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Remember the Referendum? – Scottish Review of Books
by Alasdair McKillop

Remember the Referendum?

May 30, 2015 | by Alasdair McKillop

THE referendum was a model of simplicity. The people of Scotland were asked a straightforward question to which there were two possible responses. But to reduce it to a momentary act in the privacy of a voting booth would be to discount too much. It was also the accumulation of developments spanning decades, distilled into a campaign that was short only in comparison. For all that its universal quality has been remarked on, there were endless individual and collective perspectives. This applied to the roads taken as much as the roads yet to be travelled. How did Scotland arrive at the referendum at that particular moment in time, what was really at stake and how is the result to be explained? These are just three of the questions with which future historians must contend.

In his book The Kingdom to Come: Thoughts on the Union Before and After the Scottish Referendum, Peter Hennessy offers the first account of the referendum campaign from the perspective of someone close to the centre of the UK Government machine. A short book, it comprises mainly diary entries from the weeks immediately before the vote and the days after. These are interspersed with more detached analysis and autobiography, although the ordering feels a little jumbled. Hennessy writes from the outer perimeter of the inner circle, a place where the effect of the referendum campaign on the performance of the pound is regularly commented upon. His days are spent bumping into political notables or dining with former or still-in-post Permanent Secretaries. He likes titles and insists on using them correctly, although telling nicknames are scattered about to indicate his intimacy with powerful figures in politics and media. For instance, there are references to ‘Kev’ Tebbit, former Permanent Secretary at the Ministry of Defence, and ‘Andy’ Marr. Off-the-record comments are attributed to ‘well-placed’ figures and Tam Dalyell phones regularly to convey his increasing pessimism. This, then, is a work by Lord Hennessy of Nympsfield as much as a Professor of Contemporary British History.

The emphasis he places on the world of Whitehall occasionally leads to strange conjunctions. Painting a picture of the wider context of the referendum campaign, he lists Russia’s aggressions against the Ukraine, the rise of Islamic State and the hunt for a new Clerk of the House of Commons. One of these issues, perhaps, posed significantly less of an armed threat to the geopolitical order than the other two. It is impossible to forget this is an account of the referendum campaign as it was experienced among the higher echelons of the UK state, although Hennessy says he does not consider himself to be a member of the ‘ruling elite’. Suffice to say, he makes no mention of the likes of National Collective or the Radical Independence Campaign. At least Hennessy doesn’t try to take cover behind academic neutrality or stiff upper lip detachment. His position is stated regularly and with emotion: he wants the Union to persevere. You are seized by fear when he discovers, just before running a bath, that the Times has led with a poll suggesting it may not. Six weeks after the referendum, he writes that ‘the three mainstream parties had, so far, singularly failed to rise to the level of events on seeking to remake the British constitution’. History will not be in a hurry to revise this judgement.

It is probable that Hennessy’s account will long rank as the most candid portrait of how the referendum was experienced in Whitehall and its environs. Its author is not particularly concerned about individual or institutional reputations. He is incredulous, for example, that no contingency planning took place in anticipation of a Yes vote, seeing in this a dereliction of the duty to maintain the proper functioning of the state. One strength of The Kingdom to Come is its brevity. Individual entries in the diary section are generally short, statements are matter-of-fact and developments are often covered in a sentence or two. The overall effect is to convey an appropriate sense of drama. Events that were worked over by politicians, journalists and social media until they had the quality of old chewing gum seem significant again. Indeed, this book is the best effort yet at capturing the sense of immense occasion that settled on the UK in the final stages of the campaign. It has the gravitas and sensibility of a diary charting the last days before the outbreak of war, and it’s all strangely thrilling.

No such garlands can be presented to Gerry Hassan for his efforts in Independence of the Scottish Mind etc. Here, the writing is often convoluted and turgid to the extent that sentences have to be read twice to catch their gist. In the opening pages he writes: ‘These chapters analyse the origins and development of power from ancient times to the beginning of the modern age, then addressing the challenges for power theorists, of the age of the new elites, endemic inequality and market determinism.’  He also has a tendency to add more than is required to any given comment as when he writes about ‘Scotland – with its history as a voluntary partner in Empire, Britain’s “Empire Project” and “Scotland’s Empire”’. Nothing is gained from the inclusion of the second and third terms. The upshot is that a day in the life of Peter Hennessy often feels shorter than a sentence in the hands of Gerry Hassan.

While Hennessy tries to stay afloat of the surface of events, Hassan’s book suggests the waters below are deep, dark and forbidding. The objective is to explore how Scotland has reached this moment of constitutional tension with reference to issues such as the quality of public debate, the role of the Scottish media and the ways Scotland’s has been differentiated from the rest of the UK. It is clearly a work of serious research across a number of academic fields, including political science and media studies. The bibliography alone takes up 26 pages. This multi-disciplinary approach is justified on the ground that it ‘allowed for connections and insights that would otherwise have been less possible’. But it might be suggested that it’s just as likely to lead to a loss of analytical focus. Hassan is to be commended, however, for the ease with which he synthesizes academic concepts and brings them to bear on Scottish society, as when he links the work of Jurgen Habermas on the public sphere and civil society with the idea of ‘civic Scotland’. Civic Scotland is often presented as a proxy for the people in contests with the UK Government but it is suggested the reality is more like two different elites facing off.

Independence of the Scottish Mind is concerned with interrogating the role of the commentating class in Scotland that is, by and large, all too happy to buttress popular myths about Scotland’s social democratic character at the expense of scrutinizing unpalatable realities. The main part of the original research consists of interviews with 50 media figures including Joyce McMillan, Ian Bell, John Curtice and Pat Kane. Hassan offers a number of criticisms. On one occasion he seems incredulous that Ruth Wishart can write about networks running major arts organisations ‘without acknowledging her own role’. He argues that there are too few detailed critiques of the way power is exercised in Scotland, mentioning Andy Wightman’s work on land ownership as a notable exception. A key insight, albeit unintentional, on the prevailing attitudes and perhaps lack of self-awareness, comes when Magus Linklater tries to set out what Hassan calls ‘his supposedly anti-establishment credentials’. When – as Hassan notes – ‘people in elite or influential positions want to give an impression that they are not part of an elite or establishment’, it says something about how they perceive the popular mood. But it also suggests an element of self-preservation. Advocates of independence would do well to set out how replacing the Westminster establishment with Scotland’s own establishment is a significant improvement, particularly if journalists are unable to hold it to account.

But the book is also about Scottish society more generally and, perhaps controversially, Hassan concludes this is not a social democratic country in terms of its priorities and policies. This could have been given an empirical foundation if he had engaged with data produced by the likes of the Scottish Social Attitudes survey rather than having certain observations measured against academic theories. Research such as that undertaken recently by the Financial Times’ John McDermott on Scottish Government policy would also have been useful. And for the author of a book that concerns itself with challenging easy assumptions, Hassan is  guilty of a few himself. Problematic assertions, such as unionism is British state nationalism, are at least deserving of scrutiny rather than being presented as established fact. 

Like Hennessy, Hassan is not immune from bizarre lapses in perspective. One example:  he charges the daytime television presenter Richard Madeley with ‘diminishing the possibilities of pan-British conversations about the state of the UK’ because of comments made on a chat show. This is deemed so significant it is mentioned twice. But to suggest that Madeley has such authority is misguided, to put it mildly. In addition, and for all that Hassan is commendably upfront about his own position as a member of the commentating class he analyzes, there are lines that give cause to squirm. Discussing events such Changin’ Scotland, which he organizes with the Highlands & Islands MSP Jean Urquhart, he writes: ‘These spaces could be seen as the nearest Scotland can get to a zone of liberated conversation and belonging, which is quite an achievement.’

Hassan would doubtless agree with Hennesy’s assessment that, ‘The Union is no longer a fixed map in the collective UK mind; no longer an automatic pilot guiding shared consciousness’. This state of affairs has been a long-time in the making. It has been aggravated, however, by short-term tactical manoeuvres intended for party political gain and gestures informed by a superficial reading of the public mood, such as the proposal to establish a new, independent Scottish Labour party. It is hard to believe many of those who feature in Hennessy’s book will be at all familiar with the shifting dynamics in Scotland explored by Hassan. Such ignorance is the artillery of separation.

The Kingdom to Come: Thoughts on the Union Before and After the Scottish Referendum

Peter Hennessy

Haus Publishing, £7.99, ISBN 978 1910376065, pp178

Independence of the Scottish Mind: Elite Narratives, Public Spaces and the Making of a Modern Nation

Gerry Hassan

Palgrave Macmillan, £65, ISBN 978 1137414137, pp280

From this Issue

Northward Ho!

by Patrick J. Murray

Remember the Referendum?

by Alasdair McKillop

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