AS I rounded into George Street in Edinburgh on Saturday morning, I was amazed to see the long, patient queue outside the Assembly Rooms. Nearly 700 paying customers had arrived – not for an antique fair or a concert, but for a conference entitled provocatively “The Break-up of Britain?”

The event was in part a salute to the ideas of the late, great Tom Nairn, Scotland’s foremost political philosopher of the past half-century; and a chance to debate the future of this disunited kingdom.

How went the day?

All caveats aside, the general consensus was positive and, indeed, that the conference had rekindled a spark of renewal and confidence in the current political darkness, both north and south of the Border.

Of course, that might just be wishful thinking as folk huddled out of the rain on a wet Saturday. And there was a notable lack of young folk around, suggesting a lack of engagement with the youth demonstrating in Glasgow on the same day for a ceasefire in Gaza.

READ MORE: Inside the Break Up of Britain conference 

The conference might be suffering from the delusions that arise from talking to yourself. But I think not.

First, it had a unique range of speakers, drawn from all the main left-of-centre parties and from across the UK. This was the first event of this scale that I can think of that provided neutral ground for the conflicting strands of the left and centre-left in the British state to debate political reform in a comradely and open fashion.

That is a fitting tribute to both Nairn and the open approach of the conference organisers, especially Tom’s old friend and long-time democracy activist Anthony Barnett.

Among the speakers were former UK Labour leadership contender Clive Lewis, the MP for Norwich South. It is very unusual for mainstream Labour figures to engage publicly with constitutional reform, especially in Scotland.

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Which might explain the absence of any big beasts from Scottish Labour (though there were a smattering of Labour activists and academics). Lewis was happy to share that he had been approached by the Starmer team to ask him if he “really wanted to speak at such an event in Scotland?”

Also present was Jamie Driscoll, Labour mayor for North of Tyne till the party barred him from standing again. And the noted left-wing economist James Meadway, former adviser to John McDonnell, when the latter was Labour shadow chancellor. The fact that Lewis, Driscoll and Meadway were willing to come to Scotland to debate constitutional change suggests that – post the inevitable and rapid failure of the coming Starmer administration – there is a path open towards a more general strategic discussion on the left across the whole of the UK.

There was a lot of talk on Saturday regarding holding a second, follow-up conference somewhere in England. That might be premature. I think the Nairn salute event could only take place in Scotland, as well as attract such large numbers of participants, because of the advanced state of the National Question here.

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But it makes sense to try to extend the constitutional reform debate to the English left so a follow-up in Manchester or Birmingham or some such would be a good idea eventually – though it will take planning. As for timing, perhaps after the General Election, in the spring of 2025.

Another positive feature of the conference was the large turnout of activists from across the independence movement – from the SNP, Alba and unaligned activists. The lesson here is that our fractured movement can act and talk together given the right trigger. The debate continues – too much in the abstract, I fear – over the need for some national convention to reanimate and unite the movement in the wake of the crisis in the SNP.

The National: Yes

Such a convention is a long way off – if it happens. What Saturday proved was there is a space for the whole movement to come together around practical projects – a climate change convention, a “university” of independence, or more social media projects.

Another aspect of the discussions was a revival of the debate on a republican constitution for Scotland. Nairn authored the best book on the weird hold of the Windsor monarchy on the British psyche, The Enchanted Glass.

The session on republicanism and the monarchy saw a wonderful contribution from the redoubtable Ray Burnett, whose early magazine Calgacus, published in the 1970s, was the literary detonator of the modern nationalist movement.

Perhaps with the arrival of Charles Windsor to the throne – a single-minded billionaire landlord rather than a cuddly green – the time may have come to revive a republican agenda inside the SNP and Labour.

Saturday’s event also saw a welcome and sectarian-free discussion of Ireland and the prospects of Irish unity. This subject was long taboo inside the SNP but the prospect of both a border poll and of a Sinn Fein government in the south has altered that situation. Again, the conference was a prototype of the sort of cross-border discussions by activists that we need to continue.

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Ditto for Wales and Saturday saw a welcome contribution from Leanne Wood, former leader of Plaid Cymru.

Where there was perhaps a lack of debate on Saturday was around Europe. Ton Nairn famously rejected the standard left-wing resistance to EU membership, seeing the European project as both inevitable but also offering the prospect for a new kind of internationalism. As well as being a battering ram against British parochialism and insularity.

However, the EU should not be taken at face value. It is an institution of Big Business and Scottish membership would be problematic in the short-term and limit socialist reforms in the long-term. We need at least to have a less rosy picture of how the EU operates, if the debate on internationalism is to move forward.

Saturday was also good fun.

The poetry turns of the novelist James Robertson were a tonic. There was also an interesting mingling of activists (Jonathon Shafi), politicians (Green MP Caroline Lucas, SNP MP Alyn Smith), cultural figures (Pat Kane, Lesley Riddoch) and committed journalists (The National’s Laura Webster and the great Neal Ascherson). And not a corporate sponsor to be seen!

Some on the left might find “The Break-up of Britain?” conference (complete with tentative question mark) a mite too liberal. And it was. But in the absence of any alternative project from the British or Scottish left, this is what we have.

True, Saturday’s conference was a triumph of liberal optimism over cold political reality: the political cadaver of David Cameron has been exhumed, Gaza is in flames, Trump may well return to the White House and there is war again in Europe.

But as Gramsci and Tom Nairn always reminded us, pessimism of the intellect needs to be countered by optimism of the will. In her conference contribution, that doyen of the British radical left, Hilary Wainwright, quoted an old slogan from May ’68: “I take my desires for reality, because I believe in the reality of my desires.” That, I think, sums up what happened on Saturday.