Book reviews: Tartan Pimps/Broonland


THE unique aspect of Scottish politics (within the UK at least) is that it is driven by literary and intellectual debate rather than by hurried newspaper columns or three-minute television interviews. Owen Dudley Edwards dubs this the "Republic of Letters".

His latest work, written in conjunction with Mitch Miller and Johnny Rodger, seeks to prove the point by re-examining key books that influenced Scottish politics during the Thatcher and New Labour era, culminating in the restoration of the Scottish Parliament.

The result is jollier than my bare outline suggests. Partly because Owen Dudley Edwards – eminent historian, iconoclast, Sherlock Holmes buff and professional Irishman – has the gift of the Blarney. And partly because he knows his political onions.

The scurrilous title – Tartan Pimps – requires explanation. Dudley Edwards' contention is that even pro-unionist Scots needed to maintain the idea of Scottish exceptionalism within the UK in order to boost their standing among the metropolitan elite in London; ie "pimping the tartan".

Thus unionists (especially in the Labour Party) and nationalists both conspired to maintain a separate Scottish political culture through literary outpourings. Ultimately, despite the best intentions of the Labour unionists, this led to a strengthening of Scottish national identity, even when the nation's traditional separate institutions – heavy industry, Kirk and law – were ailing in the post-war period. Chief among Dudley Edwards's tartan pimps is a certain Gordon Brown, whose writings form the core of his book.

I'm attracted by this thesis, but Dudley Edwards does not tell us why Scottish politics is so driven by the literature. It could be the result of our Calvinist, Bible-centred culture, in which stories of the kings of Israel and Judah and their frequent apostasy loom large. It could reflect the heavy influence of Marxism after the Red Clyde.

Tartan Pimps stands or falls by its choice of writers under review. Getting his retaliation in early, Dudley Edwards makes the not unreasonable point that any list of books designed to sum up a historical epoch is bound to be subjective. That noted, he is still missing some key suspects.

For instance, the formidable Alan Lawson, who gets only one passing mention. As editor of the sadly defunct monthly magazine Radical Scotland, Lawson rates a political Oscar for almost single-handedly keeping alive the intellectual debate about a new Scotland during the fallow Thatcherite 1980s.

From March 1983, with its infamous front cover of the last Kirk minister being strangled by the last copy of the Sunday Post, to its premature demise in November 1990, Radical Scotland was the gathering place for the remnant of marooned leftists, nascent Greens, frustrated nationalists and isolated Labour home rulers who kept the faith that a Scottish Parliament was possible after the 1979 referendum debacle.

The roll call of writers in Radical Scotland is amazing: the late John Smith, George Galloway, Robin Cook (recanting his anti-devolution past), Billy Wolfe, Brian Wilson, Alex Salmond and Bernard Crick, to name a few.

There were also contributors who would later become household names: Jack McConnell (arguing for "a radical and imaginative approach" to devolution), Kevin Dunion, Iain Gray (reporting from Mozambique); and a young Andy Marr, who helped Lawson put the magazine together.

I mention Radical Scotland not simply out of nostalgia (I wrote for it myself). The one name noticeably missing from its pages was the heid tartan pimp, G Brown.

Dudley Edwards' book is misleadingly subtitled "Gordon Brown, Margaret Thatcher and the New Scotland". Yet Brown has largely absented himself from the debates, arguments and feuds that forged the devolved Scotland we now live in – at least since he edited the influential Red Paper on Scotland in 1975.

Of course, Brown has been omnipresent in UK politics for decades and his intellectual shade still excites criticism in his homeland. But the man himself has been a non-contributor to Dudley Edwards's Scottish Republic of Letters for a long time. The 1999 pot-boiler, New Scotland, New Britain is clearly the work of its co-author, Douglas Alexander, and even then can hardly be called influential.

For when Brown left Scotland for Westminster in 1983 he became another person. This notion lies at the heart of Chris Harvie's valedictory, Broonland: the Last Days of Gordon Brown.

The ever-prolific Professor Harvie MSP writes two sorts of books. There are the waspish polemics such as Deep-Fried Hillman Imp. And there are the heavyweight, imaginative histories of which (here I agree with Dudley Edwards) the masterpiece is A Floating Commonwealth: Politics, Culture, and Technology on Britain's Atlantic Coast 1860-1930.

Harvie's latest work falls uneasily between the two styles. On one level it is an impish romp through the New Labour era, with Gordon Brown (Harvie's one-time friend and collaborator) cast as a socialist Faust who is seduced by the capitalist Mephistopheles of the City of London.

But Harvie also wants to write a serious analysis of Britain's economic and cultural Gtterdmmerung under New Labour. His unique skill is in having an eye for the curious and complex interconnections between making money and making culture. This book covers everything from organised crime to football.

Harvie's underlying thesis is that an impatient and over-confident Brown accepted (indeed connived in) the creation of a free-booting City economy in order to fund his grandiose schemes for a better Britain. The result was a Potemkin economy based on unsustainable levels of debt, and deeply criminal at its core. Outside of London, the regions and their manufacturing base were allowed to rot. The masses were bribed into thinking all was well with the baubles of supermarket consumerism paid for by the mirage of rising house prices.

I'm not sure Harvie quite brings off Broonland, though I can attest from conversations with him over the years that he was predicting the great financial crash while the chief executives of RBS and HBOS were sleepwalking to disaster. This is a racy read and the ideas shoot out of the pages like a Thompson machine gun.

However, the overall effect seems a bit eclectic – perhaps the result of being written originally as a series of blogs for the Guardian's website. In particular, Harvie (like Dudley Edwards) leaves us tantalisingly shy of explaining why Brown made his pact with the capitalist devil.

Gordon Brown is that rare beast: an unashamed intellectual who is both politically savvy and monstrously ambitious for power. As a result, his interest in ideas is more that of an intellectual magpie seeking justification for his conduct than a true ideologue wanting to impose a rigid system of thought on reality. Here lies the root of Brown's seeming contradictions.

Perhaps, as Harvie only hints, Brown's metamorphosis into metropolitan Faust came exactly when he removed himself from the heated debates of Scottish politics. Without the foil of the Republic of Letters to match his intelligence and outpouring of ideas, Brown's natural arrogance (that of the tartan pimp in London?) went unchecked.

If you like your books with a beginning, a middle and an end, perhaps these two are not for you. But if you like writing stuffed with fascinating ideas, to the point that the sentences burst like a badly wrapped present from an enthusiastic friend, then dip in.

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