David Torrance considers what the current crop of books on Scotland’s politics tell us ahead of the referendumDecember 22nd, 2013
Books obviously mirror events, therefore it is possible to track the contemporary Scottish debate via various publications. By ‘contemporary’ I mean the period since Winnie Ewing’s by-election victory in Hamilton almost exactly 46 years ago. That SNP breakthrough was responsible for all the constitutional debate that followed, not to mention an awful lot of dead trees.
The specific study of Scottish politics actually preceded that Parliamentary upset, but only just. In 1966 Ian Budge and Derek W. Urwin published Scottish Political Behaviour, with the intriguing subtitle ‘A Case Study in British Homogeneity’. This can lay claim to being the first modern volume on Scottish politics, for it argued that such a thing as ‘Scottish politics’ existed.
At this point, there wasn’t much to go on. True, the Conservative vote had begun to decline in 1959 following its post-war high four years before, and at the 1962 Linlithgow by-election the SNP had shown its first signs of life in the Central Belt. Nevertheless, Budge and Urwin argued there were indications that Scottish political ‘behaviour’ was departing from the British ‘norm’ (the politics of Northern Ireland had obviously been a case apart since the 1920s).
What impact the book had is difficult to assess, although in 1967 – the year of Ewing’s by-election victory – the prolific academic Richard Rose published Politics in England: An Interpretation, a title all the more intriguing given the Missouri-born Rose was based at the University of Strathclyde. For him and others, Scottish politics was English politics. In their introduction, Budge and Urwin expressed the hope it would ‘stimulate further work’ on ‘Scottish political behaviour’.
Many subsequently rose to the challenge, and did so in roughly five phases. The first mirrored the initial period of SNP success in 1967-68, with H. J. Hanham’s Scottish Nationalism (1969) making prescient observations about the inevitability of some kind of Home Rule and Nationalist representation in the House of Commons, as well as arguing that Scotland warranted study as a ‘state within a state’.
A second phase followed the party’s breakthrough in the two general elections of 1974. There was a lull until the third phase in the late 1980s, again prompted by an apparent rise in the Nationalist vote and increasing agitation for a devolved Scottish Assembly (or Parliament). The fourth phase coincided, naturally enough, with the creation of that Parliament a decade later producing, among many others, Jo Eric Murkens, Peter Jones and Michael Keating’s Scottish Independence: A Practical Guide which, despite having been published in 2002, remains fresh and relevant even a decade later.
We are presently in the fifth phase, and the reason is clear: not only did the SNP break through again in 2007 and 2011 but there is to be a referendum on Scottish independence. There has been, and will continue to be, a lot to write about. The current crop – easily the most fertile of the past half-century – has come in all shapes and sizes. Some, in the tradition of Budge and Urwin, scholarly, others polemical, a few historical and many a mixture of all three.
Oddly deficient are tomes written from the Nationalist viewpoint (there are plenty, on the other hand, about Nationalism), something the late Stephen Maxwell sought to rectify with his posthumous Arguing for Independence: Evidence, Risk and the Wicked Issues. Elegantly written (as indeed was almost everything Maxwell wrote), it endeavours to rise above partisan point scoring (though there is the occasional lapse) and put the case for independence in a detached, informed way.
It succeeds, but only up to a point. Indeed, at points Maxwell’s argument is so logical that it’s difficult to detect what the actual case for independence is. There’s little evidence, he concludes, that an independent Scotland would be more radical or Scandinavian on welfare, for example, while he repeatedly acknowledges that what Iain Macwhirter calls the SNP’s ‘Caledonian neoliberalism’ makes constructing a cogent case for left-wing Nationalism much harder.
This is satisfyingly covered by The Case for Left Wing Nationalism: Essays and Articles, a collection of Maxwell’s writing edited by his son Jamie. The book would have benefitted from an introduction, but nevertheless the careful selection of essays and journalism speaks for itself. As with Arguing for Independence, Maxwell is at his best when bulldozing (always politely) sloppy thinking, particularly on his own side, and challenging well-worn myths about Scotland’s supposedly more egalitarian, more democratic and (above all) more left wing ethos.
Maxwell’s 1977 essay ‘The Trouble with John P. Mackintosh’ is a highlight (although it would have been interesting to see Mackintosh’s response), while the collection’s title alludes to a 79 Group Paper of the same name (that group is frankly assessed in a 1985 essay from Cencrastus). That 1981 pamphlet remains pertinent and quotable. For example this:
“The Edinburgh advocate in his New Town Flat and the Glasgow bus driver in a Red Road high rise may share a sentimental attachment to Scotland on the football field or athletics track and feel a similar irritation when ‘England’ is used for ‘Britain’ by TV newsreaders. But in their everyday concerns – their jobs, their incomes, their hopes for their children, their anxieties about retirement, the quality of their housing, their health – they might as well live in different countries. When Nationalists talk of Scotland the nation they must expect the questions: whose nation, what kind of Scotland?”
An important theme of Maxwell’s work was the tension between the SNP’s apparent commitment to social justice and its curious (particularly post-2008) devotion to neoliberal economics (of which more below). Scotland’s Future: The Economics of Constitutional Change touches on this and indeed the wider economic arguments for and against independence. Edited by Andrew Goudie (a former Scottish Government chief economist, so he knows what he’s talking about), its essays are shrewd, thorough and politely contemptuous of simplistic political point scoring; probably not, however, for the general reader.
Scottish Independence: Weighing Up the Economics written by Gavin McCrone (another former chief economist), on the other hand, is. Lucidly written, it is to my mind the best (and admirably brief) account of the economics of independence – something McCrone has been writing about since the late 1960s – available. The author even sheds a little light on the (in)famous 1975 ‘McCrone memo’ beloved of Nationalist conspiracy theorists.
Of the academic tomes, Scotland’s Choices: The Referendum and What Happens Afterwards by Iain McLean, Guy Lodge and Jim Gallagher is also readable (and admirably even handed given the views of the authors), methodically exploring not only the present but – as the title suggests – the future. But if the book has a weakness it is its curious fixation on the past: it opens with a lengthy chapter on whether the referendum will have one or two questions, a matter resolved well before the book went to press. Still, another edition is due prior to the referendum, so ample opportunity for a restructuring.
Peter Lynch’s updated edition of his 2002 History of the Scottish National Party, meanwhile, blends political science with history to give an account of the party responsible (by and large) for next year’s referendum. The first edition of Lynch’s book looked at a party which devolution appeared to have killed stone dead, the second examines it at the peak of its powers as it approaches its eightieth anniversary. Much has happened since 2002 and this edition has been fleshed out accordingly. Lynch is particularly interesting on the SNP’s schizophrenic electoral performance – that is, one that is ‘Holyrood-strong and Westminster-weak’ – something that will no doubt be demonstrated by elections in 2015 and 2016. Paradoxically, also, the party is much more popular than its core aim, rather than the other way round, as many pro-independence supporters bizarrely claim. As Lynch concludes with considerable understatement, the SNP “has a great deal of work to do if it is to see Scotland become an independent nation-state in 2014”.
Less successful as a reboot is Andrew Marr’s The Battle for Scotland, which brings up to date the BBC journalist’s excellent 1992 book, to my mind still the best – and best-written – primer on post-war Scottish politics. Rather than properly extending the text, however, Penguin has simply reprinted the original book with a new introduction that hardly does justice to the topic. Riddled with errors (the SNP-Green coalition formed in 2007 was news to me) and only superficially insightful, it detracts rather than adds to the sum of referendum knowledge.
Fortunately another journalist, Iain Macwhirter, has produced the better, though curiously ungrammatical Road to Referendum, an engaging blend of history (perhaps too much), political commentary and personal memoir. Macwhirter’s Whig-like analysis of Scottish politics (which also permeated an accompanying television series) concludes in favour of federalism or confederalism, though this isn’t adequately defined (devo-max does not a UK federation make).
But it’s readable and fair, weaving elements of the author’s personal political journey into the narrative. At times it offers a very chattering class view of post-war Scottish politics, the firm belief that the population beyond Edinburgh’s New Town and Glasgow’s West End were fully engaged with the doings of the Scottish Constitutional Convention and Calman Commission. There are also a few unforgivable lapses, for example when a risible Yes Scotland statistic – that Scotland pays 9.6 per cent in tax but gets ‘only’ 9.3 per cent back in spending – is presented without any analysis.
Blossom: What Scotland Needs To Flourish, also by a journalist, Lesley Riddoch, has enjoyed positive reviews and its appeal is obvious. Admirably researched and well written, it is however less clear what it’s actually advocating: if it’s supposed to be a manifesto for an independent or devo-max Scotland then it’s often eccentric; tenement dwelling (I’m not knocking it, I own one in Edinburgh) and tuition in Gaelic and Scots strike me as curious priorities.
Riddoch at least acknowledges obvious gaps – for example anything on economics – and also the limitations of independence for independence’s sake, observing that each “politician or activist who insists that ‘with one bound we shall be free’, diminishes belief in the independence proposition itself”. Nevertheless, Blossom is often better at describing the problem rather than proposing solutions, and the book is full of pertinent observations such as the fact many Scots live in ‘ghettos’, “quite unaware of how other people live across the great divides of class, gender, geography, occupation and sometimes religion”.
But at the same time the author buys into the usual myths about Scotland’s ‘social democratic consensus’ (surely the most abused notion in Scottish political discourse), while at the same time noting that Scotland’s is a “surprisingly elitist society” (it’s unclear why Riddoch finds this point surprising). Stephen Maxwell was, as ever, perceptive on this point, observing of the SNPs professed ‘social democracy’ in the 1970s that it “carries a public relations gloss of moderation and even of conservatism which is convenient to a party proposing a major constitutional upheaval. It also sounds Scandinavian and SNP opinion is agreed on the merit of things Scandinavian”.
“Yet the social democratic label was not enough,” added Maxwell. “Certainly none of those within the SNP who have declared themselves social democrats have yet offered a systematic account of what they understand by the phrase”. Later he championed a Third Way between the ‘Anglo-American model of free-market capitalism’ and socialism. “The record of the Nordic welfare democracies – Norway, Sweden, Finland, Iceland and Denmark – in combining consistent economic growth with high levels of welfare and low levels of inequality and poverty is simply unmatched in the world”.
This also informs much of Riddoch’s prospectus, although at the same time she claims not to want Scotland to become a pale imitation of Norway. I can’t help feeling this sort of Nordic fetishism is often more of a hindrance than a help to the independence debate, encouraging the quixotic view that ‘social democracy’ can somehow be achieved via one election or referendum rather than through decades of concerted – and redistributive – government action.
A couple of books from the ‘Scottish Left’ tackle similar themes. Gregor Gall’s edited collection Scotland’s Road to Socialism: Time to Choose is (typos aside) the best of these, an engaging selection of essays from those who, like Stephen Maxwell, are rigorous in their analysis, and not necessarily from a perspective hostile to independence. Indeed, a chapter by the pro-independence economists Margaret and Jim Cuthbert concludes that Salmonomics falls “far short of any meaningful concept of independence”, while the former Labour MSP John McAllion lacerates the idea that in an independent Scotland “we choose to embrace neo-liberalism ourselves rather than having it imposed upon us from the outside”.
Class, Nation and Socialism: The Red Paper on Scotland 2014, edited by Pauline Bryan and Tommy Kane, covers similar terrain, again with various contributions from those on the Left, including its current poster boy Owen Jones, who writes in a foreword that the “outcome of the current debate in Scottish politics has clear ramifications in Britain and elsewhere”.
Not that you’d know it from reading Matthew D’Ancona’s new book, In It Together: The Inside Story of the Coalition Government, which relegates any analysis of the independence referendum to a few paragraphs towards the end of the book. The referendum, D’Ancona informs us, is really quite important and could change a lot of equally important things about the way the UK is governed. Although staggeringly obvious, this reflects the rather Westminster-centric mindset of an otherwise diligent and comprehensive survey of the Coalition’s first three years, although it does leave one wondering if the political classes in SW1 have really grasped the significance of 18 September 2014.
The Welsh Conservative Assembly Member David Melding has delved more deeply with a timely and far-sighted e-book, The Reformed Union – the UK as a Federation, which builds on his 2009 work, Will Britain Survive Beyond 2020?, in making the constructive Unionist case for a federal UK. Interestingly, federalism is a running theme in many of the books reviewed above: Iain Macwhirter cites it as a viable option in Road to Referendum; contributors to Scotland’s Road to Socialism tentatively raise it, while Pauline Bryan, in the concluding chapter of Class, Nation and Socialism, explores (positively) whether ‘democratic federalism’ might deliver a left-wing Scotland.
Melding’s book is unusual in that it constitutes a Unionist response to the current debate which, surprisingly, is otherwise lacking among the recent literature. There is no 21st Century version, for example, of S. Rosenbaum’s edited polemic, Against Home Rule: The Case for the Union (1912), which I recently came across in a second-hand Edinburgh bookshop. Intriguingly, many of its arguments are uncannily similar to those wielded against Scottish (rather than Irish) Home Rule.
Such historical parallels would no doubt appeal to the Dundee University historian Christopher A. Whatley, who kindly gave me advance sight of his The Scots and the Union: Then and Now, certainly the best account of the origins of the 1707 Anglo-Scottish Union, which he has now updated with chapters responding to critiques of the 2007 edition and assessing the Act of Union’s pertinence to next year’s referendum. Davuit Broun’s Scottish Independence and the Idea of Britain: From the Picts to Alexander III, also utilizing an ‘independence’ hook, reaches even further back in time.
The academic and former SNP MSP Professor Chris Harvie, is the impetus behind another book, or rather Festschrift, View from Zollernblick: Regional Perspectives in Europe. Affectionately edited by Eberhard Bort, it uses Harvie (who will turn 70 three days after the independence referendum) as a hook for a wide range of contributions on the ‘ever-effervescing’ Harvie, constitutional futures (Scottish, Welsh, Northern Irish and German), regional politics and ‘Regional Cultures’. It’s as eclectic as its subject, and contains much of interest.
Finally, Dr Matt Qvortrup’s accessibly-written Direct democracy: A comparative study of the theory and practice of government by the people posits – without directly addressing 2014 – that the use of referendums can be viewed as a consequence of consumers demanding more direct influence in an age of e-petitions and social media. The splendidly named Qvortrup also argues that ‘mechanisms of direct democracy [could] provide a mechanism for upgrading democracy’; an interesting thought but, more to the point, would it mean even more books?