Sunday, 4 January 2015

Four books reviewed

And so that was Christmas.

And what I have done?

Well my main reading was to finish reading the four referendum books: David Torrance's  100 days of Hope and Fear; How Scotland's Referendum was lost and Won; Alan Cochrane's Alex Salmond: My Part in his downfall; Iain MacWhirter's Disunited Kingdom and Peter Geoghegan's The People's Referendum.

I enjoyed them all but, as you'll learn, I thought the Geoghegan book was easily the best of the four.

That's partly because the authors had slightly different objectives. Cochrane and Torrance set out essentially to write the second draft of history. The problem is that it is, or at least was by their self imposed deadlines, too early to be writing history. So each really does little more than revisit their diaries and pick out bits they thought to be important.  There is no real analysis involved and while, for the dedicated partisan of the struggle such as myself, it is interesting to be reminded of, or see the authors' perspective of a particular event you otherwise learn nothing really new.

Or at least from the Torrance book you learn nothing really new. What I think you're meant to learn from the Cochrane book is how important the author was to events. To be honest however you come away thinking the exact opposite. His contacts with "the enemy" are perfunctory at best and his knowledge of their campaign, strategy or tactics, almost non-existent. But more revealing still is his lack of real engagement with who was actually running his own team.

Never mind my own Party, who always held the key to victory (or defeat), his idea of who the key players on the Tory side were is almost incredible in its ignorance. Ruth Davidson is dismissed early on as a lightweight although patently she was both the most prominent campaigner and strategist of the Scottish Tory campaign throughout. But even Ruth's most prominent lieutenants, Annabel Goldie and Murdo Fraser, are largely ignored in favour of various obscure figures from the landed gentry still, it appears, pledged to the cause of Michael Forsyth in his role as "Prince over the Border" and harbouring the deluded desire that one day the Scottish Parliament might yet be abolished altogether.

So the book is probably worth the read for some of the caustic opinions expressed. But only for entertainment. And certainly not in the belief that many of these opinions have much actual validity.

David Torrance is more balanced but still suffers from relying on information conveyed to him while the battle still raged. So he can tell you what their line or our line was at the time of events but not really whether or not that was a view truly, let alone unanimously, held internally within either campaign. There is no real explanation as to why the result ended up as it was. That is just what happened. I'll come back to this point.

I turn then to Iain MacWhirter's book and start by observing its not really a book at all but rather a collection of essays. A couple of these consist of little more than collating and reporting fact, particularly the chapter on the life histories of the major players which you get the impression is there mainly to bulk out the product.

But there is in some of the more substantive polemic , I regret to say, some very selective reporting of fact in relation to the conduct of, particularly, the Yes campaign. Ironically, since the book went to press, Iain has written in the Herald of how the conduct of some Yes campaigners served their own cause no favours but if he held that view at the time of writing this book you'll find little evidence of that here. The Yes cause is all "let a thousand flowers bloom" while No is motivated, it would appear, by nothing but unremitting and unfounded negativity simply for the sake of it.

The fantasy economic case that the Yes campaign was premised on: not that an independent Scotland was a viable concern but rather that it was an instant panacea for everything from welfare reform to international terrorism is embraced completely in the earlier part of the book although interestingly in his own later analysis pieces he readily concedes that a common currency and open border would require continued English influence over areas of Scottish policy. I have news for him. That's not what the "secret oil fields" brigade were saying at the time.

But the central thesis of the book is where it is at its weakest. The suggestion that in ruling out a common currency "Westminster" won the battle but will ultimately lose the war.

MacWhirter concedes that he is the lightest of indy-lighters; indeed that in an ideal world he'd probably be a federalist. The problem is that the September 18th vote wasn't about federalism. In an attempt to persuade one part of a necessary coalition to vote Yes, through the "currency union", an attempt was being made to suggest what we were really getting was something very like federalism. But that wasn't the proposition on the ballot paper. By ruling out the currency union the "English" simply made that clear. They did not, as MacWhirter asserts, threaten to economically cripple an independent Scotland, they simply said more clearly than the nationalists were ever willing to do "If you're on your own, you're on your own."

But there is a more fundamental flaw in the MacWhirter argument still. While hatred of the English was clearly an acceptable motivating factor for (some) participants in the Yes campaign (the problem of that necessary coalition for yes once again) any reciprocal animosity was to bet met with nothing but a "how dare you". The whole point of Scottish Independence has always been "We wish to owe nothing to them". Only the already converted were ever however going to proceed on the basis that, after independence,  they would nonetheless continue to owe something to us. Certainly the currency proved a major problem for the Yes campaign but that wasn't the fault of those who did no more than point that out.

And so finally to my favourite book of the four. Peter Geoghegan's The People's Referendum. Geoghegan has a similar perspective to Torrance but from the other side. If the facts don't suit the cause of independence he will report them anyway.

But the real success of Geoghegan's book is in what he doesn't try to do. He doesn't attempt a comprehensive history. Rather he tries to reflect a mood of the time, that time being roughly the last three months of the campaign. And in much the manner of the great Studs Terkel he doesn't try to fit his people to his argument. Rather he lets them speak for themselves and leaves the reader to draw their own conclusions. If I had a criticism it is that he never really challenges the beliefs of his interlocutors. This is who they are and this is what they think. And perhaps he is a little too biased not to the forty five per cent who ultimately voted yes but rather to the fifteen per cent from the traditional left who ultimately did so although not expected to do at the start of  the contest.

But these are minor caveats compared to the book's other great virtue; it is quite beautifully written. You could read it for pleasure even if you cared little or nothing for Scottish politics. Geoghegan is Irish. Perhaps it is true that while the Scots produce great journalists the Irish produce better writers. That has certainly been the case here.

Anyway that's pretty much my review except that I'd like to say in closing that none of these books is as yet anything approaching a comprehensive history of the referendum. And such a book is, I think, worthy of being written. On 18th September, contrary to any expectation, nine people in every twenty voted, at least nominally, to completely end one of the world's oldest and most stable nation states. That has to give those of us on the other side cause to pause and think why that might have been. They were not all fundamentalists, or idiots, or even people so beyond despair in their personal circumstance that they felt nothing could be worse than the status quo.

We live in a democracy and these people's concerns need to be addressed. For those who do not learn from the errors of the past are doomed to repeat them.

Happy New Year, by the way.