There are points to argue with in this short, compelling overview of the Scottish political landscape (the complaints about Rev. Stew aren’t as easily dismissed as Macwhirter would have it, and I am less sure than he is that Gordon Brown did more during the referendum than help some traditional Labour voters feel better about a choice they’d already made) but Macwhirter starts the book off by saying that he wrote it at least in part to remind himself of how it felt to be part of the campaign for Scottish independence, and in doing so he has done us a great service.
While this book has that strange, glitchy repetition that long-form works by professional journalists sometimes have – overview being more useful to a newspaper reader than to someone who’s spent a hundred pages with a book already – it nevertheless develops its arguments with a robust confidence. The many faults of the official campaign for Scottish independence are recognised alongside the strength of the more diverse and carnival-esque ground level campaign; Yes Scotland’s ineptitude with press management is acknowledged alongside the structural issues in the UK media that made the discussion feel so one sided at points; the Janus-faced aspects of Scotland’s civic nationalism are acknowledged, but they are contextualised within a robust argument against the demonization of SNP supporters as latent fascists (if you have to do violence to reality to make it fit an Orwell essay, perhaps it’s better to put down the Orwell essay and trust your eyes); finally, the dunderheids supporting both sides of the campaign are recognised as a minor, if noxious, part of an overwhelmingly civil debate.
When I said earlier that Macwhirter had done us a great service, I was speaking from the position of baffled exhaustion I’ve occupied since we voted to stay part of the United Kingdom. This isn’t so much a confusion as to why we ended up here (though I am interested in that question) as it is a reaction to the challenges of the moment. For a few months last year I felt like I was involved in a genuine society-wide attempt to work out what sort of country we wanted to live in. There was disagreement as to what that should look like within both the Yes and No camps, of course, but for a moment I could see a future that looked like one I might want to live building up around me: a greener one, with an emphasis on local democracy instead of centralised power, a commitment to the common good over personal gain, new industry over financial instability, childcare over the nuclear option. These platitudes were backed up by a rush of policy work from Common Weal and the Scottish Greens, and by the orginisational work of groups like the Radical Independence Campaign and Women For Independence, who did so much to help those traditionally excluded from political debate to realise the power of their own voices. Scottish independence would undoubtedly have brought its own traumas and disappointments, but as we try to make sense of the post-No landscape it’s crucial to remember the ambitions of the Yes movement, lest we end up sinking back into mute acceptance of the way things are. Disunited Kingdom goes some way towards recreating the sense of possibility of Scotland 2014, of the destination I saw through the rhetoric, and as such its importance should not be underestimated.