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As others see us.

January 19, 2015

THE PEOPLE’S REFERENDUM:Why Scotland will never be the same again.
Peter Geoghegan. Luath Press

9781910324479

Although he wears them lightly, Peter Geoghegan’s origins in the Irish Midlands, give him great perspective and detachment when reviewing Scotland’s Independence Referendum campaigns. An upbringing in Co Longford tends to equate with a long distance view of national politics happening ‘elsewhere’, so it is unsurprising that he gives us a clear headed and impartial view of events during the last eighteen months or so before the September vote.

For those of us involved. the campaign was a mishmash of the positive and negative, hope and fear, progress and frustration and – on occasions, personal enmity. If we are to reflect on what actually happened, and how it is still impacting on the people of Scotland – and indeed these islands – we need help to stand back and look at people rather than campaigns, communities rather than politics, and the totality rather than our own viewpoint.

What makes Peter’s book so effective in providing this assistance is his breadth of vision – from Coatbridge’s ‘Little Ireland’ to the solemnity of an Orange Hall, from Stornoway, to Easterhouse, to the Borders, and from Catalunya to the Balkan states, he witnesses ‘the stirrings of nationhood’ and talks to people to elicit their feelings and their reactions to what is happening. From the douce inhabitants of sleepy Borders towns, to ‘the last Communist Councillor’ in Fife, Peter brings to life the people who are working in, and affected by, the road to the referendum. What does it mean to “care about your country”? How can neighbours have opposing views? What shapes our ideas about community and politics? Are we more motivated by past experiences or future dreams? What makes an activist – and why are some apathetic or disengaged?

He relates how people in other countries view Scotland, chronicling their hopes or fears for the referendum result and its impact on their own situations. It is a breath of internationalised fresh air after the cartoon like “Scottish or British” rhetoric of the domestic campaign. The UK state has always been inclined to insularity and it was peculiar to note how the ‘No’ campaign emerged, ultimately, as more parochial than the ‘Yessers’, with its emphasis on “British values”, as opposed to the more outward looking perspective of northern Europe and Scandinavia espoused by the independistas. Peter’s travels shine a perceptive light on those parts of Europe where the nation is not the state, and the ‘normality’, or otherwise, of the United Kingdom’s political arrangements.

As well as giving us perspective on the past couple of years, the book refers to our back story and the possibilities for the future, providing a context sometimes overlooked in the heat of campaigning. Like the post campaign political world itself, Peter suggests there are not yet any conclusions.

The book is meticulously researched but not weighed down by extraneous facts. The author is willing to comment, but generally allows the people he met on his travels to speak for themselves. He engagingly transmits his own sense of surprise and discovery to the reader, in a style which is hugely accessible but eschews the facile or the obvious. If you wish to clear your head before reflecting on what happened here in 2013 and 2014, this book makes an excellent starting point.

Whilst understanding the long held reticence about ‘importing Irish politics into Scotland’, I felt the referendum campaign suffered from an unwillingness to learn from Ireland’s path to statehood. It is our nearest neighbour, a small country in north western Europe, and has a shared history as part of these islands. How it has coped with the past century of adopting to self determination, the successes and failures, as opposed to its means of gaining that autonomy, could supply answers to many of the questions raised in the campaign about re-establishing statehood and a place in the international community – especially in those crucial areas of debate – defence and finance.

The author, with his reflective and balanced approach to our political situation, proves to be a fine advertisement – both for Irish neutrality, and for the importance of seeing ourselves as others see us.

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