I wasn't expecting to agree with, or even be particularly sympathetic to, Tom Nairn's New Left-based approach to issues of constitutions and sovereignty. But I found "After Britain" to be quite an educational look at the causes and consequences of the recreation of a Scottish parliament. I consider myself relatively well-versed in British history, but I think now I'll have to define "British" in much the same way Nairn does, as an invented identity meant to paper over "English," "Scottish," and other troublesome "ethnicities."
After the failure of New Labour to attempt -- let alone achieve -- any real constitutional reform, Nairn argues that even in 2000 the Blairite ascendancy was already little more than an exercise in decline-management. He makes the case that Blairism intended a reconstituted Scottish parliament to keep the natives subdued, give the illusion of reform, and head off more extreme forms of nationalism and separatism. "Its aim was like that of local government reform: rejuvenation through good sense and reasonableness, and the more effective dissemination of centrally-cooked wisdom" (p. 277). As a part of Blair's campaign to turn Britons into inmates of the world's largest playpen -- always monitored, always entertained, protected from sharp objects, and in rude health whether they like it or not -- it must have seemed like a good idea in Number 10.
The problem, Nairn says, is that the creaking architecture of the 1707 Treaty of Union can't handle the strain. So long as the English and Scots (and other national minorities) shared the outward-looking project of the British Empire, all was well. But since the end of the war, "a congenitally imperial state form has been struggling to adapt itself, not just to change but to accelerating rapids of transformation ... [and] to do so without reforming its historical or constitutional mainframe" (p. 167). The sole remaining prop of "Britishness" is an acceptance of the sovereignty of the Crown-in-[Westminster] Parliament. When the institutions of the state decay, and a Holyrood parliament begins its inevitable competition for a share of sovereignty, there is no "nation" left to hold Britain together. Thus, Nairn concludes, the driving force is less the "re-internalizing" of Scottish nationhood than the fact that "the contradictions within United Kingdom Sovereignty itself are sufficient in themselves for an analysis of break-up" (p. 190).
The author covers an awful lot of ground in this book, including the inevitable discussion of "Westlothianism," and his analysis raises a host of related issues. For example: the Government's parallel emphasis on making sure "Englishness" is never permitted to reassert itself -- thus the association of English symbols like the cross of St. George with soccer hooligans, crusaders, and other unpleasant types. I have no idea what Mr. Nairn may think of the comparison, but his prose reminded me strongly of Christopher Hitchens' in that the two have very distinct and personal prose voices. That voice sometimes got in the way of immediate comprehension -- but rereading not only gave a second opportunity to enjoy the writing but to figure out the meaning as well. (And I was pleased to find a writer who seems to enjoy parenthetical statements as much as I do.)
A fair amount has happened in the years since this book was published, and yet it struck me, from this distance, as not at all out of date. My new project is to track down anything Tom Nairn may have written to update his conclusions here. I suspect it's rather a lot. But Devolution is an interesting occurrence in its own right and one with lessons for other parts of the world. I still share few of Nairn's philosophical premises, but I found his book to be a valuable addition to a discussion that has important and far-reaching implications.