Independence: An Argument for Home Rule by Alasdair Gray, book review

 

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The Independent Culture

So far, 2014 has been an annus horribilis for the writer and painter Alasdair Gray. His wife, Morag McAlpine, died last month, then a fire broke out at the Charles Rennie Mackintosh-designed Glasgow School of Art, where Gray studied in the 1950s and where he set parts of his great novel Lanark.

In his new book, Independence: An Argument for Home Rule, Gray quotes John Berger on Mackintosh: "He could have designed an entire civilisation." As Gray approaches his 80th birthday, he might feel that his world is vanishing but, in September, when Scots choose between remaining part of the Union and becoming a sovereign nation, one of his lifelong dreams could become a reality.

As a London dweller, I'm hardly the ideal reader for Independence, but I'm disappointed that, after economics has dominated the politicians' debate, Gray hasn't made a more imaginative case for home rule. The jacket copy states: "Gray argues that a truly independent Scotland will only ever exist when people in every home, school, croft, farm, workshop, factory, island, glen, town and city feel that they too are at the centre of the world." Having grown up in Cornwall, which is arguably more remote from Westminster than Edinburgh is, I know that, in communities which lie far from centres of influence, the sense that life is elsewhere can become debilitating. Gray has identified this cultural condition in his fiction but, by ignoring it here, he wastes an opportunity to show that independence is about more than measurable socioeconomic factors.

He sets out a brief history of Britain which demonstrates that politicians have pedalled fear to dissuade Scots from home rule since the Union was formed in 1707. Things get trickier when he discusses modern Scotland's social ills, including some which have been compounded by the SNP-controlled Scottish Parliament.

Why is independence the solution? "If Scotland could tax its offshore oil companies and people here were not taxed to keep military forces and nuclear weapons… then a Scottish government chosen by folk living here could makes this a more decent country."

The emphasis is on "could" because Gray is no fan of the SNP. Like many Scots on the non-nationalist left, he supports Alex Salmond's campaign in this hope: "When his government makes us a nation again we will argue, quarrel and compromise about important matters."

If Scotland chooses independence, Gray will have been one of its unacknowledged legislators. He writes about his culture with universal resonance but, at 130 generously-spaced pages, this book is too short and reworks material that's already appeared elsewhere. Just as Gray believes Scotland needs "politicians below the age of 45", a detailed, energetic argument for independence might have been made by one of the many younger artists who have benefited from his influence. As it is, Gray's aims are worth spelling out: "We do not want an independent Scotland because we dislike the English, but because we want separation from that Union of financial, military and monarchic establishments calling itself Great Britain."

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