Next week, residents of Scotland will have the opportunity—for the first time in more than 300 years—to decide whether to remain part of the United Kingdom or become an independent nation. The book business is not a disinterested party. A “Yes” vote will have implications for anyone working in the book sector and, as our coverage in recent weeks has shown, the trade is—perhaps rightly—split.
Last week, an open letter signed by a range of Scottish publishers and booksellers—from The Mainstreet Trading Company’s Rosamund de le Hey to Berlinn’s Hugh Andrew—warned of the problems an independent Scotland could have retaining the zero VAT rating on books. Others, such as Freight Books’ Adrian Searle, dismiss such concerns—perhaps a touch too blithely. “If we want zero per cent VAT it is down us to get it,” he told us last week.
Authors are similarly mixed in their views. Scottish resident J K Rowling is in the “No” camp, arguing that “Scotland . . . must compete in the same global markets, defend itself from the same threats and navigate what still feels like a fragile economic recovery.” Scottish-born crime writer Val McDermid takes the opposite view, telling the Guardian: “Look at our history: we invented political economy; we led the world in the practical application of science . . . How can we not believe in ourselves?”
There is an argument that a “Yes” vote may be good for books, even if it is problematic for business. In preparing an obituary for the former Bookseller columnist Herb Lottman, I had the pleasure of re-reading some of his columns. Herb understood that the world was not homogenous, and that “thriving book markets are sustained by diversity of formats, pricing and trading policies, clashes of laws and conventions . . . ” If Scotland votes “Yes”, we will have much of that. As McDermid has written, the referendum has “galvanised people”. We have already seen this reflected in sales of relevant books, and this feels like a seam that will not be closed quickly. History needs to be written.
Whatever your views on the politics, those who worry that this separation will not be quick and clean are right. As Rowling has stated: “It will take microsurgery to disentangle three centuries of close interdependence.” In book terms—from currency to VAT to territorial rights—a “Yes” vote will leave us all scrambling around for answers to questions not yet even discussed. The 18 months between a “Yes” vote and independence will be hugely destabilising, massively complex and incredibly tense. If the “No” camp has been mired in negativity, the “Yes” camp has been strong in obfuscation. Neither side comes out of this well. Though we do not all have a vote, we all have a stake, whatever the result.