Book Reviews: Road to Referendum


Title:      Road to Referendum
Categories:      Scottish Independence Referendum
Authors:      Iain Macwhirter
ISBN-10(13):      9781908885210
Publisher:      Cargo Publishing
Publication date:      2013-06-11
Edition:      1
Number of pages:      384
Language:      English
Picture:      cover           Button Buy now

Road to Referendum

The Referendum on Scottish Independence is due on 18 September 2014. It is agreed by both sides of the Referendum campaign that Scotland is a rich country with a skilled workforce, a good education system and rich in natural resources. All agree that Scotland is a perfectly viable independent country. The argument is whether it is best for Scotland to remain in the Union with its influence on decisions being limited or marginal or best as an independent country with control over its own affairs, assets, resources and destiny. This book provides the context of ‘how we reached the position of having a Referendum’. For all those uniformed about the issues of Scottish Independence, and that would include most of the World netting out Scotland and the Scottish Diaspora, this book provides an excellent and well informed explanation of the political journey to a point that may change the constitution of Scotland after 300 years in the United Kingdom. It could be historic. To date the campaigns supporting and opposing independence have been poor. So far the real discourse on the subject is not coming from the politicians who on the ‘no’ side have traded on exaggerated fears and on the ‘yes’ side who have yet to inspire. It is as if neither side have really worked what they are arguing for. It has been left to journalists to present the background and possible visions. This book provides the starting platform.

I have never ever previously reviewed a political book. All reviews on this site are in my own discipline of construction, some by colleagues and some by myself. Not only am I well out of my comfort zone in writing this review but the 60,000+ annual visitors to this web site would not expect such a book to be reviewed here. So you may well ask what is it that has driven me to undertake this task. Firstly to me this subject is of compelling interest. Secondly the lack of knowledge that abounds in the World at large just might be corrected a little bit if I persuade just a few to read this book. Thirdly, living in the South, I have experienced more conversations since the restoration of the Scottish Parliament about Scotland than before and these are along the lines of what are we going to do about the nonsense of Scotland spending English taxes on free prescriptions, free care for the elderly, free University tuition and Scottish MPs voting on English issues. The advent of the Referendum has modified these conversations and the view that I’m usually invited to agree with is that the Scots aren’t daft enough to vote for independence and lose all the subsidies that is bestowed upon Scotland. This generosity is inexplicable. As the GERS (General Expenditure and Revenue Scotland) reports show that Scotland contributes 9.9% of the UK tax collected, receives 9.3% in expenditure on a base of 8.4% of the population so all these views, commonly held, are uninformed and inaccurate. Nevertheless these views are endemic and are held at all levels of society. Encouraging readers to explore ’Road to Referendum’ may help to correct these views. Fourthly the author states that the book is written to inform an international audience not just Scots. As the majority of visitors to this site come not from the so called UK but from 50+ countries around the World I might just help a little in achieving that ambition.

In writing this review I attempt to highlight the content of the book summarising what was for me the key issues. The book has much more detail, information, analysis and nuances than covered in this review. There is the occasional comment of my own but I have attempted to be neutral keeping my own views to myself.

The author Iain MacWhirter, a columnist who writes for the Glasgow and Sunday Herald, wrote the book to accompany a series of three TV episodes of the same name. These were screened in Scotland on STV in June 2013 and may well get screened elsewhere later but the London based media don’t rush to present balanced views on the topic of Scottish Independence. The road that the book reports on begins with the wars of Scottish independence in the late thirteenth century to the present day. It covers: the wars of independence; the loss of Scotland’s Monarch; Scotland’s contribution to the English Civil War; the Treaty of Union 1707 (Which to the astonishment of London journalists and others does not make it compulsory to support the English National football team); the opportunities of ‘project Empire’; the post-industrial adjustments accelerated by Thatcher the UK Prime Minister of the eighties; the demise of the ‘Conservative Party in Scotland’; the restoration of the Scottish Parliament 1999;the election of the Scottish National Party to the Scottish Parliament first as a minority government and in 2011 as a majority Government; and the referendum campaign to-date with a commentary on the possible outcome. Interwoven through this chronology is a review of the evolution of The Scottish National Party and the tensions and divisions within Labour as the SNP have progressively supplanted them in the Scottish Parliament as the natural party of Scotland.

What the reader will take from this book will depend on their starting knowledge and understanding. For me, with a Scottish education and being reasonably well read in Scottish issues I was fairly well informed on the historical issues. The Wars of Independence, Wallace, Bruce, Bishop Wishart, the Declaration of Arbroath and the Pope’s acknowledgement of the Independent Nation of Scotland have all been with me since my school days. To those unfamiliar with Scottish history the book provides a succinct summary. I muse at the criticism of the Hollywood version of Wallace in ‘Braveheart’ as being inaccurate and distorted; this seems no worse than the London media’s reporting of today’s events surrounding the issues of Scottish Independence.

The quote that stands out from this book is from Ludovic Kennedy, the journalist and TV presenter, who is quoted as saying: it would have been easier if the Scots had given up this Nationalism nonsense 700 years ago and had become merely a region of England. But they didn’t. Scotland didn’t relinquish Sovereignty and as this book says this has remained a fact on the ground down through the centuries. This crystallises the issue today. Almost all of the media, the government, many global Governments and populations at large regard Scotland as a tacked on region of England. For example when an American refers to England they include Scotland. This is because there is no seat of Government in Scotland that has representation on any international forums, meaningful tax raising powers, control of their own economy, security or any other trappings of a Nation State. The World at large frequently use the descriptor of England when in fact they are referring to the UK. Only the Scots, it seems, regard Scotland in this the twenty-first century as a nation in its own right. This book deals well with why this is so and why Nationalism has survived from the Wars of Independence to the present day and has in recent decades grown. There was a long time during the building of the Empire and the industrial revolution where Nationalism was more cultural and did not present itself politically. There seems to have been during these times an acceptance of the Union but as a partner not a country subsumed by the larger neighbour.

The loss of the Monarch in 1603 when James VI legged it to London for a bigger job leaving Scotland without a head of state is also well known by every Scottish school pupil, at least of my generation. This left Scotland with, in effect, a devolved Government with its head of state absent. Macwhirter describes how the church, the Presbyterian Kirk, filled this void and held unequalled influence until its demise in public presence and importance in the 50s and 60s. Through the centuries since the Union of the Crowns 1603 and the Union of Parliaments 1707 the distinctive Scottish Kirk, legal and education systems remained just that, distinctive and separate. The administration has remained largely devolved. Churchill appointed Tom Johnson during the wartime Government to run Scotland. Later the Labour Secretary of State for Scotland, Willie Ross, who was variously described as the King of Scotland ran Scotland as a fiefdom. Health, Education, Transport etc were not integrated into the Westminster Ministries but sat in the Scottish Office. When the time came to establish the devolved Parliament in 1999 the administration structure was largely in place.

MacWhirter catalogues the Scottish experience from the Union in 1707 which was a time of Empire building and the contribution of the Scots who provided soldiers to establish order, administrators to run the Empire and entrepreneurs to build international businesses. These administrators were provided in disproportionate numbers from Scotland because the education system was then more universal in Scotland. The trade opportunities were also greatly enjoyed by the Scots who ran plantations, traded tobacco, cotton and sadly slaves. Thus the Scottish economy and the successful individuals benefited.

Similarly the industrial revolution brought great economic and industrial activity to Scotland. The strong Scottish engineering base provided many of the ships and steam engines that made the Empire accessible. However in Scotland wages were lower than in the South and the housing conditions were appalling, the worst in Europe leading to poor health. Why didn’t the Scots react to this? Well to a certain extent they did, this was the background to the birth of the Red Clydesiders and the Labour Party. The struggle for progression did not appear then to be an issue of Nationalism but an issue of Socialism. United workers didn’t need National boundaries. Throughout these times notwithstanding that the Scots kept their identity Nationalism still did not appear as a political force. The understanding was that the Scots were in a Union of partners. Was this a misguided understanding?

MacWhirter reports that the Scottish National Party seems to have been formed from a cultural and artistic base rather than a Political one and emerged in 1928. The SNP won its first seat in the Westminster Parliament in 1945, although this was short lived. The Fifties saw the emergence of other expressions of Nationalism. The stealing, by students, in 1950 of the Scottish Coronation Stone, Stone of Scone, the Stone of Destiny, from Westminster Abbey demonstrated National sentiment. The Stone had been taken to London by Edward I in 1296 and never returned. The students were merely liberating it. They returned the Stone and the authorities didn’t feel strong enough to charge them with any offence because the Scottish population at large generally approved of their actions. The Conservative Secretary of State for Scotland, Michael Forsythe, returned the Stone to Edinburgh in 1996 in a failed attempt to curry favour with the Scottish voters but by then the Conservatives were held in complete contempt in Scotland are were wiped out in the 1997 UK General Election. The Fifties also saw much protest at naming the new Queen of Great Britain and Northern Ireland as Elizabeth II since Scotland never had an Elizabeth I. These were the signs of Nationalism emerging as a political force after the war which MacWhirter argues was the high point of the Union.

MacWhirter describes the emergence of Nationalism as coinciding with the sharp demise of the presence and influence of the Kirk, the loss of the Empire which had provided opportunities and employment and the decline in the industrial activity. The void left by these was slowly being filled by the emerging politics of Nationalism. He also describes the Kirk as a major source of information and direction which was replaced by the mass media. I think he could have made much more of this. I think the explosion of the mass media post-war informed the Scots that the ‘partnership’ of the Union wasn’t as equal as they might have thought and that the view of Scotland from Westminster was predominately indifference. Certainly post-war the Scottish soldiers weren’t needed, the industrial might was needed less and so Scotland was of little importance and simply needed to be placated. However although I believe the National ambitions were there in good measure in the 50s, 60s and 70s there was no effective means of channelling the ambitions. What was needed was the SNP and the SNP took too long to get its act together.

The strongest and most readable sections of the ‘Road to Referendum’ are the later chapters describing the political developments of the Conservative, Labour, Liberal democrats and the Scottish National Party. These chapters were of particular Interest because I lived through these events and I enjoyed MacWhirter’s version of them.

The major Party in Scotland had been the Scottish Unionists, so called not because of the Scotland/England Union but in opposition to Irish home rule. The Scottish Unionists who were renamed Conservative in the 60s won the largest number of seats and the largest number of votes in Scotland in the 1955 General Election. By 1997 they had no seats at all and today have one. This gives rise to the accurate statement that Scotland has more Pandas than Conservative MPs. The cause of the demise of the Conservatives in Scotland, now known as the Toxic Tories, coincides with industrial decline. This decline was accelerated by Thatcher’s policies of the eighties which, in effect, used oil revenues to pay unemployment benefit as the traditional industries were destroyed. Add to that the Poll Tax which was introduced a year earlier in Scotland than it was in England demonstrated that Scottish protests could be ignored whereas a year later London protests lead to the end of the Poll Tax .Finally Thatcher refused to take any action with respect to devolution after the 1979 referendum. The 1979 referendum to create a very weak devolved Parliament commanded a majority at the polls but was lost because Labour included a requirement that 40% of the total electorate must agree. In other words all non- voters and dead persons still on the roll were effectively voting no. Sir Alec Douglas Home, former Conservative Prime Minister, had promised ‘better devolution’ if the Scots voted no. Thatcher chose to forget this promise. The Conservatives were no longer a political force in Scotland. However the proportional representation element of the Scottish parliament has, in effect, preserved a minor presence in Scotland for the Conservatives.

The Liberal Democrats are today held as toxic as the Tories since they entered the Coalition. However they committed suicide in Scotland earlier by refusing to join in coalition with the SNP in the 2007 Scottish Parliament. The LibDems, like Labour, assumed that the SNP would collapse and they would be on hand to help pick up the pieces. The LibDems had the best chance of advancing their Home Rule policy which they claim to have but by refusing to work with the SNP they blew it.

Labour on regaining power in1997 at Westminster created the Scottish Parliament against the wishes of Tony Blair who wasn’t strong enough to resist Donald Dewar who became Scotland’s first First Minister. The working model was that there would never be a majority party in the Scottish Parliament. The Parliamentary system was designed with partly first past the post and partly proportional representation so that no party, including Labour and certainly not the SNP, would ever have a majority. The working model assumed that Labour would always be the largest party subservient to the Westminster Labour Government or on rare occasions hostile to a Conservative Westminster Government. The Parliament was described as no more than a County Council and according to George Robertson,the Labour Minister of Defence, would kill Scottish Nationalism stone dead. Labour from that point onwards seemed to regard the Scottish Parliament as irrelevant.

The SNP won its second Westminster Parliamentary seat in 1967 when Winne Ewing won Hamilton and lost it three years later. The high point was in the seventies when the SNP had 11 seats in Westminster reduced to 2 after helping bring down the Callaghan Government in 1979. Their presence in the Scottish Parliament in the early years was 25, much lower than Labour. The working model Labour had created was working. Even Alex Salmond gave up the leadership of the SNP and returned to Westminster. The SNP were ineffective. Then something remarkable happened signalled by the return of Salmond.. His achievements are beyond adjectives, spectacular, remarkable, outstanding, amazing, pick any one or all. Consider the following:

All the London Press and all their Scottish Editions are hostile to Salmond, the SNP and Independence and seize every opportunity to ridicule;

What is left of the Scottish Press, namely the Herald and the Scotsman offers little support. The Herald is fairly balanced and the Scotsman which appears tortured that there are no conservatives to support seem to take it out on the SNP;

The TV media is little better. The BBC or State Owned Television as it is referred to in Scotland leans over backwards to ensure that it cannot be accused of supporting independence and that Scotland gets no more than the 8.4% it is entitled too. MacWhirter says that he calculates that the National News on BBC has only 40% relevant to Scotland. My own observations would place that figure much lower;

The three Westminster Parties, Labour, Conservative, LibDems are all hostile to independence and frequently display their contempt of the SNP;

The whole of the Whitehall civil service machine, including or even particularly, the Treasury is opposed to independence and this is reflected on the series of consultative papers they produce which they attempt to pretend is an even handed analysis.

So how is it that Alex Salmond with such a comprehensive array of opposition has succeeded this far.

Firstly he whipped the party into shape as a modern left of centre party without any of the downsides of Nationalist Parties. Secondly in the early years of the Scottish Parliament under a Labour /LibDem Coalition there was little credit earned. The performance of the Scottish Parliament in its first two Parliaments from 1999 to 2007 was poor and largely regarded as a disgrace suffering some, albeit minor, scandals of a financial nature as well as a huge bill for the new Parliament building. It was laughed at in Westminster where it was used as evidence that the Scots couldn’t run themselves. This opened the door and the SNP became the minority Government in 2007 replacing Labour as the largest Party at Holyrood. Labour confidently assumed, and to a large extent still appears to assume, that this was an aberration and that if you ignored the SNP, opposed all they attempted to do they would fall over and normal Labour service would return. After four years of competent Government the SNP won a landslide victory making them a majority Government in a Parliamentary system that was design to prevent such a thing happening, a remarkable outcome. In the 2011 Holyrood election campaign Labour seemed to be fighting the Conservatives in Westminster rather than the SNP in Holyrood and the SNP’s manifesto outflanked Labour on the left. As yet Labour seems to have failed to come to terms with their situation as the tensions between Labour Westminster MPs and Labour Holyrood MSPs appear not to have been resolved.

So with a majority in Holyrood Alex Salmond and his majority Government brought forward the Referendum for 18 September 2014. The above is, according to Macwhirter is how we got here.

What of the campaigns so far? The ‘No’ campaign under the heading of ‘Better Together’ has run a totally negative campaign. Even their own team named it ‘Project Fear’. MacWhirter catalogues some of their list of the claimed exaggerated impediments, difficulties and disasters that will befall Scotland the morning they wake up as an independent country. What the No campaign seem to be saying is these are all the difficulties you will face, here are the impediments we will put in your way, you won’t get any help from us. BUT if you reject independence we will arrange further devolution and look after your interests. It is difficult to see how these ‘nasty’ people threatening everything they can think of should Scotland vote for independence could also be the really ‘nice supportive and helpful’ people if Scotland doesn’t vote for independence. There seems to be a huge credibility gap. There is not a living breathing person that I have met that believes the ‘more devolution promise’ when you reject independence. Everyone ‘knows’ that the Scotland files will be cleared from the desks and dumped at the back of the cupboard. Rejection of independence will mean that the Scotland problem is resolved and the Scots can be comfortably ignored. The No campaign has, so far, failed to articulate why we’re better together.

The Yes campaign appears to be content to allow Project Fear to exhaust itself without a blow by blow rebuttal. They may be right. There is evidence that the promotion of this cascade of fearful difficulties has been overplayed. This was becoming evident on the ground before the press picked it up. For example when, as reported, Vince Cable sonorously warned that there may be no customers for the products of an independent Scotland the reaction was ‘aye right aw the more Tunnocks Carmel Wafers for us then.’

But the Yes campaign has also failed to project the vision and this is disappointing. The much awaited November paper on independence promises to answer all questions and spell out the vision. We all hope that it does.

The ‘No’ campaign does not deny that Scotland could be a successful independent nation.

What is bewildering is the huge collection of media outlets and political parties and Government departments that are opposed. I’ve yet to see the explanation of why ‘Better Together’ is so obvious that the ‘establishment and almost all of the press support it. Are they simply defending the status quo? Are they unable to contemplate an alternative? If they can’t explain why they hold these views then perhaps the journalists will do it for them. We can guess Labour’s position. Winning a majority at Westminster without Scotland would be near impossible. Are the Conservatives sincere in their opposition to independence? Many think not and that to lose Scotland would simply strengthen their position at Westminster. Is the Treasury’s support for the Union evidence that they would prefer to keep the resources available from Scotland?

Would Scotland be very different if independent? Not at first, it would be remarkably the same but roll forward 10 or 20 years and it could look very different as the Scottish Government followed policies that benefitted Scotland and the Scottish people. Would that be a bad thing? Is this future worth living through upheaval of becoming Independent? This is the status of the debate . The ‘No’ side say the upheaval is too great, the ‘Yes’ side say the upheaval isn’t as bad as that and yes it will be worth it. In the final chapter MacWhirter muses on ‘Independence within the UK’ well perhaps we’ll see.

The above is much longer than I intended but each section of ‘Road to Referendum’ had its own fascination and important contribution to the story. I hope the above is a fair reflection of the book’s content with the occasional personal comment. For anyone interested in the upcoming referendum this is well worth reading. We need more especially on the various scenarios that will flow from independence or its rejection. Assuming independence how will the economy shape up and how will Scotland’s standing in the World develop? If independence is rejected, how will the economy shape up and how will Scotland’s standing in the World develop? How will the political parties respond to independence? Will a truly Scottish Labour Party emerge? How will the parties respond to a rejection of independence? Will Labour finally embrace the Scottish Parliament, will Gordon Brown or Alastair Darling or Douglas Alexander forsake Westminster for Holyrood just to make sure the ‘more devolution promise’ is kept.

At present the politicians appear reluctant to sketch out the future perhaps MacWhirter and his colleague journalists could do it for us and give substance to the debate.

Ronald McCaffer

August 2013