A conference will be held in Edinburgh later this month to consider the legacy of the Scottish constitutional thinker Tom Nairn, and what it tells us about the way forward for constitutional change movements in Wales and Scotland. Nairn, who died earlier this year at the age of 90, was a towering figure in the movement for Scottish independence. His classic book The Break-Up of Britain gives this conference its title.
Cymru will be well represented there. As well as stalwarts of the Scottish constitutional debate like Neal Ascherson and Lesley Riddoch, the roster of speakers includes Leanne Wood, political activist and member of the Independent Commission on the Constitutional Future of Wales, and Richard Wyn-Jones, the Director of Cardiff University’s Wales Governance Centre.
Why Tom Nairn, and why now?
The influence of Tom Nairn rests on two major studies: the collection of New Left Review articles that is The Break-Up of Britain (1982), and The Enchanted Glass, a study of the politics of the British monarchy (1994). He was a brilliant writer; intellectually engaging and unfailingly elegant, with a talent for sharp one-liners. But more importantly, he produced an analysis of the British state, as expressed through the Westminster system, that has stood the test of time. He got under the skin of the politics of Britishness in a way that almost no other author has done.
His starting point was, appropriately for someone with intellectual roots deep in the Marxist tradition, the way in which the British state has exerted economic power, and how the UK’s constitutional arrangements reflected economic interests. Crucially, he viewed acts of constitutional reform throughout history as designed to ensure power remained in the hands of those who already wielded it. First, the landed aristocracy, and then the new bourgeoisie.
This is important, because Westminster’s mystique has long been that Britain gave democratic institutions to the world. That ours was the ‘Mother of Parliaments’, envied and copied the world over. Nairn noted that, in almost every respect, the Westminster system is one of the least evolved constitutions in the world. Unlike almost every other democracy, the UK has faced neither a national crisis nor the emergence from colonial rule that might lead to fundamental constitutional change. It is certainly picturesque, with a well-developed mythology, but the main point about Westminster is its backwardness.
The Brexit breaker
But now the UK has undergone a fundamental political and constitutional crisis: Brexit. The Westminster parties appear desperate to pretend they can ‘make Brexit work’, conducting business as usual. But Brexit has not only shattered the conventions on which Westminster has run. It has demonstrated Westminster’s sheer inadequacy in the face of the challenges of modern democracy.
Leave aside the economic disaster, or even the fact that Scotland has been dragged out of the EU against its will. Brexit still looks like the greatest constitutional crisis the UK has faced since the Glorious Revolution of 1688.
Tom Nairn – who was no fan of the European Union – would have understood why. Over nearly 50 years of EU membership, its treaties became the closest thing the UK has ever had to a written constitution. A Parliament which is theoretically sovereign, which cannot bind its successors, and in which the majority party enjoys untrammelled power, was subject to EU treaties, laws, and courts.
There were always going to be tensions between the Westminster myth and EU structures. Brexit resolved that, but for the citizens outside Parliament that meant a loss of rights unparalleled in our history. Far from being guaranteed in common law, our rights only exist to the extent that they are tolerated by a majority in Parliament (which is one reason why leaving the European Convention on Human Rights is the logical next step for the Brexit project).
Our system of government depended on informal agreements, conventions, and ‘gentlemen’s agreements’. Brexit has exposed just how chimerical these things are in the face of determined ideological assault.
Taking back control
The revelations of the Covid Inquiry have led to questions about how the chaos could be compatible with democracy. It isn’t. But it is completely compatible with a British constitution that provides unfettered power to an executive commanding a majority in Parliament. There are no checks; even the courts are only provisional, as there is no statute that cannot be changed. Devolution can be abolished by an Act of Parliament, enacted in Westminster by English votes.
There are no guarantees. This is exactly what ‘taking back control’ always meant. In Tom Nairn’s writings we find the explanation that this is what the Westminster constitution really is. And why we, the nations on the UK’s periphery, will never have anything resembling a functioning democracy while we remain within it.
Nairn understood, too, why Labour has been incapable of responding to this crisis. He argued that Labour, while espousing a parliamentary route to socialism in its early years, has acted as a body which appropriated working class opinion to the Union.
In his recent BBC television series on the Union, David Olusoga pointed out how the high point of the Union came after the Second World War. The combined experience of war, the creation of the Welfare State, and the determination to share prosperity led to a profound sense of unity. But those days are long gone, as is Labour’s willingness to stand up for the welfare state and against austerity.
Tom Nairn matters
Today we have a Labour leader in Keir Starmer who stands in front of giant Union flags repeating the mantras of the Vichy right about flag, work, and family. The Brown Report of the Commission on the UK’s Future tells us that our role is to mind our manners and accept crumbs from the Westminster table. Labour looks simply irrelevant to the constitutional ambitions of Wales and Scotland.
And Welsh Labour, divided between its deep unionism – see Mark Drakeford’s description of the Union as our “insurance policy” – and its pretence of “clear red water” between and the Westminster party appears to be in a state of perpetual intellectual confusion. Its London headquarters seeks to game parliamentary selections in Carmarthen and Merthyr. And it proposes a closed-list election system for the Senedd in which selection would be subject to London veto.
Cymru is thinking more deeply, more vigorously, about its future than ever before. Nairn is important because before devolution, the post-Diana crises of the monarchy, the Scottish Independence referendum, and above all before Brexit, he explained why the British constitution is not fit for purpose. That meaningful democracy, in which individual rights are protected, requires something different.
Understanding the legacy and insights of Tom Nairn is as good a starting point as any as we start to answer the question of what comes after a United Kingdom.