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New Left Review 1, January-February 2000

Great Britain has finally yielded a parliament to Scotland. But the Labour regime in London still clings convulsively to the totems of Ukania, in Tom Nairn’s savage updating of Robert Musil. New Labour’s eupeptic rhetoric of youth as a sure sign of a system being wheeled into the terminal ward.



Constitutional alterations normally require an alteration of the communal will: that is, a national or nationalist identity motion of some kind, whether of resentment, ascendancy, defeat or rebirth. Such a will might be stimulated and led ‘from above’; this entails, however, the existence of a dissentient ruling elite which thinks in constitutional terms, and puts state reform resolutely ahead of social reform and economic policy. But such an order of priorities is quite alien to the modern United Kingdom ruling class—indeed nothing has been more alien to it. Constitutionalism had been familiar enough to its early-modern predecessors of the period 1640–1707. But the state constructed at that time was then reconfigured primarily through contests against what appeared as the more aggressive modernity shown in the revolutions of 1776 and 1789—that is, the modern constitutionalism out of which today’s nation-state world has mainly arisen. In those contests the pioneer itself had become tradition-minded and custom-bound—‘empirical’ in its philosophy and pragmatic in its political attitudes. British parliamentarism grew perfectly inseparable from such attitudes and Blair’s New Labour victory of 1997 was still far more an expression of them than a repudiation.

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Tom Nairn, ‘Ukania Under Blair’, NLR 1: £3

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