John O'Farrell waves the flag
Faces of Nationalism

by Tom Nairn

Verso, pounds 12

The study of nationalism has boomed since the Fall of the Wall and the decline of Marxism as a respectable subject. If one thing links this massive output from academics, it is the critical distance they keep from the Old Demon - the resurgent nationalism of Serbia, Slovakia and Rwanda, not to mention our local irrationalities in Scotland, Wales and Ireland.

For three decades, Tom Nairn has been an iconoclastic voice from the left, challenging the notion that nationalism equals false consciousness. In The Break-up of Britain, 20 years ago, he argued that nationalism was crucial to modernity and that self-determination for small nations from Scotland to Wales and Ulster was imperative for the modernisation of Britain.

continues this argument in essays that make occasionally strident, often brilliant cases against the shibboleths of internationalism and the prophets of New World Disorder. Nairn can seem cold at times, taking a robust attitude to the democratising of the ex-Soviet empire. But he makes a compelling argument that, Bosnia excepted, the chaos of eastern Europe is preferable to the threat of nuclear war that enforced its "order" on the squabbling tribes.

There are contradictions: between his contempt for the "metropolitan elites" of Brussels, London, Washington and Moscow and for "the curse of rurality". But this inconsistency is part of Nairn's appeal as a polemicist. Nationalism is an ideology that appeals to the heart before the head. This awareness places him in a position to hammer away at nationalism's critics, such as Ernest Gellner and Eric Hobsbawm. His preferred option is a happy medium between Order and the Old Demon of ethnic nationalism.

He has his blind spots, though. Scotland is too close to his heart for a clear analysis. And he is surely wrong in his assertion that "[Ulster] Unionism's version of national self-determination was not a form of nationalism". If anything, ethnicity has become a greater issue in Northern Ireland, particularly since the annual cultural warfare at Drumcree has deepened mutual mistrust in the province to levels even worse than before the ceasefires.