How Westminster lost Scotland: review of 'Disunited Kingdom'

February 6, 2015
Independence-supporting journalist Iain MacWhirter recounts from first-hand experience the events of the referendum and its afte

Disunited Kingdom: How Westminster Won a Referendum But Lost Scotland
By Iain MacWhirter
Cargo Publishing, 2014,
174 pages

The independence referendum on September 18 last year has been hailed by many as the most important event in the recent Scottish history.

The result was far closer than any supporter of independence would have dared predict even a few months before the vote. About 1.6 million voters (45%) refused to be swayed by a sustained fear campaign by the British state and its allies ― voting “Yes” to Scottish independence.

Many people chose to vote against independence due to a commitment made by the major (panic-stricken) British parties to give substantial new powers to the (devolved) Scottish Parliament, the so-called “Vow”.

Voters in Scotland were promised that if they voted “No”, “home rule” and “near federalism” would be granted. The Smith Commission, charged with drafting a plan for the implementing “the Vow”, failed to satisfy the aspirations of the Scottish public for political autonomy from Britain.

Now, the Command Paper published by the British government on January 23 has further watered-down the Smith Commission's inadequate proposals. Westminster retains a veto, not only on Scottish government proposals on the welfare system, but even over road and traffic signs.

Under the proposal, Westminster cedes only minor fiscal powers to the Scottish government. The latest proposals are regarded as completely inadequate, not only by the pro-independence supporters groups but also by major players in Scottish civil society, such as the Scottish Trades Union Congress, the Scottish Council for Voluntary Organisations, Citizens Advice, the Poverty Alliance and countless others.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the self-proclaimed “guarantors” of “the Vow” ― ex-Labour prime minister Gordon Brown and Alastair Darling, leader of the “Better Together” No campaign ― have announced that they are leaving politics this year.

Well might they hang their heads in shame. The main party in favour of staying in the British union in Scotland ― Labour ― has gone into meltdown. Its leader, Johann Lamont, resigned only a month after the referendum “victory”, complaining that British Labour treated Scottish Labour as a “branch office”.

Membership has mushroomed for political parties supporting independence ― the Scottish National Party (SNP), the Scottish Socialist Party (SSP) and the Scottish Green Party. These groups now have around 100,000 members between them, and the SNP is now the third biggest political party in the whole of Britain.

Groups such as Women for Independence and the Radical Independence Campaign continue to meet and organise, and have grown since the referendum. The Scottish Left Project has opened up welcome space for disparate left groups to engage constructively about the way forward.

Opinion polls suggest that in the British-wide Westminster elections scheduled for May, Labour could retain as few as four of its 41 Scottish seats in Westminster ― paying for its collusion with David Cameron’s Conservative Party-led Britain government over the referendum.

In his excellent and highly readable book, Disunited Kingdom: How Westminster Won a Referendum But Lost Scotland, independence-supporting journalist Iain MacWhirter recounts from first-hand experience the events of the referendum and its aftermath.

In particular, he highlights the role played by the mainstream media in peddling disinformation about independence to bolster the British establishment’s “Project Fear”. He gives a good sense of how independence would open up space for progressive forces in Scotland to develop an alternative to bankrupt neoliberalism.

The book isn’t perfect. MacWhirter tends to see any demand for national self-determination as inevitably in tension with class-based politics.

However, as Russian revolutionary V.I. Lenin argued on many occasions, while socialists do not give unconditional support to nationalist demands, support for national self-determination can be justified where it advances the working-class cause.

Arguably, this is the case in contemporary Scotland. Independence would not only open up more space for the left, it would also advance the working-class cause internationally by weakening the British state’s capacity to service US imperialism.

For one thing, Britain would face the difficult prospect of finding a new home for its nuclear arsenal, now entirely based in Scotland's west.

MacWhirter also underplays historical resistance to the 1706 Treaty of Union across the 300 years. For example, he writes that in Ireland, “political agitation against the union began almost as soon as it joined in 1801”, whereas the Scots became “enthusiastic partners in the Union and British Empire”.

This is an exaggeration, to say the least. It ignores the large-scale armed resistance to the union that broke out several times int eh 18th and 19th centuries.

Despite this, MacWhirter’s book provides an insightful and generally accurate snapshot of referendum and post-referendum politics in Scotland that can be recommended to anyone interested in Scotland’s future.

It ends on an optimistic note: “The hundreds of thousands of Scots who have been persuaded that they need independence to create a fairer nuclear free society are not going to go away.

“It is my firm belief now, having seen the reaction to the referendum, that Scotland will be an independent country. And we may not have to wait very long to see it.”

[Alex Miller is a member of the Scottish Socialist Party.]

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