ONE OF Scotland’s leading political commentators, Iain Macwhirter, is in Lerwick to deliver a talk on his book ‘Road to Referendum’ in Room 16 at Islesburgh on Tuesday evening.
Macwhirter will be interviewed by county archivist and historian Brian Smith about the book, which was conceived as an accompaniment to last year’s three-part STV series covering the history of Scottish nationalism since 1945.
The Herald and Sunday Herald columnist will then participate in a question-and-answer session with members of the public. He hopes it will be a “very interesting and free discussion about the prospects both for Shetland and for Scotland” following the 18 September vote.
“I’ve been following this issue for 30 years and I’m very interested to see what Shetland people are making of it,” he told Shetland News, which is co-sponsoring the event.
Macwhirter’s book traces the origins of the national question in Scotland back to the middle ages and the wars of independence.
He notes that the 700th anniversary of Scotland’s victory over the English at Bannockburn was “a complete non-event” – despite a number of unionist politicians having suggested Alex Salmond planned the timing of the referendum to generate “this outburst of national feeling”.
“It doesn’t have a bearing,” he says. “People don’t feel animosity towards English people, but that history is important in informing how people see themselves in Scotland.”
Macwhirter describes the rise of the SNP and political nationalism in Scotland as a “strange phenomenon” which is “very, very recent in Scotland”.
“It’s really only in the last decade that a significant number of Scots have thought of independence as a practical possibility,” he says. “The book was very much trying to answer that question.”
Although his mother was an SNP member, Macwhirter started out “very hostile to nationalism”, something which began to change under Margaret Thatcher in the 1980s – although at that time the opposition to her rule was very much led by the Labour party: “the SNP was nowhere”.
He believes Salmond was a “brilliant opportunist” in seizing the social democratic territory vacated by Labour under Tony Blair in the 1990s, as it became “more like a Thatcherite party, very pro-business and free market in its thinking”.
In addition to domestic policies on higher education and the NHS, Macwhirter points to the “tremendous moral outrage about the Iraq war” and people being “so bewildered that Labour could be involved in this enterprise”.
“The SNP saw that the Labour party was abandoning its roots,” he says. “He [Salmond] moved in and basically took over Labour’s agenda almost wholeheartedly, and Labour allowed them to do it.
“But something else has happened in the last decade or so. A lot of people who would never have considered themselves remotely nationalist in the past have started to think seriously about independence.”
Macwhirter argues it is not so much that Scottish people’s attitudes have changed, but that the UK parties have drifted evermore towards US Republican-style policies.
“Scotland… felt very strongly, emotionally, in support of the UK after the Second World War – partly because of the great war against fascism, but also these great things like the welfare state, NHS, nationalised industry, regional policy – all the things the Labour government stood for.
“Scottish politics is still in that kind of territory, but the south of England has moved away to a politics more like what you have in in America with American republicanism.”
He believes that, after a “terrible start with the scandal over the parliament building”, the Scottish Parliament is now seen as “absolutely central” in the nation’s political life.
Since ‘Road to Referendum’ was published in 2013, Macwhirter has grown increasingly supportive of a Yes vote next month. However, he laments the absence of a “devo max” option on the ballot paper.
He departs from the SNP’s approach in feeling that, while Scotland should have “primary economic powers” including all taxation and welfare, it makes sense to retain Scottish representation at Westminster.
“I would far prefer a federal system where Scotland is responsible for economic and domestic policy, but retain currency, non-nuclear defence and foreign affairs largely at a UK level.”
But he points out that the Liberal Democrats have supported federalism within the UK for over 100 years but “unfortunately they’ve never managed to do anything about it”.
“Now they’re saying ‘vote no, and we’ll definitely get federalism’, but I don’t believe that for a second.”
Although this is his first ever visit to Shetland, Macwhirter has taken an interest in how the referendum debate has influenced Scotland’s islands.
He chaired the Our Islands Our Future campaign in Kirkwall last September, and describes the tripartite effort between Shetland, Orkney and the Western Isles as “tremendous”.
“I think it’s been a great opportunity for the islands to renegotiate their own position, or to clarify their own position within the UK and within Scotland,” Macwhirter says.
“I don’t detect the same anxiety about Edinburgh control that there was in the 1980s at the time of the Shetland Movement.
“But devolution is genuinely a process, and that conference was looking very seriously at a number of options presented by the islands in Scandinavian countries about very substantial further devolution of power.
“What I thought was encouraging was the general positive atmosphere, not the same sense of grievance that there might have been in the past.”
Shetland MSP Tavish Scott and others in the islands have accused the SNP Government of granting special favours to the Western Isles for party political reasons.
Macwhirter says he is not sure about whether “favouritism” is being shown, but points out that the Western Isles has “serious economic problems” whereas Shetland is “really kind of booming, it looks a very different picture”.