WHEN the going gets rough, a friend constantly reminds me that no-one kicks a dead dog. It took a while to understand that unappealing image, the first time it was rolled it out 15 years ago. But it’s as true, consoling and relevant today.

Take the pelters around the Breakup of Britain conference last weekend.

There was criticism from Unionist detractors on Twitter/X who scoffed that the 700-odd folk shelling out £25 to attend were largely over 50.


Well yes. Tom Nairn (below) died earlier this year at the age of 90 and many folk from his generation had come to pay tribute to him. Tom was a political philosopher and major figure in the “new left” politics of the 1960s across Europe who, almost uniquely, advocated nationalism as a progressive force.

The National: Tom Nairn by Graham Hamilton. SMG Staff

His friend, the journalist Neal Ascherson, described Nairn’s as “the most forceful and original mind to confront, demask and anatomise the British state”, not least by promoting awareness that “Great Britain was a multinational state and not a united nation”.

That was the focus of Saturday’s Break Up event.

And yet, despite this hugely relevant democratic grounding, the charitable foundations that normally back events like these, rejected funding applications. It seems voting systems, centralisation and levelling up are all acceptable subjects for polite debate but not the viability of the current UK. That’s just too hot to trot. So, income was lower than hoped for – which made ticket prices higher.

There were also speakers from across the UK and beyond – how very dare a bunch of Scots aim so high – and they were put up in a decent hotel, not left scrambling for spare beds with pals.

Likewise, the venue was not the usual church hall – no offence – but Edinburgh’s beautiful, roomy, central and prestigious Assembly Rooms. If it’s good enough for the Festival, why not for a momentous consideration of Scotland’s current dilemma within a dysfunctional Britain? That location did indeed add to the cost.

Finally, I’d guess most young activists were at the Palestine demonstration in Glasgow instead. Which is totally fine.

Perhaps the Yes movement has a youth problem – or perhaps younger Scots are sufficiently convinced about independence, not to feel the need of a day spent soul-searching. Fa kens. You could indeed be cheered by the presence of folk from a generation that’s meant to be wedded to the status quo.

Clearly though, detractors were not going to look on the bright side. But that doesn’t matter.

A few actually attended, others watched and carped online.

Their important – albeit back-handed – compliment was to pay us attention. That’s proof positive supporters of the Union are worried. Worried that 700 people turned up.

Worried that great speakers from the rest of the UK did the same, including Plaid Cymru’s Leanne Wood, the Greens’ Caroline Lucas and – most amazingly – Labour’s Clive Lewis. One can only guess the pelters he took to join a northern nationalist “rabble”. Except, the MP for Norwich South didn’t see the event or the case for self-determination that way.

He said: “The breakup of Britain is happening, whether we like it or not. The raison d’etre for the United Kingdom was an imperial project, [that] needed to have critical mass, in landmass, resources, people power, to run the empire, to win the empire.

“That empire physically now has gone and with Scotland voting to stay inside the European Union, the breakup of Britain [has] been put on rocket boosters.”

Totally. This is the leader Labour needed in 2020, when Clive stood against Keir Starmer. And lost.

Mind you, he’s still in the party, unlike another speaker, Jamie Driscoll – Labour mayor for North of Tyne until June when the party barred him from standing for re-election and he became an Independent.

Sure, the event was dominated by pro-independence speakers. But the object was to think beyond Scotland as Tom Nairn did in 1977, when his seminal book The Break Up of Britain was first published. And it’s that big, border-crossing, democratic thinking that’s scaring the petty naysayers rigid.

It’s not just that keyboard warriors don’t like independence.

They really don’t like reminders of Britain’s doomy preoccupation with its own special, exceptional nature and the weird, broken shabbiness of British governance structures. So they change the subject.

But Britain is unique today – not because it is the most democratic, productive, literate or child-friendly country in Europe. All those accolades are regularly won by our small Nordic neighbours.

Britain is unique in all the wrong ways.

The only country in Europe still using the unfair, archaic and polarising first-past-the-post voting system – except Belarus.

The only country with an unelected chamber larger than the elected one.

And one of the most centralised countries – possessed of some of the largest “local” councils in the developed world.

Nairn’s argument almost 50 years ago, was that Labour’s disdain for overhauling Britain’s feudal democratic structures would be its undoing and that driving this broken charabanc for more than one Westminster term at a time would prove impossible. Voila.

Here we are as history repeats itself – with the extra democratic tension created by an Internal Market Act smacking down devolution and Brexit gripping Remain Scotland but not Northern Ireland. There’s a head of steam building across these islands.

Who else in the UK is even discussing this?

GORDON Brown’s proposals for limited English devolution have failed to set the heather alight. Break Up speaker Professor Richard Wyn Jones from Cardiff observed that a single English state beats regional English governance every time with the English voting public.

And since Starmer has knocked House of Lords reform and proportional referendum into the blue yonder, the pace of democratisation will be glacial. And the Big Two at Westminster will continue to reflect their own electoral concerns – not the will of the electorate.

Consider… Which Westminster party represents voters who want an immediate ceasefire in Gaza – 57% in the last YouGov opinion poll?

Which Westminster party represents voters who regret leaving the EU – also 57% in the last Statista opinion poll? None.

And yet the Scottish Parliament is in sync with voters on both big issues.

Take Gaza.

In Tuesday’s debate, which resulted in overwhelming support for an immediate ceasefire, Tory MSP Donald Cameron paid tribute to the “measured eloquent speech” by Humza Yousaf.

The National: Humza Yousaf has welcomed the pause in violence in Gaza but warned there must be a permanent

Anas Sarwar backed a ceasefire instead of caving in to pressure from his out-of-touch party leader. He might have an eye on the lost votes piling up around Scotland. But from the emotion in his voice recounting an experience in Gaza 15 years ago, I’d guess his conviction is genuine.

The speeches by Ross Greer and Yousaf were more powerful but the words of these Unionist leaders were also significant. They spoke of Scottish parties very different in character to their London “motherships”. They spoke of a Scottish Parliament able to sink petty differences and locate a collective moral compass on the truly big issues.

And ironically, that speaks of a Scottish Parliament which has fully outgrown the straitjacket of the old devolution settlement – where tax, foreign affairs, defence and the economy are all above our pay grade.

We need more big thinking like this and the kind generated by the Break Up conference.

So, here’s a thing.

The Scottish Parliament, the National Assembly for Wales and the Northern Ireland Assembly all began in 1999. That’s 25 years ago, next year. Back then, big promises were made for better democracy – some have come to pass but some haven’t.

In the spirit of Tom Nairn, and the Break Up conference success, shouldn’t someone be planning a thorough examination of the whole devolution project? And if Scots don’t lead the way, who will?