Tom Nairn has, for many years, been pondering the peculiarities of the British state with impressive intelligence and originality. His earlier work, The Break-Up of Britain, remains a landmark - but had the curious deficiency of devoting relatively little space to England, which is, even from Nairn's Marxist and Scots nationalist vantage-point, the heart of the matter. He has now repaired this lacuna with a long and brilliant meditation on the nature of the British or, as he calls it, the Ukanian or Anglo-British state, its identity and national culture. For we are not, he feels, a nation state - not only because there is not one nation but four, but also because we are a state-nation in which the antique ruling structure unites and defines the nation rather than the other way round. Nairn thus finds, somewhat angrily and almost reluctantly, that the monarchy must stand at the centre of his picture, and parts of his book are a form of polemic against those of his friends on the left who feel the subject to be unimportant alongside the issues of class. Nairn derides not merely the 'Royal Socialism' of the Labour Party but the whole Ukanian notion of 'class', which here denotes a sort of lumpish, self-encapsulating and self-perpetuating corporatism: knowing-one's-place erected into social theory and a servile national identity. Less a nation of shopkeepers than of butlers - the most that can be said of a true patriot in Ukania is that he is 'a loyal servant of the Crown'. The ideal, it seems, is the Admirable Crichton. We even have a labour movement so denatured and corrupted by instinctive Ukanian authoritarianism that it takes a reactionary government to impose elementary democratic procedures on it, while in the party of Royal Socialism itself the democratically obvious idea of one-member-one-vote is bitterly resisted even by self-described 'democrats'. Nairn despairs utterly of this royal Left and is reduced to feeling grateful for Mrs Thatcher's transparent dislike of the Queen and the right-wing republicanism it implies.
LRB 7 July 1988 | PDF Download