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Aye But… – Scottish Review of Books
by Michael Russell

Aye But…

November 16, 2012 | by Michael Russell

Over the last 20 years.’ says Stephen Maxwell in his introduction to Arguing for Independence, ‘the number of books dedicated to elaborating a case for Scottish independence can be counted on the fingers of two hands.’  He is right.  The reluctance of the national movement in Scotland to produce a literature to match its aspirations is a problem. In part, the blame lies with publishers who have been neither  assiduous nor enthusiastic about developing a list that some fear would be seen as ‘too political’.  Luath Press therefore deserves much praise for having been the exception to that rule, with almost half of the  ‘fingers of two hands’  volumes appearing under its imprint including this new  one which appears some five months after Maxwell’s untimely death.

But authors are also guilty.   Alasdair Gray and James Robertson are noble exceptions  but in both fiction and non-fiction our writers have too often shied away from a professional or creative  involvement in the great choice before us, even if they been  personally committed to change.  Perhaps patriotism, like nationalism, became difficult to explain for a while.  Or perhaps the role of a leader of society is not one to which many of our writers aspire. Whatever the reason the novelist Robin Jenkins  had a point when, in the introduction to his second book of short stories, Lunderston Tales, written around the time of the first failed devolution referendum,  he observed (though claiming to quote another writer), ‘a country that is too supine to take itself seriously, does not deserve to be taken seriously by any other country.’

Politicians  must also  consider their responsibility.  Two members of the current cabinet have written books about the need for change  but there is plenty of space for others, particularly coming from a Green, Socialist or even Tory perspective.  As for the unionist cause, it has been positively Trap-pist in its literary approach.

The paucity of books that drives the constitutional debate can sometimes lead to a over-reaction to them. Maxwell’s is a volume of great utility and importance but it may be slightly over stating the case to say  that it  has lifted ‘the entire debate on Scottish independence to a new intellectual level’ as is done by  Owen Dudley Edwards in his otherwise admirable preface.  Indeed I think Maxwell himself would have found that  proposition questionable as there exists a range of  high quality thinking and analysis, much of which he quotes.  There has just not been enough of it. Edwards is, however, inspired and right to claim that independence means ‘telling the truth to ourselves, about ourselves’ and both in style and substance this book succeeds admirably in  that task.

Maxwell makes six ‘cases’ for independence – democratic, economic, social, international, cultural and environmental – within each of which arguments are put and evidence is examined.  No doubt he also discussed the political way to approach the issues with his protege, Jim Eadie, the MSP for Edinburgh South. That recent  experience at the hustings may also have been one of the influences which made him go further than merely  arguing from evidence, introducing to the mix what he calls ‘risks and wicked issues’.   Whatever the cause, this polemical addition has  helped produce a truly original and very successful  approach.

The environmental case is the least substantial but, as Maxwell admits, this may well be because too little work has been done on it to date. His approach to the cultural case is more wide ranging but it is in his consideration of the democratic, social and economic cases that he is most successful. Independence is not just about changing of the colour of the post boxes, as many in Ireland  used to observe.  The  demand for it  arises not only from dissatisfaction  with what is, but must also be driven by a thirst for what could, and should, be.  Still being citizens of one of the most  centralised states in Europe should motivate us to move forward not least because we have the opportunity to imagine a different type if country with a modern constitution, an effective bill of rights and a fully accountable and participatory parliament.  Indeed the very process of drawing up that constitution could engage and energise even those presently distant from politics as recent Icelandic experience has shown.

Much of First Minister’s Questions during the period when the Iain Gray was Labour leader was spent by him talking down countries most directly comparable to Scotland (particularly those of Northern Europe)  and ridiculing the desire of  the SNP to use their experience as an exemplar of positive change. Maxwell has refused to be diverted by such insular tactics and updates the story to show that although Iceland, for example, did suffer greatly as a result of banking collapse its approach to the problem – taking advantage of a small country’s flexibility and homogeneity – has led to a much more rapid recovery than that experienced in the UK and  one that has been fairer to all sections of society.

The concept of fairness runs through Arguing for Independence. Jim Sillars was the first to point out that whilst nationalists needed to make their case there was an equal responsibility on unionists to explain what was beneficial about remaining where we are.  Like most people on the left,  Max-well is in no doubt that the UK is a deeply divided country and that Scotland, proud as it is of what he calls our ‘moral autonomy’, needs to assert itself and make such a claim real. Will Self, in a lecture in Edinburgh at the end of September, made exactly that point too, though in claiming to be in  favour of independence he was also painstaking  in his  refusal to consider himself a  ‘nationalist’.    Maxwell was, however, proud to call himself a nationalist and demonstrated that the word can and should be a badge of honour, indicating a wide world view and a generous range of social concerns.

The section headed ‘Aye but …’ tackles  EastEnders and the Euro, passports and pensions, shared history and size, hubris and the health service to give short but pithy answers to the points which do  matter to individuals but which are also often seized on by those opposed to change as being definitive reasons to remain fearful.   They are, in this form, a campaigner’s dream.  There are many other  intriguing insights in the book, and many presentations of material which has been gathered together for the first time in a comprehensive manner.   As the debate on independence develops over the next two years we must move on from the ‘how’ in which we are presently mired to the ‘why’ and the ‘what’. The how is, in the end, not difficult.  Countries have a right to make decisions about self-determination and international law as well as practical politics has guided scores of them along that path during the twenty-first century.  As a mature democracy, Scotland is better resourced and better prepared for the journey than almost any other has been or could be. The ‘why’ and the ‘what’ are more important.   Why does the journey need to be taken now, and what are the things that will change (and in  what way) which will make the achievement worthwhile?  The White Paper that concluded the National Conversation in 2009 laid out the core matters that needed resolution and suggested how each could be dealt with.  A minority government, though, could not successfully bring forward a referendum. Now there is a majority government it can  step by step lay out for the Scottish people the key determinants for their choice.

Stephen Maxwell would have been a  vital part of that democratic process and his loss will be keenly felt. He had guided, persuaded and sometimes chided the SNP for the best part of 40 years and his devotion to a left of centre independent vision of a better world and a better country helped to change that party and his country.  His parting shot will make a huge contribution to the end game of a constitutional process which started more than a century ago but which has accelerated greatly over the past two decades.


Stephen Maxwell

LUATH PRESS, PP 181, £9.99,  ISBN 978-1908373-3-35

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