Scottish independence: the debate in books
Yes and No campaigners in next month’s referendum, which will decide whether the country remains part of the UK, are fighting their corners in books as well as on the hustings. Their arguments go to the heart of what kind of society people want to live in
Challenges: A piper plays on Princess Street, in Edinburgh. A referendum on whether Scotland should be an independent country will take place on September 18th. Photograph: Jeff J Mitchell/Getty
My Scotland, Our Country: A Future Worth Sharing
Simon & Schuster
For some people the question of Scottish independence has crept up unannounced. It has taken not only the UK government by surprise but also significant parts of international opinion, from the US administration to the pope and Vladimir Putin. Yet the questions and dynamics that gave rise to this debate have been a long time in gestation. They reach beyond the appeal of Scottish nationalism, the Scottish National Party or First Minister Alex Salmond. They touch on the nature of Scotland and its historic autonomy after its union with England in 1707, the character of the British state, and the economic, social, democratic and geopolitical crises it currently faces. Four of the books for and against independence help to show the state of the debate ahead of next month’s referendum.
My Scotland, Our Britain
Gordon Brown has been a brooding presence in Scottish politics for more than 30 years; he has written and edited numerous books and collections, and he was architect with Tony Blair of the New Labour project, which produced three consecutive UK election victories and legislated for a Scottish parliament. His latest book, My Scotland, Our Britain: A Future Worth Sharing (Simon & Schuster, £20), looks and feels like a serious intervention – perhaps the most considered pro-union contribution so far.
A powerful personal strand runs through the book. The MP, who succeded Blair as UK prime minister from 2007 to 2010, reflects on his childhood and growing up, and interprets his recollections and memories, from the death of Winston Churchill to soccer highs and lows. This gives the book in many places a unique set of insights, but underneath the references is a tangible sense of elegy, hurt and a disappointment that it has all come to this.
The Scotland that Brown constructs is distinct, has autonomy and manifests a notion of “Scottish values”, but it is curiously old fashioned. It is a Scotland informed by the time-honoured tropes of “the democratic intellect” of education and the “mutual obligations” of civil society. This is the language of 19th-century bourgeois Scotland transplanted into the present.
There is little understanding that these are contested, problematic ideas of Scotland, normalising stories that have entered mythology and jar with much of the evidence of contemporary Scotland (such as its education and health inequalities or generational low turnout in national elections). Britain is seen as a force for good and progressive politics, Scottish independence as reactionary and a throwback to a wish to stop the forward march of progress and enlightenment.
“Inequality could be higher than in England if Scotland were to go independent,” Brown warns, backing up this seemingly open statement with no evidence beyond faith in a UK that represents a politics and mindset of redistribution and pooling resources – “the sharing union” that Brown continually eulogises.
What Brown does not engage with is the reality of the UK as a society disfigured by inequality, widespread insecurity and poverty in a world of plenty, with grotesque concentrations of wealth and power, and with the state and politics acting as advocates and apologists for this. After all, this is the new commonsense consensus of the western world, the apolitical political sentiment that has swept through Westminster and across wider society, and infected what once were proud public institutions, such as the BBC and, in England, the NHS.
For Brown to reflect on this would entail some element of self-criticism and introspection about New Labour’s 13 years in office, and his own part in this, as coarchitect, chancellor and, finally, prime minister. Instead he offers a vision of Britain far removed from present-day conditions. This is an abstraction of Britain cut off from what society has become, an idea of progressive politics offering a selective, partial history of Britain as a force for good (standing up to tyranny and the Nazis in particular), missing the many bad bits (the harsh realities of empire, colonialism and imperialism).
Brown’s Britain is not a world where a crisis of authority and traditional manifestations of power is endemic, and where new forms of the market fundamentalist revolution have proven even more self-serving and asocial. Public services in Brown’s version are still selfless, divorced from the long revolution of the past 30 years undermining public goods and their values.
Brown offers in his conclusions a 10-point plan for constitutional renewal and attempts to rebuff the logic of Scottish independence with the observation that “a brilliant actor doesn’t try to find a stage on which he can stand alone”. Yet this evocative remark is an apt summary of Brown’s idiosyncratic and lonely version of collectivism. Missing from this book are Blair, long-time Brown ally and collaborator before they fell out, and Alistair Darling, the official leader of the Better Together anti-independence campaign.
The Scottish Question
James Mitchell’s The Scottish Question (Oxford University Press, £25) draws on the author’s 25 years of academic study, research and writing on the subject of Scottish and wider territorial politics. The “Scottish question”, he says, comes from the 19th-century tendency to make questions out of issues, the Irish, Schleswig-Holstein and eastern questions being three of the highest profile. Mitchell, who is professor of public policy at the University of Edinburgh, argues that they tap into dynamics that have long been present but become defined as questions only when they approach crisis point.
Mitchell’s work presents the context and complex detail that Brown’s work by necessity and temperament cannot address: the qualified, always contingent nature of nations, states and unions. Mitchell gives a subtle reading of the continually evolving sense of what Scotland and the UK have been, are and may become.
The important role of the expansion of the state is given its proper place, as is the widening of the electorate, along with the development of welfare and social rights, and the critical terrain of the emergence of council housing after the second Word War; this became a pivotal part of Labour’s electoral dominance in Scotland, where such housing made up more than half of all pre-Thatcher households.
Mitchell contends that the Scottish question by its nature will remain unanswered. Yet, if we take the Irish or Schleswig-Holstein questions as examples, they no longer exist in name and the same form. Maybe it is possible that a maturity in the Scottish debate will allow at some point for the removal of the Scottish question as a form of address – and even allow for progress on the substance underneath.
Small Nations in a Big World
Michael Keating has contributed richly to Scottish and comparative politics for several decades, writing on the politics of plurinational democracies (of which Britain is one) and stateless nations. His latest book, written with Malcolm Harvey, Small Nations in a Big World: What Scotland Can Learn (Luath Press, £9.99), surveys the room for manoeuvre offered by formal independence in the age of globalisation and interdependence.
Its vista covers, in an accessible way, the power of big states and the age of small states in recent times. It addresses the experience of small nations after independence, from the Nordics to the Baltics and Ireland. The different routes of each are investigated: the Nordic social-democratic model and its accommodation with the 21st-century global order, the Baltic breakout from communist dictatorship and enthusiastic embrace of liberal market capitalism, and the Irish hybrid combining elements of both.
The financial crash of 2007-08 has had a big role in the independence debate. Before the crash the Scottish National Party had invoked “the arc of prosperity” to give a coherence to the prosperous independent countries surrounding Scotland; after the crash, opponents of the SNP called it “the arc of insolvency”. Both approaches contained simplicities.
The SNP drew together a disparate range of countries, from the Nordic states to Ireland, with nothing in common but geography and independence. The SNP’s opponents chose to concentrate solely on the bitter postcrash examples of Ireland and Iceland, conveniently ignoring the benign postcrash experience of four of the five Nordic states.
Keating and Harvey postulate from this that the Scottish government’s prospectus for independence adopts a pick-and-mix approach, trying to dodge the inherit tensions. It invokes in many places a social-democratic sentiment while combining this with a market-liberal sentiment on corporation tax, wider tax logic (such as invoking the Laffer curve) and general business ethos.
This is big-tent SNP politics, similar to what passes for progressive politics across the West. It is redolent of New Labour at its peak, before it was brought down by its multiple wars and scandals. It isn’t enough of a radical centre-left vision to keep postindependence politics anchored in that place; witness already the SNP’s embracing of Rupert Murdoch and Donald Trump (and subsequent falling out with the latter).
This study throws up all sorts of illuminating questions about the character of government, state and social partners in an independent or more self-governing Scotland. It also throws up challenging observations about not just the scale of autonomy but also its purpose, and how public policy and policy communities can best work in a context far removed from absolute and high sovereignty.
David Torrance has had a prolific output in recent years, writing a revisionist account of the Thatcher years in Scotland and a biography of Alex Salmond. In Britain Rebooted (Luath Press, £7.99) he argues that the UK is in a state of constitutional transformation that is undermining old Westminster assumptions and practices.
That is all fine and well. Torrance then goes on to make the case that the demise of the previous order of parliamentary sovereignty has put the UK on a track towards a much more decentralist system, where power is divided and held at different levels. This, he says, makes it possible to imagine it morphing into an overarching federalism that could reform the UK, answer the English and West Lothian questions (those questions again) and address the demands for Scottish self-government.
Federal makeovers (a sort of Grand Designs Britain for the modern age) have had many proponents. It is no surprise that some advocates should emerge now considering the Scottish independence referendum; the experience of devolution in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, along with London; and the challenges facing the British state.
The historian Linda Colley’s recent book Acts of Union and Disunion posed a comprehensive British constitutional settlement that bore no relation to actual politics and pressures. The same is true of Torrance. There is no interest in an English parliament or English regionalism. It could even be argued that there is still, despite 15 years of devolution, no such thing as a democratic English politics or political space, a precursor to popular pressure for an English parliament.
The same absence could be noted in most of the English regions (minus London). Without such pressure all such plans, whether from Colley and Torrance or various think tanks, are merely liberal-elite wish fulfilment. They are a symptom of the malaise of British government and its inability to make an economy and society for the benefit of most people. But they are sadly not, for the moment, a viable answer.
The Scottish debate, then, is one with many influences – Scottish, British, European and global – and one that represents a Scottish response and engagement with all of these. But for many in Scotland and the UK this debate is about the claims (or obsessions) of Scottish nationalism for good or bad. To large parts of the British political and media elite the question of why Scotland and the wider UK have arrived at this point is met with a sense of incomprehension that can be answered only by caricature.
This Londoncentric view ignores the wider canvas of the Scottish debate: the multiple crises of Britain, its doubts about its European credentials, and the trade-offs inherent in globalisation in advanced capitalist societies. Instead, this historic moment is “explained” by wrapping up Scottish sentiments in the rhetoric of Braveheart and Bannockburn. This is part of a long-standing British tradition of presenting the Scots as romantic, restless natives hopelessly imprisoned by their past. The irony is that it is the UK which is increasingly defined by a mythical backstory.
Such commentary reveals much. In a recent New Statesman interview with Alistair Darling, the magazine’s editor, Jason Cowley, used the phrase “blood-and-soil nationalism”. Darling responded by denying that the SNP were “civic nationalist”. His logic was that “if you ask any nationalist, ‘Are there any circumstances in which you would not vote to be independent?’ they would say the answer has got to be no.”
Darling was oblivious that, by his own logic, he, Brown and many others on the anti-independence side are not only British nationalists but also not of the “civic nationalist” persuasion. Two nationalisms exist in Scotland’s debate. One is Scottish: “out” and understood as a nationalism. The other is British: not “out” but in denial that it is a nationalism. Such is the relationship the world over between minority and majority nationalisms.
Other voices are emerging north of the border, impatient with this narrow prism, wanting to pose independence as a means to an end, not an end itself. This politics of self-government and self-determination has become increasingly visible in the long road since 2011 to next month’s referendum, and presents a challenge not only to the Brown-Darling apology for progressive politics but also, critically, to the SNP’s big-tent politics, which poses a globalisation for all seasons.
Whatever the result of the independence referendum, on September 18th, Scotland and the UK are on the move geopolitically, in the political space, networks and alliances they inhabit, both domestically and globally. Majority Scottish opinion aspires to live in a progressive, modern, democratic, European nation. These are hardly revolutionary aspirations, but they are increasingly qualities that British politics and its state have turned their backs on.
The direction of British politics – increasingly right-wing populist, xenophobic and reactionary, punitive on welfare and immigration, and slowly detaching itself from the European project – shows a United Kingdom inching towards somewhere dark, unappealing and foreboding. This is a political world as far removed as it is possible to be from Brown’s and Darling’s portrayals of the UK.
After the referendum, many of the challenges that Scotland and the UK (in whatever shape) face will be the same, irrespective of their formal constitutional status. They will include how a small Scottish state and polity navigate choppy global waters, and how they raise economic prosperity and address the social divisions of a society that likes to think of itself as egalitarian and compassionate.
Then there are the huge challenges facing the UK, which the likes of Brown and Darling seem to wish would just go away: the atrophied nature of democracy; the corporate capture of politics, much of the state and large parts of public services; and how the huge concentrations of wealth and power synonymous with crony capitalism can be challenged and broken up.
These fundamental questions go to the heart of what politics is and what kind of society people wish to live in, and although the Scottish independence referendum has been uncomfortable for some and a diversion for others, it has proven to be a catalyst, bringing these issues into the political domain.
In that sense it has remade the boundaries of what is political and what constitutes Scotland’s political community. It has shown that a different kind of politics and society is possible. One that is about not a narrow nationalism but something richer and more rewarding that has already changed Scotland for the better.
Gerry Hassan is author of Caledonian Dreaming: The Quest for a Different Scotland published by Luath Press £11.99 and Research Fellow in cultural policy at the University of the West of Scotland