Reviewed by Kevin Williamson
“It ought to be remembered that there is nothing more difficult to take in hand, more perilous to conduct, or more uncertain in its success, than to take the lead in the introduction of a new order of things. Because the innovator has for enemies all those who have done well under the old conditions, and lukewarm defenders in those who may do well under the new. This coolness arises partly from fear of the opponents, who have the laws on their side, and partly from the incredulity of men, who do not readily believe in new things until they have had a long experience of them. Thus it happens that whenever those who are hostile have the opportunity to attack they do it like partisans, whilst the others defend lukewarmly.”
In ‘Concerning New Principalities’ – Chapter 6 of his famous essay, The Prince, first published in 1513 – Niccolò Machiavelli neatly sums up some of the difficulties facing anyone who confronts the political status quo with new or radically different ideas. Whether it’s challenging the dominant ideology of neo-liberalism or arguing for Scottish independence proponents of the alternative always start on the back foot. A good working knowledge of both sides of the argument is therefore essential.
Opponents of Scottish independence have internalised the Machiavellian principles expounded above and the resulting mantra are well-enough known. Scotland is too small or too poor is one side of the equation. Scotland is better off as part of the UK is the other. These are old songs sung by aging crooners.
The more astute disciples of Machiavelli deliver their barbs using more sophisticated propaganda. Their strategy is a simple one: “By any means necessary”. Facts are blended with fiction.
The banking crisis of 2008 was an assault weapon eagerly seized upon by Unionist snipers. “An Independent Scotland could never have afforded to bail out the banks,” went a persistent refrain. It was repeated so often and with such ferocity that support for both the SNP government and Independence took a sore knock. Only now are they are beginning to recover.
Another post-2008 riff ridicules the idea of a small nations “arc of prosperity”, presenting Ireland and Iceland as definitive proof that small is not necessarily beautiful. And yet another karaoke favourite goes to the tune of “London Bridge Is Falling Down.” In the Unionist songbook it has morphed into “North Sea Oil Is Running Out.”
And how many times have we heard “Scotland wouldn’t be granted automatic membership of the EU” or “it would cost too much to separate Scotland from the rest of the United Kingdom?”
‘A Nation Again’ is a relatively short (126 page) anthology, edited by Paul Henderson Scott, which sets out to provide artillery for the defence. Its remit, as stated on the back cover, is a bold and ambitious one: “If you believe in the Case for Independence, this book will provide you with a stirring endorsement of your view. If you are skeptical, it might well persuade you to the cause. If you are downright hostile, this book could be dangerous – it could prompt you to rethink.”
Lofty claims but does it deliver? Let’s put it this way. If anyone were to ask me if there’s a handy wee book which effectively argues the case for Scottish independence and, just as importantly, counters the main Unionist objections, then this is the book I’d recommend. It does what it says on the tin.
I’d also explain (to any potential readers) that three of the essays in this book are essential reading and will arm them with the crucial facts and arguments they need to know. I’d also point them towards the essay which gives a good historical account of how Scotland got to where it is today. Of the other two essays I might mention that they don’t quite fulfill the remit of the book, and they could just as easily be missed out, but once you’ve read the essential stuff they’re well worth a gander.
‘A Nation Again’ brings together a formidable array of thinkers. The contributors are Paul Henderson Scott, Harry Reid, Stephen Maxwell, Tom Nairn, Professor Neil Kay and Betty Davies. The book is divided into six essays and each author comes at the question of independence from a different angle. .
A word of caution. You won’t find a blueprint for a future Scotland. From the outset it is made clear this book “is most definitely NOT about what precisely would happen in an independent Scotland, because nobody knows. That is the whole point. The people of Scotland would at last be empowered to decide what their country was to be like and the direction it was to take. At the beginning there would be an open book.”
This is an important approach to take. Apart from death there are no guarantees in this life of anything. Having the freedom to make our own mistakes is every bit as important as getting it right.
Although his essay is placed second in the anthology Harry Reid, former editor of The Herald, does a splendid job of providing an overview introduction, retracing, as he does, the fortunes of Scotland/Britain/the British Empire over the last three centuries, especially covering the rise and fall of Britishness.
Central to Reid’s essay is the idea that the 1940s marked a decisive turning point for the British state and for British identity. This was a pivotal decade when “galvanized by a one-off leader of unsurpassed genius, Winston Churchill, the British people defied the unique and heinous menace of Nazism”. The bond forged was real enough, although it is to Angus Calder’s classic work ‘The People’s War’ we need to turn to understand the limits of this.
In the post-war period that followed Reid notes approvingly that “the British people found the courage to embark on a huge social experiment, the creation of a colossal ‘welfare state’.” The magnificent resistance to Hitler’s war machine plus the creation of the NHS and the welfare state, asserts Reid, was “the only time the British state really came good.”
The corollary to this is the fact “that many of the generation who fought the war and created the welfare state are now dead… These are the people for whom the Union had a particular resonance.” It is a sobering thought that personal experience of a British identity as something to be proud of will soon be lost forever.
The three essential essays in this book are by Paul Henderson Scott, Stephen Maxwell and Neil Kay. Scott’s contribution – with its misleadingly simple title of Independence Is The Answer – is one of the finest short essays on Scottish independence I’ve ever read. Lucid, passionate and informed it patiently works it way through some of the most common objections to Independence. Scott is one of our country’s intellectual heavyweights and he draws upon a lifetime’s breadth of cultural reading and political thinking as he musters supporting arguments from unexpected quarters including David Hume, Adam Ferguson, Sir Walter Scott, Edwin Muir and Joyce McMillan.
With a general reader in mind Scott subdivides his essay into manageable chunks such as ‘The Disadvantages of the Union,’ ‘The Psychological Damage of the Union’ ( a big subject that deserves much more analysis and commentary), ‘Distortions in Unionist Propaganda’ before coming to ‘Resurgence’ and ‘The New Situation.’ I couldn’t emphasis how devastatingly clinical, inspirational, and downright useful this 30-page essay will be to its readers.
Usefulness is the key to the two main supporting essays by Stephen Maxwell and Neil Kay. Maxwell dives headfirst into the idea that the 2008 banking crisis dented the case for Scottish independence. Although oft repeated this idea was always based upon the spurious idea that Scotland gained its Independence just a few months before the banking shit hit the fan.
This bizarre and arbitrary notion conveniently ignores alternative narratives whereby Scotland had become independent in say 1979 and had full control of its oil revenues. Or in 1985 before Thatcher’s financial Big Bang. Or in 1997 before Gordon Brown further deregulated the banks. Maxwell’s contribution is a much needed and insightful summary of the challenges facing Scotland in a globalised economy.
Professor Neil Kay’s contribution is one of those invaluable economic essays, written for the layman, that you hope would be read by anyone interested in Scotland’s future. Kay, with his background in engineering and economics, knows his stuff and asks the big questions such as, “Why was Scotland’s 19th century industrial hegemony usurped so comprehensively in the 20th century.”
He reminds us that at the time of the First World War Scotland had built a fifth of the world’s shipping tonnage. Within a few short decades all was lost and the pat answer “the decline of Empire” may not be the full story. The section on “industrial clusters” is fascinating, and perhaps holds the key to Scotland’s industrial decline within the Union as well as her potential for regeneration.
The essays by Tom Nairn and Betty Davies are interesting enough addendums to the other four although neither sticks strictly to the book’s remit. Good as they are it is unlikely these two essays will win many new converts to the cause. Nairn is entertaining as always although sometimes I think he gets a bit carried away by his own rhetorical flourishes. Maybe he’s gone over the basic ground so many times it becomes wearisome to return to first principles. Davies articulates a highly personal account of why one Englishwoman in Scotland was eventually won over to the cause of Independence.
The collection has been pulled together commendably fast by Luath Books in the run up to the May elections. There is even commentary that refers to events in February 2011. That’s a fairly rapid turnaround! Having worked in publishing I know what this entails sacrificing; in terms of publicity, promotion and possible reviews in the nationals (which are all planned far in advance).
If I had one minor quibble it’s that the collection doesn’t quite live up to its subtitle. The case for a resurgent England, post-UK, has still to be made. However, any unevenness in the collection caused, perhaps, by speed of production is more than compensated by the urgency and necessity of the writing. Buy it. Read it. Pass it on.
(A NATION AGAIN can be ordered direct from the publishers Luath Press price £7.99)