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Book Reviews

Wee White Blossom: what post-referendum Scotland needs to flourish, Lesley Riddoch, Luath Press, 9781908373991, £5.99

Reviewed by Carole Ewart

I worried Wee White Blossom (WWB) was out of date by the time I read it, having been written by journalist, public thinker and community activist, Lesley Riddoch, in the distance between the ‘No’ vote and the general election. No chance. I will return to this book many times to remind me of an evolving world for Scotland which navigates social, economic and political change.

WWB updates the original Blossom (2013) and sets out the evidence on how Scotland can flourish, equally, post-referendum. It is just like having a chat with an informed friend who wants to share with you what she has found out and her conclusions. The style of writing engages the reader rather than making them feel ignorant, and that is the point because the author assumes that if we know more about our cultural, social and economic past we would understand how skewed our view of normality actually is.

Peppered with facts and analysis that alarm, intrigue and inspire WWB provokes us to reflect on the here and now as well as change how we think about the future. Rightly WWB reminds us that ‘there has been personal empowerment through political activity from the referendum’ whereas ‘all too often the flow of energy has been the other way round – with individuals feeling disappointed or crushed by their brush of the political world’. Labour’s process of choosing candidates for the new Scottish Parliament elections in May 1999 may have been one of those latter experiences for far too many people.

Consistently the impact rather than the details of policies are analysed such as the Smith Commission with one economist and tax expert quoted as saying ‘there is no opportunity to create economic growth, no opportunity to create re-distribution, no opportunity to create the outcomes in Scottish society that any Scottish Government would reasonably want to see’. And, of course, that would surely include any future Labour-LibDem coalition in the Scottish Parliament too.

Riddoch’s analysis of Smith is entertaining despite the misery – ‘Scots haven’t gone through two years of soul searching to come up with a clutch of reheated offers, a dangerously limited range of tax powers and a hard to entrench promise that Westminster cannot abolish Holyrood. Voters want a meaningful and memorable deal’. Not everyone will share her politics but it is almost impossible to disagree with her analysis.

Land reform is a longstanding interest of the author and her knowledge is shared bite sized to make you feel confident in having a go at a chat with someone else. The right to buy is exposed as a narrow concept based on the owner of the property rather than as a right of the tenant – the Tory ‘right to buy’ did not extend to agricultural tenants e.g., what happens to the tenants when they retire? The Land Reform Review Group’s report of May 2014 called for the re-introduction of business rates on sporting estates as they currently pay nothing (really and why not?) and an ‘end to the distinction between inheriting land where spouses and children have no legal rights and moveable property … where they do’. Inheritance will therefore be ‘democratised’.

Local democracy is analysed with a robust argument that councils should be smaller and more powerful. I had not known that in 1930, 871 parish councils had been axed as democratic structures although they still exist for census purposes. I also did not know ‘meaningful town control went in 1975” and the ratio of councillors to citizens is 1:4,270 in Scotland but 1:125 in France. Knowing now, I wonder how we got into this fix in the first place.

Reforms which don’t deliver are highlighted. The new Community Empowerment Bill misses the mark in respect of community councils – failing to address the power vacuum ‘it neither turns community councils into dynamic new delivery level authorities nor does it knock them on the head and put them out of their misery’.

Changes in our perceptions are encouraged by sharing practices elsewhere. Rather than focusing on the detail, Riddoch urges us to reflect on the narrative. In respect of welfare, how we are conditioned to think that we are paying for other people’s welfare and get nothing in return. We need to change perceptions. She cites the ‘Danes who see welfare as a way of redistributing income across the lifetime of each individual making deposits during working years, and withdrawals during child rearing, illness, retraining and old age’. The outcome is ‘social solidarity that keeps the rich paying taxes with relatively few complaints’. Scotland needs the confidence and authority to carve out its own road though as she acknowledges that neither Denmark nor Sweden are ‘nirvana’. A good read that leaves you wanting to learn and chat more.

Carole Ewart is a public policy and human rights consultant.

Dave Does the Right Thing: I’m David Cameron. I’m Prime Minister. I will do the right thing. I must do the right thing. We all must do the right thing. Introduced by Owen Dudley Edwards, Luath Press, 9781910021637, £6.99

Reviewed by Donald McCormick

At the time of writing this review, a week after a universally predicted indecisive general election, it would seem that the title Dave Does The Right Thing is in the wrong tense. This is because Dave must have done the right thing for enough people south of the Border to win a majority in the Commons despite a higher voter turnout and a promise of a further twelve billion quid in unspecified cuts in public spending (though no doubt some day we will laugh about how those tricksy pollsters had us fooled).

You will have deduced that it’s pumped up Dave Cameron that is being referred to and can rest assured that wherever the axe falls Dave will assure us all that it is ‘the right thing’. Incidentally, why did Michael Gove not tell him that ‘pump’ has a more malodorous inference in Scotland? Whether the next five years sees the unfolding of such likely policies as the NHS making wheels an optional extra on wheelchairs or discovering that four Trident nuclear subs is a pitifully small number for a nation that sits at the top table, Dave will make a case that these things are not simply expedient and necessary but morally unquestionable.

Owen Dudley Edwards has compiled a comprehensive series of snippets from Hansard (2010 onwards) in which our continuing prime minister claims to be doing the right thing ranging from ‘Dave Does the Right Thing For Britain/ Abroad/ Welfare’ through to ‘The Path of Righteous Dave is Beset on All Sides’ and ‘Dave is Doing the Right Thing, Right?’ Dave says nothing sufficiently profound that challenges my view of him as … well, less than profound.

Here are a couple of sample gnomicisms. On wealth inequality: ‘I am absolutely determined that everyone who wants to work hard and do the right thing can benefit from the economic recovery now under way’. On proposed changes to UK extradition treaties: ‘We will ensure that we do the right thing for our country, but people should not think that it is a very simple issue, because it is not’.

And that’s the problem – many of the utterances listed are no easier to disagree with than are motherhood and apple pie. Out of wider context, they are overwhelmingly bland, innocuous and on a par with ‘Something must be done’, the pronouncement that turned the late Duke of Windsor into a Marxist agitator in the eyes of Daily Mail types. Our most relaxed prime minister since Baldwin, bland and innocuous is the look that Dave has gone for, occasionally shifting to a wide-eyed innocence that evokes the image of Prince George in Blackadder 3, while Osborne is the scheming Edmund.

We can imagine Dave/George having a light bulb moment, opining that ‘helping the less fortunate in society is the right thing to do’ countered by Osmond/Edmund asking what the less fortunate have ever done for us? Baldrick is missing and that is probably why we have heard so much about encouraging Blue Collar Conservatism in recent weeks. If you lower expectations to
owning your own turnip, the present government will ensure that you live the dream. I don’t doubt that Dave is sincere in his self-view as a decent hearted One Nation Tory – even though an Old Etonian, Bullingdon Club chap who has never had a real job has as much knowledge of what that nation is as has Bertie Wooster.

Maybe he really did believe that ’We’re all in this together’ as he kept claiming in the early days of his stewardship though that particular reassurance fell to the wayside pretty quickly. I also don’t doubt that he is unaware that he is the smooth skinned, frown-free frontman for a bunch who have used the recession to further their ideological beliefs that even the workhouse was step too far left. Still, Dave has ticked off Being Prime Minister from his bucket list and will surely hand over to his successor in a couple of years. Can’t wait for Owen Dudley Edward’s 2020 sequel, Boris Does the Shafting.

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

From #Indyref to Eternity – the battle for a nation, and how proud Scotia came within a whisker of breaking free, Douglas Lindsay, Luath Press, 9781910021835, £7.99

Reviewed by Carole Ewart

From #Indyref to Eternity is a masterclass in laff as you learn. Lindsay’s imagination has inspired the text and Bob Dewar’s illustrations bring Dr Ian Shackleton, of the Glasgow School of Politics and Football, to life with a few other illustrations on the cover to entertain. The book assembles the ‘Shackleton Report’ which appeared every Monday morning in the Herald, for the six months prior to the referendum. Clearly this insightful genius, who combines the two popular pub issues in Scotland in his day job, has opinions worth listening to.

In addition, the opinions and actions of a variety of characters are respectfully described but it is their pet names which helpfully introduce the reader to what they are likely to say and do. For example Alastair Darling is both the ‘High Commissioner for Better Together’ and ‘Chief Doomsayer Pursuivant of All Scotland’. When David Cameron addressed a “cheering group of foreign exchange students at Stirling University on the first day of their Beginner’s English course” the PM made a number of promises including ‘free Tunnocks Teacakes for everyone’. Dr Shackleton reflects that this rousing speech is just what the ‘No campaign has been waiting for’. Brevity cannot do Dr Shackleton’s insightfulness justice so here is a big quote from 5 September 2014:

While there is an unmistakable whiff of the Ally McLeod about the Yes campaign, you can’t argue that it’s captured the imagination of voters. Better Together thought they could rely on a message of Its Not Completely Shit, So Why Change Anything? and they have been found wanting … Now, however they’re faced with loosing oil revenue, they’re looking at a long and bitter border war, and then there’s the likelihood of world leaders mocking them openly on Twitter. They’ve had to face up to the need to think strategically about Britain’s future.

Independent sources are also quoted. When Prime Minister, David Cameron, threatens to agree on action with his European counterparts about Alex Salmond’s behaviour at the Commonwealth Games, we are helpfully advised that ‘statisticians have calculated that Britain has never been in agreement with its European partners’. However, the behaviour being complained about was during the opening speech at the Commonwealth Games when Mr Salmond ‘declared war on England’ but as we know that is just not true. The stories do merge fact with fiction and mostly it is easy to tell them apart.

The book cements the notion that Scotland’s history is now divided into BC, AC and PR and this book is evidence that the referendum inspired people in all sorts of ways. This book is unlikely to be the first point of reference for future historians but it is an entertaining read for those occupying the here and now.

Carole Ewart is a public policy and human rights consultant.