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.