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Pinch Me! But Where Do We Go From Here? – Scottish Review of Books

Scotland: The Road Divides

Henry McLeish & Tom Brown
Luath Press, £8.99 pp169, ISBN 1906307245


Rob Brown
Ten Book Press, £8.99 pp152, ISBN 0955573505
by John MacLeod

Pinch Me! But Where Do We Go From Here?

October 21, 2009 | by John MacLeod

IT’S OLD AND IT’S the sort of story which, as us tabloid hacks like to say, is really too good to check. A grand New York publication, feeling rather hands-across-the-seaish and with a seasonal edition to fill, rang round assorted UN ambassadors to ask what they really wanted for Christmas.

“Freedom and power to workers everywhere”, intoned a Soviet apparatchik. “Brotherly understanding between all nations of the earth”, gushed the French.

“Well, it’s frightfully kind of you to ask”, drawled the British diplomat. “I’d quite like a box of crystallised fruit”.

There is something wonderfully earthed about the English – prosaic, perhaps, or languid, or self-mocking; but not naturally disputatious. Us? The Scots? Months after a dramatic election, and amidst what the Chi-nese would no doubt call interesting times, we reap the latest harvest of sermonising on Scotland, the nation and the Union.

And a venerable old farm it is. “The political situation in Scotland is on the boil”, pants Gavin Kennedy. “New possibilities of major and long overdue change are emerging as hundreds of thousands of Scots reconsider their old political loyalties…”.

They certainly were – when he wrote that introduction, in 1976, for the cheery Nationalist symposium, The Radical Approach. In fact, it still reads much better than the pompous tome which provoked it, a young Gordon Brown’s terminally worthy The Red Paper On Scotland. But things did not boil for very long, and reconsidering was all they did.

In 2007, ’tis again the season for Scotland’s self-appointed radical intellectuals to pump forth yet more weighty, faintly revivalist gyrations in political thought for each other to read.

An alarming number of names continue to echo in Rob Brown’s lively Nationalist anthology, Nation In A State: Independent Perspectives On Scottish Independence. Tom Nairn (Red Paper) has a chapter; so does Stephen Maxwell (The Radical Approach). Christopher Harvie, who wrote an entire book on Scottish nationalism thirty years ago, must content himself with a few pages here, but at least he is now an MSP.

Pat Kane, Michael Keating, Hamish MacRae and Duncan Ross make up the “seven respected scholars and commentators” and they all have a ball touting assorted visions of Utopia, with untold invocation of Ireland and the ‘Celtic Tiger’.

Meanwhile, more sedately, Tom Brown and Henry McLeish frame a quiet case for the Union in Scotland: The Road Divides, with as terrifying a cracking-granite design for the cover as Douglas Alexander might conceive.

That clever Scotsmen – they are all men, each at least famous in his own lunchtime – would sit down and churn out such heartfelt stuff testifies to the epochal air already blowing about 2007.

It’s only fair to point out to anyone who might rush forth to buy them is that both books are an acquired taste. Of the two, Scot-land: The Road Divides is three times as long as its argument actually needs to be and so riddled with bullet-point lists one rapidly loses the will to live. Yet it is the more substantial and, probably, the more important.

Let’s step aside and take a cool look on what Scotland actually did, on 3rd May, and how the body politic has since fared.

Most sensationally, the Scottish National Party managed, for the first time in its barnacled history, to win a Scottish national election, emerging as the largest party in Scotland’s Parliament,

So far, the purring Alex Salmond has proved a remarkably good First Minister – sure of touch; assured of presence – and his minority administration (swiftly and by surprising consensus styled the Scottish Government) has, to date, avoided any significant banana-skins.

No less significant was the simultaneous SNP breakthrough in our town halls. The Nationalists now have more councillors than any other party and Labour has absolute majority control in only two districts. In human terms alone – rearing an army of new SNP politicians, salaried in rhetoric and negotiation, in lobbying and administration – that is a vital achievement.

Amidst the general “pinch me!” atmosphere that has since prevailed, it seems sour to point out two hard realities.

The first is that the election was unbelievably close; closer than any opinion poll throughout the frantic campaign had suggested. Labour very nearly made it. The SNP pipped them by only one seat. Another 49 votes for Labour in the tightest constituency race – Cunninghame North – and Jack McConnell would have been hauled to Downing Street for a ticker-tape parade.

The second is that there is a hard, pretty low ceiling to Nationalist support. Victorious as the Nats were, they clawed a bare 33% of the poll – and have never exceeded that in any election of any kind. It’s unusual, to put it mildly, for parties to gain votes after a full term in government – if the Nats are allowed to serve one.

To be sure, they have won vital credibility. And SNP ministers have so far managed to run our wee country with some aplomb and without unleashing the Ten Plagues of Egypt.

But they cannot secure independence. They simply have not the votes in Parliament to secure even a referendum (though, thanks to gormless opponents’ insistence on a fabulously expensive Edinburgh tram scheme – which the SNP had pledged to scrap – the Nats have now the perfect get-out-of-jail free card when pressed, years hence, on their failure perhaps to deliver other manifesto commitments.)

If anything, demand for independence has actually fallen since May – even in surveys that show, amidst the Salmond love-in, unprecedented levels of support for the SNP.

In fact, with one signal exception – early in 1992, at a time of great Scottish political ferment and the closure of the iconic Ravenscraig steelworks – no opinion poll has ever shown even 50% of Scots desirous of statehood nationhood, far less a majority. The Nationalists have indeed won Scotland’s devolved government. But can they win Scotland?

Beyond this private grief lie three diverting questions.

The first is the possibility that Scotland could be booted into independence. South of the Border, English nationalism grows as a force in Westminster politics; the Tories are in open cry against the supposed iniquities of the ‘West Lothian Question’; and a fatuous, sometimes nasty anti-Scottish sentiment now figures in the more pretentious London papers.

The second is a matter presently balanced,

as it were, on the edge of a razor: was Labour’s humiliation in May a temporary defeat, or the first real evidence of inexorable, long-term decline?

They have bounced back before, not least in the late Seventies. Had the Nationalists fielded a less high-minded, more streetwise candidate in the Garscadden by-election than the worthy Keith Bovey – a critical 1978 contest they should have won – then, as Helen Liddell much later, frankly conceded, Labour would have seen wholesale collapse of their core Scottish vote. They didn’t; Bovey lost; and momentum and events deserted the SNP for a generation.

But we now know that the quiet erosion of the old Unionist strongholds from 1959 – with the lessons of two real frights, in 1974 and 1987, blithely ignored – saw Scotland’s Tories exterminated in 1997 and, a decade later, so marginal a force that, this spring, Annabel Goldie did not even bother to campaign north of Crieff. Beyond that, in our great-grandparents’ day, the monolithic Liberalism of complacent, pre-war, Edwardian Scotland disintegrated with still more startling speed.

That’s why, of these two self-important paperbacks, the Brown/McLeish offering is much the more important, because Tom Brown and Henry McLeish have grasped that the events of 2007 are a signal crisis for Labour in Scotland and their book is an urgent call to their Party on both sides of the Border.

There must be a new constitutional settlement, they urge; the Union must adapt to survive and, as Scots really ought to contemplate assorted futures – breach with England being but one of them – so must Westminster, perhaps, rethink its obsession with Parliamentary sovereignty.

Which brings us neatly to that third, wracking question: what on earth – in an age of entire connexity, of a global economy, of wholesale migrant labour, of Nokia and Bebo and Wii, does independence actually mean any more?

In my childhood, for instance, the SNP was committed to membership of Nato and Common Market withdrawal. Today, not least thanks to the long advocacy of Winnie Ewing and the shriller logic of Jim Sillars, it is enthusiastically pro-European and a motion calling for Nato membership wasn’t even allowed to reach the Aviemore conference agenda.

Only a decade ago, general SNP sentiment was strongly republican, to the extent that the Party’s official aims were rather absurdly altered to remove any reference to the Commonwealth.

Today, the Queen seems practically the First Minister’s favourite auntie and expressly ordered the late Prime Minister to offer Mr Salmond membership of the Privy Council. Thirty years ago, at the height of the Troubles, Nationalists were too terrified even to mention Ireland: today, they talk about it so often you sometimes marvel why they don’t live there.

Independence as understood today, is no longer a matter of sovereignty – of virtual, nuclear-free economic autarky in a land flowing with oil-bought goodies – but simply a Scotland that will be no longer under the least political authority from London.

That’s a less than positive dynamic. The SNP has got away with it in 2007 because of the vast damage done the Union, and indeed the Atlantic alliance, by the Iraq imbroglio and the last wretched years of the Blair administration; and because – not least by Salmond’s own endeavours – the Party has moved emphatically away from any taint of ethnic nationalism.

Self-demeaning silliness can still occasionally surface – witness John Swinney’s notorious “Get the Brits off our backs!” outburst in 2003 – but the modern SNP is today most inclusive: at least one jolly Englishman

– Dr Iain McKee – is, today, an SNP MSP, and thousands of English-born votes helped Mr Salmond into Bute House.

Still – the powers that matter are yet vested in Westminster and at the entire control of the only other man who credibly challenges Alex Salmond as the outstanding Scottish politician of his generation; more, a Scottish MP whose surviving credibility depends on a secured northern base.

And he knows his history; not least that Scottish nationalism has always had wildly cyclical support, and has to date been tripped repeatedly by time, guile and ‘events’.

After all, only thirty years ago – with the ball at its feet and ‘Scotland’s First Eleven’ swigging champagne on the Commons terrace – the SNP was comprehensively outflanked and, come 1979, routed – reduced to a tandem of MPs from the first country on earth to find oil and get poorer.

Why, asked Jim Sillars helplessly, when all was lost, had the Nationalists and the Liberals and his own breakaway Scottish Labour Party and all the tuned-in, right-on forces of the Scottish devolution movement been so comprehensively trounced? “We failed completely to take account of the nature of the opposition – the two great parties of the English state, Labour and Tory, the power of the Whitehall departments and the deep reservoir of experience these institutions had accumulated over many years in dealing with awkward problems that came from unexpected angles.

“The struggle of the New Commonwealth countries to overcome ploy after ploy to inhibit their advancement to independence and the Irish episode of British history were warnings of a considerable ability to stall new forces that threatened London’s grip. With oil from Scotland, a God-sent gift to an ailing establishment, we should have known that they would play rough and crooked…. None of us had any experience of carrying a major policy change against the wishes and will of a hostile governing force”.

Decades on, oil, the disposal of nuclear waste and – still more central to the delusions of a past great power – the deployment of Trident remain most powerful motives for a wily Whitehall to maintain the Union. Realism, my children: the highest ideals of pamphleteers, even on the latest surge of a Scottish tide, may yet be dashed by the cool, colonial connoisseurs of crystallised fruit.

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