Faster than the Flying Scotsman…
😐 😐 😐
Iain 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.
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.