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Tom Gallagher is not by temperament or inclination a unionist. His book, ‘The Illusion of Freedom’, questions the effectiveness of the SNP’s leadership of Scottish nationalism, but does not reject, explicitly, the legitimacy of the party’s aim of independence.
The author is critical of the personality cult surrounding Alex Salmond, his party’s cronyism and clientelism, its confused economic policies, the Anglophobia associated with its chauvinist doctrines, but Gallagher treats as axiomatic the assumption that Scotland, as a nation, must enjoy a high degree of political self-expression in order to flourish.
If he eventually rejects Salmond’s separatism, it is because he believes it leads to an inward looking, socially conservative, centralist state, not because he subscribes to integrationist unionism.
‘The Illusion of Freedom’ consists of two parts. The first charts a fairly brief history of Scotland, stretching from the Act of Union in 1707 until the Scottish Parliament’s reestablishment in 1998, with particular emphasis on the role of nationalism, in its various guises. The second focuses on the post devolution settlement and, most pertinently, the SNP’s custodianship of the Scottish Executive since 2007.
Gallagher is not afraid to deconstruct shibboleths on either side, insisting, for instance, that unionism, in its original form, was as much a product of Scots’ enlightenment thinking as English expansionism. Unionists will read passages of the book with equal discomfort. The British state is often portrayed as a centralising monolith which suppresses Scottish cultural identity. Gallagher consistently advocates more devolution, rather than less, and more concessions to a separate Scottish identity, rather than fewer, as the best means to govern Scotland, whether it remains part of the Union or not.
Rather than interpret the SNP’s current prominence as a baleful consequence of ill-advised, asymmetric devolution, the author is more inclined to bemoan a failure of UK parties in Scotland to reflect a specifically Scottish ethos. The Scottish Labour party, nervous of inflaming nationalist sentiment and circumscribed by its central apparatus in London, he indicts for not sufficiently advancing the interests of Scotland, during its period in government. It is an approach which Gallagher applies to the full sweep of post Union history. The Scottish Conservative party is criticised too, for moments when it chose to neglect ‘national expression’ in order to pursue a more conventional unionist project.
‘The Illusion of Freedom’ argues, then, that it is the unionist parties’ omissions which have provided the space for the ascendancy of populist nationalism, craftily masterminded by Alex Salmond. Gallagher wants more decision making devolved to Holyrood, more fiscal powers migrated to Edinburgh, Scotland’s identity to be reflected more robustly in its regional institutions, but he also abhors the manner in which the SNP has carried out its duties since it formed a minority administration in 2007. And it is his devastating verdict on the Scottish National Party under Salmond which comprises the strongest material in Gallagher’s book.
The First Minister’s devotion to the Royal Bank of Scotland, and his stout defence of its policies even after it was bailed out by the British taxpayer, is scrutinised closely in ‘The Illusion of Freedom’. Despite the demolition of financial models underpinning his case for independence, Salmond was able to brazen out the crash by concentrating on populist themes and ignoring substantive economic criticism.
The nationalists’ tendency to take various interest groups on as clients, and interact with citizens through the medium of group rights, is also explored. Gallagher is particularly interested in the SNP’s Islamist connections, which he charts in detail. And Salmond’s conscious attempt to court traditional Catholicism, with a Janus-faced approach to social issues, is highlighted, along with the party’s steadfast refusal to combat sectarianism.
The most prominent nationalist characteristic, however, and one which the author particular deplores, is a tendency either to ignore Scotland’s problems altogether, or blame them on the larger neighbour to the south. He finds SNP rule short-termist, populist and quick to blame England for any underlying problem, rather than offer constructive policies in order to deliver a solution. Whether you agree with the interpretation of the UK’s constitution which underlies its argument or not, this book is a substantial polemic against Alex Salmond and his party. It is carefully researched and engagingly written. Anyone who wishes to understand the nationalist dynamic in modern Scottish politics should read it.