Reflections on a notable day
To their absolute credit the Organisers of this conference pulled off an event which, while paying due homage to Tom Nairn, managed to engage and enthuse an audience of between 4-500 somewhat jaded but committed independence supporters. Why jaded? Because too often before the pre-publicity of similar events has promised much more than the actual substance delivered on the day. This was a happy exception.
Of course, there were minor glitches in mainly administrative matters and some stretched timings in a very tight program, but the Assembly Rooms and the team of helpers delivered. However, the stars of the show were the panelists, almost without exception they spoke with passion, expertise and humility (the latter perhaps in recognition of Tom Nairn’s pre-eminence as a political thinker of his time). They included, as a group, learned historians, anthropologists, artists and journalists leavened by a sprinkling of politicians.
I suspect that again the organisers had played a ‘blinder’ in inviting Ray Burnett (writer, teacher and lifelong friend) and Joyce McMillan (theatre critic and political columnist) to advise on structure and content within their steering group. A genius interlude between each main plenary session was a ‘wee’ reading by James Robertson. His dead pan delivery of three superbly and intriguingly crafted short observations on our daily lives were both memorable and achingly funny. Seek out his ‘A Shortbread history of Scotland’, ‘Census’ and ‘The News Where You Are’.
Before trying to provide a very brief synopsis of the tone and tenor of the key plenary sessions and some of the breakout sessions I and my co-author and partner Fiona could attend- I would like to make the following observation. The balance achieved between speakers who were personal friends of Tom, those whose life choices were personally affected by discovering his writings and those “new” fired up ‘optimists’ starting their life journeys was perfect. We had views from folk in their early 20’s to their 80’s. Nevertheless, they all had one thing in common the ‘fire’ for justice and fairness burned ever so strongly within them.
The introductory remarks were from Professor Will Storrar Director of the Center of Theological Inquiry in Princeton, New Jersey, friend of Tom from the early 1980s and erstwhile chair of Common Cause, which campaigned for Scottish home rule in the 1990s.
He posited that Tom Nairn was the foremost political thinker of his generation in Europe, that his writings had worldwide influence and that in fact there were four Tom Nairns. Tom Nairn the European, the Revolutionary (circa Paris 1968), the Anthropologist and the Democrat & Citizen. The topics for plenary and breakouts were shaped by and reflected these personae.
Plenary 1 -How did we get here? The making of Britain’s democratic crisis
Debated by a panel consisting of 3 English folk (1 a naturalized Scot) and 1 Welsh – parochial it was not. Caroline Lucas (the Green MP) kicked off with a coruscating analysis of our political institutions and the hijacking and promoting by the ‘right’ of a particularly toxic brand of ‘Englishness’. She decried the First past the post method of election to the House of Commons and the unelected and bloated nature of the House of Lords which left large swathes of the electorate feeling ignored and disenfranchised and ultimately led to the Brexit ‘protest’ vote. She proposed a collaborative approach across the 4 nations giving proportional representation and a written constitution.
Next up Clive Lewis MP (Labour Norwich S.) – Britain’s view of itself a myth, wealth built on colonialism and the slave trade. Undue influence retained by the wealthy, institutions geared to their preservation and behind the monarchy an accountable system of governance and government that is not democracy. The Prime Minister of the day can virtually do what he/she wants. This centralization of power is unhealthy epitomized, in his case, by a phone call from a senior Labour minister asking – was he wise to attend the event? He believes a new internationalism is required to ‘free’ the less fortunate majority.
Followed by Leanne Wood (Plaid Cymru) who argued that devolution was nothing but continuity, in effect renewal at a safe distance. Devolution was not a radical step and there is a thirst for more today. She noted that 2014 woke the Scots up to the value of politics but that Wales had not had that opportunity and hence the anomaly of the Welsh Brexit vote. Her view is that the people need to be in control not the monarchy and a centralized government. She recommended reading Raymond Williams, a Welsh thinker in the mould of Tom Nairn.
Finally, Lesley Riddoch (the Scot/English) -expanded on her theme of small nation success naming Denmark as an exemplar and their co-operative non adversarial relationship with fellow Nordic states. She noted that in Europe only Belarus shares with the UK the First past the Post methodology. She bemoaned the centralization of class, wealth and power to SE England and London pointing out that changes afoot in Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland would inevitably lead to the break-up of Britain. Tribal sovereignty is passe and bottom up movements centred around Citizen Assemblies would break the hegemony of the political elites much to their fear and concern hence the Conservative and Labour parties opposition to electoral reform.
Breakout 1 – The Rise of Sinn Fein and the prospects for a United Ireland
Panellists: Una Mullally, Irish Times; Daniel Finn, Author, Features Editor of Jacobin & contributor to London review of Books and Chair Peter McColl co-director of conference Belfast born.
The speakers emphasized the divergent fortunes of Eire and N. Ireland since membership of the EU. Eire has become a more liberal inclusive and confident nation since the moral authority of the Catholic Church collapsed. Key changes such as equality in marriage have been grassroots campaigns non-partisan and with non-political affiliations. The youth with free university education are the most highly educated in Europe and for first time in generations are not economic migrants. Citizen Assemblies are established and are successful a new way of doing politics.
Meanwhile the Unionists, and DUP in particular, in Northern Ireland, having failed to grasp the effect of the Good Friday Agreement and changing demographics, have by aligning with Boris Johnson been boxed into a cul-de-sac. No assembly and no investment only the inertia of the non-aligned and the threat of a violent transition is holding back a United Ireland. All present believed re-unification inevitable and that a united Ireland would be led by Sinn Fein’s Mary-Lou. This will be thanks to Sinn Fein’s differently nuanced approach in the North and the South as the only party that straddles the border. The youth of Ireland have moved on from the troubles in the main and no longer associate Sinn Fein with the IRA.
Plenary 5 – Can Europe be complete without Scotland?
Chaired by Andrea Pisauro who is the co-director of Europe for Scotland and led a lively debate which was set in context by a bravura review of Scottish European industry and our influence in Europe by Neal Ascherson, journalist, author, friend and collaborator with Tom. He was followed by Assa Samake- Roman (French) and Professor Joanna Kopaczyk whose personal journeys and anecdotes cemented the value of ERASMUS to Scottish society and the benefits of a Scotland in Europe. Finally, Alan Smyth MSP gave his highly personal account of how Europe is most definitely more centralist and balanced with Scotland as a partner. All emphasized the need for an independent Scotland to cooperate with England and coax them to a better relationship with the EU.
Closing Remarks – Joyce McMillan
Joyce succinctly tied the day’s events to Mike’s themes of 4 Tom Nairns and profusely thanked the Directors and Organisers for honouring Tom Nairn so aptly. Then closed by using Tom’s own words – “Let’s Get it Done for Goodness Sake”
Apologies to our readers, there were other sessions we attended yet space precludes their inclusion, but we hope this short article gave you a flavour of a wonderfully uplifting day.
Rob & Fiona Thompson