Road to Referendum by Iain MacWhirter

Faster than the Flying Scotsman…

😐 😐 😐

road to referendumIain MacWhirter is a journalist and commentator who has spent the last decade or so covering the affairs of the Scottish Parliament. In the run up to the referendum on Scottish Independence, due to be held in September 2014, he has presented a short TV series and produced this companion book ostensibly to shed some light on why we have reached this point at this time. The blurb on the back of this book claims it is ‘accessible and perfect for anyone unfamiliar with Scottish history’ and ‘essential reading for anyone who cares about where the UK may go next.’

The main problem is that I can’t really work out who this book is for. The ‘Scottish history’ portion of it covers 650 years in 127 pages, so not what even the most generous reviewer could describe as ‘in-depth’. We leap from Bannockburn, rush past Flodden and gallop on to the Union of 1707 faster than the Flying Scotsman. So anyone ‘unfamiliar with Scottish history’ at the beginning is going to be still largely in the same state at the end. Not that I’m saying the history is wrong, and MacWhirter does explicitly remind the reader that he’s not a historian, but it seems to me he has carefully cherry-picked those aspects of history that bolster his argument, and does a fine job of casting sarcastic and savage little barbs at Scots modern and ancient along the way, which I found deeply unendearing.

So, based on this first half, I can’t imagine many Scots who are likely to read this book will learn much they don’t already know, nor will most of us be shattered by the revelation that Braveheart wasn’t precisely historically accurate. And for non-Scots the history is so superficial (and mostly unreferenced) that it seems a bit pointless.

Then there’s the problem of his portrayal of the Scottish psyche –

“Most countries celebrate their victories, their achievements, their noble ventures. Not the Scots; they celebrate their failures. Scotland may have been a cradle of the Industrial revolution, a hub of the European Enlightenment, and the country that invented everything from paper currency to penicillin, but what gets remembered is the Darien disaster.”

Hmm! Not any Scots I know. I have never seen a Scotsman sobbing into his pint over Darien, but ask any Scotsman who invented anything and he’ll claim it was us, even if it wasn’t. In fact, I’d say Scots are noted for excessive pride in their country rather than the reverse. I suspect MacWhirter’s attitude may reflect a very small and incestuous part of our society – the politicians and journalists huddled in middle-class Edinburgh and Westminster.

Iain MacWhirter
Iain MacWhirter

In the second half of the book, MacWhirter brings us through from the 1960s to today, explaining the rise of the Scottish Nationalists and making the point that that has not necessarily been matched by a corresponding rise in Scottish Nationalism. This is the period he himself has lived through and this part of the book is considerably more detailed and fleshed out, though still with that very middle-class Edinburgh bias running through. MacWhirter doesn’t explicitly state his own political partiality, though he does at points take us through how his political attitudes have changed over time. However, he points out that many politicians think of him as an apologist for the Nationalists, and on the basis of this book I would have to agree (despite his constant harping on about how Alex Salmond is ‘obese’ – how that adds to the political debate is beyond my understanding.)

In case readers of this review think I am being hard on the book because I disagree with it, I should point out that I am currently tending towards the pro-Independence camp myself, so am largely in agreement with the main thrust of MacWhirter’s argument that Scotland could be a successful independent nation if it chooses. However, I would have preferred to see an unbiased account of the main arguments or to have been told up front that this book is a personal viewpoint heavily geared towards one side of the debate. A reasonably interesting read for Scottish political nerds (of whom I am one), but not an essential one for anyone else, I feel.

NB This book was provided for review by Amazon Vine UK.

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

22 thoughts on “Road to Referendum by Iain MacWhirter

  1. I’ve actually been waiting for this review. This professor constantly checks the sidebar.


    The book probably deserves to be ripped. I particularly enjoyed the part you quoted from his novel, and how you dealt with the untruth of it.

    Imagine saying something like that! It’s always the dadblame politicians and journalists who concentrate on failures! Makes me want to bash them over the head with– Never mind.

    Great, informative review!

    (I think there should be at least one unhappy smiley!)


    • Thank you! I expect I’ll be ripped – by the more manic element of the nationalists when they see my less than enthusiastic review on Amazon. Political books on Az do tend to attract the lunatic fringe of commentators… 😉

      I toyed with 3 straight-faces for Scots and 2 frownies for everywhere else, but who knows? Maybe there are descendants of the Scottish diaspora all over the world just desperate to read this…maybe.


      • If you get ripped, just inform the professor. I’ll tell Bob, and then Bob and Tuppence will exact our revenge.

        But, at the same time, glory in the hate and anger. There’s nothing wrong with being infamous!

        (Thanks for posting my post as a great post. Hope that wasn’t too confusing…)


        • Oh, I do, I do! Mind you, fans of particular fiction writers can get just as virulent too – and there’s one guy who’s never forgiven me for mocking HP Lovecraft! 😉

          I nearly always post your posts as great posts (because they are) – except when I forget (senility can hit at any age, I find!)


  2. I read this book as soon as it came out, and have been urging others to do so, not because I think it is a great book (I largely agree with your review),but because so little else is being written. I do agree that the debate needs a clear, accessible account of how we got to where we are, but no-one seems prepared to write it. Perhaps we should – as if we don’t have enough to do!


    • I wouldn’t have been so disappointed in the book if it were being sold as what it is – an argument for independence. I’d still have thought he was wrong about the Scottish psyche, certainly as far as the West of Scotland is concerned, and I’d still have felt the book could have done with less (none) of the personal insults he likes to hurl around. And I’d still have wished he could have kept himself and his own experiences out of it. But given all that (!), then his biased view is one I could have agreed with – I just can’t agree it’s not biased, and yet it pretends it’s not. A missed opportunity.

      The lack of referencing also meant that there’s no way for a reader to judge (assuming we’re talking about a reader who doesn’t already know, and they’re the important readers) how much is fact and how much is MacWhirter’s personal opinion – bearing in mind that journalists aren’t always noted for their accuracy!

      What we need is someone to spell out the difference between voting for independence and voting for the SNP’s manifesto for after independence. The two things are being treated by pretty much all the media and both campaigns as if they are the same thing. Go on, you write that book – and I’ll review it! Guaranteed 5 stars!


  3. This is such a well-informed and informative review! Speaking as a non-Scot, and one who doesn’t know enough about Scottish history, I’d be interested in a detailed and unbiased look at the issues. It would very much help me understand the upcoming debate and election, which do interest me a lot. But then I suppose to do it justice, you’d need a long book…


    • Thank you! I think part of the problem is that any Scot likely to write a book is going to already have formed an opinion, so bias is hard to avoid. Perhaps what we need are two biased books from opposite sides clearly stating their bias, so that we can judge – because, believe me Margot, most Scots (including myself) don’t know enough to make a really informed decision – a lot of it might depend on sentiment and which leaders we like on the day, which is a bit scary.


      • I like your idea of two books with different points of view. It would certainly be away to inform people of what’s behind their options and what the ramifications of a particular vote are likely to be.


  4. When I saw the title of your review I was hoping it was about a book that took an objective view – but then I realised how impossible that would be. I know a little (and superficial) Scottish history, so this book wouldn’t tell me anything I didn’t already know about that. I am interested to know current thinking on the question of Independence so I think I will check out this book, most people I know (I live in the Borders, but on the English side) seem to think it won’t happen. I agree that his portrayal of the Scottish psyche is not one I’ve ever come across 🙂


    • Yes, I don’t know where he’s got that impression of the Scots – he’s obviously missed out on our urgent need to blast out Flower of Scotland at every opportunity while boasting about 700 year old victories! 😉

      Seriously, I think the second half of the book is well worth reading, especially for someone who, like yourself, knows enough about it to recognise its bias. He is quite accurate (I think) about how the 80s and Thatcherism changed Scotland politically. If you read it, I’d be glad to know what you think of it.

      I also think independence won’t happen – but then I never thought I’d see the SNP get a majority in the Scottish Parliament either…


  5. I disagree – did not read this as pro indy at all. Problem with this issue is that people will see what they want to see.


    • I think you’re right about that, but I felt this book was very geared towards the pro camp – which I wouldn’t have objected to if it hadn’t been being presented as if it was unbiased. It would be hard for anyone to write a completely unbiased one though, so close to decision time.


  6. I think it very interesting that you’ve identified MacWhirter as being part of a small but overly influential section of Scottish society. The bias towards the Central Belt – and Middle/ Upper Classes – in Scottish civil society has plagued Scots for years and Independence may well be a chance to remedy this. However, I don’t believe many of those on the margins of Scotland are holding their breath.


    • No, I guess the politicians and journalists will still behave the same whether we vote yes or no. Mind you, wasn’t it a small group of middle and upper-class central belt ‘elite’ that took us into the Union in the first place? A parcel of rogues… 😉


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