There can be little doubt that Iain Macwhirter is one of the most important political commentators of our historic times. You may or may not agree with his editorial stance, but there are few who share the breadth of knowledge and understanding of his subject. This allows him to put Scotland’s politics into clear context which, when married to a sense of perspective and a winning writing style, makes his work accessible to all.
Macwhirter’s 2013 book Road to Referendum looked at the historic and cultural background to 2014’s historic vote, and his follow-up Disunited Kingdom was one of the more thoughtful and insightful reactions to the Scottish Independence Referendum, the ‘No’ result and the underlying political trends. When all around him were losing their heads, Macwhirter managed to give a detailed account of the key events in the immediate run up to the Referendum and make it engaging despite readers being all too aware of how that particular book ends.
Now, with Tsunami: Scotland’s Democratic Revolution, he attempts to contextualise the astonishing events surrounding the 2015 General Election; the all-conquering SNP, the demise and near death of Scottish Labour, and what the future is likely to hold for Scotland as its people and politicians react to such a seismic shift in the political landscape. You may feel you already know this story with it being so recent, but Macwhirter gets behind the scenes while remaining apart. He is a political journalist who, while never hiding his own point of view, is able to see all sides, particularly when it comes to the illogical or hypocritical. This is already borne out in his regular Herald and Sunday Herald columns, and those earlier books I mentioned, but it seems to me that Tsunami: Scotland’s Democratic Revolution sees him relax as a writer and allow his personality to come through more than it has previously.
There is humour which at times borders on the irreverent; the perfect and perhaps the only way to look at results and events which no-one could have predicted. If you remember the general astonishment and disbelief which accompanied Professor John Curtice’s exit-poll on the evening of the General Election, with many commentators openly scoffing at what it predicted and then frantically backtracking when it was clear this was how things were going to pan out after all, you’ll have some sense of the tone of Tsunami.
It’s a sort of informed incredulity as Macwhirter examines just how circumstances unfolded in the manner they did. As he puts all the pieces together you can’t shake the feeling that even he doesn’t quite believe the picture which is emerging. Sometimes the only thing to do is laugh, and a crucially detached Macwhirter holds a fun-fair mirror to events such as the various TV leader debates, Labour’s refusal to believe anything was wrong with a campaign which proved that their Emperor was, in fact, starkers all along, and the demands placed on the Scottish Conservative leader just to ensure a one-seat return. You couldn’t make it up, and he doesn’t have to.
It is a wonderful reminder, if it were needed, that it wasn’t a dream but real drama which was being played out, and the most interesting chapters are the ones which give us background into the characters involved, whether well kent (such as the enigmatic ‘Saint Nicola’ or the hapless Jim Murphy), or new to most names like ‘Baby of the House’, Mhairi Black, and Tommy Sheppard; a man whose rapid shift from disillusioned Labour supporter to SNP MP seems to reflect the political path travelled by many on the left in Scotland.
There are other characters who appear; rapper Loki, controversial commentator Robin McAlpine, and the return of ‘Teflon’ Tommy Sheridan, and it is in these player’s individual stories that the real interest lies rather than in the numbers and stats. All dramas need a memorable cast and Scottish politics can certainly boast that.
Extraordinary times call for a reliable chronicler and, in a similar manner to Andrew Rawnsley’s informed commentaries on the Blair & Brown years of New Labour (a comparison he may loathe), Macwhirter is the right man in the right place at the right time, which Tsunami: Scotland’s Democratic Revolution proves once more. What makes him stand apart (aside from the fact he writes for a pro-independence newspaper) is that he seems to have an insight and understanding of the people as well as the politics. As I said at the beginning, you don’t have to agree with Macwhirter, or his conclusion, to get something from this book. If you are interested in Scottish politics, which it seems that the vast majority of Scots rightly are at the moment, then I would suggest Tsunami: Scotland’s Democratic Revolution as essential reading.
Get your copy here.
Here’s the audio version of this review…