Tom Nairn

Tom Nairn (born 2 June 1932) is a Scottish political theorist and academic. He is an Honorary Research Fellow in the School of Government and International Affairs at Durham University. He is known as an essayist and a scholar of nationalism.

Thomas Nairn
Born (1932-06-02) 2 June 1932
InstitutionDurham University, RMIT University
University of Edinburgh
Fieldpolitical science, political economy, nationalism
School or
political science and political economy
Alma materEdinburgh College of Art ,
University of Edinburgh (MA)


Nairn was born on 2 June 1932 in Freuchie, Fife.[1] He attended Dunfermline High School and the Edinburgh College of Art before graduating from the University of Edinburgh with an MA in Philosophy in 1956.[1] During the 1960s he taught at various institutions including the University of Birmingham (1965-6).

He came to national prominence as a lecturer at Hornsey College of Art during 1968, involved in a student occupation.[1][2] The occupation offered a major critique of the education system at the time.[3] After the authorities regained control he was dismissed. He was at the Transnational Institute, Amsterdam from 1972–76, and then worked as a journalist and TV researcher (mainly for Channel 4 and Scottish Television, Glasgow) before a year at the Central European University with Ernest Gellner (1994–95) and then setting up and running a Masters course on Nationalism at University of Edinburgh (1995-1999). In 2001 he was invited to take up an Innovation Professorship in Nationalism and Cultural Diversity at the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology, Australia, leaving in January 2010. Returning to the UK he was fellow at the Institute for Advanced Study of Durham University (2009).

Outline of his arguments

He is considered one of the key thinkers of the British New Left. From 1962, with Perry Anderson in New Left Review, he developed a thesis (the "Nairn-Anderson thesis") to explain why Britain did not develop in a 'normal' way,[4][5] which was defined as the continental European movement to anti-clericalism and Republicanism since the 1789 French Revolution.

Nairn has long been an advocate of European integration, an argument he put forward in The Left Against Europe (1973),[6] when leftist opinion in the UK was very much against the idea.

He has been an advocate of the devolution of power to the Scottish Parliament and the Welsh Assembly, and criticised the 1990s–2000s Blair Labour government for not giving those bodies enough power. Nairn considered that Scotland’s economic potential had been limited by the concentration of power in London in combination with the archaic nature of the British state.[7]

An anthology of NLR articles, The Break-Up of Britain (1977, revised 1982) is the best known of Nairn's books on the nationalism theme. It is a Marxist critique of the emergence of worldwide nationalism. Essentially, Nairn contends that imperialism from the core countries (Western Europe) amongst the peripheral nations (Africa, Asia, Australia, etc.) motivated the peripheral elites to mobilize their exploited masses. As such, they created powerful myths and stories based on local artefacts and local happenings. The peripheral intelligentsia, as he denotes them, were inspired by both romanticism and populism. In a chapter devoted to him, Enoch Powell is placed in both traditions.

His republican inclinations meant that his The Enchanted Glass (1988) was one of the earliest serious modern investigations into the British Monarchy from an abolitionist perspective. It won the Saltire Society Scottish Book of the Year Award. Here and elsewhere Nairn uses the term 'Ukania' to suggest the irrational and Ruritanian nature of the British constitutional monarchy. His original source for the term is the nickname "Kakania" that Robert Musil uses for the dual Austro-Hungarian monarchy in The Man Without Qualities. An updated edition of The Enchanted Glass (published by Verso) appeared in 2011.


One of the most powerful critiques comes from ethno-symbolist Anthony D. Smith, from the London School of Economics, who contends that Nairn never defines the term "nationalism". What Smith says, however, is that Nairn characterises it as a "militant movement by the community vis-à-vis the imperialists, and this movement supplied the notion of a shared destiny."


In 2009 he was elected a fellow of the Academy of Social Sciences in Australia.[8]

Major works


  • Quattrocchi A and Nairn, T. (1968) The Beginning of the End: France, May 1968 Panther Books
  • Students and Staff of Hornsey College of Art (1969) The Hornsey Affair, Penguin Books
  • Nairn, T. (1973) The Left against Europe, Penguin
  • Nairn, T. (1977) The Break-up of Britain: Crisis and Neonationalism, London: NLB (2nd ed. 1981 Verso; 3rd 2003 Common Ground Pub) (paperback released in 1981)
  • Nairn, T. (1988) The Enchanted Glass: Britain and Its Monarchy, London: Radius (2nd ed. 1994, Vintage. 3rd ed. 2011)
  • Nairn, T. (1992) Auld enemies: Essays from the "Nairn on Monday" column, The Scotsman, Glasgow : Common Cause
  • Nairn, T. (1997) Faces of Nationalism: Janus Revisited Verso (2nd ed. 2005)
  • Quattrocchi A and Nairn, T. (1998) The Beginning of the End: France, May 1968, Verso
  • Nairn, T. (2001) After Britain: New Labour and the Return of Scotland, Granta
  • Nairn, T. (2002) Pariah: Misfortunes of the British Kingdom, Verso
  • Nairn, Tom; James, Paul (2005). Global Matrix: Nationalism, Globalism and State-Terrorism. London and New York: Pluto Press.
  • Nairn, T (2006) Global Nations, Verso
  • James, Paul; Nairn, Tom (2006). Globalization and Violence, Vol. 1: Globalizing Empires, Old and New. London: Sage Publications.
  • Nairn, T (2006) Gordon Brown: Bard of Britishness, Cardiff: Institute of Welsh Affairs

Articles and media He has written many articles for the London Review of Books and contributes regularly to openDemocracy as well as other publications.


  1. Scothorne, Rory (6 December 2018). "From the Outer Edge". London Review of Books.
  2. What happened at Hornsey in May 1968 — Nick Wright Archived 2011-10-06 at the Wayback Machine.
  3. Various (1969). The Hornsey Affair. Penguin Education.
  4. Nairn, Tom (November–December 1981). "The crisis of the British state". New Left Review. I (130).
  5. Thompson, Willie (September 1992). "Tom Nairn and the crisis of the British state". Contemporary Record. 6 (2): 306–325. doi:10.1080/13619469208581213.
  6. Nairn, Tom (1973). The left against Europe. Harmondsworth, UK: Penguin Books. ISBN 9780140217650.
  7. Maxwell, Jamie (2 August 2014). "Comment: Tom Nairn: one of Scotland's great thinkers". The Scotsman. Retrieved 16 October 2016.
  8. "Fellowship: Fellows: Professor Tom Nairn". Academy of Social Sciences in Australia. Archived from the original on 18 October 2016. Retrieved 16 October 2016.


Tributes from Perry Anderson et al.
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