Book Review: Battle for Britain: Scotland and the Independence Referendum

The Battle for Britain: Scotland and the Independence Referendum. By David Torrance. London: Biteback Books 2013. pp.xiv + 370. Paperback.

The nature of the policies advocated by those seeking a ‘Yes’ vote in the September 2014 referendum on whether Scotland should depart the 306-year union dominate this timely and often insightful book. Perhaps its main strength is that it conveys the cerebral side of the Scottish National Party (SNP) whose electoral victories in 2007 and 2011 enabled the Scottish Question to displace the much older Irish one in importance.

The author, is a prolific journalist who combines a restrained Tory Unionist outlook with liberal views on most social questions. He overlooks the Scottish Parliament at Holyrood in Edinburgh and it is revealing that few of the SNP’s 65 MSP get a mention. Instead, it is the perspective of SNP policy strategists which often emerges.

Stephen Noon, the Yes campaign’s chief strategist believes, ‘cooperative independence’ should be the aim. He previously was one of the chief advisers of the former head of the English Catholic church, Cardinal Murphy O’Connor. Upon his return to Scotland he inserted a Jesuitical subtlety to the SNP’s profile previously often hard to detect.

David Torrance claims to identify a strong pragmatic streak in the SNP with key players reconciled to the limitations of political sovereignty. His book begins with the seeming triumph of reason and decorum in relations between the union state and its most assertive constituent part. With the Edinburgh Agreement of October 2012, the UK government transferred the right to hold a referendum on independence to the Scottish government headed by Alex Salmond.

It could set the date of the referendum, extend the franchise to those aged between 16 and 18, and decide the wording of the question.

Torrance quotes a Salmond speech, given in mid-2013, in which he depicted himself as a reforming unionist, wishing to end the political union but keen to maintain other unions Scotland was involved in. He takes this seriously rather than viewing it as sleight of hand from a Machiavellian leader keen to sweep wary Scots into the Yes camp.

He is less impressed by the SNP’s economic and social ideas. Scandinavian-style social services paid for by US levels of taxation are promised by the SNP but are viewed as electoral alchemy. To the journalist Iain MacWhirter, a recent convert to independence, they amount to Celtic neo-liberalism’.

Torrance notes that Michael Russell, now education minister, even proposed a programme of tax cuts matched by reductions in public spending in a 2006 book. He now repudiates such economic thinking but who is to say it won’t underpin state policy upon the realisation of full sovereignty when romanticism needs to be tempered by hardheaded policies.

The Influence of the pre-2008 Irish model for national renewal – growth linked to tax cuts – is easy to detect in the SNP’s breezy economic approach. Salmond looked to what he termed the ‘arc of prosperity’ of North-West Europe, a term that was dropped from his vocabulary after Ireland and Iceland over-spent and de-regulated with disastrous results. The current preference is for using Scandinavia as a model. Hopes and dreams can be invested in what Angus Robertson MP terms ‘the High North’.

When Salmond invoked Ireland, his selective memory sometimes led to difficulties. In 2012 when he said: ‘the people of Ireland’ would know that ‘bullying and hectoring the Scottish people from London ain’t going to work’ . Seamus Mallon was quick to point out that Scots had been ‘part of the bullying that took place in Ireland…even as recently as fifteen years ago ‘ as the Troubles drew to a close.

It is interesting that no influential Irish voices on either side of the border extol Scottish independence. Paul Gillespie of the Irish Times reckons that ‘a self-interested Ireland… would want the UK to stay part of the EU, London to continue subsidising Northern Ireland, and view ‘an independent Scotland as a potential competitor for investment more than a Celtic soul-sister’.

No deep-seated sense of grievance exists in Scotland over historic wrongs or any current injustices, at least on the scale which created a collective disposition to go it alone in Ireland a century ago. There is no palpable excitement among any bloc of Scottish voters for dissolving the union. The SNP in a government paper claimed that ‘significant constitutional changes [could] happen in months rather than years’. But it is hard to deny that years would be needed to settle hundreds of issues arising from three centuries of integration and that little time would be available for creative policies laying the social and economic foundations of the new nation.

Scots want more autonomy, principally in the shape of tax powers and control of welfare, but it is unclear how ardently these objectives are desired. The late Stephen Maxwell, one of the most perceptive nationalist thinkers, concluded that ‘no pent-up demand for radical social and economic change [was] waiting to be released by independence’. Scots are viewed as more social democratic than citizens elsewhere in the UK and the radical left probably has a viable future. But polls show no major variation from the rest of the UK in attitudes to means-testing, equality and re-distribution’.

Different stratagems have been used to entice Scots on board the nationalist train. A social union involving keeping the BBC, the pound and avoiding border controls is seen as outlasting the conventional political union. Rights to various social entitlements are to be written into the future Scottish constitution. These are ploys meant to get a majority of Scots to sign up to the SNP’s core project and not merely be content to see Alex Salmond ably defend Scotland’s corner in dealings with Westminster.
Lacking are any distinctive policies on key social issues that would suggest that an eye-catching architecture is being constructed for an independent country. ‘Most SNP policies are tactical compromises…’ , the journalist Paul Hutcheon is quoted as saying.

One alternative way for the SNP to assert a collective will is to use shock and awe: ‘the state may not yet be ours but Scots deserve to take our views on board because we’ll be in charge for a very long time’.

The autocratic features of SNP rule are dealt with lightly, if at all. This book appeared too late to mention the crude attempt by Shona Robison, one of Salmond’s ministers to muzzle the prominent historian Professor Chris Whatley after he appeared at a pro-UK ‘Better Together’ event. She quickly contacted his boss at Dundee University, demanding an early meeting, perhaps wrongly assuming that because Whatley was involved in a state-funded project, he could be easily gagged.

I suspect Torrance would have viewed this as poor judgment rather than anything more sinister. The politicisation of the civil service, accelerating centralization of the state and what sometimes appears to be an attempt to turn the third sector into a conveyor-belt for SNP policies, are overlooked in this book.

The ardour of a great many SNP activists is impressive but sometimes also unsettling. Evidence is provided to show that most are existential nationalists who want independence for its own sake. Sometimes, they find it hard to conceal their frustrations with Scots who recoil from such fervour, especially due to personal economic insecurities. Both the activists and the leadership have a powerful sense of their own moral virtue so that, in no time at all, people who forcefully challenge their ideas or policies can very easily be branded as wicked or unhinged.

Perhaps this chippiness stems in part from the party’s lack of success in creating a new patriotic narrative. Promise of a stirring précis to the recent Independence White Paper, to be written by some of the country’s foremost intellectuals, never materialised. Veteran nationalists intellectuals like Alasdair Gray can sometimes prove to be a hindrance when they lash out at English settlers and colonists, allegedly muscling in on Scotland.

The SNP as a political movement is virtually ignored in this book. Instead, the dual leadership of Alex Salmond with his self-assurance and verbal dexterity and the coolness under pressure of his No 2, Nicola Sturgeon, are emphasised. Salmond is a good tactician but an uncertain longer-term strategist. His ‘automatic’ EU membership for Scotland claim was seen as a grievous blunder by one SNP insider , especially when the EU Commission chief Barroso made it plain that a fresh relationship between Scotland and the EU would have to be negotiated.

Salmond insisted for much longer that Scotland would keep the pound and just after this book appeared, claimed that a Yes vote would oblige London to preserve a currency union. The fact that many of the terms and conditions concerning Scottish borrowing, spending and taxation levels would continue to be shaped by London did not appear to deter him. He believed that the ‘essence’ of economic independence was to control taxes while one of his advisers, John Kay believed that ‘the choice of currency would be the most important economic decision’ for an independent Scotland. Radical economists Jim and Margaret Cuthbert agreed with Kay. They insist that ceding control over monetary policy would result in Scotland being ‘delivered primarily in the interests of the south-east-of-England’.

Towards the end of the book, two chapters on what Scotland looks like if the 2014 vote is Yes or else No, appear. They overall, stress continuity rather than upheaval. Little changes in essence. No mention of the street-name changes, statue-building, creation of multiple embassies designed to restore Scottish dignity after the 300 twilight years of union which, to my reckoning, are sure to be on the cards especially given the disinclination to opt for more structural economic and social change.

Torrance predicts that the confident and polished Humza Yousuf MSP, who cut his political teeth in the Scottish Islamic Foundation will replace Salmond as party leader . This is hardly a radical departure given the distinct possibility of politicians of South Asian background like Chuka Umanna becoming leader of the Labour Party or indeed Sadig Khan replacing Boris as mayor of London.

Torrance depicts independence, if it comes, as evolution rather than rupture and his dedicates his book to ‘polite advocates’ of either separation or union. But if he had turned his attention to Salmond’s party, he might have had less cause to be so sanguine. Except during election campaigns, it lacks any noticeable inner life.

The absence of a cerebral nationalist movement that has carefully planned for the future means that opportunists and ideologues are likely to tussle to secure ownership of the post-British country. Irish style post-1921 convulsions are unlikely but so is a anti-climactic separation such as that of 1905 between Sweden and Norway.

Perhaps another book ought to be in the offing that looks at the custodians of the national cause not just through the perspective of the able backroom figures belonging to the SNP?

Argyll Publications published Tom Gallagher’s book, Divided Scotland: Ethnic Friction and Christian Crisis this summer.

Tom Gallagher taught politics – related subjects at Bradford University’s the Department of Peace Studies from 1980 to 2011, specialising on identity conflicts in Europe and ways of managing them. He has written widely on the Balkans as well as several books on Scotland.

He is currently researching civil wars and averted conflicts in Western Europe and North America and what they reveal about the growing internal cleavages in England and their possible outcome.