Review: Iain Macwhirter rides the wave of a Scottish political Tsunami

Tsunami: Scotland’s Democratic Revolution
Iain Macwhirter
Ebook, pp. 159

Sometime in 2013, we lost Iain Macwhirter.

I can’t pinpoint the exact moment he slipped away, but I remember feeling it build up in his writing over time.

Scotland’s clarion liberal polemicist had spent much of the previous decade tearing into New Labour for its military interventions, economic centrism, and clunky-fisted response to Islamist terrorism.

In that role, he was sometimes strident but seldom shrill and his libertarian instincts made him stand out in a commentariat where you are deemed to have missed your deadline if your copy fails to call for a ban on something. The referendum gave him a new cause and he brought to it the zeal of the convert. Over time, an acid tone crept into his columns and his healthy scepticism became more muted on questions of independence and the economics of building a new country.

Now, there is nothing wrong with campaigning journalism. Some of the finest British journalists, from Cobbett to Orwell, have been pamphleteers at heart. But to have an impact polemic needs the leavening of self-criticism and that is why Tsunami: Scotland’s Democratic Revolution, an enjoyable broadside on the political upheavals of the past year, is a good but not a great book.

Macwhirter, for those just joining us, is Mr Devolution. He was posted to Scotland by the BBC in 1979 to cover constitutional change in Scotland and stayed on after the Scottish Assembly was choked at birth by the wrecking amendment to the Scotland Act. Since then he has distinguished himself as a political commentator, contributing a much-read column to the Herald and its sister paper the Sunday Herald. His Road to Referendum book was adapted by STV as an acclaimed three-part account of the history of Scottish nationalism.

Tsunami is more openly committed, which loosens the writing up and allows the commentary to be bolshier, but that is also its main sticking point. Where the book comes into its own is the chapter on Tommy Sheppard. If Mhairi Black is a star in the making, Sheppard is ready-made box office. Once a prominent figure in Scottish Labour, he is one of the spurned lovers of Scottish politics; like so many others, he didn’t leave Labour — Labour left him. He was too left-wing to advance in New Labour but he could have provided a radical conscience on the back benches. To lose 40 seats is careless, to lose one to your own former assistant general secretary is a just reward for arrogant stupidity.

In his maiden speech to Parliament and his television appearances, Sheppard cuts a social democratic rather than a nationalist figure. (He also cuts quite a stride in those soft-beige Man from Del Monte suits.) He tells Macwhirter: “I’m not a nationalist. I’m an internationalist. I think there’s lots of people in the SNP who aren’t really nationalists. Or rather are civic nationalists who see themselves first of all as social democrats. For me, independence is a means to the same ends in which I’ve always believed.”

The stoking of nationalist grievance and bitter resentment was vital to winning 45% of the country to the separatist cause. But Sheppard reminds us that there is more to the story: Not everyone in the SNP is in the grips of a patriotic paroxysm; Scottish Labour let people down and the SNP gives them hope, however specious.

There is hardly a scintilla of doubt in the whole book. I longed for the old Macwhirter to kick back in and hack away at the hoary platitudes and wide-eyed assumptions of his own side. But as a chronicler of the optimistic energy of Yes, he is without equal. Tsunami is an evocative account that gives readers a vivid glimpse into the referendum and 2015 general election. SNP partisans will appreciate the echo but the general reader ought to enjoy the backstage pass. This is what happened behind the scenes, in all its mad and maddening wonder.

The book is a rejoinder to those of us who struggle and all too often fail to explain Scotland’s nouvelle politique. It is written from the trenches but that might be the only way to understand a politics so steeped in belief and identity. Macwhirter speaks the language and is a punchy translator. Some Unionist speak about no longer understanding Scotland, as if it has become a foreign land to them. The structural shift in political allegiance has been truly historic and to some baffling or even threatening. Instead of standing in the dark cursing the SNP, Tsunami offers No voters the chance to shed light on what motivates those who have cast off political history and family convention to side with the Nationalists and the independence project.

And that is a project that Macwhirter gets better than many on the Yes side. He champions National Collective, whose absence from the political and cultural scene has made our debates duller, and appreciates the importance of social media. He gives credit to Stuart Campbell and his website Wings over Scotland for the significant contributions he made to the Yes cause. (Would that more Nationalist politicians were brave enough to say this publicly; the fact few do translates as cluelessness, if not ingratitude.)

There is some ocean-going nonsense too. Consider this, a despatch from an alternative reality or the comment threads on Bella Caledonia:

“[T]he idea of Scotland as a dour and depressive country full of anger and resentment is one largely perpetuated by the UK media. It is what metropolitan publishers and newspaper editors want to see written about Scotland and there has never been any shortage of Scottish writers willing to provide the copy.”

And while declaiming accusations of resentment, he happily stirs up grievance along the way:

“Scottish voters had been told after the No vote that they had to get back in their box, pack away the festival of democracy, and return to the normality of boring responsible politics. But the people refused to get back in their box, or to seek consolation in negativity and cynicism.”

It’s not clear who told Scots to “get back in their box” — perhaps the same mystery figures who slander us as “too wee, too poor, and too stupid” — but nationalism requires its straw men and needs must.

Tsunami completes a constitutional triptych begun with Road to Referendum and carried into Disunited Kingdom, still the best book written about the independence vote. (There is a nectarean irony in the finest accounts of the referendum coming from the hated MSM.) I’m sure Macwhirter has more to say about political structures and processes but I wonder whether his analysis — at its best, sharper than a Springhill chib — would be better deployed on policy debates.

Any and all criticism of the Scottish Government’s record on education, health and justice is met with howls of “SNPbad” but these are pressing challenges and Nationalists might listen to Macwhirter. Imagine securing a second referendum only to find it dominated by hospital waiting times and education results. The SNP is desperately in need of a critical friend where now it finds only Photoshop fan boys and bloggers more interested in holding the opposition to account. Macwhirter wasn’t born-again yesterday and could keep ministers on their toes and along the way bolster the case that Scotland can run its own affairs.

I miss Iain Macwhirter. He no longer surprises me, though he does shock from time to time. Tsunami captures the very best of Scotland in the last 12 months and I share its assessment of the inevitability of independence and have some sympathy with the opportunities it identifies in a new constitutional arrangement. But a cause needs its doubters as much as its zealots, for only they appreciate how non-believers think and what it would take to turn them. I hope Macwhirter relocates his scepticism and puts it to good use.

Originally published on STV News.

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