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  • OutlandishThe Year in the UK
  • Tom Overton (bio)

My contributions to this journal's round-up since 2017 have been subtitled "The Year in the UK." Really, they could have been "The Year in England," or even "The Year in London." It would be wrong to end on the impression that this is in any way representative. In the New Left Review in May 2022, Daniel Finn described "three disruptive upsurges" faced by the British political class in the 2010s: "the Scottish independence movement, the campaign for Brexit and the mobilization behind Jeremy Corbyn in the Labour Party." The full name of the Tory Government for whom Boris Johnson's promise to "Get Brexit Done" won the 2019 election is the Conservative and Unionist Party. Yet, Finn points out, its actions began a renewed questioning of the Union of Great Britain and Northern Ireland.

As the BBC put it in 2016, "the UK has voted to leave the EU by 52% to 48%. Leave won the majority of votes in England and Wales, while every council in Scotland saw Remain majorities" ("EU Referendum"). The Scottish Nationalist Party (SNP) was able to present Scotland's removal from the European Union against its stated will as the ultimate proof of its need for independence. Meanwhile, Northern Ireland's 55.8% to 44.2% vote in favor of Remain revived complicated, painful questions about borders and identity ("EU Referendum"). Finn quoted the Scottish political thinker Tom Nairn on the difference between the two situations:

The Irish rose up and wrenched their independence from Imperialism when the latter was at the apex of its power. With sleekit Presbyterian moderation the Scots have restrained themselves until it is abundantly plain that the English would be incapable of stopping an insurrection on the Isle of Wight.

Nairn's death just outside the sample period—January 21, 2023—was an occasion for obituaries to reaffirm the energetic relevance of his life's work. The "Nairn-Anderson Thesis," developed alongside the NLR editor Perry Anderson, held that Britain had stilted itself by going through political and industrial revolutions too early to benefit from the rationalizing effects they had on other [End Page 89] countries. Yet it would be wrong to see Nairn's thought as anti-English, his friend Neal Ascherson argued in the London Review of Books. When he wrote The Breakup of Britain (1977), Nairn had seen "Scottish independence as the crowbar needed to wrench open the suffocating coffin of Britishness, liberating the English to regain their own democratic identity" (Ascherson). But though it might notionally be where the Union's balance of power lies, Englishness is neither stable, unitary, or even coherent. As the historian David Edgerton put it in The Full English, the pod-cast about food and identity launched by Lewis Bassett in 2022, war memorials in the UK often read "FOR KING AND COUNTRY." They rarely say which, even when it's England (Bassett).

Nairn's invitation has been picked up by a younger NLR editor, Tom Hazledine, in The Northern Question: A History of a Divided Country (2020), and by Alex Niven in New Model Island: How to Build a Radical Culture Beyond the Idea of England (2019), and The North Will Rise Again: In Search of the Future in Northern Heartlands (2023). Niven, an academic at Newcastle University, has also recently edited a collection of the poet Basil Bunting's letters. Bunting is best known for Briggflatts: An Autobiography (1965), a poem that roots the energies of modernism in the land once known as Northumbria. Unlike the modern, much smaller county of Northumberland, this name refers to an ancient kingdom that once spread from coast to coast on the land north of the River Humber. "The Northumbrian tongue," Bunting wrote in his notes,

sometimes sounds strange to men used to the koine or to Americans who may not know how much Northumberland differs from the Saxon south of England. Southrons would maul many of the lines of Briggflatts.


In this, Bunting felt himself to be in good company. "Two or three years ago I read several times for the BBC poems by Wordsworth," he wrote to the critic...