An engaging look at Scotland's independence campaign

April 19, 2015

The People’s Referendum: Why Scotland Will Never Be the Same Again
by Paul Geoghegan
Luath Press 2015
177 pages

The British-wide general election for the Westminster parliament scheduled for May 7 looks set to be very close, perhaps even closer than the 2010 election that resulted in the Labour Party being replaced by a Conservative Party-Liberal Democrat coalition government.

Opinion polls suggest that neither of the two main British parties, Conservative or Labour, will win enough seats for a majority of their own in the House of Commons.

If this happens, it will most likely be due to a collapse in the Labour Party vote in its former Scottish heartlands: polls suggest Labour could lose dozens of seats to the pro-independence Scottish National Party (SNP).

Labour’s problems are in large part a result of its joining forces with the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats in the pro-British union “Better Together” platform that advocated a No vote in the closely fought referendum on September 18 last year.

The pro-independence Yes campaign was supported by the SNP, the Scottish Greens and the Scottish Socialist Party.

Moreover, the extra powers to be devolved to Scotland that were promised by the No campaign in the final stages of the referendum debate look very unlikely to materialise.

In this well-written and very engaging memoir, Peter Geoghegan, an Irish journalist working and living in Glasgow, provides a series of snapshots of the referendum campaign.

These are intended to show “how the independence referendum changed not just Scottish politics but the nation’s people, its sense of itself and its future”, by allowing “some of the five million ordinary — and extraordinary — people involved on both sides of the debate” to tell their story.

Geoghegan travels to Coatbridge — dubbed “Little Ireland” because of the large influx of Irish immigrants in the 19th century. He has some interesting conversations with members of the pro-British Orange Order as well as with Yes-leaning supporters of Irish republicanism.

He also visits the more sedate territory of the Scottish Borders, stopping off to visit the birthplace of the famous 20th century left-nationalist poet Hugh MacDiarmid, before heading to the remote Western Isles off the north-west Atlantic coast.

There are also chapters describing visits to Catalonia and the Bosnian Serb Republika Srpska, allowing Geoghegan to draw some contrasts between the Yes campaign in Scotland and nationalist movements elsewhere in Europe. There are also some interesting reflections on the role of (largely pro-independence) social media in the referendum debate and the continuing demise of (largely pro-No) traditional print and broadcast media.

Geoghegan’s visit to Cowdenbeath in Fife was particularly interesting. He meets Willie Clarke, who was elected on a Communist Party of Great Britain (CPGB) ticket to the town council in 1973 and who still serves as a town councillor.

The CPGB dissolved itself in 1991, and Clarke is now formally an independent, but still describes himself as a communist. He says: “All the election literature that goes out is communist.”

Although now in his 70s, Clarke was one of the most active Yes campaigners in his part of Fife, contrasting with the position of the Communist Party of Britain (CPB), the largest of Britain's surviving communist parties.

The CPB advocated a No vote on the grounds that independence would divide the working classes in Scotland from those south of the border.

It is hard to take this seriously. After all, worries about dividing the British working classes from those in France and Germany don’t prevent the CPB from advocating an exit from the European Union, suggesting that their pro-British position is motivated by British nationalism rather than internationalism.

At any rate, it is refreshing to hear news of a communist councillor who views Scottish independence as a progressive cause.

Geoghegan never tells us straight whether or not he supports independence, and does his best to be even-handed in his treatment of the issues and personalities he comes across in his travels. However, this sometimes leads him to miss a trick.

One example comes with his visit to the Western Isles he meets Brian Wilson, a former Labour Party cabinet minister and vociferous supporter of the No campaign who is now chairperson of a mill producing Harris Tweed.

Geoghegan describes Wilson as a former “trade envoy” in Tony Blair’s government, but this description leaves out some crucial essentials. Wilson was in fact Blair’s “special envoy for Iraqi reconstruction”.

In 2004, Wilson hosted a business conference titled “Iraq Procurement: Meet the Buyers” at the plush Park Lane Hilton in London. The aim of this conference was to promote profit-making ventures in the reconstruction of a country largely destroyed by the illegal war supported by the Labour government of which Wilson was a member.

Indymedia UK described it as a “corporate feeding frenzy” and noted that participants in the conference included Shell, ExxonMobil, arms manufacturer Raytheon and members of the Iraq government “installed” by the occupying US-led forces.

This extra information would certainly help readers put anti-independence Better Together coalition — and the current state of the Labour Party — in proper perspective.

Towards the end, Geoghegan writes: “'The 45' [the 45% who voted Yes] will continue to sabre-rattle for another vote — or even a unilateral declaration of independence — all the while alienating many of those No voters who fear the prospect of another referendum.

“Meanwhile, many of the activists who became engaged in the campaign will move on to other causes — poverty, welfare reform, unemployment — while the constitutional question rumbles on, unsettled, in the background.”

It is not clear that this somewhat jaundiced assessment is warranted. In particular, by juxtaposing the constitutional and social issues in this way loses sight of the real source of the independence campaign’s current mass appeal.

Many — perhaps most — of those supporting independence do so not because they see it as a value in its own right, but precisely because it opens up the prospect of a way of engaging with social issues such as poverty and unemployment potentially far more effective than anything on offer from Labour and the other parties of the bankrupt Westminster establishment.

[Reprinted from Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal. Alex Miller is a member of the Scottish Socialist Party.]

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