The Road To Independence: Where is Scotland's future?

Edinburgh Festival review
Rating (out of 5)
Show info
Joyce Macmillan (chair), Professor Murray Pittock, Harry Reid, Paul Henderson Scott
Running time

One might expect a good-sized audience for any event with 'Independence' and 'Scotland' in the title, and thus it was. The Speigeltent was fair packed to hear the views and reflections of Professor Murray Pittock, Harry Reid and Paul Henderson Scott. All confessed themselves in favour of Scottish independence, but their versions and visions were reassuringly diverse and divergent.

Reassuring, since so complex a subject and country deserves no less than vigorous discussion with no certainty of clear conclusion. Vigorous discussion was what the audience certainly got.

Paul Scott opened the arguments with a version of the Schuhmacher thesis, that small is, if not always beautiful, then very probably preferable; smaller entities can be more flexible and responsive to change and as governments, more genuinely accessible to their electorates. The elements comprising the United Kingdom could readily revert to their constituent parts (this elided over elements such as the Shetland and Orkney Islands to name but two; more of this later).

Scott argued that it was the English who pressed for Union in 1707, which is partly true, though it ignores the enthusiasm of the Scots for union in the 17th century, and their expressions of satisfaction with Cromwell's aborted unification of the British Isles. His arguments that an independent Scotland need have no truck with nuclear weapons seemed equally shaky, given the difficulties of extrication from NATO and other obligations.

Harry Reid, a recent convert to the independence cause, echoed David Cameron in asserting that the British state was broken, probably irreparably, and that its high point, in the welfare reforms post 1945 was now well in the past and had not been repeated.

He also pointed out that in a globalising world of high-speed communication, there is no such thing as independence. The power of transnationals grows apace and if one takes the thesis of Phillip Bobbit in 'The Shield of Achilles' seriously, this is likely to continue. Reid quoted the Aberdeen-based educationalist R.F. McKenzie, that 'our greatest resource is our people', and expressed the hope that an independent Scotland might be able to re-assert the values Scottish education had championed in the past.

Professor Pittock asked what had changed in the past 50 years. He pointed to the considerable benefits of union until after 1945, when there had still been local control over a considerable range of public services and benefits.

This had declined as a result of 'regional' policies brought in by Westminster civil servants to address problems in a way appropriate to England but not to Scotland, with its separate legal and other structures. Subsequent attempts at homogenous provision did not suit a Scottish situation and only contributed to growing dissatisfaction with Westminster-based Labourism; Scots did not, perhaps, seek independence so much as a return to a status quo ante of greater autonomy over affairs directly concerning them.

However reasonable such a position might appear to Scots, an English-based popular press continues to demonise them as selfish, money-grubbing bogey-persons out to do down the English people. Discussion moved on, via reference to the effect of Margaret Thatcher in disillusioning Scots of the benefits of a union in which their views were not represented, to how independence might come about.

Paul Scott unapologetically presented the standard SNP version, though Professor Pittock's incremental scenario probably has greater credence among nationalist supporters now.

The First Minister clearly wishes a referendum debate and a question he can win. He'll also be mindful of the pitfalls which beset the devolution debate in the past.

Harry Reid raised the interesting spectre of David Cameron winning the next UK General Election to find himself presiding over the 'break-up of Britain'.

Turning to the media in an independent Scotland, Paul Scott bemoaned the lack of BBC programming representing Scotland, which ignores both comedy from 'Para Handy' to 'Still Game', drama from the work of Peter MacDougal on, as well as significant Gaelic output.

Harry Reid mourned the decline of the Scottish press, postulating a merger of 'The Scotsman' and 'The Herald' to ensure survival of a Scottish broadsheet press. Broadcast and internet media had become more important, and both of these were largely outwith government control.

Professor Pittock saw the arrival of commissioning editors at BBC's Scottish headquarters and the injection of an additional £45m as hopeful signs, but recognised that audiences were increasingly turning to a wider variety of sources for news and entertainment.

Asked what next steps might be taken, Professor Pittock pointed out that 'if we want to get there (an independent Scotland) hadn't we better work out how?'.

There seemed to be very few arguments from the panel against independence, although some comments form the floor voiced genuine concerns about nationalism in Scotland being identified with or giving credence to narrow ethnic nationalisms as had occurred in other parts of Europe. Joyce Macmillan urged us to remember that a good nation acknowledges its faults and weaknesses and sees itself whole.

Time: 7pm, 24th August

Copyright Bill Dunlop August 2008