Around 200 people crammed into the Martin Hall at New College on the Mound in Edinburgh last night to attend the launch of Arguing for Independence: Evidence, Risk and the Wicked Issues, the book my father, Stephen Maxwell, finished writing shortly before he died in April, at the age 69. I was one of four speakers on a panel which included Jim Eadie, SNP MSP for Edinburgh Southern, journalist Joyce McMillan and First Minister Alex Salmond. The launch was chaired by the inestimable Owen Dudley Edwards.
Each of the contributions reflected on the role my dad played in Scottish public life over the course of forty years, both as a leading intellectual force on the nationalist left and an important figure in the Scottish voluntary sector. Joyce McMillan suggested his life invited us to “continue asking questions” about the nature of our political culture and how it could be improved, while Jim Eadie spoke of his “legendary SNP conference speeches in the ‘70s and ‘80s, effortlessly combining intellect and rhetoric”.
In an address notable for its personal candour, the First Minister said my dad’s “presence in the national movement was itself an argument for independence” and that it was difficult “to imagine an SNP without Stephen Maxwell, a Scotland without Stephen Maxwell”. Owen, with his usual thunderous eloquence, stressed the conviction which underpinned my father’s lifelong engagement in politics: opposition to nuclear weapons, in particular to the stationing of the British nuclear fleet at Faslane.
In my introduction, I talked about how Arguing for Independence reminds us that the Scottish ‘constitutional’ debate is not, at its core, about the constitution. It’s about the distribution of economic and political power in Britain, Scotland’s social and cultural futures and the role Scotland should play in international affairs. I also expressed regret at the timing of my father’s death, coming just at the start of a referendum campaign he spent so much of his life preparing for and to which he would have made an enormous contribution.
All in all, the event was an appropriate and moving tribute – an opportunity for those of us who knew my dad to remember his humility, his generosity and his intelligence. I can’t help but think that he would have been embarrassed by the scale of the thing, though. No doubt he would have settled for 25 people in the Quaker Meeting House, with no press, no praise and minimal applause. But last night was nothing less than he – and his crucial new book – deserve.
Arguing for Independence is available to order now from Word Power Books.