Back from his holidays, IAN SMART is still in a poetic state of mind, even though he has some home truths to tell about one of Alex Salmond’s favourite books
Weave a circle round him thrice,
And close your eyes with holy dread
For he on honeydew hath fed
And drunk the milk of Paradise.
Italy remains the beautiful, prosperous, contented and yet anarchic country it always was. And the Italian Left remain as inept as ever. Anybody who thinks we get a hard time from the Guardian should try reading La Repubblica, although La Repubblica at least, has more justification.
Thanks to the wonders of modern communication, I have not been entirely isolated from events during my absence, or returned with a confused version of what has happened: eg, “Tom Harris announced he would stand for the Labour Leadership to prevent rioting spreading to Scotland” or “Following the fall of Colonel Gadaffi it has been discovered that he was secretly on the payroll of News International”.
Nonetheless, the best thing about a holiday (apart from the art, the sunshine, the food, the scenery and the fact that you’re off your work without being sick) is that you are a bit cut off from the urgency of day to day events and thus have time to read, and to think.
One of the books I read this summer was “And the Land Lay Still” by James Robertson which, although I didn’t know this in advance, I was informed by the cover had been chosen as Alex Salmond’s book of the year. I’m not surprised.
To be fair, I had been driven to read the book by a very close friend who exhorted me that it represented “What these people really believe!” That there was astonishment in her voice at the time was, I regret to say, not unusual, but this time she was right; for Mr Robertson’s book does, I believe, disclose the world view of those who, since 2007, have been the political masters of Scotland. And, since the life of the central character runs, chronologically, with my own, and since many of the political causes it references are ones with which I was also engaged, and since it is largely set in a Scotland – urban but not metropolitan -with which I am also familiar, it is a book with which, if nothing else, I should have had a certain familiarity, as I did.
And yet, as I will go on to explain, it was like reading one of those “alternative history” books set in a world where the USA had lost the War of Independence or Hitler been successful at Stalingrad. For Mr Robertson’s book is about a Scotland I recognise only so well, and yet a Scotland I do not recognise at all.
Now hear I want to digress very slightly. “And the Land Lay Still” is a major work of modern Scottish literature. It is beautifully written, there are strong and memorable characters and the intertwining of their meetings, sometimes significant while on other occasions merely incidental, is worthy of Balzac. That achievement has to be recognised, not simply in justice, but also to head off the suggestion that the criticism which follows can be deflected by the “it’s more than you could do” school of response. It is more than I could have done and I will now certainly seek out and read Mr Robertson’s earlier work (although not probably till my holiday next year…).
But back to the critique. Mr Robertson’s book purports to be a history of Scotland since the 1950s, albeit through the mechanism of fiction. It portrays a country ill at ease with itself; denied its proper place in the world through the devices of the English and unable to recognise its true destiny until these issues are resolved.
Now here I require to diverge again with a bit of personal narrative. I’ve got a fair bit of history with the Home Rule movement. Unlike Jack McConnell, I can’t claim that a Yes vote in the 1979 referendum was my first ever vote (that was for a deadbeat Labour councillor in 1977) but I was a consistent advocate of devolution from the moment I joined the Labour Party in 1974. When Mr Robertson writes of the hostile climate that surrounded Home Rule in the early eighties and of the assortment of pamphleteers in and around the Campaign for a Scottish Assembly who swam against that tide, I am one of those of whom he writes and, I say with due modesty (although this is unacknowledged by Mr Robertson) it was my initiative, with others, that, through Scottish Labour Action, led first to Labour’s participation in the Constitutional Convention and then to the development of the revised scheme and to its adoption as party policy and legislative fact.
Yet there is so much of Mr Robertson’s narrative which clashes with my own recollection of events. The fall of the Labour Government in 1979 was not an act of God, as he might as well portray it; the “true” SNP did not ever (even today) consist entirely of well meaning lefties who happened to believe in independence; and while the tartan terrorists of the sixties and seventies did undoubtedly set back the cause of Home Rule there is no evidence at all that they did so as agents provocateurs put up to it by the British state. That they are no longer a factor today is not because the British state lost interest but rather because the SNP themselves realised that tolerating these nutters was counterproductive.
That however is not the ultimate reason I find myself so disengaged with Mr Robertson’s book. That reason is that for me the political history of Scotland, during the period of which he writes was about so much more than Scotland. The central character of the book goes to Edinburgh University in 1972 yet the only mention of Vietnam is to compare its struggle to that of Scotland (truly!). Allende’s overthrow is worthy of a single (and background) pub exchange. The struggle against apartheid which, while I was contemporaneously at university, albeit in Glasgow, united students of any sort of progressive opinion doesn’t rate a single mention. To read this book, insofar as it purports to be a fictional political history of Scotland, you’d have thought that all that was going on consisted of people sitting about bemoaning the constitution. It most certainly was not.
And then there are the cultural references. I’m not a great folk music devotee but no-one on the left is immune from the influence of folk music and Scotland has some great folk music. But so has England, and most politically influential (even in Scotland!) of all, so has the United States. But not for Mr Robertson. It’s all plaintive ballads about a lost Scotland which, if only people would listen, would alert them to their national destiny.
And finally there is the day to day politics themselves. A lot of important things happened in the seventies and eighties. We joined, and decided to remain, in the European Union; syndicalism was flirted with and then rejected and in its aftermath, Thatcherism changed the whole terms of the political and economic debate, laying waste, as it did so, to working class communities the length and breadth of the UK. All of this, Mr Robertson would have us believe, was however largely secondary to Scotland’s struggle for its own parliament. It wasn’t. I’ve been on too many demonstrations over the years to remember them all but while I marched against mass unemployment, in support of the miners, for the freedom of Mandela and, in something of an epiphany, declined to march against the the first Iraq war (although I certainly marched against the second!).
I can only, however, remember one significant Home Rule demo, when John Major held the G8 in Edinburgh. That’s a pretty good indication of where the priorities of the left have lain over that period and it is dishonest for Mr Robertson to suggest otherwise. There were certainly people who obsessed about Home Rule to the exclusion of just about everything else, but equally certainly they weren’t on the left.
Now, I accept the virtue of Michael Corleone‘s advice that it is a mistake to hate your enemies, because it clouds your judgment; nonetheless, I hate Mr Robertson’s history of Scotland. And I worry about it become common currency.
My Scotland is a country engaged with the world, not constantly engaged in contemplating its own navel; a country which engages with England in an equal and voluntary partnership, punching well above its weight in the process; where a location that is my home doesn’t in the process become superior to the home of anybody else.
But some issues are simply irreconcilable with some with an opposing view. It is impossible to win an argument over regulated abortion with someone who believes that life begins at the moment of conception; or an argument over animal use in scientific testing with someone who believes mice have the same rights as human beings. Equally, it is impossible to win an argument with someone who believes the single most important priority facing this country, above the success of the economy, the eradication of poverty or even the preservation of democracy itself, is in fact the cause of independence.
That’s why it would be a strategic error for Labour to engage in a Dutch Auction with the SNP over what degree of Home Rule might buy them off. This, Mr Robertson’s view of the world, is what these people really believe; that Scotland is under the English yoke and that, at least until that is cast off, everything else is secondary.
As such, this is an argument which it is simply impossible to defeat by rational argument because it proceeds not from logic but from belief.
So in constructing the basis of our counter-argument, let’s start by refusing to accept the right of the nationalists to frame the terms of the debate. They did not win in May by securing the support of of a huge tranche of the population who also supported that belief in either the past or of the future of Scotland. Rather, they won by securing the support of those who believed no other party had any alternative vision at all, a conclusion in which they were broadly correct.
Yet our party at least did once have a more clearly expressed alternative vision. A vision of greater social equality and personal opportunity; a vision not of a nebulous “better” Scotland but rather of a very real fairer Scotland; a vision which saw Home Rule not as an end in itself but as simply a means to an end. We may have temporarily lost our way but I am in no doubt that is still the direction in which we wish to travel and we should be confident enough in ourselves, supported by the facts rather than the fiction, that that is a journey on which it is possible to persuade the Scottish people to travel with us, as we have done to our mutual benefit in the past.
But the victory of ideas must be organised so, for starters, we need leadership committed not simply to occupying office but to securing and exercising power.
History is not unimportant and there is a fair bit of history between me and Tom Harris. Nonetheless, I was surprised at the extent to which in the aftermath of the great defeat, how much his thoughts independently coincided with my own. We need to be proudly, and on occasions assertively Scottish but equally every Labour figure committed to Home Rule for Scotland, from Keir Hardie to Donald Dewar, has always understood that constitutional reform, of any sort, was never, for socialists, any more than a tactic. The importance of flags and songs was always an attribute of the opposition. Our view was, and remains, to recognise that, in Tawney’s words, if there is a golden age it will lie not in the past but in the future.
So, I’ve said, and I don’t retract it for a moment, that I believe the best way forward for the Labour Party would be an interim leadership to be cast off as we approach the actual 2016 Election. If however the Party is determined that we must in 2011 decide who is to lead us into that far off event then I’m happy to stand beside the one person to date who seems to have the remotest idea how to reverse our fortunes and the courage to have put his head above the parapet. I’ll be voting for Tom Harris.
Ian Smart is a lawyer and founder member of Scottish Labour Action. He is also a Past President of the Law Society of Scotland. Follow Ian on Twitter at @IanSSmart. This post was originally published on Ian’s blog.
13 thoughts on “Home thoughts from abroad”
So you didn’t like the book then!
While I agree with much of what Ian says in this article I am left with the impression that he did not relax his mind quite enough on holiday. I read James Robertson’s book about a year ago and enjoyed it as a work of fiction. There was hardly a character in the book that did not strike a chord with me. There were people and place described that took me on a journey through my life – the post box where for nearly 20 years I posted my mail even makes an appearance!Yes Mr Robertson has a political agenda with which I disagree but his book is as good an insight into the minds of Scots that I have read in a long time.
I haven’t read this book but certainly will do when I get the chance. However, I just wanted to point out that I genuinely feel that supporting independence *is* all about achieving the “success of the economy, the eradication of poverty or even the preservation of democracy itself” in the most effective and efficient manner. Independence *is* about ensuring Scotland is “a country engaged with the world, not constantly engaged in contemplating its own navel; a country which engages with England in an equal and voluntary partnership”. In fact, these are some of the reasons I, as a genuine lefty, support independence.
My support for sovereignty is entirely based on a rational contemplation on the best way for Scotland to gain maximum living standards and to function as a modern, outward looking internationalist country. It is an entirely logical and perfectly normal position to take and one this genuine lefty has arrived at following in-depth personal consideration of the various arguments on the issue.
It would be too easy to win a no vote in an independence referendum if independista arguments were founded on an irrational faith. However, in my experience your portrayal of “Robertson’s view of the world” is *not* how mainstream supporters of independence rationalise their position on Scotland’s constitutional future.
Very well put.
Perhaps Ian Smart misses the bigger point.
Whilst the UK can never deliver on social democracy at Westminster, Scotland can, and should, at Holyrood.
So voting for a Westminster MP instead of a Holyrood MSP to lead Scottish Labour seems to be saying to the electorate that Labour has not only given up on Scottish Home Rule but also in delivering social democracy for Scots.
This could easily be the start of the wilderness years for Labour in Scotland – unloved and out of touch.
Social Democrat I agree with most of your points but I think, unlike Ian, that if we have Fisca;l Autonomy and an English Parliament we acn reduce Westminster to cover only reserved matters and thus give Scotland and everybody else the ability to run their own local economy while contributing to the reserved pot based on ability to pay.
You arent entering a dutch auction with the SNP, Ian. The arbiters in the upcoming referendum will be the electorate, who have also been on a journey over the last few decades. I do not believe they will look kindly on anyone without a constitutional position of their own after all this time. I suspect this was one of the lessons of the last election- positive trumped negative even when those voting did not all believe in Independence, they prefered the party advocating it over opponents saying “Ye cannae dae that”.
And they may do it again, if offered nothing else!
At Glasgow University in 1972 there WAS much attention given to Scottish issues-that was why I voted for Jimmy Reid (who won) for Rector. That well known left winger eventually, after wasting his time as a Labour Party member saw the light, and was an SNP member in his final years.
“As such, this is an argument which it is simply impossible to defeat by rational argument because it proceeds not from logic but from belief.”
Scotland’s better off in the Union. This far and no further. The people don’t want independence.
This is Labour’s stand and it’s simply impossible to defeat by rational argument because it proceeds not from logic but from belief. But if Scottish Labour don’t start listening to some rationality, they may well be back here doing even more navel gazing of their own, still scratching their heads and asking where it all went wrong.
It is articles like this that confuse me about Labour and politics in general.
I vote to make things better for me and mine. I vote for and support the party with a vision that can speak to me and for my rural life. There is little in this article for me to engage with. I have to work as a self employed farmer. Do Labour remember or relate to real work and those who do it? I get no holidays at all let alone time to read rather odd books.
“punching well above its weight” There is that statement again… Is it difficult to understand that punching above our weight is another way of saying that we are living beyond our means. It costs to mix with the big boys. Let them get on with it and fight their battles at their own cost. Let us concentrate on living in a manner that is consistent with our size budget and in the interests of the common people spending ourmoney on improving our lives at home not expanding capitalist markets by force. Punching above our weight is just a game played by politicians with ambition but no vocation- and we pay for it.
The article writer has the viewpoint that there is only one reality – his.
He appears genuinely to not grasp that each and every individual has their own individual, distinct experience of the world; their own distinct, different, reality. That is why the book writer lived through a different era and world view, in parallel to but totally different to a Labour activist. The article writer is the blinkered one, with too little breadth of exposure to others different worlds.
The existence of parallel realities explains why some experienced the 70’s or 80’s immersed in ‘trendy living and trendy causes’ and some (I would say the great majority) simply ignored what they saw as irrelevent distractions and focused on other aspects of life and other issues. One is not right or the other wrong. It just is a pattern of existence.
The belief that one’s own reality is the sole, over-riding and superior reality is to put it bluntly narcissistic and elitist. A typical middle class, smug, self satisfied, elitist mindset of the pc brigade. This misunderstanding of the nature of reality is a key determinant of how Labour in Scotland has gone off the rails and lost connection with the public.
‘My reality is the only one’ leads to: “we know best and you, joe public are stupid and need to do what we say, because we know best” blair and brownite arrogance.
This elitist arrogance leads to pursuit of ‘progressive’, socially desirably’ pc correct, etc policies the are unwanted and unsupported by the voting public. The doggedly faithful Labour vote (who don’t share the trendy issues focus and have vastly different life experiences) supports the party, not the policy – and ends up more and more cynical about the nature of Labour. The result is in the latest IPSOS MORI poll results.
This elitist attitude of ‘our reality is right’ has a telltale terminology. Labourites refer to SNP policies as ‘populist’. This dismissive term signals the arrogant elitist view that ‘popular’ cannot mean ‘right’ So anything that taps into voter collective wisdom and is popular, that does not fit tis particular Labour theoretical elitist mindset, must be dismissed as – ‘populist’ How wrong can you get.
Labour in Scotland needs to get it through their heads that there are other realities – the lives and experience of the actual voters. Try listening ( not paying token nod, nod, don’t listen) to them and distilling their needs, wishes and dreams – instead of imposing your own narrow arrogant ‘reality’ on others. The SNP has done so, that’s why they are the “Scottish Labour in SNP colours” success that is doing what Scottish Labour espouse, but distort and destroy with this arrogant midset.
Labour has a lot of humility to learn and needs to go back to baseline – with an open mind and an awareness that others realities are equally valid. They are the people – sovereign and supreme. Look at what they want and stop telling them what they ‘should’, ‘must’, ‘ought to’ support.
I am gratified that Ian Smart has read my novel, but disappointed by his commentary on it, and by the fact that the book appears to have stirred no sense of recognition in him about the political journey Scotland has been on for the last half-century. It is also worrying that he ‘hates’ ‘Mr Robertson’s history of Scotland’. My book (a novel, remember) simply tries to explore some of the changes in the way our politics work, as well as charting some of the huge social, cultural and economic changes (most of them not unique to Scotland, but with their own Scottish dimensions and characteristics) that the period since the Second World War has seen. It certainly doesn’t come to any fixed ideological conclusions about where we might go from here. It is on the other hand an honest attempt to describe how we got to where we are. So, yes, I hold my hand up, it is not about Vietnam, apartheid or any number of other issues that might have been in there, but it’s a strange reading of the novel to suggest that it’s only about Home Rule: did Ian spot the passages about feminism, homosexuality, the miners’ strike and CND? Insofar as it addresses the ‘Scottish question’, well, I make no apology for that. Should that somehow be beyond fiction to address? All through the 1970s and much of the 1980s, many in Labour told us that the Scottish question was irrelevant and divisive, and that engaging with it would betray the greater socialist cause. But who really betrayed socialism? I simply ask.
For the record, I am not a member of any political party and haven’t been for thirty years. Nor do I suffer some kind of nationalistic, parochial myopia that removes any sense of balance in the way I view political issues. I do not subscribe to nationalism as an ideology, but I do think Scottish self-determination is an integral part of building a democratic, environmentally and economically sustainable, socially just and equitable future for our country. So it’s quite sad to see lines in Ian Smart’s blog such as ‘This, Mr Robertson’s view of the world, is what these people really believe; that Scotland is under the English yoke and that, at least until that is cast off, everything else is secondary.’ To this kind of nonsense I make two responses. First, don’t confuse what fictional characters may or may not think with what their author may or may not think. Second, Labour’s problems will continue just as long as intelligent individuals like Ian Smart are content to dismiss those with whom they disagree (yet with whom, I suspect, they have far more in common than they may like to admit) as ‘these people’, as if they were describing some tribe of idiot backwoodsmen with whom it is impossible to have a meaningful discourse.
It was more hopeful to read David Martin MEP’s comment. Back in the 1980s I was involved in the magazine Radical Scotland, which sought to build bridges between progressive left-of-centre elements from across the political spectrum who shared a common belief in asserting Scottish democracy and some measure of devolution as weapons against the onslaught of the then Tory government. Both David and Ian contributed to the magazine. We’ve all moved on a lot from those times, but surely we must still have a huge number of goals in common.
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