Tom Nairn - The Break-Up of Britain: Crisis and Neo-Nationalism (1977)
100 Best Scottish Books of all Time
Twenty-five years after Thatcherism and the Falklands, New Labour and Iraq, who can now dispute that the British state is a strange, untamed beast, unreformed, still not fully at ease in the modern age, and shaped by memory of empire and imperial delusion? If this is now a more widely held view today, it is in part because Tom Nairn’s arguments in The Break-Up of Britain have been vindicated over time.
The book was first published in 1977 while a second edition appeared in 1981, remaining out of print for 20 years, before a new internet only edition was published in 2003. It’s a prescient, historically wide-ranging and polemical tour de force, written in the style and language which Nairn so excels at. It covers everything: the state of Scottish identity, the nature of UKania, but really it is about the role of civic nationalism and identities in a world shaped by powerful economic forces and globalisation. Sometimes Nairn goes over the top, such as his over-pathologising of the Scottish condition, but his words and analysis repay repeated visits time and again.
Sceptics have argued that the Break-Up thesis has been invalidated because the United Kingdom is still together all these years later. However, what Nairn shows us is that the present day nature of the country is untenable, and that devolution is too late and too small a change to alter power, culture and identities across these isles. The continuation of the UK in its present form, Nairn believes, is at a cost to all of us within it, and the wider world. Given the Blairite liberal imperialist project – which has seen the UK involved in Kosovo, Sierra Leone, Afghanistan and Iraq – has contributed to global instability and created the conditions for more terrorism, rather than less, perhaps the UK should carry a health warning.
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