Book Review

Gerry Hassan and Simon Barrow (eds.) A Nation Changed? The SNP and Scotland Ten Years On, Luath, £16.99, 9781912147168

Herald journalist, Iain MacWhirter, says of A Nation Changed?, a compendium of assessments on the competence or otherwise of a decade of nationalist government, that: ‘At last. A comprehensive account of the SNP years. Essential reading’. And so it is if we want to make a measured judgement, rather than giving blind support or engaging in kneejerk sniping, of the performance of a political party which twenty years ago very few would have put money on to be the dominant political force in Scotland in the early years of the twentieth century. All political parties have their core adherents giving unstinting support – ‘My party right or never wrong’ – and the SNP has no shortage of those. However, I never cease to be amazed at the venom some of its opponents expend on the SNP Government and the refusal to recognise that ten years in power have achieved anything remotely creditable.

Hassan and Barrow have categorised no less than forty five articles into a number of useful headings ranging from ‘The Political and Economic Landscape’ through, among others, such interesting themes such as ‘We are the People’, ‘Publics, Democracy and Citizenship’ to ‘The Wider World and Context’. Not a book to be read cover to cover but a useful series of analyses and viewpoints which serve to inform and give a sound basis with which to either agree or challenge. Most contributors provide a conclusion with a measured suggestion for future policies and actions. It is not in the nature of such works to be cheer leaders for their subject and A Nation Changed? does not diverge from this tendency: not much ‘Haven’t we done well’ to be found within its covers.

One reason to make use of the assessments of the SNP in government this last decade is given by John Curtice, the twenty first century’s ‘Oracle of Delphi’ and ‘The Almanac de Gotha’ rolled into one. The SNP has consistently won the support of half the population, no mean feat in a pluralistic political system. Curtice provides a detailed description of SNP electoral performance and the issue of the constitutional question concluding that ‘… the party’s (SNP) grip on power now looks far more secure than it did when it first grabbed the reins of power at Holyrood in 2007.’ Furthermore, ‘So long as the political representation of unionism remains fragmented between three different parties as at present, that would leave the SNP in a seemingly near invincible position, irrespective of its performance in office.’ According to Curtice, whose electoral predictions have been uncannily accurate, the SNP will play a part in the government of Scotland for some time to come.

The contributors to A Nation Changed? are obviously expert in their fields and necessarily quite technical in the articles they have donated and this reviewer can just about keep up with the chapters on economic matters to get the gist that there is little to celebrate but the analysis of the evolving civil service’s relationship with the Scottish Government is beyond my grasp. The point being that there is something for everybody in this book. In my case, education is of particular interest and I found the contributions on the various elements of the education system to be excellent. James McEnamey’s assessment of the introduction of ‘Curriculum for Excellence’ (CfE) into secondary education is spot on. CfE is a case of the SNP government shooting itself in the foot by taking on hook-line-and-sinker an unwieldy educational reform commissioned by the Labour administration in Holyrood, designed by the filing clerk tendency in Scottish education, even when there were no shortage of warnings about the dire outcome, not least from Lindsay Patterson, Professor of Education at Edinburgh University. As the saying goes, when a child is hungry you feed it, not weigh it. The incoming government should have dropped CfE and is now having to live with the consequences. Suzanne Zeedyk’s article on ‘The Early Years Agenda’ ought to be required reading for everyone involved in Scottish education, no matter at what level. If the SNP government really wants to consider some innovative out-of-the-box policy initiatives, Zeedyk’s piece is a god send. The article on higher education concentrates mainly on the economic aspect of it but possibly there should be greater public debate on the questionable policy of encouraging even more people to study for a degree which appears to qualify many of them only for a zero hours contract in our retail outlets and call centres. If all the contributions to A Nation Changed? are of the quality as the ones on education then this book really is essential reading.

Donald McCormick is a retired history teacher, anti-ideologue and a grumpy optimist