In the first chapter of Disunited Kingdom, Iain Macwhirter says “The thesis of this book is that, while constitutional optimists like Jonathan Freedland are right, and that the unitary United Kingdom as we understand it, is all but finished, it could still take a long time to die. And in the meantime the Scottish Question remains unanswered by the referendum.”
That’s not a thesis in the conventional sense, but it is a promising basis for the book. The No victory was “Pyrrhic”, says Macwhirter, because Scotland has changed enough to ensure that independence remains an active issue.
There are chapters on Westminster’s pound exclusion strategy, culture, media, federalism and the relative merits of Alex Salmond and Nicola Sturgeon. The book ends with a prediction that contradicts the lingering death suggested at the beginning: Scotland will become an independent country “and we may not have to wait very long to see it”.
It’s a testimony to the popularity of Macwhirter’s newspaper columns – essential reading for the Yes inclined in particular – that much of this is familiar. It’s hard to add to what he has already written on currency exclusion given that its ‘bluff and bluster’ won’t be put to the test. National Collective is a wonderful thing and should remain part of the cultural and political landscape as he predicts it will, but it’s a waste of paper to belatedly defend it against David Torrance’s tedious oppositionalism.
However, Macwhirter is very good at taking what is already widely known and fleshing it out. The Yes campaign felt the media was biased against it and he uses research from Press Data to show that it was more than a feeling. The chapter on federalism does a nice job of examining various possible futures but it’s not entirely clear why an England that didn’t want a ‘federal reshaping of the UK constitution’ before the referendum would be any more inclined to agree to one now. Macwhirter uses the Canadian federal system as an extended example even though its sophistication and flexibility seems well beyond the UK at this stage.
Early on in the book there’s an oblique reference to another Canadian connection. Macwhirter quotes Ludovic Kennedy’s observation that Scotland was “in bed with an elephant” but that was paraphrased from Pierre Trudeau who used “sleeping with an elephant” twenty five years earlier to describe the relationship between Canada and the USA. We now know from another post-referendum source that Douglas Alexander “discovered” Trudeau’s use of “Non Merci” in the first Quebec referendum and successfully adapted it as “No Thanks”. Why it would need discovering is a bit of a mystery, but it’s clear now that the Yes side was asleep. It should have immediately pointed out that Canada and the UK weren’t making the same offer. In fact, a pro-immigrant, diverse, potentially nuclear free Canada sounds a lot like “Scotland’s Future” as outlined in the white paper.
As Trudeau demonstrated in his reinvention of Canada, immigration and foreign policy are big nation building powers and the fact that they are still denied to Scotland make the various tax and spend proposals seem like a poor consolation prize. Macwhirter’s relative optimism about the Smith Commission is a bit of a surprise especially after he points out that it is lead by an unelected peer and driven by political advantage. Perhaps he’s holding his nose.
The word Neverendum has come a long way from its origins in ‘The Quebec Neverendum Colouring and Activity Book’ to its inclusion in the political lexicon, but it is still silly. Macwhirter is probably right that there will be another referendum but two’s a charm with these things. The chance of a Yes win is much increased the second time. But if it fails – however narrowly – there won’t be a third go anytime soon and those who want to strangle constitutional discussion will no longer need “Neverendum”.
Whenever the next referendum arrives people will look to Disunited Kingdom for a succinct and eloquent analysis of what happened the first time. They might wish for a bit more colour and, given the preponderance of male commentators cited in the text and the eighteen men thanked in the acknowledgements, they may wonder if the first Scottish referendum was a bit of a lads’ talking circle. That too should be different next time.
[This review first appeared in the Sunday Herald]