Book Reviews

Three offerings from Luath Press on post-referendum Scotland – will their contributions allow Scottish citizens the freedom to autonomously call for a vote during the next epoch?

A Constitution for the Common Good: Strengthening Scottish Democracy after 2014 by W. Elliot Bulmer (9781910021095, £9.99)

Nearly every democracy in the world is built upon a written constitution, and constitutions have been at the core of citizens’ demands for better governance in places as disparate as Kenya, Tunisia and Ukraine. With the SNP promising a written constitution in the event of a ‘yes’ vote and other parties suggesting other possible options for constitutional change in the event of a ‘no’ vote, constitutional change looks certain to remain central to the political agenda in Scotland for some time to come.

But what is a constitution for? Is it a defensive charter to protect the basic structures of democratic government, or is it a transformative covenant for a better society? How can the constitution sustain democracy and promote ethical politics while at the same time recognising and accommodating differences in society? What difference would a good constitution make to the poor? How can it help ensure that the common good of the citizenry prevails over private vested interests? In addressing these questions, this book sets out a vision for how Scotland could reconstitute itself. It emphasises the connection between the constitution, democracy and the common good, arguing that democratic self-government is the true prize, regardless of the relationship of Scotland to the rest of the UK. This book not only makes a vital contribution to Scotland’s current and on-going constitutional debate, whatever the outcome in September 2014, but also engages with fundamental questions of constitutionalism and democracy that are of enduring relevance to both citizens and scholars around the world.

Rethinking Our Politics: The political and constitutional future of Scotland and the UK by Henry McLeish (9781906817831, £11.99)

Over the past year it has become clear that regardless of their stance on the referendum debate, the Scottish people are united on one front, the yearning for change for the betterment of their nation, their institutions and their politics. For McLeish, the referendum debate is merely the beginning. It is a symptom of the need for a more fundamental shift in the way we engage with politics in the UK and Scotland today. McLeish is well placed to diagnose the crisis at the heart of Scotland and UK politics. He looks critically at the conditions which have created an increasingly divided and alienated public and forged Scotland’s yearning for radical change. He rails against the stagnation of the union and makes a rousing and persuasive case for a complete overhaul of our political thinking, demanding that instead of making decisions on the basis of fear and insecurity, we rediscover the founding moral purpose of government.

A Modest Proposal for the Agreement of the People: Call for a Constitution by Angus Reid and Mary Davis (9781910021057, £9.99)

Reid and Davis take the view that any people anywhere who are governed without a constitution agreed by the people are governed by power without right. They share Tom Paine’s clarity that no government has ‘power by right’, without a contract with the people.

In A Modest Proposal, they propose the first step: laying out terms by which governments can be bound to act ethically and equitably in the interest of those they represent. The position they hold is that a constitution has to come from outside government if it is to reflect the principle of ‘the people’s sovereignty’. The project has been made in public and as a campaign to influence the Scottish government.  A Modest Proposal seeks to go beyond the constitutional impasse and instead looks back throughout our history. Its title contains the essence of what we are striving for: an agreement of the people such as was negotiated in the I7th century.

Secondly, the title captures the flavour of the pamphlet war in both the I7th and late I8th centuries, a tone that Jonathan Swift borrowed for his own purposes and did so without sharing the optimism that we have for a settlement that can embody genuine social change. Thirdly, it uses the words ‘a modest proposal’ because that is how the Levellers’ termed their own intervention in the constitutional debate. The purpose of the book is to make parliaments concede powers to people and to get on with the necessary democratization of our society – to empower people and to take a step away from top-down authoritar¬ianism. This characteristic of the present status quo would be just as true of an independent Scotland as currently foreseen. The future of Scotland and the UK is too big an issue to leave in the hands of parliamentarians: like all progressive change, it is going to take people power to make a just, ethical and equitable settlement.

This has rarely been done in our long history, although it was attempted during the English Revolution. On other occasions, the repressive apparatus of the state was simply too strong to permit any progressive breakthrough of people power and in any case, the people were often not sufficiently united to present a powerful enough alternative to the ruling status quo. This requires class unity, and a corresponding ability to transcend racism and sexism. To seek ‘the Agreement of the People’ will once again begin the debate about what we mean by unity, and will put flesh on the bones of what has for too long been a mere slogan. What kind of country do we want to live in? What kind of society is it that we all aspire to? Unity cannot be achieved unless we know not just what we are against, but also what we are for. An ethical and equitable society cannot be achieved with debating what the words mean.