—Adam Tomkins, University of Glasgow
[ICON Editors’ Choices for New Year Readings and Gifts: ICON’s Book Review Editor, Isabel Feichtner, invited our Board members to reflect on the books that have had a significant impact on them over the past year. In the following weeks they will present their selections here on I*Connect. They write about books, not necessarily published in 2014, but read or reread this year, and which they found inspiring, enjoyable or consider ‘must reads’ for their own work or comparative constitutional law scholarship in general. These editors’ choices are not intended to be a prize in disguise, but rather are personalized accounts of the reading experiences of our Board members.]
Being a British constitutional lawyer based in Glasgow, the Scottish independence referendum that took place on 18 September 2014 rather unsurprisingly dominated my year. On a turnout of 84%, the Scottish electorate voted by 2 million votes to 1.6 million (55% to 45%) that Scotland should remain part of the United Kingdom and should not become an independent state. In my career I have become used to frequent constitutional change – the UK’s Human Rights Act dates from 1998 and there have been Acts of Parliament devolving power to Scotland, Wales or Northern Ireland in each of 1998, 2006, 2012, 2013 and 2014 – but the Scottish independence referendum posed the biggest challenge to the constitution of the United Kingdom since the creation of the Irish Free State in 1922.
The United Kingdom is an unusual state. It is neither a single nation comprised of multiple states (as the United States of America is); nor is it a single nation-state (as France is). Rather, it is a state of nations: a union of four component parts – England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland. Yet the UK is not and never has been a federation. The four component nations are not equal to one another. Significant legislative power is devolved to Scotland and Northern Ireland; more modest legislative power is devolved to Wales; and in England, the largest of the four nations, there is no legislative devolution: Westminster is England’s parliament as well as the legislature for the UK as a whole.
Ireland’s relation to Britain has oftentimes been unhappy and, all too frequently, descended into violence. There was a Union of Britain and Ireland from 1800 but it came to a bloody end in 1922, when most of Ireland left the UK (only the six counties of Northern Ireland remain part of the UK). There is no independence movement in Northern Ireland but the so-called “Troubles” of the 1970s to the 1990s were a political and sectarian battle between those who wish to see a united Ireland and those who wish the six counties to remain part of the UK.
Scotland’s Union with England is much older than Ireland’s with Britain, and has been far more successful. Scotland and England have shared the same monarch since 1603 and the same Parliament at Westminster since 1707. It was this latter Union that would have come to an end had a majority of Scots voted Yes to the referendum question “Should Scotland be an independent country?” on 18 September. I was not neutral in the referendum campaign: I campaigned for a No vote (some of my writings on the referendum can be read on my blog: http://notesfromnorthbritain.wordpress.com/).
It is too soon yet for any book-length academic analysis of the Scottish independence referendum to have appeared but four books were published in time for the end-of-year holidays, in which authors reflect on the campaign, the result and its meanings. I have read three of them and these are my books of the year.
Alan Cochrane is one of the most experienced political journalists working in Scotland. He writes for the right-leaning Daily Telegraph, a paper that strongly supported a No vote. A commentator of the old school, Cochrane is as opposed to devolution as he is to Scottish independence. Furtively, he kept a diary throughout the campaign (which ran for two-and-a-half years, starting in early 2012), published under the typically self-serving and hyperbolic title, Alex Salmond: My Part in his Downfall (Biteback, London, 2014). (Salmond was the leader of the Scottish National Party, which led the campaign for a Yes vote and which has formed the Scottish Government since 2007; he resigned as First Minister of Scotland and as leader of the SNP on 19 September 2014.) Cochrane’s is a book of gossip, much of it outrageous in its indiscretion: a real insider’s account of the way the referendum looked from the privileged position of a seasoned lobby hack. It will be read avidly by everyone who was involved in the campaign but will be of very limited interest to anyone else. I read it in a single sitting.
David Torrance is a freelance political commentator based in London and Edinburgh, best known (in Scotland at least) for his unofficial biography of Alex Salmond. He produces books at a prolific rate. Like Cochrane, he published a diary of the campaign but Torrance’s account is of the climax only: 100 Days of Hope and Fear: How Scotland’s Referendum was Lost and Won (Luath Press, Edinburgh, 2014). Torrance has not disclosed which way he voted in the referendum. He is an advocate of the view that the best future for both Scotland and Britain is within a newly minted federal constitution. His 100 Days book is a far richer book than Cochrane’s but it suffers from having been written too quickly and also from the fact that, especially in the closing weeks of the campaign, its author was so frantically in demand as a media commentator that he left himself too little time to reflect on the noise and heat of the campaign as it swirled around him. The result is a book that becomes too much about the author and too little about the events he was supposedly observing. Perhaps this is an odd thing to say about a diary but, such is Torrance’s reputation as an incisive and insightful analyst that one expects more from his pen. Still, the book does well to capture the emotions of the closing weeks of the campaign: the panic and chaos, the anxiety and fear, and the hope and expectation. My heart was racing as I relived it all.
Peter Geoghegan, like Torrance, is a freelance journalist. Originally from Ireland, he has been living in and writing about Scotland for a decade or so. He is a lovely writer whose fascination with politics is bottom-up. The contrast in style with Cochrane’s clubbism could hardly be greater. Geoghegan’s book, The People’s Referendum: Why Scotland Will Never Be the Same Again (Luath Press, Edinburgh, 2015) is a terrific read. Geoghegan is a sensitive writer who travelled across the length and breadth of Scotland to seek out how the referendum was being experienced in communities as diverse as those of the Outer Hebrides, the Borders, working-class Catholics in the west-central belt, and the ex-mining towns of west Fife. Scotland may be small, but it is a remarkably diverse nation. Alone of our three writers he makes a serious attempt to place the Scottish independence referendum in international context: Geoghegan travels to Catalonia and to the Balkans during the course of the campaign and writes essays from (and on) each, included as chapters in this book. It works beautifully, and is reminiscent of one of the finest books I’ve ever read about Scotland: Neal Ascherson’s Stone Voices: The Search for Scotland (Granta, London, 2002). Unlike Cochrane’s and Torrance’s rather breathless accounts, this is a book to savour and to take one’s time with.
Geoghegan (and indeed Ascherson) supported a Yes vote. It was said during the campaign that the Yes side had all the best tunes and that their campaign was conducted in poetry whereas the No campaign was confined to prose. Prose won. Great constitutional stories, however, need both prose and poetry. There is a great deal further to be said about the constitutional story of Scotland in 2014. In their different ways, Cochrane, Torrance and Geoghegan will each be referred to and relied upon as that story is unfolded and developed, but it will be Geoghegan’s contribution that will have the longest shelf-life.