Book Review: David Torrance – The Battle for Britain

In 1995, George Robertson, Labour shadow secretary for Scotland, predicted that ‘Devolution will kill Nationalism stone dead.’ In modern British political history few words have rung so hollow. This year, a decade and a half after a devolved Scottish parliament was established in Edinburgh, Scotland will vote on whether or not to leave Great Britain.

Viewed from this side of the Irish Sea, the drive for Scottish self-determination can seem quixotic, but September’s referendum is as much a product of realpolitik as romantic nationalism. The vote ‘has not come about because of a groundswell in support for independence’, as writer and journalist David Torrance notes in this excellent guide to the current debate. Instead the SNP’s sweeping – and unexpected, even to themselves – victory in devolved elections in 2011 left the party with no choice other than to offer a referendum on their flagship policy.

torranceTwo years is an eternity for a political campaign and, with nine months to go, Scotland’s has managed to be ‘both arid and acrimonious’. (In 2012, Martin McGuinness jokingly offered the Edinburgh and London governments the use of Stormont for ‘peace talks’). It is a huge credit to Torrance, a biographer of Scottish National Party leader Alex Salmond, that he is able to animate dry policy detail and myriad questions about post-independence Scotland with so much energy.

Historian Tony Judt wrote that the Scots ‘sense of self’ rests upon ‘a curious admix of superiority and resentment’. But identity has largely been conspicuous by its absence from the Scottish referendum debate. If anything is it the unionist campaign – built on a ‘we are all in this together’ sense of Britishness – that has relied most heavily on overt appeals to patriotic sentiment. Scottish nationalists might, however, be advised to start playing the tartan card soon – most independence votes are won on emotion.

But the SNP’s success so far has largely been down to technocratic competence. In government they managed to distance themselves from an unpopular government in Westminster and to plot a reasonably distinct course north of the border in areas such as healthcare (free prescription, no privatisation of the NHS) and education (free tuition fees).

Nationalists could be victims of their own achievements, their prowess in government persuading Scots of the value not of independence but of further devolution. Opinion polls suggest just a third of Scots want to leave the union. Even the SNP propose to keep the Queen as head of state and to continue to use Sterling after independence.

It is on economics that Torrance is most critical of the nationalist vision of independence. The SNP has ‘yet to make up its mind about whether it believes in the neo-liberal or the social democratic model’. Salmond is still trying to live down the infamous 2006 ‘arc of prosperity’ speech in which he compared Scotland to boom-time Iceland and Ireland.

The result in September is not a foregone conclusion. The unremittingly negative unionist campaign could yet push voters into the nationalists’ arms, especially if they suspect that promises of further devolution will be reneged upon. A strong UKIP performance in European elections this summer, coupled with the prospect of a Conservative government in Westminster might also be the spark for a surge in support for going it alone.

Even a ‘no’ in September is unlikely to settle Scotland’s constitutional question for long. As Norman Davies has noted, ‘the political architecture’ of the UK is ‘inherently unbalanced’. Demands for greater autonomy will continue to come from Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland and, increasingly, England. (Torrance does not dwell on the issue, but the impact of a ‘yes’ vote on Northern Ireland, and particularly embattled unionists, could be seismic.)

Scotland’s independence referendum is likely to be one of the major international news stories of 2014. Which is just as well, because this lively, perspicacious account of the historic vote deserves a wide audience. Brimming with historical antecedents and insightful analysis, and written with an easy style and no little wit, The Battle for Britain is likely to be required reading long after the ballots have been counted in September.

This review appeared in the Sunday Business Post, January 20, 2104.