TOM Nairn died on Saturday at the age of 90. There have already been tributes and testaments from across the political spectrum; asking questions, interrogating power and challenging orthodoxies characterised this life well lived.

Nairn’s influence can be seen in Scotland, the UK and globally; in academia, intellectual circles and places where serious ideas germinate via long-form commentary and thoughtful deliberations.

His writings cover 60 years of thinking. They cover not just Scotland’s relationship with the Union, but the evolution of the UK and British state, the development of nationalism in Scotland and further afield, and the relationship between capitalism and the global order.

All of this means that while leaving an impressive legacy, he also bequeaths a set of skills and insights relevant to now and the future.

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Nairn began in the 1960s as a sceptic of Scottish nationalism, writing a critique in Three Dreams Of Scottish Nationalism, published in New Left Review in 1968 after the SNP’s breakthrough victory in Hamilton the previous year. He saw the first two dreams as the Reformation and romanticism, and the third as bourgeois nationalism, each with its own dream of liberation and redemption or failure.

The Break-Up Of Britain is seen as his magnum opus. It is often cited but often misunderstood and presented as a book about Scotland despite its title. It was first published in 1977, at the time of the Queen’s Jubilee, and has become a more lasting challenge to the monarchical state than the Sex Pistols’ God Save The Queen. It has been through three subsequent editions including a 25th-anniversary edition which I produced, and the most recent, published in 2021, with an introduction by Anthony Barnett, journalist and co-founder of openDemocracy.

It is rooted in a historical analysis of the multiple crises which were besetting the UK in the 1970s. Nairn placed these in a longer timeframe of the character of the British state – its feudal remnants, the failure to have a fully-fledged bourgeois revolution overthrowing the aristocracy, and a refusal to become a democracy and modern country. He invented the sobriquet “Ukania” to describe this.

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Nairn drew together the numerous fissures – the rise of Scottish nationalism, the Irish dimension, the re-emergence of Wales, and the pivotal question of how England saw itself in the Union. He saw the expression of the right-wing politician Enoch Powell (above) as articulating English nationalism, “Powellism”, which was ultimately to unbalance the Union and take a stand against the European project which laid the seeds for Thatcherism and what followed.

Nairn located an understanding of Scotland in “Ukania” and its role in Empire, imperialism and capitalism. Scotland post-1707 underwent dramatic economic and industrial growth which took it into the core of the global capitalist order. In this, Scotland was not a colony of the English or the British state, but rather its elites were beneficiaries of colonialism and slavery.

Writing in 1968, Nairn put it in the following terms: “Scotland is not a colony, a semi-colony, a pseudo-colony, a near colony, a neo-colony, or any kind of colony of the English. She is a junior but highly successful partner in the general business enterprise of Anglo-Scots imperialism.”

The extent of Nairn’s influence became so important that a host of opponents saw the need to misrepresent him and attempt to discredit his ideas. John Lloyd in a recent book in defence of the Union wrote that Nairn’s writings were “a textbook for despising England” without producing any evidence. A Spectator magazine contributor labelled Nairn a “romantic nationalist” when he has never been anything of the kind and spent his intellectual life critiquing such views.

Gordon Brown’s relationship with Nairn goes back to the early 1970s. Brown commissioned him to write the stand-out essay in The Red Paper on Scotland published in 1975. Thirty years later, with Brown on the precipice of becoming PM, his attempt to remake Britishness brought a response from Nairn – Bard of Britishness – in which both despite their differences had a mutual respect for each other.

More substantially, a generation of political and intellectual writers, academics and thinkers grew up influenced by Nairn. This includes Lindsay Paterson, David McCrone, Pat Kane, and I would include myself, who in our different ways amounted collectively to “Nairnology” – attempting to understand Scotland in the context of the UK, the evolution of nationalisms and capitalism.

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This brings us to Nairn’s relationship with the SNP, which has been a complex one. Alex Salmond eulogised Nairn after his death, observing “Tom Nairn’s international reach has been huge” and “his scholarship was vital in providing the intellectual base which turned Scottish nationalism from a romantic notion”.

During his period as first minister, Salmond commissioned Nairn to give the prestigious Edinburgh University Lothian lecture in 2008.

Meanwhile, Nicola Sturgeon stated: “He was one of the greatest thinkers, political theorists and intellectuals that Scotland has ever produced – and certainly one of the leading and most respected voices of civic nationalism.”

Yet in her nine years as First Minister, Sturgeon never once asked Nairn to do anything or even celebrated his contribution; action rather than words of commendation would have said so much more.

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Nairn has been presented by commentators like Lloyd as an unapologetic advocate for the SNP when the reality was very different. Nairn’s take on political parties in western democracies was to look at them critically and assess the degree to which even centre-left parties like the British Labour Party had become agents of social control and conformity, rather than social change.

Hence he took a critical stance towards the SNP, seeing it in the 1960s and 1970s as not a force of modernity and progress but with the caution and conservatism found in certain sections of society. Similarly, when the SNP did not participate in the cross-party Scottish Constitutional Convention in 1989, he saw this as an insecure party trying to maintain their purity.

Tom Nairn consistently asked big questions and tried to understand the powerful tides of history. He leaves behind a huge legacy and impressive body of writing read around the world and translated into numerous languages as scholars and activists try to understand globalisation, Empire and post-colonialism.

In his homeland of Scotland, Nairn’s contributions leave us with the tools, ideas and examples to address some of the big questions. What is the state of our intellectual debate in modern Scotland? Where are the iconoclastic, sometimes even difficult, voices fearlessly pushing against conformity?

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In Nairn’s lifetime, no Scottish university gave him a tenured post, with his professorship coming from the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology in Australia. With the over-bureaucratisation of universities and their increasing subservience into production factories for capital, today’s emerging generation of intellectuals are unlikely to come from universities. If this is so, then where will they find platforms and renumeration?

If Scotland is an idea or set of ideas, how can a wider set of conversations be encouraged which are not about romantic nationalism, essentialism or accepting powerlessness in the face of national and global forces? Tom Nairn’s writings are one guide to this, supplemented by the burgeoning histories of Scotland, empire and its role in the global economy which came in his wake.

Finally, how does Scotland have a public culture and politics which draws from substance, values and philosophy? That goes beyond the rival claims of Scottish and British nationalism and political parties and informs our debates on independence and collective future.

Tom would have had thoughts and answers to all of the above questions and more. The least we can do is remember his example personally and professionally. Celebrate the combination of the national, the “Ukanian” and the international; challenging the shibboleths of Scottish nationalism, social democracy and the British state.

We could even, with the support of the Scottish Government and our universities, finally celebrate one of our most global thinkers and set up a Tom Nairn Institute looking at Scotland and its place in the modern world.

It would be the sort of thing Tom would have baulked at, being self-effacing and continually questioning, but it would be a fitting tribute and support the intellectual searching which was central to him all his adult life.