Iain Macwhirter

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Edinburgh International Book Festival
Baillie Gifford Main Theatre
15th August 2016

Iain Macwhirter ©Paul Thompson.png

In 1933, author Eric Linklater stood for Parliament in the Scottish constituency of East Fife. He stood as a candidate for the fairly new National Party of Scotland, and lost his deposit. Fast forward to 2015, and the SNP, successor to the National Party of Scotland, won fifty-six seats out of a total of fifty-nine Scottish constituencies, in the UK’s general election. In his book Tsunami: Scotland’s Democratic Revolution, Macwhirter proposes that this fact represents just that – a revolution.

Iain Macwhirter is one of Scotland’s most influential political commentators, he’s the go-to guy if you want to read informed opinion about Scottish current affairs and recent history. To me he occupies the position of ‘Bakunin’s bootmaker’ – someone to whom I would listen before making my up own mind, someone whose status as an expert is an indispensible resource, but not an argument-closer.

There has certainly been a buzz in the air in Scotland since the close-run independence referendum, the 2015 election, and the UK-wide referendum on EU membership. If nothing else has truly changed, then the level of public engagement with and interest in the world of ‘politics’ has certainly increased. I put the word ‘politics’ in quotes here, because I well remember the caveats advanced at the 2015 Book Festival by Professor Erik Swyngedouw about that term’s appropriateness, when what is actually meant is the technocratic-managerial role of the State and its functionaries.

This event was the second I have attended so far this year in the Baillie Gifford Theatre. I reported that the last one suffered a little because of pace and acoustics. This one much less so. This was mainly because Iain Macwhirter has a great deal of information and opinion at his fingertips. He is never at a loss for words, and talks rapidly to get his points in. As a former BBC political correspondent, he has had a lot of practice in the broadcast media, and I would guess this is where that particular communication skill comes from. For the purposes of this Book Festival event, he was interviewed by eminent journalist Magnus Linklater, the son of the NPS’s unsuccessful candidate in 1933. Linklater was, in many ways, a perfect pick for the position, being professionally aware of all the issues that Macwhirter has covered in his new book, and was likely to cover in the allocated hour, as well as having that family connection. The auditorium was packed, I don’t think there was a single empty seat, which probably reflects that increase in ‘political’ engagement in Scotland (there I go again with the quotation marks).

The Q&A session was lively, some of the questions being very penetrating, again indicating the level of engagement. I would have liked to ask Macwhirter a detailed question where I could have repeated back to him, using his own words, some of the arguments he had presented in support of his hypothesis that there had been a ‘revolution’ in Scottish politics; however, I was obliged to ask a truncated question which could not get across more than a couple of the necessary points, and thus his answer was not convincing either. This I put down to the nature of Book Festival events, which have to fit this strict introduction/interview/Q&A format into a single hour, not to a lack of intelligence in either the questioner or the respondent! I now have the luxury of being able to put this right in this review, and I think it is a very relevant challenge.

Eric Linklater

To be fair, Macwhirter did admit, when Linklater first mentioned it, that the words ‘Tsunami’ and ‘Revolution’ in the title of the book were ‘publication hyperbole’ to a great extent. Nevertheless, he maintained, a revolution does not necessarily mean gunfire and barricades in the street. No, it doesn’t – it means a complete, rapid, and palpable change. The first flaw in Macwhirter’s hypothesis rests, I would say, in his strict focus on the most recent events, in the fact that he looked back – in his talk certainly – principally at what had happened over the past five years, and in particularly the SNP’s electoral success. In fact the party’s growth has been gradual, and in direct proportion to the decline of the Labour Party north of the border, to the cessation of the boom in council housebuilding since the 1960s, and the decline in unionised industry. The timescale involved was enough to build a thousand barricades, if anyone had felt so inclined.

Macwhirter made a point of mentioning that the SNP had, since the time of Tony Blair’s invention of ‘New Labour’ on Thatcherite principles, adopted and adapted many of the policies that the Labour Party had previously held. No revolution here, then – simply the re-labeling of existing ideas, the maintenance of the status quo under a different brand. He mentioned the referendum on independence; in that referendum the population of Scotland decided, albeit with a fairly tight margin, to remain part of the UK, again a vote for the status quo. He mentioned, of course, the stunning results in Scotland in the general election of 2015. However, he went on to describe Nicola Sturgeon’s cautious and pragmatic political philosophy of ‘utilitarian nationalism’, which regards independence not as an end in itself but as the best way of securing social justice, and the way in which it had recently drifted slightly away from the party’s relatively ‘Old Labour’ radicalism and back to a more centrist, managerial style. This swing back towards the status quo is something we see quite often in the policy of a party which wins power or a considerable and important influence within an existing power structure.

Then along comes the EU referendum, in which although the UK overall voted for leaving that organisation, Scotland voted for remaining – in effect once again for the status quo. Right now, with the probability that Theresa May will not even consider triggering Article 50 until 2019 at the earliest, and that a second referendum on Scottish independence is unlikely soon, the panic over Brexit seems to have faded a little.

I ask this: with all this status-quo breaking out everywhere, where the hell’s the revolution?

I noticed that when Macwhirter answered my truncated question, he felt it necessary to repeat the proviso about ‘revolution’ not meaning guns and barricades. Nevertheless his answer was full of “still so-and-so…” and “still such-and-such…” Iain, I have to tell you that ‘still’ is not a word you should associate with ‘revolution’! I wasn’t satisfied with his answer, and nor were the handful of people I spoke to afterwards. I can’t speak for the rest of the large audience, of course.

All the foregoing might lead you to think that I didn’t enjoy the session. Nothing could be further from the truth. Iain Macwhirter is a person with a wealth of facts and opinions at his fingertips. He has been observing the political scene, particularly in Scotland, for quite a while. The event overall was interesting and stimulating. As I look forward to the rest of the political figures booked to appear at this year’s International Book festival – the likes of Roy Hattersley and Gordon Brown – I wonder if those sessions are going to be half as engaging.

Even though I believe its hypothesis can’t be successfully supported, I would recommend Iain Macwhirter’s book as, if nothing else, a detailed explanation of what has been happening in Scottish statecraft, and the public’s engagement with it, during recent years. Had you been there on the day, you could have picked up a signed copy along with a bundle of some of his earlier books thrown in free! One of the perks of being there on the day at the Book Festival.


Reviewed by Paul Thompson

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