The Scottish Question

Book review to appear in the Journal of Scottish Historical Studies 

The Scottish Question by James Mitchell (Oxford University Press, 2014)

I’d like to start by telling you what the ‘Scottish Question’ is, and how we might answer it. For example, maybe it is about Scotland’s constitutional future, which was to be solved by a simple referendum on Scottish independence. Yet, this didn’t happen. First, as we have seen since the 55% ‘No’ vote in 2014, the referendum only settled the matter for a few hours. It did not produce a decisive answer to a ‘once in a generation’ question. Instead, it merely stiffened the resolve of two sides of the debate, with advocates for No seeking, often in vain, to describe another new devolution plan (outlined in the Scotland Bill in 2015) as a final settlement, and advocates for Yes finding new ways to express their commitment to political change, such as when the Scottish National Party’s membership swelled to over 100000 members in a few weeks after the referendum.

Second, even a Yes vote would not have settled the matter. It would have produced major constitutional change, but not a clear sense of what Scottish independence is for (simply to enhance political autonomy, or also to change public policy?), or how it would impact on Scotland’s place in the UK, EU, and the wider world. It would not settle the question about the future role of the Scottish Government as, for example, a beacon of Nordic social democracy or a more British mix of support for extensive public services and social security but opposition to higher taxes, because such fundamental debates on the welfare state have played second fiddle to debates on the British state. Many people talked about independence as if it was synonymous with new forms of social democracy, but they were only able to do so – at least without too much criticism – because ‘Yes’ represented many things to many people; a box in which different people could invest their hopes and dreams, without needing to have the same hopes as other Yes supporters.

In other words, we were faced with a simple referendum question, but it was also a simplistic question, underpinned by a multitude of inter-related questions, which often remained implicit, or were articulated in very different ways by different people.

James Mitchell wrote ‘The Scottish Question’, and predicted this sense of perpetually unfinished business, well in advance of that referendum. He suggests that the same confusion and sense of uncertainty that we face now has been described and addressed in a multitude of ways in the past. Each time, we tend to call it the ‘Scottish Question’ even though:

‘There is little agreement on what the question is, far less its answer. It has involved a shifting mix of linked issues. These have included questions of national identity; Scotland’s constitutional status and structures of government; party politics; and everyday public policy concerns’ (p4).

As such, Mitchell describes the ‘Scottish question’ in a way that makes the subject familiar to students of public policy: many people are involved in making a notional decision, and they struggle to articulate their preferences, aims, or interests. Consequently, they struggle to compare their aims with those of the actors who do not share their preferences. Then, they make a decision that produces the vague sense that some people got what they wanted, at the expense of the preference of others, but without a clear sense of resolution. The issue keeps coming up, again and again, as new events unfold, more people with different perspectives become involved, and people think again and re-articulate their preferences. The process is messy and unpredictable and does not satisfy enough people to settle the matter once and for all. Any reference to an objective standard, or key principles to guide the debate, or a killer piece of evidence to skew the debate in the favour of one side, tends to fail, since the issue involves a mix of facts, values, and emotional appeals, and no single principle can guide what often appears to be an anomalous policy problem made more complicated by the accumulated effects of decisions made in the past. Instead, debates take place with reference to stories, constructed to turn a complex matter into a simple narrative involving heroes and villains, and a strong moral dimension, to exploit people’s emotions or help them translate a complex matter into a manageable solution.

In that context, Mitchell’s key point is that, if the Scottish Question is so difficult to frame and solve, and it has been approached in so many different ways, the current outcome was not inevitable and the future remains uncertain. More specifically, to better understand the present situation, we have to understand a series of historical decisions, based on the many ways in which people have tried to describe and solve the question over the past three centuries.

Mitchell’s book represents a vitally important examination of this historic record, partly through the lens of current debates, but with a challenge to consider the era-specific way in which we tend to interpret these developments.

First, for example, early chapters chart: the development of Scottish national identity before its ‘Other’ became ‘Thatcherism’ or ‘London’; the series of decisions that led to the development of Scottish governing institutions now controlled by the Scottish Government; the unsteady development of the now-dominant SNP; the crucial importance of Labour to devolution, coupled with its longstanding reluctance to embrace it until the 1970s; and, old encounters with contemporary questions, such as the ‘West Lothian Question’ (now addressed with English votes for English laws, or EVEL), which began as a dilemma prompted by Irish home rule.

Second, Mitchell shows us that Scotland’s contemporary default position – to consider all UK and many international political decisions through the lens of the Scottish constitutional debate – contrasts somewhat with historical debates, such as when the modern state developed, and raised new issues about the role of the welfare state, state intervention, and nuclear weapons, across the UK, without the constant sense that there was a distinctive Scottish angle. Even by the 1970s, SNP MPs new to Westminster discovered that ‘Finding a particularly Scottish angle was not always easy’ (p180).

Third, Mitchell identifies major generational shifts in thinking about the same issues. Perhaps the best example comes from Gordon Brown’s concern, in the early 1980s, that no-one had solved the dilemma of devolution through the lens of class: how do you maintain the role of the UK state, to redistribute income and maintain uniform levels of social security, and devolve policy decisions to Scotland? Notably, Brown maintained that the SNP were ‘tartan Tories’ because they were prepared to give up on redistribution and uniform entitlement to further Scottish autonomy (p165). This may seem remarkable to contemporary students of Scottish politics, since ‘tartan Tories’ has largely been replaced by the idea of ‘red Tories’ (which, for some, includes Brown) prepared to work with the Conservative party to obstruct Scottish independence and, in doing so, guarantee greater inequalities during a prolonged period of UK Conservative ‘austerity’ policies.

Overall, The Scottish Question is a welcome addition to the literature, and a useful antidote to the idea that we are in unchartered waters or that we will always think this way about the UK constitution. The dominance of the SNP in Scotland, and an increasing sense that there will be a second referendum, suggests to many people that Scottish independence is inevitable, but Mitchell’s book shows us that many other alleged inevitabilities did not occur. Such predictions, based on superficial contemporary analysis, are generally no match for historical explanation based on forensic examination.

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