Somewhere, out there, there must be a book which provides a decent analysis and critique, from a socialist perspective, of the SNP and the SNP minority government which has been in power at Holyrood since May 2007. Unfortunately — for reader and author alike — Tom Gallagher’s recently published work is not that book.
The book begins with a history of Scotland from the Treaty of Union of 1707 through to the SNP’s election victory three centuries later. It is the good part of the book.
The Union of 1707, Gallagher explains (like countless others before him) was not an act of annexation. On the contrary, it left many of the main Scottish institutions intact. Nor was the Union something which lacked support in Scotland: there was a Unionist tradition in Scotland dating back to the early sixteenth century.
The Treaty of Union opened up England’s colonial possessions to Scottish merchants and facilitated the initial “accumulation of capital” needed to transform the Scottish economy. In the course of the nineteenth century, Scotland’s economy emerged as one of the most industrialised in the world.
Scotland’s relation to England was therefore anything but that of a colony.
In the early twentieth century, as continental competitors began to make inroads into British economic hegemony, the first voices which questioned the value of the Union for Scotland began to be raised.
But the shared experiences of the Second World War and the post-war Labour government’s creation of an all-British welfare state quickly stifled such voices, at least until the 1960s.
In the course of the 1960s the manifest failure of the Westminster government to prevent the ongoing decline of the Scottish economy, together with the discovery of North Sea oil, re-opened the political space for the argument that Scotland would do better as an independent state.
The ongoing decline of the institutions which had “bonded” together the constituent parts of the British state provided further grist to the Scottish-nationalist mill. So too did the collapse of Scottish support for the major Unionist parties, firstly for the Tories after their adoption of Thatcherism, and then for New Labour after its own adoption of Thatcherism.
Devolution in 1997 actually resulted in a sudden collapse in support for the SNP. However the sorry record in power of the two Labour-Liberal Democratic Holyrood administrations (1999-2003, and 2003-2007) resulted in a revival of the SNP’s fortunes.
Fully one half of Gallagher’s book is taken up with this historical background to the rise of the SNP.
Gallagher’s critique of the SNP in power constantly struggles, albeit unsuccessfully, to raise itself above a loose and sometimes repetitive pastiche of journalistic anecdotes and cyberspace chatter.
True enough, there is no shortages of such anecdotes and chatter: Catholics, Islamists, Donald Trump, rich Americans, bankers, rich Scots, nuclear power, the Lewis chessmen, Andy Murray, Trotskyites (sic), William Wallace, Ireland, Qatar, Kosova, Mary, Queen of Scots, quangocrats, the Lisbon Treaty, Berwick-on-Tweed, Jahangir Hanif …
And, true enough, some of the anecdotes and chatter are almost interesting. But what they do not add up to is anything even half-approaching a serious political analysis of the SNP.
In fairness to Gallagher, it could be argued that because the SNP is such an “all things to all people” kind of party, a rounded and holistic analysis of its politics is impossible.
But Gallagher’s vitriolic contempt for the SNP and his sometimes personalised attacks do little to raise the political level of the book, even if the vitriol does not reach the level achieved by Gallagher in some of his other writings on the SNP.
Gallagher’s right-wing leanings – expressed, for example in his sneers about “anti-fascist rhetoric” and “class war rhetoric which has been gathering dust for decades” — only reinforce the book’s shortcomings.
In some ways, though, this is a pity. Somewhere within The Illusion of Freedom there is a serious book trying to escape. Unfortunately, however, the dead weight of Gallagher’s prose renders futile any such attempt at escape.
Although Gallagher never fully developes it, his basic argument is that post-1707 Scotland (like pre-1707 Scotland) was socially and politically conservative, and governed over by vested interests hostile to any idea of participatory democracy. And the SNP belongs to that tradition.
For all its rhetoric and apparent radicalism, the SNP would rule even an independent Scotland in the same top-down and non-participatory manner as its predecessors over the past three centuries.
It is in that sense that the SNP promise of an independent Scotland, governed by the SNP, offers only the illusion, and not the reality of freedom.