Tom Nairn: In Memoriam

Tom Nairn was a ravishing writer. He was a shy, awkward intellectual who lived for and through his writing. He wrote scathing critiques, insightful commentaries, and screeds of correspondence to other writers he was currently reading. Tom died recently at his home in Scotland, the nation to which most of his written thoughts were directed. He was a narrator of Scotland’s past and future, a deep critic of imperialism, a scathing satirist of monarchy, a poet of political struggle and a pathbreaking theorist of nationalism.

His work came out of the Marxist heritage, although he challenged many of its precepts. Tom remained an outsider all his life, even if from time to time he was invited into the left ‘establishment’ of New Left Review, Verso and kindred organisations. On this ambiguous standing, it is worth reading Anthony Barnett’s penetrating essay ‘Deciding Britain’s Future’ in Open Democracy (30 January 2022). Tom wrote his best work by being outside, thinking in. Even his best known book, the Break-Up of Britain, was written about nationalism and Scottish nationhood from outside Scotland.

If Karl Marx wrote his major works in exile in the British Library at the centre of the world’s then most powerful empire, Tom Nairn, by comparison, wrote his works variously from sites of former city-states, dying empires, and their far-flung peripheries: Pisa, Prague, Amsterdam, Livingston, the damp basement of a friend’s rural holiday home in Ireland, and a backyard abode in inner-city Melbourne.

His intermittent though longest term home was Livingston, Scotland, where he lived with his partner Millicent Petrie in a hastily constructed dwelling, built soon after a series of old villages were designated as an integrated spill-over ‘New Town’. It was a transitional home, with his overflow of books stored in boxes in the garage. Livingston was located, as Tom described it, ‘in the black hole between Glasgow and Edinburgh’. Before that, for the first decade of this century, he lived in a converted shed in the back garden of Alan Roberts’ house in North Fitzroy. That inner-city suburb was on the opposite side of the world from his previous homes. It was located in a neighbourhood named as the ‘coolest in Australia’, though Tom never took the time to go to its cafes and bars. He stayed in his cabin and wrote.

As he writes in the 2002 edition of the Break-Up of Britain:

A disconcerting amount was written in the interminable air between these two opposites. Jet lag is the least of it: the deep repeated shifts of culture lag and emotional disorientation, and the weird, indispensable simulacrum of universal culture, furnished by the Internet have all played their part. But there have been at least two fixed points: Alan Roberts’ garden of lemon trees, vines and passion fruits in North Fitzroy, and Millicent Petrie’s home and family in Livingston, Scotland. Without them it would not have happened, and I owe them special thanks beyond words.

In this disorientation of the early twenty-first century, it was both the people and the places that made Tom Nairn: practical, undemanding, caring people; and cross-roads places that were both at the centre of an intensely globalising world and at its periphery. Livingston was a node in the global post-industrial revolution while North Fitzroy and Melbourne were nodes in the global urban revolution—reported on in equal measure by Time Out, the Economist’s Liveability Index and I want to elaborate a little on what was so important about Tom’s writing given this placement, but first it is fitting to acknowledge his place in the world. He was well-known to some, even if he remained obscure in the global world of rock-star public intellectuals.

The announcement of Tom’s death was quiet and appropriate. His long-time friends Anthony Barnett and Judith Herrin wrote: ‘On behalf of his family, we are heartbroken to announce the death of Tom Nairn. Aged 90, Tom had been poorly for some years. He died peacefully after a fall, on Saturday morning, 21 January’. ‘Poorly’ is a word that Millicent would use. Anthony, co-founder of Open Democracy, had always been a mediator between Tom, his immediate friends and the larger world. This announcement reflected Tom’s immediate world, the quiet life of a revolutionary who did not really like going out into the streets.

In the days after his death, tributes to Tom came in. The Scottish broadsheet the Herald, founded in 1783 a few years before the French Revolution, called Tom Nairn the ‘intellectual godfather of modern Scottish nationalism’. The New Statesman called him the ‘detective of world history’. Former British prime minister Gordon Brown was reported in The Courier as saying, ‘I am sad to hear of the death of Tom Nairn. A great writer, thinker, intellectual and good man. He disagreed with me on many things but his books and scholarship will long be remembered’. First Minister of Scotland Nicola Sturgeon was careful to place Tom’s work in the context of Scottish intellectual history: ‘Very sorry to hear that Tom Nairn has died. He was one of the greatest thinkers, political theorists and intellectuals that Scotland has ever produced—and certainly one of the leading and most respected voices of civic nationalism. My condolences to his loved ones’.

What made Tom Nairn’s work so important? He was clearly important to the Scottish sense of identity. However, it is less obvious for those of us outside Ukania, as he derisively called the United Kingdom—a play on words of Robert Musil’s name for the doomed Austro-Hungarian empire in The Man Without Qualities. Most importantly, he wrote about his/our world from the local to the global, mediated by his sense that Scotland, and even Australia, as two of the ‘small battalion’ of nations would eventually find their place in the world, slowly freed of the shackles of auld empires and the new giantisms—non-territorial empires, consumer capitalism and renovated military alliances. Most pressingly now, he would say, we face Giants with no clothes, dependent upon a mixture of craven subjection by self-appointed satrapies, grossly exaggerated military threats and an equally exaggerated economic credo: the notion that there is no alternative.

I do not mean to be elusive here, but that is how Tom wrote. He wanted us to find our own metaphors. His were rich and fat with meaning about democratic practice—and the lack of it. He wrote about a world of local and global change in which nation-states continued to be the places we contest our politics and identity. In Anthony Barnett’s words:

Nairn began to articulate a comprehensive theory of the future. It may not be a ‘systemic, rival outlook’ to the rule of capital. But no effective challenge to the power of capital will be mounted until it can encompass Nairn’s insistence on the heteroclite, always deviant nature of development. Against this, dogmas whether of orthodoxy or identity, currently taking an unhinged character in the binary code of social media, are the death knells of democracy not to speak of socialism.

This means that the best way that we can honour Tom Nairn is to read his work and ponder what it means to think and act outside of the taken-for-granted ideologies that currently claim our attention.

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About the author

Paul James

Paul James is a researcher in the Institute for Culture and Society at the Western Sydney University. He is Scientific Advisor to the City of Berlin, and a Metropolis Ambassador of Urban Innovation. He has been an editor of Arena since 1986, and is author or editor of numerous books including Globalization Matters: Engaging the Global in Unsettled Times (with Manfred Steger, Cambridge University Press, 2019).

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