“A referendum, blaming the ‘other’, is an alibi for doing nothing” says Alistair Darling in a foreword to Professor Tom Gallagher’s little-noticed book.
“My own preferred choice, like the majority of my fellow Scots at an earlier stage, would have been to support a more powerful Scottish Parliament via some form of enhanced devolution,” writes reluctant Yesser Professor Sir Tom Devine in his much-praised latest volume.
This week Nicola Sturgeon, first minister, is readying to break with her post-2014 and, more recent post June 23 #EUref, caution and launch a much-delayed initiative to win over No voters to the cause of Scottish independence. Gallagher, a visceral No supporter, won’t be wooed. Devine has very recently warned the FM that she has at most five years, maybe seven at the outside, to make the case – and win #indyref2.
In the (2015) book Devine concludes: “Yet, all of this does not necessarily mean that another Scottish independence referendum is inevitable before the end of the current UK Parliament in 2020. Indeed, 2015 could well represent the high-water mark of nationalist popularity.” Now, at the recent Edinburgh International Book Festival, he said: “At the moment the auguries are moving pretty bad, I would say they are worse than 2014…..you could argue that the recent Brexit decision could be a symbolic trigger for another vote, but in one sense it adds to the European instability…”
Yet, one of the merits of the Devine tome is that it places the historic opportunity of independence within an historic context stretching from 1707 until now, from the (long-lasting) triumph of unionism until the threat of its break-up. This is done with broad brushstrokes but with plenty of detail nonetheless such as the startling fact that in two years from the first election victory of Margaret Thatcher Scotland lost a fifth of all jobs and, at 30.8%, a disproportionate amount of its manufacturing.
Gallagher, by contrast, piles on the detail as if with a spray-gun, much of it disjointed as if one random thought simply led to another – many of them bilious. At almost 350 pages the book is far too long and suffers from being self-published – it could have done with some sharp and severe edits, and not just of several repetitive cadences, not least to heighten some of the most pertinent points he makes.
Devine sets out plainly how Scotland prospered under unionism and how its people, especially its old working class but also members of the liberal professions and small business, gradually detached themselves. Thatcherism may have been the best recruiting sergeant for nationalism but the latter’s attractiveness and that of the SNP owes a great deal, he suggests, to the uneven effects of globalisation, the new international division of labour, the rise of global corporate/financial elites with their neoliberal political allies (including in the Labour party) and the post-crisis increase in inequality and stagnation/decline of wages. Localism in the broadest sense is a response to deep-rooted economic and political alienation. Indeed, Devine is at pains to point out that social survey evidence suggests that the surge throughout 2014 behind the Yes vote was more compolex: it owed a lot to both “identity politics and radical ideologies.”
Some of this informs Gallagher’s analysis which points to profound social changes as making society “more volatile and attuned to radical solutions for political issues” as lying behind the “sheer velocity of the SNP surge” – and that of other populist movements. There’s the rub: he does not make enough distinction among these various movements all over Europe, from the neo-fascist Orban’s Fidesz via the anarchic Five Stars to the new euro-communist Podemos. Rather, he highlights the SNP’s exploitation of grievance and its base in identity politics. Above all, he seems obsessed with Alex Salmond who once dismissed him as the “nutty professor” and the risk he and his party pose of “greater discord and fragmentation in the world.” (As if these did not exist already). Worst of all, they “trade on negation,” backed by a “cacophony of noisy indignation” among their supporters about England’s alleged role in holding Scotland back.
This is inadequate as analysis. However, Gallagher and Devine agree that, in government, the SNP has failed to deliver on its promised reshaping and revival of Scottish economic and social life. Indeed, Devine’s view that the party has failed to “get to grips” with three key weakness of the Yes campaign has hardened: on currency, pensions and the economy. He now says that “there has been no intellectual response to the weaknesses of the SNP economic programmes, not simply in relation to the currency, but elsewhere.” (Separately, George Kerevan and, more convincingly, Robin McAlpine have been trying…)
Unfortunately, both these books were written in the second half of last year at the latest so cannot take account of the impact of that Brexit vote. Arguably, rather than promote the case for #indyref2 the majority to quit the EU, however small and questionable, helps undermine it. While nothing suggests that the May government in Westminster has a clue what Brexit means (despite her emphatuic tautology) the Sturgeon-led SG appears to be floundering even more. If the First Minister sees a second referendum as an escape route from her political quandary, then threatening to deploy this weapon may diminish her (coinsiderable) influence on May. And Devine’s remarks in his book about the continued rootedness of the Scots’ hybrid or dual identity appear borne out by subsequent post-June 23 polling. Those of us who feel rather Scots and European instead are, sadly, very minoritarian.
in his foreword to Gallagher’s book, Darling talks of the author’s call for a “new conversation” in Scotland and a break with an apparent or would-be stranglehold of the SNP upon political discourse. His old mucker, Gordon Brown, has just set out his own highly pre-emptive version of Home Rule that supposedly goes beyond Smith and The Vow and sees a post-Brexit new constitutional and financial settlement. It at least sets the tone for what should indeed be an open-ended, non-partisan, robust discussion about Scotland’s future – in or out of the EU. These two books help inform it but it is now more urgent than ever. At least our friend Loki, commentators such as Gerry Hassan and others are up for an end to this tedious binary “debate” so let’s get on with it. These pages are certainly open for it.
T.M.Devine, Independence or Union, Scotland’s Past and Scotland’s Present, Allen Lane
Tom Gallagher, Scotland Now, A Warning to the World, Scotview Publications