Tomorrow sees the launch in Edinburgh of Stephen Maxwell’s posthumously published book ‘Arguing for Independence: Evidence, Risk and the Wicked Issues’ (Luath Press).
Stephen was an intellectual powerhouse of the nationalist left and his loss earlier this year is felt deeply. One consolation is that he completed this work which he had been working on in the years up to his untimely death. The book goes to the heart of empire and will be, Bella believes, a game-changer, the first of a series of thoughtful reflections and contributions to the debate launching this autumn.
As the sheen of a summer of Union Jack propaganda fades his friend Owen Dudley Edwards writes in this extract below ‘a society which perpetually lives by imagining itself as the centre of empire actually long gone lives a lie it becomes toxic to inhabit’. But this is not about the usual brickbats or the debate as framed and confined by the editors of the corporate media. This is about potential and possibility much more than it’s about the failed state of Britain.
Maxwell writes: “One feature of globalisation largely neglected in Unionist discourse about independence is that it works to dissolve unions as much as to obstruct independence. This solvent effect used to appear most frequently in the form of decolonisation. Today its roots go wider. When a metropolitan state is unable to control the impact of external forces on its regions they will begin to feel the need for greater power to act in their own defence. The more confident among them will naturally look to examples of similarly sized and positioned political communities with a superior record of economic and social development.”
By Owen Dudley Edwards
Thomas Paine’s Common Sense was the book which gave the American public their most urgent rationale for independence when it appeared in January 1776. Six months later, a majority of the delegates elected by the thirteen rebellious British colonies to their Congress declared the independence of what they now called the United States of America. At the time Paine was writing, barely one third of the American people were likely to have favoured American independence.
Stephen Maxwell gave his life to the cause of Scottish independence, and devoted his last months to building that lifetime’s research and thought into Arguing for Independence. He had finished it, given it for critiques and incorporated the most useful comments into his text when he died on April 24 2012. The final work normally needed from an author has been done as best we could by his wife Sally, his younger son Jamie, and me, the friend with whom he worked on his last draft. We were greatly helped in our work by Harry McGrath, by Mark Thomson, and by Jim Eadie MSP, whose SNP constituency (Edinburgh Southern) had been guided by Stephen. As always, our gratitude to the National Library of Scotland must be overwhelming.
Arguing for Independence lifts the entire debate on Scottish independence to a new intellectual level. Stephen was an austere scholar, and a teacher to the marrow of his bones. He left his politics tutorship at Edinburgh University to become SNP Press Officer in the mid-1970s, and his press briefings were probably unique: hostile journalists were staggered to hear him explain that their objections to this or that in the party were not really rewarding subjects but that a more useful question to raise would be this other. The Labour MP Norman Buchan, a chivalrous opponent, declared that while Stephen might satisfy his party in public relations, he would never settle for that himself but would always think deeper. Stephen intellectualised the first struggle for Scottish devolution up to the referendum of 1979 when a thin majority of voters supported a Scottish legislative assembly.
A lifelong Scottish Nationalist, Stephen warmly welcomed co-operation with other Left-wingers in other parties, beginning with the 1979 referendum. He would have applauded the current independence campaign’s muster of the Scottish Greens, the Scottish Socialists, and giants of the non-SNP Left such as Margo MacDonald and Dennis Canavan, as well as the SNP itself.
Stephen was a lifetime opponent of nuclear weapons, as indeed were so many SNP members. Among the very last words he said to me as we finished what would be our last conversation: ” Only independence can get Scotland clear of nuclear armaments. Anything less than independence will mean that a foothold for nuclear weapons will always remain.” Priorities of our people’s lives instead of other people’s deaths mean that what we save from what we now pay for weapons of mass destruction can help us to keep a truly just society alive.
The welfare state reformed a cruelly unequal pre-war British society but independence is now Scotland’s only hope of preserving the National Health Service, the investment in our future given by free university education, and so much else where the UK led the world. Stephen’s respect for our opponents best work demands that we conserve Scotland’s finest heritage. And it means drawing on real history, instead of some of the nonsense invented against independence. With independence it may be necessary for Scotland to stay in the sterling area: independent Ireland did it for 50 years. An independent Scotland puts the UK seat in the UN Security Council in no more danger than the end of the USSR and its loss of former possessions endangered Russia’s seat: the UN is the continuation of the wartime alliance of the same name and the leading allies hold their places in perpetuity. Stephen insisted that the fight for independence would always be a fight against ignorance.
George Orwell’s writings still warn us against the politicisation of vocabulary where war is described as peace, slavery as freedom, and ignorance as strength. Stephen stood for truth in all things, and while Orwell might have disagreed with some things in Arguing for Independence, he would have found the mind that made it as scrupulous as his own.
Devolution brought great benefits to Scottish culture, notably in helping to erode the Scottish cringe, the apparent Scottish conviction that one must never admit it, but others know best. This is changing so rapidly that in 2011 the Scottish voters did what almost all analysts were convinced could never happen, giving the SNP an overall majority in the Scottish Parliament. This was not a vote for independence. It was a vote for independent-mindedness: the voters wanted a Scottish government which made its own decisions rather than having the final say in party policy being subject to London commands and vetoes.
The long road to devolution escalated interest in Scottish history among academics and the wider public: nationalism has thus been the friend of Scottish historical research and writing, unlike Ireland where nationalism’s coarser prophets (from Charles Haughey to the IRA) were the enemies of reputable history. In part this stems from Ireland’s drinking the poisoned chalice rejected from Scottish nationalism by SNP decree: violence. Works such as Robert Crawford’s Devolving Scottish Literature show the new and deeper focus in Scottish cultural studies. But in some respects devolution actually set back Scottish cultural progress, notably in areas reserved to UK administration, above all in broadcasting. Scottish theatre must also emancipate itself from its inability to give full confidence to fellow Scots. It had some of its greatest success in small touring companies (7:84 was the outstanding achievement, performing The Cheviot, the Stag and the Black, Black Oil before all Scotland). Today they show little sign of revival, as communities lose their identity before the all-devouring media in trivial innovation or meaningless repetition. As the Edinburgh Festival and Fringe have shown, Scotland wants the world, not some filtered down metropolitan trendiness. Stephen pointed to the Scots migration across the world and to the real cultures the world sent back to Scotland. Today the sheer economic fact of Scotland’s need for immigrants divides her from England whose Home Office excludes and ejects from Scotland the people she needs and wants to welcome.
The ultimate cultural case for Scottish independence turns on the inflexible honesty intrinsic to Stephen. Scottish independence is tied to his principles: that a society taking its identity in the ownership of weapons of mass destruction forfeit’s the allegiance of civilised humans; that a society judging itself on cultural identity handed out by imperial preference or cosmopolitan fashion destroys itself; that a society which perpetually lives by imagining itself as the centre of empire actually long gone lives a lie it becomes toxic to inhabit; that a society which takes its pride in the ostentation of its wealth rather than the health of its poor is a society demanding repudiation; that a society whose artists cannot think of its own territory as the primary focus for love, for anger, for identity, for sheer self-expression, for disenchantment, above all for truth is a society twisted into contortions by obsessions with the outsider, market-maker, master. Stephen would never allow Scots to comfort themselves by blaming England. For him, independence always meant telling the truth to ourselves, about ourselves.
Arguing for Independence is Stephen’s testament, and in the years lying ahead we will need to read and re-read it, for its arguments, for its ideals, for its humanity. Within its pages we will be perpetually rejuvenated by the spirit of a the man who had willed it to us, one of the best, wisest and kindest people most of us have ever known. We will learn the strength of a small country knowing it is small, and thereby teaching without bullying, rather than blinding ourselves to the weakness of a small country thinking it is large, and therefore unable to learn, let alone teach. Let us welcome the light of what in every respect is Stephen Maxwell’s Common Sense.