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

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

Sat, Aug 23, 2014, 01:00


Book Title:
My Scotland, Our Country: A Future Worth Sharing


Gordon Brown

Simon & Schuster

Guideline Price:

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.

fMy 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.

fThe 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.