Review - "The People's Referendum"

Peter Geoghegen’s new book weaves together local stories and histories to provide subtle insights into Scotland’s political future.

Harry Blain
6 January 2015
George Square on September 17, 2014

"The constitutional question rumbles on, unsettled." Flickr/Phyllis Buchanan. Some rights reserved.

Peter Geoghegen, The People’s Referendum: Why Scotland Will Never Be the Same Again, Luath Press Ltd.

Recent headlines proclaiming “Oil rout would have wrecked an independent Scotland’s finances” (the Financial Times), “Low oil prices are burying all hope of future Scottish independence” (the Telegraph), or “Oil price fall poses challenge for North Sea industry – and Scottish nationalists” (the Guardian) show us that our journalists are capable of following market trends, adding up and comparing numbers and scrutinising the assumptions of a government White Paper. What they also indicate is a persistent failure to go beyond what Gerry Hassan has termed the “accountancy versions” of the independence debate, where the Edinburgh elite and the London elite argue over inflated and fudged figures, feed their talking points to the media, and treat the public as customers rather than citizens.

The greatest success of Peter Geoghegen’s new book is its total rejection of the “accountancy versions” of Scotland’s referendum. Instead, he sets out to document “the myriad personal and collective excursions taken by people across Scotland during the campaign” and his “own personal journey both as a journalist and an emigrant” at this defining moment in Scotland’s history. We hear from Orange Order members in North Lanarkshire; residents of Coldstream, “the only town in the UK with its own army regiment”; communists in West Fife who wept when the Berlin Wall fell; and Catalans raising Saltires in George Square. In this sense, the book follows in the tradition of politics and history from “below,” which has recently found particularly fertile ground in the context of the independence debate (see, for example, Chris Bambery’s “A People’s History of Scotland”).

Little Ireland and Little Moscow

Himself a member of the Irish Diaspora in Scotland, Geoghegen looks into the politics of this community in the town of Coatbridge (“Little Ireland”). Sharing his conversations with local unionists and nationalists, he contrasts the polarising conceptions of “Britishness” in Northern Ireland with “the more utilitarian and transactional” attitudes of Scots: “‘What does the Union do for me?’ ‘Am I better off within or without?’”

Similarly, local stories shed light on the role of the left in the referendum debate. Geoghegen travels to Cowdenbeath, the area that “returned Britain’s last Communist MP, Willie Gallacher, between 1935 and 1950,” and the small village of Lumphinnans, known locally as “Little Moscow.” Interviews with Willie Clarke, often described as the last Communist councillor in Britain, bring forward the socialist case for independence, and flow neatly into reflections on the crucial role of the Radical Independence Campaign, which “under banners that proclaimed ‘Another Scotland is Possible’… criticised the SNP’s centrist vision of a low-tax, social democratic independent Scotland and called for a return to class politics.”

This succinct summary of the leftist argument for independence was, to a large extent, absent from the pages of Britain’s liberal press. Guardian columnists like Will Hutton scrambled for federal solutions on how to “stop the independence bandwagon,” while Seamus Milne wrote that “Scots voting yes for social justice won’t get it from a party signed up to corporate tax cuts as the recipe for independence.” Perhaps more remarkably, despite his well-deserved reputation as a critic of the British establishment, Owen Jones’ end-of-year reflection – “The year the grassroots took on the powerful – and won” – did not discuss Scotland. A comment on the piece read: “Yes Scotland was the biggest grassroots campaign that Britain has ever seen and yet not even a mention of it. Odd.”

Odd indeed. Presumably, these prominent commentators were unaware of or didn’t have much faith in the “over 350 totally independent campaigns, each set up by activists, each self-funded, none centrally controlled” that nearly brought Britain’s political class to its knees. Refreshingly, Geoghegen acknowledges the presence of these groups and largely treats them with the seriousness that they deserve – although more questioning on why some self-described radicals (such as George Galloway) sided with the Union could have provided further insight into the tensions between class and national politics in Scotland.

Overlooking cultural movements

To be clear, “The People’s Referendum” does not claim to be “an exhaustive account of what happened in Scotland on September 18,” let alone an autopsy of the left. Yet its otherwise comprehensive attempt to tell “the story of the campaign” from the perspectives of “ordinary people” rather than “pollsters or politicians,” runs aground slightly in its treatment of the cultural and artistic aspects of the debate.

After appraising the politics of nationalist poet, Hugh MacDiarmid, Geoghegen asks “should we really expect our writers, whether MacDiarmid or anyone else, to be cogent political voices, too? Probably not.” Then, he points out that “Unionists trumpeted JK Rowling’s backing so loudly that one could be forgiven for thinking Hogwarts was an electoral district,” and that “Janice Galloway, Irvine Welsh and a plethora of belle-lettrists all publicly called for a Yes vote.”

Beyond this brief summary, there is no analysis of the impact of writers like Welsh on Scottish popular and political culture, and a lack of attention on groups such as National Collective, which brought together artists, writers and activists, and organised (among other events) “Yestival,” a month-long festival showcasing “the best of Scottish culture with help from communities across the country.” For me and many other young people, these cultural movements were central to “the story of the campaign” – and have a key role to play in Scotland’s future. They should not be treated as an afterthought.

What nationalism? Why nationalism?

The book is peppered with quotes about nations and nationalism, from Walker Connor on national “self-awareness” through myths and stories; to David McCrone on “stateless nations”; Benedict Anderson on the “imagined community”; and Etienne Balibar on nations as “retrospective illusions.” For students of political science and sociology, these quotes can become tiresome, but they are interwoven with a collection of stories and experiences that hint at wider trends.

Taking us to Catalonia and Republika Srpska (the Serb autonomous region in Bosnia) Geoghegen argues that notwithstanding many differences (for example, the “civic” nationalism of the SNP is contrasted with the “unashamedly ethnic” nationalism of Serb politicians) there are common themes across Europe. “All these sub-state nationalist movements are – in some way – a response to crisis, whether political, economic or even existential. If small (or smaller) is not quite beautiful, it is preferable to the present order, better able to buttress the nation (however defined) against the slings and arrows of late modernity.”

Although the stories from Barcelona and Banja Luka provide a general context for the diverse origins of these movements, the analysis of Scottish nationalism is at times incomplete. For instance, when we hear about the importance of common myths and stories as forces for national identity, there are mentions of William Wallace and the battle of Flodden, but nothing on Scotland’s “egalitarian myths.” There persists “a deeply rooted belief in Scotland that we, as a society and community, prioritise and value the idea of equality,” even while “the 1:273 ratio between Scotland’s wealthiest and poorest households in wealth” suggests that “this is most definitely not who we are in reality.” How is this myth constructed and sustained? How did it influence the referendum debate? I suspect its importance “for ordinary people” was more pronounced than 16th century battles.

So what has actually changed?

Any reader should be sceptical of a book based on the claim that things have changed forever – such claims are often lazy and exaggerated. However, Geoghegen has the ability to illuminate fundamental political changes in clear yet subtle language. The referendum’s impact on the Scottish media is captured in the words of an “elderly gentlemen” who now refuses to watch British television and instead gets his news from Russia Today, while the description of a simple scene from Jim Murphy’s “100 streets” tour strikes at the declining relevance of Britain’s political class: “Murphy’s Irn Bru crates were a representation of working class Scottish culture dreamed up in a party office and delivered by a man who, like many others in both campaigns, had never held a job outside politics.”

More broadly, the book argues that “[t]he independence referendum did not just expose cracks in the Labour party – it laid bare fissures in Scottish society itself.” The epilogue warns of “wider dangers” associated with the “inchoate new normal” in Scotland, if all issues are “refracted through the ‘national question.’”

Many Scots are enjoying this “new normal,” and would argue that the “national question” is a means to an end: a new, inclusive politics, a greener economy and a more compassionate society. While Geoghegen worries that we risk losing sight of “the dull but vital business of quotidian politics,” I worry about getting mired again in this business, which is too often based on the idea of “tough” and “complex” decisions being left to the “experts.” And yet, his overarching question remains vital: can the “dynamism of summer 2014” be sustained? The answer, of course, is in our hands.

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