Robin McAlpine: Scotland had one intellectual – and then he died

The decline of a serious intellectual culture in Scotland is a broader phenomenon.

Robin McAlpine is founder of the Scottish think-and-do tank Common Weal

Cross-posted from Robin McAlpine’s blog

Picture by michael kogan

In some ways losing Tom Nairn is about more than just one person and their contribution to intellectual life in Scotland. His life and his experiences of this nation tell us rather a lot about where we are now – and where we ought to be.

First, I want to add my own note of admiration for all Tom achieved in his life. It is hard to overstate how significant it was to get serious, globally-regarded intellectual consideration of the case for Scottish independence. In the post-war years Scottish independence had always been framed (by the British political establishment) as a fringe issue.

The symbolic by-election victory for Winnie Ewing, the discovery of North Sea Oil and a surge of support for the SNP in the 1970s rattled that complacency about support for independence. But it was very important to gain a kind of intellectual credibility as well and the publication of The Breakup Of Britain did that.

I studied the book as a young man at university. Forget what some unionist-minded people will tell you, this is a major, major work which had a serious impact on debate across Europe and beyond. Big ideas, big thinking is never just sectarian. Tom’s thinking reached well beyond what we’d now call ‘culture wars’.

He brought this quality of analysis to other aspects of the British state (notably the monarchy) and his quality of thinking was never second-rate. But I only knew Tom a little and others who knew him much better have already written effusively about his contribution to Scotland. What I want to raise is what Tom’s absence means to Scotland now.

Because for a long time if you were to ask the question ‘who is Scotland’s leading intellectual?’ there wasn’t that much to debate. Outside the natural sciences it was almost certainly Tom Nairn. This raises two questions. The first is, that being the case, why couldn’t he get a job anywhere in Scottish academia? The second is, how on earth could we answer that same question now?

For those who don’t know, Tom couldn’t get a proper job in a Scottish university and was eventually forced to go to Australia to get a steady academic job. This is really quite shocking. How on earth could he not find a home in a Scottish university with his track record, reputation and quality of mind?

The answer is basically political. Scotland’s universities are not public bodies in almost any sense. They are private institutions which get lots and lots of public money, but they appoint their own Principals, their own systems of governance – and they do it as and how they please. In the 1970s they were strongly anti-devolution (never mind anti-independence).

No-one will ever persuade me the blackballing of Tom Nairn was unrelated to that reality. Universities were run by the Scottish establishment and, in the 1960s an 1970s, still largely saw themselves as finishing schools for that establishment. Tom did not fit that mould.

This has gotten much worse since. I saw this happening from the inside; universities increasingly decided that they were not going to act like democratic intellectual communities but rather ‘global businesses’ run by a professional manager-class team. In the mid-2000s I had a conversation with a university principal who confided in me that he thought they were effectively becoming anti-intellectual.

More specifically, we had just come out of a meeting to develop what is now the Research Excellence Framework which defines the bulk of where public research funding goes. The REF is a silly game of indicators and self-congratulation. It favours short-term wins and conformity. The university principal I was with was a bioscientist and phrased it very simply for me. He said:

“If the REF was in place, Crick and Watson would never have discovered DNA because it took too long and they didn’t publish enough. But what can we do? This is the political game we’re made to play.”

Now my experience of universities is that they are positively anti-intellectual, if by intellectual you mean “given to study, reflection, and speculation; engaged in activity requiring the creative use of the intellect”. Universities are functional places where you deliver services – either teaching for a government or a fee-paying student, or research for a paymaster (public or private).

But that is peanuts in comparison to the anti-intellectual nature of Scottish politics. When Gerry Hassan cooly points out that Nicola Sturgeon couldn’t have shown less interest in Tom Nairn if he was a house plant, he’s only reflecting her attitude to anyone who doesn’t serve a purpose for her.

And in singling out Nicola Sturgeon I’m only using one example, because I can barely think of a politician in Scotland you could reasonably call intellectual, as in genuinely interested in big ideas for their own sake. (To his credit, at least Gordon Brown did value intellectualism as a politician, but I can think of few others.)

The other place our intellectuals should get some space is in a thriving civic and media environment, and god knows we don’t have that. I mean, can you imagine one of the countless ‘third sector’ organisations which exist by taking public money and echoing government talking points having any interest in Tom Nairn or his thinking? Everything is a transaction.

And that is why I couldn’t really answer the question ‘who is now Scotland’s leading intellectual?’. We have some good academics, but they are much more analytical than intellectual, and there is a big difference between bringing intellect to a contemporary analysis of events and allowing intellect to explore for its own sake.

This is a big mistake. The ability to step back and think beyond now is much more essential to human progress than the relentless attempt to commercialise every new idea within ten seconds of its conception.

But if Scotland as a whole has become an intellectual-free zone, what of the independence movement? Once that movement had people of the stature of Tom, or Neil McCormack, or Stephen Maxwell who drove big thinking about what independence meant in a modern world.

Now we have the payroll shouting down anyone who is not on the payroll. There is no doubt in my mind that Peter Murrell and his social media goon squad would have regularly created coordinated pile-ons has a young Tom Nairn spoken his mind during their regime. Endlessly willing to be independently-minded and critical, you think he’d not have been branded a ‘wild, mad Marxist who is toxic and to be avoided’ if he criticised the SNP’s supine position towards the monarchy?

I’m sure many of you reading this will not consider what I have written here to be a particularly significant contribution to discussion. I understand that – it is the curse of intellectualism to be something people only care about many years after it takes place. That is it’s nature; it is an investment not so much in now as in the future.

So when the ideas of an intellectual reach the mainstream and become received wisdom, people come to dismiss their source as having only been ‘stating the obvious’. This is such a gross distortion it is hard to know where to begin. New ideas come from somewhere.

Or at least they should. Sadly in Scotland we have allowed our once remarkably intellectual tradition to fade to dust. The nation that brought the world the Enlightenment now dedicates its academic funding to an exercise in surveilance, following thinkers around and demanding them to show what they did today.

It’s media has little space for ideas, its civic sector no interest in ideas unless they come wrapped in money, our political sphere interested only in what instruction they are to receive about which hand to put up when told, our independence movement impatient to the extent of not caring about ideas. Only our creative arts sector keeps the dream alive – and no-one seems to pay attention to them either.

We are paying a price for this now and we will pay a bigger price in the future. Britain has never really valued intellectuals, Scotland more-so but less and less over the last century. The world’s intellect seems focussed on how to fill out the statement ‘it’s Uber, but for…’.

We could turn this round in Scotland, starting with radical reform of our universities. But for that to happen, someone would need to care enough about the intellect to actually do it. Perhaps, just perhaps, the passing of Tom Nairn, our greatest intellectual of the last 50 years, could stimulate that change.

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