Independence: An Argument for Home Rule, by Alasdair Gray, Canongate, RRP£9.99, 144 page
My Scotland, Our Britain: A Future Worth Sharing, by Gordon Brown, Simon & Schuster, RRP£20, 336 pages
One of the authors of this pair of books is a dyspeptic Scottish socialist prone to exaggeration. The other is Gordon Brown. He and Alasdair Gray have written works that argue for opposing sides in the debate on Scottish independence. The pro-union former prime minister and the secessionist novelist have different styles as well as arguments. Gray’s masterpiece Lanark (1981) won him comparisons with Dante and Joyce, whereas Brown’s prose is somewhat more straightforward. His new book begins: “I love my country. Simple as that.”
If only it were so easy. On September 18, Scots will vote on whether they want to end a political union that has lasted for more than 300 years. The long campaign has been criticised by wits as the “neverendum” yet it has made Scots reflect anew on who they are. Scottish artists have produced a range of works that explore their nationhood. This year’s Edinburgh festival will be a vaudevillian examination of identity. And in our age of mass cynicism towards traditional politics, the referendum stands out. Hundreds of thousands of Scots have liked their side’s Facebook page. Turnout is expected to be as high as 80 per cent, close to the record for a general election held in Britain.
The novelist writes that he won’t “waste time by discussing Scottish identity, as vague a ghost as the identity of any other millions of people”, but this spectre is as absent from Independence: An Argument for Home Rule as Banquo in Macbeth. In his disarmingly idiosyncratic fashion, Gray assembles reasons why Scotland and Scots are distinct from England and the English. He begins with rocks. Natural geological barriers meant that the Romans never conquered the north of Britannia and explain why “England and Scotland at last became radically different nations”. Scots’ reputation for thriftiness – only slightly undermined by Brown’s fiscal stewardship – stems in part, writes Gray, from the barrenness of its glens compared to England’s pastures.
Geographic differences begot variation in politics, religion and culture, according to Gray. He says that therefore the period between the Act of Union in 1707 and the (re)opening of the devolved Scottish parliament in 1999 is best described as a “hiatus”. During this period, Scotland was allegedly co-opted into a warmongering imperial adventure by a “colonial” England with the compliance of venal Scottish elites. And so it remains today. Scottishness can never flourish, he argues, under Westminster rule. “The problem of every nation is being governed by folk with a completely different perspective – a different view of life – from those who elect them.”
O proper stuff! Of course there are myriad differences in the development of the countries of the UK. Scotland’s distinct institutions – churches, trade unions, schools, universities, courts, national sports teams, operas, theatres and ballets – are testament to that. There have also been plenty of schisms within Scotland; those faultlines of Gray’s could also apply to the bloody divisions between highlanders and lowlanders. In historical conflicts more Scots have killed each other than they have people from England. The idea that Scots are completely different from other people in Britain is nonsense in kilts. Data from social attitudes surveys show that Scots are more strongly opposed to the privatisation of public services but that there are no significant differences in attitudes to inequality and redistribution. Scots are not from Venus and the English are not from Mars.
Brown’s version of history in My Scotland, Our Britain is more nuanced. “Scotland feels different from England but is more like England than anywhere else,” Brown writes. He rightly argues that there are such things as Scottish values; he suggests that the Calvinist reformation and the Scottish enlightenment bestowed a sense of the “democratic intellect” and civic society. These emerged alongside a shared sense of Britishness forged through empire, wars, Protestantism and, later, the welfare state.
The traditional explanation, therefore, for why Scotland is now having its referendum is because of the weakening of this once centripetal force. The sun has set on the British Empire and Scotland, like England and Wales, is a secular country. There is much truth in this account but it fails to explain the fact that a majority of Scots say they still feel some sense of British identity. Moreover, it jars with an irony of recent history: Scotland was more obviously Scottish when the union was stronger. After the second world war, for example, Kirk attendance was commonplace, Scots’ dialects were more often heard, and the unique progressiveness of the Scottish education system was more apparent.
It is all too easy to view the referendum as the bad end to a good marriage – as a domestic story. But in their different ways, Gray and Brown remind us that it should also be seen as part of globalisation.
In Gray’s telling, the Westminster parliament is so in hock to capital markets that “until Scotland has a truly independent government it can achieve nothing except what the City of London with its bankers and brokers allows.” This is a massive exaggeration with a comic flourish. (Consider the fear of the broker, that workhorse of global finance.) But he hints at an important question: is Scottish nationalism part of the same trend evident across Europe – a populist alternative supported by those who have benefited least from globalisation? Is Alex Salmond Nigel Farage with a Scottish accent and better jokes?
Brown suggests so. The former prime minister argues that nationalism is “a proxy” for an answer to “alienating, dislocating industrial, economic and social change”. He notes that Scotland’s fall from the heights of industry has been vertiginous. Support for independence has grown especially quickly among working-class men in post-industrial areas. And yet, Brown concludes, the answer is to seize the good in globalisation via a pluralist Britain with a new federalist structure.
Scotland, Brown says, should opt for “interdependence” not independence. This surely has more promise for a nation that has done much to shape the world throughout its modern history than the retreat into parochial statism suggested by Gray. The problem for Brown, and for unionists more generally, is that Gray does not speak for all nationalists. Many Scots, including Salmond, claim that a Yes vote is itself an embrace of globalisation. A possible UK exit from the European Union only strengthens their belief that interdependence versus independence is a false choice. Ultimately, there are many nationalisms, as there are many Scottish identities. In September we shall know which one prevails.
John McDermott is an FT columnist