Christine Johnson, a schoolteacher from London, suffered from multiple sclerosis. He cared for her at their home in St Monans in Fife until her death in 1992.
Thereafter, he lectured at Prague, Edinburgh and Durham universities before spending a decade in Australia, from 2002, as professor of nationalism and global diversity at the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology.
His friend and former SNP MP George Kerevan claimed following Nairn’s death that “Tom paid for his iconoclasm and intellectual independence. He was denied the academic posts he richly deserved and so led a peripatetic life lecturing where he could.”
On returning to Scotland, he lived in Livingston and continued to provide commentary on progress towards the disintegration of “Ukania,” as he had once christened it. While disappointed with the outcome of the 2014 referendum on Scottish independence, he took comfort from the belief that a precedent had been set that would at some point lead to another one.
Nairn is survived by his partner, Millicent Petrie, and their children, Rachel and Greig, and granddaughter, Harley.