Glasgow-born Tom Gallagher is a retired professor of politics who taught at the University of Bradford. He is the author of 12 scholarly books, the majority published by such distinguished presses as those of Manchester, Edinburgh, New York and Columbia universities.
A major theme of his research and publications concerns nationalism and nationalist tensions in a range of European countries. He is then far from unqualified to write about contemporary Scottish nationalism. In fact 'Scotland Now’ is his second attempt to address the topic. In 'The Illusion of Freedom: Scotland Under Nationalism’ (2009), he argued that the SNP – then still lacking a majority in the Holyrood parliament – would grow increasingly populist and illiberal, that campaigning to 'loosen the fictional grip of London’ rather than detailing what would happen in an independent Scotland, would be a vote-winner, and that the party would increasingly use state resources to take control of the economic and cultural life of the country.
Even so, he concedes in his new book that he underestimated how deeply and quickly Scotland would fall under the influence of the SNP’s populist policies – which, as his title suggests, he finds deeply dismaying. For Gallagher, the potential break-up of the United Kingdom, after more than 300 years of a largely stable and prosperous union, would be a disaster, sending a dangerous and potentially disruptive message to many countries in Europe and the wider world.
Reactions to Professor Gallagher’s book have been entirely predictable. Supporters of the SNP have gone overboard in their attempt to discredit and vilify an author whom Alex Salmond has apparently described as 'the nutty professor’. Thus, according to his many detractors, Gallagher is 'a very bitter, angry and confused wee man with a massive chip on his shoulder’; he is 'paranoid and unhinged’; he is 'wildly self-indulgent’. His book is not worth reading because it is 'hysterical fiction’; it is 'a load of historical nonsense’; it is ‘hyperbolic, hysterical and devoid of any genuine knowledge of modern Scottish society’.
Professor Gallagher will hardly be surprised by such violent and nonsensical attacks, however unpleasant they may be – but he will find at least a degree of consolation in that their very existence confirms his point that, from the top all the way down, there is at least an element in the nationalist ranks of dangerously rancorous bullies whose only response to criticism is abuse.
In fact 'Scotland Now’ provides a thorough, well-informed and well-researched account of Scotland’s recent political life in the context of the rise and rise of the SNP. The book’s seven chapters cover a wide range of topics from its opening focus on 'The Nationalist Cause in Scotland’ to its closing analysis of 'Scotland and the World.’
However, rather than attempting to detail what these are, I’d rather focus on what strikes me as the book’s most penetrating insights into the contradictory issues and continuing problems that coexist with the party’s extraordinary level of political success. A recurring theme, for example, is Gallagher’s belief, well-documented here, that Scottish nationalism – as its support continues to grow – seems increasingly to topple over into the authoritarianism and intolerance that is characteristic of nationalist movements in general.
Linked to this development of course is the danger of Scotland becoming a one-party state: already possessing 56 of the 59 Scottish seats at Westminster, the current polling figures suggest that in May’s forthcoming election the SNP could end up winning every one of the first-past-the-post seats at Holyrood. 'So the omens for Scotland, the competitive nature of its politics, the quality of its public services, and ultimately even for the SNP itself, are not particularly bright when there are so few restrictions on the powers of the political class.'
Then Professor Gallagher keeps returning to the point that SNP dominance, and electoral success, have little or nothing to with any set of appealing or persuasive political and social policies in a traditional sense. What the party has finally succeeded in doing, in the last few years, is demonstrating how to make political nationalism an irresistible force. 'It has mobilised for political ends emotions and attitudes that have far more to do with collective identity than with how the country is governed.’
The SNP’s current extraordinary success, that is, has everything to do with identity politics. And within identity politics 'emotions and attitudes’ are infinitely more compelling than rational argument. This is why, despite various kinds of political mistakes or flawed assumptions, the SNP government seems to be able to continue to flourish. Not even the collapse in the price of oil – for so long the bedrock source and guarantee of Scottish economic independence – has led to any significant loss of support for the party.
Again Professor Gallagher draws attention to the contrast between what the supporters of Scottish independence believe an independent Scotland would be like and many of the policies of the current SNP government. Young supporters in particular seem to be committed to policies well to the left of centre. (In fact they seem to have much in common with the Labour Party members in the UK as a whole who have made Jeremy Corbyn their party leader.) But retaining the monarchy, continuing to be a member of NATO, reducing corporation tax, creating a single national police force, imposing a state guardian on every child, cutting back on non-university higher education, and the complete lack of any kind of transformational tax policies that might reduce the gap between rich and poor, hardly suggest a commitment by the SNP to any kind of civic transformation of an independent Scotland.
One can only conclude that the great majority of SNP voters continue to accept the party’s argument that it’s all London’s fault: full independence is essential before any real transformation of Scotland can begin. Voters apparently are prepared to agree.
In all of this I’m reminded of recent accounts by several well-known political commentators of what it was like growing up in families wholly committed to Marxism. As the failure of the Soviet Union to embody the Marxist dream became more and more obvious, their parents put loyalty to the dream before sense and reason in their political lives. In other words Marxism became a kind of religious cult beyond criticism of any kind. Various kinds of evidence that Gallagher assembles in his book suggests that what is new about the politics of Scottish nationalism is that it has taken on a somewhat similar status – as a quasi-religious cult it does not need to spell out specific policies over such issues as the currency an independent Scotland would use, or the funding of the NHS and local authorities. At the same time, criticism of its current policies or attitudes does not have to be answered in rational argument or debate: true believers will simply shout it down.
I’ve argued here on earlier occasions that the circumstances in which the recent referendum campaign was held greatly favoured the Yes side. I pointed to various factors: Westminster’s extraordinary decision to allow the campaign to drag on for two years or longer – giving the SNP every opportunity to build up its army of activists and develop its skills in manipulating the increasingly influential social media; its meek acceptance of the argument that 16-year-olds be allowed to vote; its feeble agreement that the question on the ballot paper would be something as loaded as 'Should Scotland be an independent country?’.
Professor Gallagher shares this view, and points to two other factors that enhanced the SNP’s good fortune: the denial of the vote to the 800,000 Scots who happened to live in England, and most extraordinarily of all –the fact that almost 80% of the £4.9 million funding of the Yes campaign came from a single source: the £4.5 million donated by the SNP-supporting, immensely rich lottery winners, the Weir family in Ayrshire.
While reading 'Scotland Now’ I found myself constantly remembering the forthcoming UK referendum on membership of the European Union. The parallels with the Scottish independence referendum are in some respects quite remarkable. In the Scottish case the developing impetus always seemed to be with the Yes side and its commitment to dramatic change. I see signs of this happening now – although this time it is the No voters who seem to have the forward momentum.
In the Scottish referendum, voting Yes was the exciting, challenging, even radical choice. To vote No was to vote for the relatively unexciting status quo. In the European case it is the other way round: to say No to Europe is the bold and exciting gamble; to say Yes is to maintain a status quo about which very few voters seem to feel enthusiastic. Then again there is a striking similarity between the central plank of the argument for saying Yes to Scottish independence and No to Europe. Scottish independence means above all saying No to London; British independence means saying No to Brussels. Once Scotland and Britain regain complete control over their destinies all will be well. The current victims of undemocratic, external oppression will be readmitted to a paradise of freedom.
This degree of similarity is enough for me to suggest that the readers of 'Scotland Now’ should, as a matter of urgency, include those running the campaign for the UK to remain in Europe – they might benefit from the mass of material available here about the mistakes and failures of the Scottish Better Together campaign, as well as learning more about the strengths and weaknesses of their opponents. (The prime minister’s anxiety to hold the European referendum sooner rather than later already suggests he has learned one lesson at least.)
I have to end by saying that such readers will not find 'Scotland Now’ all that easy to digest. Professor Gallagher tells us he self-published his book because he could not wait to hear back from the established publishers he approached. He might well have benefited from a bit more patience. His book is far from reader-friendly. Every one of its well over 300 pages is packed and dense. Page margins are so small as to hardly exist. Headings fail to stand out. Then there is a great deal of repetition – the same citations, references and other kinds of material crop up in different chapters. There is an unnecessarily long Introduction summarising in some detail the contents of all the forthcoming chapters. Good editing, I suggest, would have made a powerful book have greater impact.
'Scotland Now: A Warning to the World', by Tom Gallagher