THE inaugural Break-up Of Britain? conference, a symposium celebrating the renowned Scottish political thinker Tom Nairn and named for his most famous work, was held in Edinburgh’s Assembly Rooms yesterday, less than a year after his death in January of this year.

Advancing from the substantial legacy of the left-wing academic who did so much to provide post-war Scottish nationalism with an intellectual framework, discussions ranged from the democratic crisis facing the British state, the interplay between nationalism and internationalism, the future of the SNP and Labour, and the unpredictable global context of the present.

All of those in attendance also received a copy of The National with the programme inside.

The National: The Assembly RoomsThe Assembly Rooms (Image: NQ)

Before an estimated audience of almost 700, Princeton University’s Professor Will Storrar, a friend of Nairn’s, said it was “an intellectual coup d’état” that the conference had been organised so quickly in the months since Nairn’s passing.

The late theorist, Storrar argued, “gave the Home Rule generation a new republican consciousness”, yet spent much of his later life in precarious employment at the margins of academia, which Storrar attributed to his public solidarity with the radical uprisings of 1968.

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In addition to the intellectual identities for which he was most renowned – the European, the Revolutionary and the Anthropologist – Storrar recognised Nairn also as “the Unknown Citizen” who participated in mass movements, such as the campaign for a Scottish Assembly which rose from the aftermath of the 1979 referendum.

Israel’s ongoing military assault on Gaza and the growing international calls for a ceasefire weighed heavily upon much of the discussion, most starkly and personally in openDemocracy correspondent and panel chair Adam Ramsay’s admission that his half-Palestinian nephew last month lost multiple cousins in Gaza.

“The failure of the British state to condemn those actions as war crimes in Gaza,” said Ramsay, “has demonstrated to many of us why we’re here today.”

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Building from Nairn’s extensive writing on Europe, the subject of Brexit was frequently touched upon, with Green MP Caroline Lucas describing it as a continuation of “English exceptionalism”, yet adding that Englishness “is not something we should be scared of”, despite being “hijacked by the right”.

Former Plaid Cymru leader Leanne Wood (below) argued that the “democratic awakening” represented by the 2014 independence referendum had changed the nature of the debate about Brexit in Scotland, while SNP MP for Stirling Alyn Smith commented that Brexit’s lesson for the independence movement was to “know what you want – and you need to have done your homework”.

The National: LONDON, ENGLAND - APRIL 16:  Leanne Wood of Plaid Cymru arrives at Methodist Central Hall ahead of the Live TV debate on April 16, 2015 in London, England. Labour leader Ed Miliband, UKIP's Nigel Farage, SNP leader Nicola Sturgeon, Leanne Wood of

With many predicting a change in government following the next UK General Election, the subject of the Labour Party – a frequent target of what panel chair and National columnist Pat Kane described as Nairn’s “beautifully vituperative” critique – provoked much spirited and sometimes fractious debate.

Labour MP for Norwich South Clive Lewis, who unsuccessfully stood for the party leadership in 2020 and who earlier this week defied the Labour whip to vote for an SNP amendment backing a ceasefire in Gaza, admitted that it was “increasingly verboten” in Labour to discuss existential issues such as the nature of democracy in power and democracy in the UK, “in case it threatens our prospects”.

While the pro-independence writer and commentator Lesley Riddoch was not optimistic about a potential Labour government’s ability to deliver change and Red Pepper magazine editor Hilary Wainwright described the party as a “custodian of the British state”, the historian, academic and Labour Party member Rory Scothorne offered a qualified defence, saying: “There are only two options in Britain … and the only one that’s even slightly open to [the independence movement] is the Labour Party. If we want anything to happen, it’ll have to be from inside it.”

Considering the numerous upheavals and controversies which have beset the SNP following the resignation of Nicola Sturgeon, the journalist Joyce McMillan said that the party had suffered from “the impact of incumbency”, cautioning that a cohort within the SNP is working to push the party to the right.

Moving in a “Kate Forbes-Fergus Ewing sort of direction”, McMillan said, “would be electoral suicide”.

Sturgeon’s legacy as first minister was defended by Smith, who said she remains “a rock-star politician”. Despite widespread predictions, Smith stated he did not believe a Labour victory was a foregone conclusion, speculating that a hung parliament could allow the SNP to wield influence over the next UK Government.

Speaking to the Sunday National, the writer, journalist and conference co-organiser Jamie Maxwell commented that the purpose of the event was to “draw on the best of Tom Nairn’s legacy”, which in Maxwell’s view was his “refusal to be disheartened by intermittent setbacks and the cynicism of our leaders”.

Nairn, Maxwell continued, “never believed that British decline – the modernisation of political life on these islands – would be a linear process. But he did think that, eventually, with patience and by focusing on the long game, progress would come”.