Book review: The Battle of Britain, David Torrance

David Cameron and Alex Salmond. Picture: Getty
David Cameron and Alex Salmond. Picture: Getty
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A rare historian keeps his head while others are losing theirs in our constitutional maelstrom

The Battle Of Britain: Scotland And The Independence Referendum

Biteback Publishing, £ 14.99

‘THE historian,” WR Connor once said, “should be an artist who responds to, selects and skilfully arranges his material, and develops its symbolic and emotional potential”. David Torrance, in writing The Battle Of Britain, is in many ways, exactly this; he sees the forthcoming referendum in 2014 as a prism through which we can understand and appreciate Scotland at the beginning of the 21st century. To understand the referendum is to understand how this small country is coming to terms with its past and how it will deal with the future.

After an outline of the intellectual debate about independence since the 1970s, complete with references to Tom Nairn’s classic The Break-Up Of Britain, Torrance moves on to present the dramatis personae; “the Old Etonian pitched against a product of Linlithgow High School”, referring, of course, to David Cameron and Alex Salmond.

In the subsequent chapters, Torrance unpicks and popularises the thorny issues of constitutional law, with occasional detours into the world of intellectual thought and popular culture to liven things up. We learn from overseas examples that break-ups of states can come about in a matter of months, as was the case with Czechoslovakia in the early 1990s. And we are told new and interesting facts, such as that a majority of Scots actually want “new nuclear weapons system to replace Trident”. Hitherto the commitment to a nuclear-free Scotland has been Yes Scotland’s perceived trump card in the debate.

Torrance writes relatively little about the actual campaign. This is understandable: independence has huge policy implications and these are what he focuses on. Chapters on economics, defence and foreign affairs and welfare and pensions are thorough and well researched – but also lively and well written – surveys of the likely implications of independence for ordinary citizens.

Writing history about the present is always difficult. Some even argue that contemporary history is an oxymoron; that history is the science of the past and not the present. Needless to say, it is difficult to get a sense of perspective if you are in the middle of the historical maelstrom. Torrance is faced with the problem that he is writing about a moving target. But it is worth remembering that Thucydides’ History Of The Peloponnesian War – often dubbed the first scientific historical account – was written when the war was still raging. Of course, this book is not about an ancient battle between Sparta and Athens. We are unlikely to experience the atrocities of ancient warfare in 420 BC. But at the emotional level, as Torrance outlines with pertinent quotations from the key decision-makers, the referendum in 2014 is likely to be a ferocious clash of two incompatible articles of faith; the nationalist creed that Scotland’s salvation lies in independence and the polar opposite credo that severing the ties with the rest of the United Kingdom would condemn Scotland to eternal financial damnation.

History is often at its best when the historian tries out the counter-factual scenarios; when they contemplate what would have been if history had taken a different turn. As the historical event in question has yet to happen, it is difficult for Torrance to answer the what-if question. But in two short yet engaging chapters Torrance presents two likely scenarios seen from the imaginary position of 2024, one assuming there had been a No vote ten years earlier and the other assuming a vote for independence. What he sees, is for the reader to discover, but suffice it to say that neither the panacea of starry-eyed nationalists nor the doomsday of equally fixated unionists is considered a likely scenario.

This ability to stay clear of any clichés is one of the recommendations of this book. It does not fall for the temptation of buying into the easy narratives provided by spin doctors on each side of the independence divide. Good historical writing, wrote the great Irish historian EB Bury, is “severe in its detachment, written from a purely intellectual point of view, unencumbered with platitudes and moral judgments, cold and critical”. Torrance’s book is unencumbered in just this way, but luckily not “cold”. Very few other contemporary writers have David Torrance’s insight and breadth of knowledge, from Chris Hoy to Eric Hobsbawm. It is truly a tour de force.