Three books to read before Scots independence vote

In this photo illustration, Scottish independence information leaflets are placed on a table. Picture: Getty
In this photo illustration, Scottish independence information leaflets are placed on a table. Picture: Getty
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STILL making your mind up on the referendum? These three books just might help, says Matt Qvortrup

A CONSTITUTION FOR THE COMMON GOOD

W ELLIOT BULMER

Luath, 128pp, £11.99

RETHINKING OUR POLITICS

HENRY McLEISH

Luath, 268pp, £11.99

WOMEN SAYING NO

EDITED BY MARIA FYFE

Luath, 91pp, £7.99

The latest – and surely among the last – crop of books on the pros and cons of Scottish independence before the vote on 18 September presents a varied selection. They range from the academically insightful (W Elliot Bulmer’s volume), through the intellectually honest (McLeish’s book) to the passionate, though somwehat predictable arguments against independence presented in the volume edited by Maria Fyfe.

W Elliot Bulmer’s book is a rare example of a treatise on constitutional politics aimed at the general reader. The author is well-known to academics and nerds such as the reviewer. This book, however, deserves to be read outside the narrow confines of the ivory towers of academia. The tract is Victorian in scope in the best sense of the word, covering a wide array of constitutional options for Scotland and it discusses with insightful examples how a post-referendum constitution could be drawn up to reflect Scottish aspirations.

One strength of Bulmer’s book is that it provides options for the aftermath of both a Yes and a No vote, pointing out that a rejigged constitution may be needed even if voters reject independence.

One of the most interesting parts of the book is the discussion of constitutional mechanisms for ensuring consensus in Scandinavian countries. For example, in Sweden two-fifths of the members in the Riksdagen can delay the third reading of a bill until after the next election, thereby forcing the majority to compromise. Similarly, a third of the members of the Danish Folketing can demand a referendum before a bill becomes law. This too forces the majority to seek a consensus solution. These are good ideas that could also work in a Scottish context.

Bulmer does not take a stance on independence directly, though the logical conclusion of his arguments is that the status quo is no longer tolerable, as one important argument in its favour is hardly attractive. “The influence that large corporations and wealthy individuals now wield on the UK political system seems unprecedented in the post-war period,” he notes. “There is powerful evidence of political and business interests becoming increasingly interwoven. The problem is not just that Scotland has been ruled by Westminster governments with no majority in Scotland for 34 of the 68 years since 1945 but also that the those governments have their own agenda, directed by the rich and powerful few.” Rarely if ever, has the problem of democracy in our country been stated more succinctly. This is an excellent book and I learned a lot from it.

The democratic malaise is also the topic of Henry McLeish’s exceptionally perceptive and well-written volume. The former first minister is rarely given the credit he deserves. His vast experience and his knowledge of politics both north and south of the Border means that he is particularly well placed to offer a commentary on the current state of Scotland and the rest of the UK.

While nominally a Labour man and a supporter of a No vote (although reportedly a reluctant one at that), his observations about the Labour Party and Better Together are perceptive and honest. The “Labour Party has enormous potential for positive social, political and economic good,” he notes. “But it has lost traction and direction. The SNP has now governed this nation for the past six years during a period of enormous economic difficulty and has captured the imagination of the public”. From the party’s former leader, this is quite a statement.

It would be easy to dismiss this as sour grapes. But this may sound like a jeremiad, his party members would do well to listen to it and acknowledge the insight he provides.

So far in the referendum debate the onus has been mainly on the Yes campaign to spell out the consequences of an independent Scotland. The press has been reluctant to challenge the narrative on the No side and has not sufficiently questioned it about the likelihood of reform. McLeish flags this up. “A No vote would mean that the Houses of Parliament could, in the aftermath of the referendum battle, settle down on their red and green benches blissfully aware that they are the only power in the land... After the General Election in 2015, who is to say that any careful agreement arrived at by the Unionist parties in their manifestos will survive and be given the urgency needed to ensure the will of the Scottish people, whatever the vote, is delivered?” This warning shot is likely to be prophetic.

Unlike Bulmer and McLeish’s excellent books Maria Fyfe’s edited volume seems strangely devoid of forceful arguments. One of the contributors writes that she will vote No “based upon my experience of living in the newly independent states in Eastern Europe” even though surely such states value their freedom from the Soviet Union. The chapters also focus on social welfare, and several chapters attack the Conservatives’ anti-austerity measures without explaining how remaining in a Tory-led Union will benefit social democracy.

• Matt Qvortrup is author of ‘Referendums and Ethnic Conflict’