Monthly Archives: January 2015

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Iain Macwhirter, Disunited Kingdom: How Westminster Won A Referendum But Lost Scotland (Cargo Publishing £8.99)

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]  

 

 

 

 

 

  

 

 

 

 

  

 

 

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Kirsty Gunn, Infidelities (Faber & Faber £12.99)

As someone soon to be married, I was interested in reading a collection of stories about infidelity; the one sin I’ll be pledging not to commit. But Kirsty Gunn’s stories argue there is no way to avoid being unfaithful. Infidelity is not just sexual, but the absence of loyalty to a person or to the past. For the women in these stories, it occurs when they lose faith in their partner or when they act out of character, becoming disloyal to a formal self. Gunn’s idea of infidelity in these stories is less about sex and more about freedom. Some of them read brilliantly.

The opening stories are the lightest. The same type of woman is featured in the first few tales: naive and cloyingly shy. In ‘A Story She Might Tell Herself’, a young mother bored with her life grows curious about a nomadic monk and follows him around town.  In ‘Elegy’, a terminally ill woman decides not to pursue treatment and instead parties with a young crowd, smoking and drinking in an alleyway. Flats, clothes, casseroles, husbands and kids are the dominant features of these stories, making the reader wish for wilder things.

But there is rich detail in a series called ‘The Highland Stories’. These vignettes about an extended family are outstanding. The characters are so vibrant and their situations so well crafted that when the stories end, you miss them. The child’s perspective hits the right note of innocence and insight. Cassie describes Highland summers spent with her sister Ailsa, mom Susan, Aunt Pam and Cousin Bill. Susan and Aunt Pam are a close pair of sisters who ‘don’t do men’, a fact which puzzles Cassie. Other things which puzzle her include why her aunt puts on perfume for a male stranger seen at the beach, or why the tweed suit of her late uncle still hangs in the bedroom, acting as his ghost.

One pleasure of reading Gunn is how she describes the land. There’s emotional power in Gunn’s description of the family farm, especially of how things get dirty or harmed. It’s easy to visualise or even smell the mud tracks, fields, gardens and sheep and later, to see what they represent. It’s a slow, trusting sheep that Bill runs over the edge of the cliff in ‘The Rock’, because his father Robbie committed suicide over the same cliff. As the lone witness, Bill weeps: ‘I saw him and it isn’t fair, it isn’t, that it was just me.’

This brings us to one important theme in the collection: the absence of men and fathers in particular. The first vignette in this series focuses on father figures, as Cassie and Ailsa don’t have a father and Bill loses his. The dispensability of men also occurs in ‘A Story She Might Tell Herself’ or ‘The Wolf on the Road’ where men fail to understand women and can be found at the pub or sleeping. This disparity between genders is part of the inward infidelity Gunn seeks to define; women lose faith in men because they can’t rely on them.

Instead, women can only rely on themselves. And they must find a way to escape the men who become a burden. In ‘Glenhead’, a woman finally concludes that her American boyfriend is, as her children insist, ‘revolting’. In ‘Foxes’, a young woman escapes a seemingly perfect marriage by becoming a fox herself and ‘slipping out of everything that was known and planned and calculated’.

Eventually the reader stumbles upon Gunn’s literary trick. In the last story we learn that the author of these stories is also a character in the book, a mature creative writing student named Helen. We first meet her in the prelude, when she and her ex-husband Richard discuss her writing book of short stories on the theme of infidelity. Richard tries to discourage her: ‘Nobody buys short stories anyway’, he tells her. ‘No one thinks there’s enough going on.’

We meet Helen again in ‘Infidelity’, a rather frustrating story about the writing process. Set in the past, Helen writes about an encounter she had with another man on their honeymoon. She keeps hearing the God-like voice of her teacher Louisa: ‘I want your readers to read EVERY word along the line – like Lawrence says – the sentence must LIVE along the line’. 

 

There is a lesson here about the relationship between writers and faithfulness in times of creation. But do we need it? The other stories are enough. 

[This review first appeared in the Sunday Herald] 

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