© Stewart Attwood

Remembering my friend, Tom Nairn: the great explorer of a nation’s pathologies

Gathered for his funeral in Edinburgh, the eulogies to Tom were a lot kinder than those handed out to Sturgeon’s political career
March 1, 2023

It had been an odd few days. On my way to the funeral of the great political thinker Tom Nairn on a Friday in mid-February, I ran into an elderly acquaintance I hadn’t seen for years. I knew him to be a well-read man and a Labour party supporter but with Scottish nationalist sympathies. I had time on my hands, so I stopped to chat. “They’ll baith be sair missed” summed up his feelings about Tom’s death and Nicola Sturgeon’s sudden resignation. We agreed that nobody had explored Scotland’s many social and political pathologies better than Tom, and in his opinion it was Sturgeon who made the (often fractious) SNP into a formidable political force.

“But she’s cauld kail now, and has been for a while,” he added. “It happens to them all. That business wi’ the island ferries did her nae guid. I canna see much improvement in the health service. And yon gender bill, that was sheer daftness. It put her and her supporters into a fankle that they might never get oot o’. She should have kent better. I canna see Alex Salmond making a mistake like that, can you?” I had to admit I couldn’t.

An hour later I sat in a south Edinburgh crematorium waiting for Tom’s funeral service to begin. At his behest, it was a modest affair, in one of the crematorium’s smaller chapels. Around 30 of us, including Tom’s family, had come to pay our respects to one of the finest minds that modern Scotland had produced. Among us were Anthony Barnett, Judith Herrin, Pat Kane, Gordon Brown and Neal Ascherson. “A good man”, is how Ascherson ended his short but moving eulogy to his old friend.

The eulogies to Tom were a lot kinder than those handed out to Sturgeon’s career as first minister. The London press were downright jubilant. Two days after her resignation, Friday’s Daily Telegraph had Alan Cochrane calling on the pro-Union parties to “work together to smash the independence movement”. “Scottish independence referendum plan ‘dead in the water’” ran a headline in the Times, while one of its contributors, the poet Hannah McGill, declared: “I once shared her beliefs, but the personality cult around Sturgeon chilled my blood.”

By Sunday the commentariat were insisting that Scotland’s political tectonic plates had shifted and that independence was more or less off the agenda for another generation. Michael Glackin in the Sunday Times declared that Sturgeon had been an out-and-out disaster who had wrecked the economy, damaged the health service, set education back decades and, instead of working sensibly for independence, “chose grandstanding and virtue signalling”. The following day, Jim Gallagher, a pro-Union thinktanker, wrote in the Times that “Last week was the petering out of a nationalist project. Sturgeon’s dream is dying, and a new one is coming to birth.”

Well, maybe. But what kind of dream? And if a new SNP is indeed aborning, who’ll be its midwife? By Monday, Angus Robertson (originally the bookies’ favourite to replace Sturgeon) and John Swinney had ruled themselves out, along with Keith Brown and Neil Gray. That left Humza Yousaf (tipped as Sturgeon’s choice), Ash Regan (doughty enemy of the Gender Recognition Reform Bill) and the millennial Kate Forbes vying for the job. Interestingly, Forbes was seen by Fraser Nelson (in the Daily Telegraph) as a bigger threat to the Union than Sturgeon—Rod Liddle (in the Sunday Times) called her “terrifying” to unionists—on the grounds that her ardent Christian values might appeal to Scotland’s more conservative voters. (Though, as a Wee Free who has admitted on air that she would vote against equal marriage given the chance, her appeal might be more limited than they think.)

If a new SNP is indeed aborning, who’ll be its midwife?

A victory for Forbes could be troubling to the shade of the late Tom Nairn. In his meditations on the frailties of Scotland, Tom liked to ascribe some of them to Scottish Presbyterianism. His 1970 essay “The Three Dreams of Scottish Nationalism” ended with a passage that is now famous (or notorious) north of the border. “As far as I’m concerned,” Tom wrote, “Scotland will be reborn the day the last minister is strangled with the last copy of the Sunday Post.” To date, the Kirk’s clergy remain unstrangled and the Sunday Post continues (although it’s not the mighty organ it was when Tom penned his words, and neither is the Church of Scotland such a potent presence in Scottish politics).

Regardless, whoever takes over the SNP will have their work cut out. The toxic Gender Recognition Reform Bill is still around; the ploy of using the next general election as a de facto referendum is being spoken of as a mistake; grumblings are being heard about our high(ish) rate of income tax; and Scotland’s business folk are still hopping mad about the way (they claim) that commerce and industry have been disregarded. Meanwhile, Salmond’s splinter party, Alba, will be sniping from the sidelines while the Greens complain from within the coalition. And he or she will have to operate, for a year or so at least, in what Tom Nairn, in his book After Britain, described as a Tory-run “nether kingdom of dinge, sleaze, rigor mortis constitutionalism, tread-water triumphalism and anti-­European xenophobia”. For my money’s worth, I’d say Scotland’s political waters are turning distinctly choppy.