Book review: The Case for Scottish Independence, by Ben Jackson

Despite the imbalance created by a dominance of male voices, Ben Jackson has produced a powerful and beautifully written account of nationalist thinking over 80 years, writes Joyce McMillan

Ben Jackson

It was Victor Hugo who pointed out that nothing is more powerful than an idea whose time has come; and the world of political theory is therefore a strange one, a kind of iceberg of thought in which huge amounts of activity take place over the years – usually for small and specialised academic or political audiences – in order, when the moment comes, to produce those rare flashpoints when ideas suddenly connect with, and begin to change, political and social reality.

Ben Jackson’s fascinating new study of the arguments for Scottish independence, in the eight decades between the founding of the SNP in 1934 and the independence referendum of 2014, is therefore probably best understood as a rigorous and well-informed guide to the great hidden iceberg of Scottish thought about independence during those years; but one that links that material fluently and sometimes brilliantly to the key historic moments when ideas about Scottish independence and home rule have broken the political surface, and become visible to almost every citizen or voter in Scotland.

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The book begins by exploring nationalist thought in the years between the two world wars, when Scottish nationalism, under thinkers like John McCormick and Robert McIntyre, expressed a strong hostility both to large-scale capitalism and to large-scale state socialism. The national movement therefore found itself wrong-footed, after 1945, by the striking postwar success of the UK model of top-down, paternalistic Labourism and it was only when that postwar model began to show signs of strain, in the late 1960s and 1970s, that the SNP – until then a very small minority party – began to emerge as a serious electoral force.

Jackson is particularly brilliant in his analysis of the impact of post-1968 New Left thinking on the nationalist cause; and of how that rebellious neo-Marxist strand of thought fed into Tom Nairn’s devastating portrait, in his hugely influential 1977 book The Break-Up Of Britain, of the British state as a barely-modernised feudal and imperial relic, which would inevitably crack under the pressures of the post-imperial age.

This was the decisive moment, Jackson suggests, when the way opened up for the idea of Scottish independence as a modernising project of escape from a decaying and increasingly right-wing UK. It’s this pragmatic, centre-left vision of Scottish independence which has underpinned the massive surge in the SNP’s electoral popularity since 2005; and which has perhaps reached its apotheosis in the current Brexit crisis, which has fully exposed the UK’s profound difficulty in adapting to the conditions of 21st century modernity.

It’s a consequence of Jackson’s decision to focus on those who have made academic or book-length contributions to nationalist thought that it misses many vital dimensions of Scotland’s political evolution during these decades, understating the role of cultural activity in shifting perceptions of Scottishness, and largely bypassing the massive and growing contribution of women, as thinkers, writers, campaigners, and civic activists; Jackson’s early apology for the dominance of male voices in this story does not quite compensate for his failure to shift his frame of reference in ways that might rectify the imbalance.

Nonetheless, his book is a powerful account, beautifully written and edited, of some of the sheer richness of thought that has been generated by Scotland’s constitutional debate over the last century. Above all it reminds us of the sheer inaccuracy of the standard British media caricature of Scottish nationalism as a matter of irrational patriotic passion decked out in blue face-paint; when in fact, it has perhaps been the subject of more nuanced historical and rational argument than any British political movement since 1945. If the British state is struggling to deal with Scottish nationalism now, it is largely because it has never made any serious effort to understand it; and there’s an irony in the truth that those with most to gain from reading this book, at this moment, are precisely those who are least likely ever to hear of it, far less to begin to absorb its lessons.

The Case for Scottish Independence, by Ben Jackson, Cambridge University Press, £18.99

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