While publicists, some of them from what used to be the Left, have been celebrating the triumph of consumer capitalism and the end of history—that is to say, the death of the sovereign political community and the history it has made for itself—historians have been engaged in a reconstruction of ‘British history’. What this amounts to is an examination of the histories of the peoples inhabiting the archipelago as they have shaped these for themselves and shaped one another. The term ‘British’ sets up an emphasis on the English-dominated state and kingdom that has dominated these several histories, seeking to control and unify them, but the ‘new history’ recounts this story in ways calculated to problematize it.footnote1 Whether there has been such a thing as ‘British history’ is contestable; but the disposition—if you like, the bias—of this approach is towards supposing that the contest continues and is not over yet.
Tom Nairn, author of The Break-up of Britain (1977) and Faces of Nationalism (1998), is not a globalizer or a Euromorph but a Scottish nationalist with a genuine and humane concern for all the peoples of insular Europe. I am going to argue, however, that the view of them in his new book After Britain is one-eyed—not in the sense that it is blinkered Scottish, but in a way that leaves Nairn uncertain where he stands as between nationalism and globality; a way to which the politics of ‘new British history’ may suggest a rectification. In brief, he does not see how to re-arrange a sharing of sovereignty, and therefore falls back on Euro-globalism as a means of denying it to some while preserving (or reviving) it for others: a strategy sure to fail, since Euro-globalism does not favour sovereignty for some peoples above others. Nairn, an authentic nationalist, is thus walking on treacherous ground.
This does not occur out of strategic naivety, but because his understanding of ‘Britishness’ is impoverished: an impoverishment which arises more from his position on an oldish Left than from his Scottish nationalism. The heart sinks at seeing, as the jacket design of After Britain, a portrait of the Queen and the Prince of Wales looking dowdy and unsure of themselves; here is to be another tedious exercise in Brit inverted snobbery—I am more irreverent than thou. What the text offers is better than that, but not better enough. Nairn, author of The Enchanted Glass (1988), an anti-royals polemic, can see the monarchy, as he can see Britishness, only in terms of an antiquated imperial class structure. This, he says, is dead—killed by Margaret Thatcher where the Left had failed to do away with it—with the result that he has only invective and satire to offer when monarchy and Britain, proclaimed dead, haven’t lain down yet. Thus his book consists largely of invective and satire against New Labour; good invective, certainly, but less good as diagnosis since it is obliged to presume itself right.
Monarchy is a matter of myth and imagination. Nairn doesn’t like what it is making us imagine. But a republic must provide a better way of imagining ourselves, endowed with equal or greater mythic force, or it becomes—as the Australians lately perceived—an unconvincing device for allowing an oligarchy of politicians to symbolize themselves. Unfortunately, we live in a market culture where all pressures aim at making us hand over imagination to the merchandisers of images, and even disenchantment is a tool for rendering existing merchandise obsolete. Republicans need to take care, therefore, that their republic is not a mere surrender of imagination and self, as in the culture of derision it all too easily becomes. To avoid this trap they would do well to have a certain respect for what they think needs replacing. Nairn, however, sees nothing in monarchy but an imperial fossil. In presenting Diana’s funeral as the institution’s death-gasp, therefore, he is obliged to deride the crowds as well as the family. Here British history might help him. An elementary knowledge of the reigns of George III and IV would suggest that—to put it mildly—this has happened before: the mob may be telling the monarchy that they expect, and therefore want, something better; and who knows, they may get it. To deny that on that strange occasion in 1997 something may have been happening in the English gut, we must say that there is no gut any more, only an attention span spasmodically jerked by the media. On that the jury may still be out.
The English gut: how much does Nairn know about it? It would be unfair to say that he cares only for Scottishness and the Scottish imagination; his desire to extend his concern and sympathy further is real. But it is significant that, though he himself lives in Ireland—mountains divide him and a waste of seas—he insists that it is Scotland, not Ireland, that essentially confronts a Britain that is too much England, and an England that is too much Britain. He has of course a very good case. It was the Union of 1707 that created the Kingdom of Great Britain, and this is now being modified by the appearance of the Scottish parliament. The message of After Britain is that modification must mean liquidation, the replacement of British sovereignty by that of Scotland (and what else?). But there is an alternative to a history centred around Scotland. ‘The new British history’ can very well be cast in such a form that the central antagonism through the centuries is that between England and Ireland (here the word ‘British’ moves from the problematic towards the inappropriate). This is a history of wars, of the creation of new sovereignties and of wars between those sovereignties. It may just be emerging from a Thirty Years War at the low-intense, urban-guerrilla level which Britain and Ireland have done so much to give to the world—whereas nobody worth mentioning has killed or been killed for Scottish nationalism for longer than we need remember. Trainspotter may dream of Braveheart, but he doesn’t need to enact him. Trainspotter is part of Gaberlunzie, Nairn’s image of the Scot as colonized personality;footnote2 an image that provides the title of this essay.
If we look at British and Irish history as connective tissue in the history of the archipelago, we end with a contemporary scene subsequent to the creation of the Irish Republic, which was itself something other than the glorious defeat of Britain as represented in conventional historiography. Between two highly legitimized sovereign states, the Kingdom and the Republic, there lies the debatable land of Ulster, inhabited by two hostile communities who know very well what sovereignty is. Kingdom and Republic are each well aware that Ulster can belong fully to neither of them, and each is resolved that it shall no longer draw them into war or challenge their legitimacy as states. They have therefore joined forces to draw a ring around Ulster, and oblige its communities to inch towards a sharing of power in which each can make such arrangements with Republic or Kingdom as are necessary to reassure it. Since this will take a long time, Kingdom and Republic must maintain an alliance close to confederacy for as long as is necessary.
Here is a serious exercise in the politics of sovereignty, not to be dealt with by the mere onanism and attenuation of its substance which is all the postmodern intellect seems capable of proposing. All Nairn has to say of it, however, is that it must fail, and one regretfully concludes that he wants and needs it to fail, for the reason that he wrongly confounds it with the New Labour strategy of devolution, intended—he quite rightly sees—to forestall any Scottish (let alone Welsh) secession or sovereignty. He does not want sovereignty shared or redistributed; he wants it reclaimed and retained by unilateral action. Yet he is cosmopolitan and humane enough to know that Scotland is not the only actor in Scottish history, and that all this is going on in an archipelagic and (perhaps) a European setting. He therefore needs a framework of archipelagic history, British history and perhaps European history in which to situate his analyses—since nothing is more certain than that Nairn’s politics are present history. It is because he lacks these frameworks that his writings are pervaded by some significant confusions.