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Henry McLeish’s new book, ‘Scotland, the Growing Divide’, is already dated. McLeish’s primary appeal was for a second question, on devo-max, in Scotland’s 2012 referendum.
He argues strongly that with no second question, the Scottish electorate will not trust any vague promises based on voting ‘No’ and waiting for a better form of devolution after doing so. Within weeks of the book’s publication, however, his case had been kicked into touch. Ironically, no-one rejected a second question more forcibly than the current leader of the party he once led.
‘Scotland, the Growing Divide’ certainly provides some revealing insights. He understands his own party as having an essentially centrist and unionist structure, operating under a continuing pressure from London to conform.
He notes that the Lib-Lab Scottish Executive’s introduction of PR for local government ironically did what Forsyth’s gerrymandering of council boundaries failed to do, rob Labour of its Scottish municipal dominance. He observes that Scottish local government, like the Scottish Parliament, receives virtually all its money as a hand-down and, while responsible for spending its money, is not responsible for raising it. It is a situation not conducive to mature and responsible management.
He very wisely suggests to his Labour Party colleagues that to defeat independence they must campaign for it independently, since an alliance with the Conservatives and Liberals will play into the SNP’s hands.
McLeish also accurately assesses the disillusion of many with the political process. He understands that seriously decreasing electoral turn-out reflects cynicism about politicians as well as a profound belief among the most alienated that no electoral outcome will have any positive impact on their impoverished lives.
Yet, for all its occasional nuggets of wisdom, this is a
disappointing book.
He has not grasped that the rise of nationalism in Scotland has occurred in a world where fulfilment of national identity is the democratic option across countless previously multi-national states: the Baltic nations, the former Czechoslovakia and Yugoslavia, South Sudan. He might have noted that even closer to home, in Wales, the electorate which rejected devolution by a massive 4:1 vote in 1978, voted (albeit narrowly) for devolution in 1999 and now wants more. There is a growing sense that the small nation-state may be the best vehicle for democratic accountability and change.
He barely mentions the two seismic shifts within the UK over the last 70 years, the end of empire and de-industrialisation, both of which have had profound impacts on how Scots perceive themselves and have diminished the force of a once-common British identity among Scots. He entirely ignores Scottish cultural, artistic or literary movements.
He analyses in depth the strategies, tactics and policies of the UK and Scottish political parties, almost as if these forces directly and uniquely shaped the views of the electorate. It is perhaps the self-delusion of politicians that they believe that they are responsible for great political movements. Perhaps the reality is that the politicians who bring about profound changes are those who grasp the great historical movements around them, and who timeously and articulately express the popular reactions to these.
While he berates Labour in Scotland for failing to grasp devolution as an opportunity for change, but change which does not stop at the present devolutionary arrangements, he himself sets an arbitrary line beyond which such change must not move.
Henry McLeish may well have been right. There likely was, and perhaps remains, a majority whose preference would be devo-max. For that reason, although personally in favour of independence, this reviewer also advocated that it should be on the ballot. (It would likely have won.) Such an option, however, was never acceptable to the grand leaders of British politics.
Firstly, UK Labour cannot afford any further constitutional change without surrendering its trainload of quiescent Scottish MPs who have given it Westminster majorities in three post-war UK elections in which England voted Tory. Secondly, unionists of all parties realised that it would only whet the appetite for more and be a step towards a fundamental constitutional conflict and not the end of such conflicts.
Henry McLeish got one thing absolutely right: the title for his book. There is indeed a ‘growing divide’ between politic s north and south of the border. Many who would broadly concur with the social aspirations with which Henry McLeish identifies, will see their application as much more likely in an independent Scotland than within an English-dominated union.
Given that there will be no second question, Henry McLeish will have some hard problems to ponder as the referendum campaigns start in earnest.
The above article was first published in Scottish review on 30 October 2012:

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