Part 1: Nairn's theory of nationalism--from history to human nature

Nairn writes, 'I have never hidden the fact that my own dilemmas and oddities emanate from those of my country, Scotland'.5 In fact for the first part of his writing career, between 1962 and 1968, Nairn showed no discernible interest in Scotland whatsoever, but devoted his attentions to constructing a thesis on English development with Perry Anderson, then editor of New Left Review. This Anderson-Nairn thesis owed far more to Nairn than to Anderson, at least in its original formulation.6 For the purposes of this article the most important aspect of the thesis, in relation to the direction subsequently taken by Nairn, concerns the supposedly archaic nature of the British state. It was only in this context that Scottish nationalism, and through it nationalism in general, became the focus of Nairn's work.

The British state, the working class and the Labour Party

Nairn acknowledges that the combined effects of the Civil War and the Glorious Revolution were to establish a fundamentally capitalist economy in England. He argues, however, that because these events occurred at such an early stage in capitalist development, the English bourgeoisie, unlike the French Jacobins a hundred years later, did not require a theoretical understanding of the revolution it had made. Consequently, the culture of the new ruling class was shaped by the more established and durable values of the landowning aristocracy who exercised hegemony over their immature junior partner, the bourgeoisie proper. Unlike other bourgeoisies which followed it to power, the English bourgeoisie did not become conservative after its economic power was assured, because it had always been conservative. This state, consolidated in England by 1688, and, by extension, in Scotland after the Union of 1707, was therefore pre-modern in structure: 'Although not, of course, an absolutist state, the Anglo-British state remains a product of the general transition from absolutism to modern constitutionalism: it led the way out of the former but never genuinely arrived at the latter'.7 The pre-modern character of the British state was preserved beyond the term of its natural life by the spoils of empire, which rendered any subsequent 'modernisation' unnecessary for the ruling class. Ultimately, however, when the British state was overtaken by modernising rivals and undermined by the retreat from empire, it entered an almost permanent condition of crisis which no government of either left or right has been able to resolve.

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