IF you’re reading this today [Saturday], then the Break-up of Britain conference in Edinburgh will already be hammering away at its crumbly, Union-Jacked flagstone.

The subtitle of the event is “a conference salute for Tom Nairn”. And whatever else Nairn was – theoretical godfather of the Scottish independence movement, to say the least – he certainly was a “public intellectual”.

As steam billows from the windows of the Assembly Rooms today, I’d imagine Nairn would allow a little dwelling on what such a role means, and how useful it is. Especially in this furiously confusing age of memes, fake news, psyops and disinformation. Are public intellectuals subsiding beneath the storms of the culture wars? Or might we need their clarifying function more than ever?

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The term itself is worth unpacking. We first need to get over WH Auden’s salty, sexist and mostly unfair definition from 1941: “To the man-in-the-street who, I’m sorry to say, Is a keen observer of life, The word ‘Intellectual’ suggests right away A man who’s untrue to his wife.”

As a modern intellectual might say: please forgive Auden’s heteronormativity. But still, something is captured here about the distinction between, say, “scholar/academic” and “intellectual”.

The former is an expert in their field, their authority established by the criticism of their peers.

The latter is boundary-transgressing, or at least multidisciplinary: willing (or reckless enough) to join the dots across diverse domains of knowledge.

Academics are solid, verifiable, institutional. Intellectuals are conceptually promiscuous, not quite to be trusted with their claims.

And the specific role of the “public intellectual” suggests why – they’re trying to effect change in the public mind by deploying concepts and research in the public sphere (meaning appearing in, and contributing to, media of all kinds).

What’s “objective” isn’t just to be described – because it is often itself objectionable. “The philosophers have hitherto only interpreted the world in various ways,” Karl Marx famously said. “The point, however, is to change it.”

So public intellectuals are by definition political. They seek to shift the distribution of power in a society. And they do so by trying to reshape the deep thinking, the core metaphors, which make those power structures seem natural – in the minds (and hearts) of both elites and the people.

This is exactly what Nairn’s effect has been. His great achievement as a public intellectual has been to make nationalism seem as legitimate a force for progressing a society as liberalism, socialism, capitalism, environmentalism or feminism.

Wanting a nation-state, Nairn stresses, serves functional ends: shared infrastructure, common legal and regulatory standards, a national language. All these help a “people”, however that national community comes to be imagined, in negotiating the turbulent conditions of modern times – world markets, universally powerful tech, planetary limits, migrations of all kinds.

A territorial border can have many uses – but one (and it’s what Nairn constantly argued for) is that it’s a container for democratic power.

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The “break-up” that Nairn argued for, in his seminal and prophetic work of 1977, isn’t some punk-rock smash-up of the UK just for its own sake.

National self-determination for Scotland is a vehicle for the people’s will; a surging democratic force that seeks new powers and a new relationship with the planet. If Nairn’s public intellection breaks up anything, it’s the accusation that those seeking Scottish independence are “narrow” nationalists.

The ambition for nationhood is precisely the opposite, as Winnie Ewing once said: “Stop the world – we want to get on”.

And, how exactly do you behave if you’re going to be a public intellectual? Not that it brought him anything less than precarity and impoverishment, but Nairn again is an exemplar. Yes, he traipsed across countries and continents, when the official institutions of academe occasionally saw his worth. But alongside that, Nairn was a creative consultant at Gus Macdonald’s STV; a relentless writer and columnist for mainstream newspapers and cultural magazines; a founding member of constitutional conventions, even of whole new parties (the Scottish Labour Party of the late 70s).

Public intellectuals need to get about, at least in their published works (Nairn was a notoriously quiet and shy man socially). This is partly to resource themselves. Institutional anchors are hard to come by, given their edgy, challenging energy. So a broad freelance portfolio is required.

BUT it’s also about influence. Public intellectuals have to join social dots as well as conceptual ones. The company of hairy-backed politicians, or net-worth individuals, cannot be disdained (as traditional academics might do).

Power elites exist; they exert power (whether governmental or commercial); and to capture their members’ minds with a new framing of a situation is to exercise at least some form of agency. I think it could fairly be claimed that Nairn’s work – and his hustling – had that effect on a few generations of Scottish political and cultural leaders.

Of course, it’s a battleground. You can be a public intellectual of a Scottish left-wing civic nationalist flavour. However, you can still entirely accept the communication strategy of neoliberals, from the post-war period to the present.

As neoliberalism’s guru Milton Friedman once put it: “Only a crisis – actual or perceived – produces real change. When that crisis occurs, the actions that are taken depend on the ideas that are lying around ... the politically impossible becomes politically inevitable.”

To keep the ideas of independence “lying around” – this is exactly the work that Nairn’s writing, this conference, this newspaper, and the penumbra of blogs, magazines and podcasts around us, does daily.

Sometimes it’s hard to recognise genuine advances in the incessant daily stramash of headlines. But the creation of an indy-minded public sphere in Scotland is something I long feared would never properly happen. And here it is.

There’s one last aspect of the public intellectual that’s relevant here, which is their sense of style. Nairn was a great essayist, as well as a composer of indelible metaphors. He notoriously urged that “Scotland would only be free when the last minister was strangled with the last copy of the Sunday Post”.

Read Nairn’s work over any stretch of time, and you read a polymath who wanted to bring everything – poetry, philosophy, history, political theory, anecdote, invective – to the cause of understanding “the national question” properly.

In 2023, are we matching Nairn’s stylistic exuberance in writing with our digital and social-media productions? A young Tom Nairn today, with his highly developed sense of “estetica” (he studied the philosophy of aesthetics in 50s Pisa), might be launching himself into online game spaces and TikTok.

I imagine he’d be interested in composing memes and clips that hit our emotional buttons as much as rational ones.

The public intellectual of the future might also have to be a “public mood-merchant”.

The challenge is: how do you cut through to audiences that are lost in digital flows of stimulation and emotional affect?

Again, Nairn is an exemplar here. Read, in particular, his book on the monarchy, The Enchanted Glass. You eventually realise – at least at the level of his prose – that he’s trying to build a truly republican sensibility for you (as well as painstakingly pulling the royals out of the social soil by their roots).

What Nairn’s doing is “worlding” his cause or agenda, weaving together a rich coherence and perspective.

Digital natives know this behaviour all too well, from their gaming and posting.

How do we get the strategy to jump across? Maybe we have a session filled with gamemakers for the next Break-Up of Britain event.

Which I hope there will be.

In saluting Tom Nairn, as a public intellectual for Scottish self-determination, we aim as high as we can. Isn’t that, partly, the point?