Confronting the UK’s Democratic Crisis

A conference salute to Tom Nairn

The Assembly Rooms, Edinburgh

54 George St, Edinburgh EH2 2LR

18th November 2023

At the Assembly Rooms in Edinburgh on 18th November 2023, we held a major event on the future of the United Kingdom, its nations, and the European Union, inspired by the work of Tom Nairn.

One of the speakers, Caroline Lucas, the Green MP for Brighton Pavilion, calls the event “incredibly timely and important.” Other speakers include The National columnist Lesley Riddoch, writer Neal Ascherson,  journalist Isabel Hilton, Clive Lewis MP, The Scotsman journalist Joyce McMillan, author James Robertson, Professor Richard Wyn Jones, former Plaid Cymru leader Leanne Wood and Radical Independence Campaign co-founder Jonathon Shafi.

Why Now?

Tom Nairn died aged 90 in January of this year. He was a Scottish political thinker and theorist of unparalleled range and audacity. His work on nationalism, the British state and globalisation in the era of market supremacy remains an inspiration to radicals and reformers everywhere. We want to celebrate Tom’s life not by looking back ponderously on his thought but by embracing his spirit of restless engagement with reality.

The greatest danger to our democracy is the status quo. A once suffocating but stable British consensus has been replaced by an increasingly authoritarian state coordinating assaults on immigrants, the labour movement and the right to protest. Meanwhile, Scotland is trapped in an involuntary union, Wales strains for more autonomy, and Northern Ireland is held hostage.

The cry for an ‘independent global Britain’ in the Brexit referendum made sovereignty a live issue, as it expressed a desire to end unaccountable elite rule. Tragically, this sentiment was displaced onto the EU, distracting from the major culprit: Westminster. Now Brexit is failing and progressives across the UK, Ireland and Europe need to develop an alternative vision for the future of these islands. This is an urgent strategic priority for democrats of all parties and none. It demands engaging with the disruptive democratic energies that emerged during the 2014 and 2016 referendums.

In Edinburgh this autumn, we plan a major gathering of progressives to kick-start this process. We will challenge the reactionary drift of British politics and assert the right of Scotland, Wales, England and Ireland to self-determination as a core principle for any democratic future. And debate central questions raised by Tom Nairn’s work.

Do we need to break up to shape up?

What does nationalism mean in 21st-century Europe?

What comes after the United Kingdom?

Fintan O’Toole on Tom Nairn

Click play to watch the video

Europe for Scotland
scottish independence foundation
red pepper
the political quarterly

Tom Nairn

Tom Nairn (1932-2023) lived through most of the twentieth century, but he was a twenty-first-century intellectual.

Whether he was explaining the 1960s British class system for the New Left Review, or theorising globalisation in the London Review of Books decades later, at every step of his career he reached boldly into the future and came back bearing prophecies of extraordinary analytical and rhetorical power.

In 1977’s The Break-up of Britain, he gave us both a phrase and a framework for understanding the deep schisms of geography, identity and politics which continue to transform the strange place that he called ‘Ukania’. In 1988’s The Enchanted Glass he produced the most scathing and sophisticated critique of the British monarchy ever committed to print. Across a life that spanned continents and languages, he was a model intellectual: a brilliant, original writer, relentlessly committed to both his own country of Scotland and an international republic of ideas.

Credit – Rory Scothorne


The Conference Steering Group includes: Jamie Maxwell and Peter McColl (Co-Directors), Anthony Barnett (Chair), Isabel Hilton (journalist and writer), Frances Foley (Compass), Nina Jetter (Europe for Scotland), George Kerevan (journalist and politician), Joyce McMillan (columnist the Scotsman), Pat Kane (Singer), Adam Ramsay (openDemocracy), Lesley Riddoch (columnist The National), Hilary Wainwright (Co-editor, Red Pepper), Rory Scothorne (Stirling University), Mike Small (Bella Caledonia), Prof. Will Storrar (Princeton), Robin Wilson (Social Europe), Prof. Richard Wyn Jones (Cardiff University), Leanne Wood (Plaid Cymru).

You can contact the organisers of the event here

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