This, his last work, is now published posthumously as a contribution to the debate on Scottish independence. It is an important book which deserves to be widely read by nationalists and unionists alike. There is much food for thought here for both camps.
Despite the truly historic and unprecedented nature of the decision which the nation will take in 2014, discussion thus far has been mainly partisan, shallow, ill-informed and shrill. Of course, there is hardly a day goes by without the subject being aired in the media and blogosphere but much of the chatter is ephemeral and misinformed.
As the author asserts: "Over the last 20 years, the number of books dedicated to elaborating a case for Scottish independence can be counted on the fingers of two hands." Historian Owen Dudley Edwards is surely correct, therefore, to remark in his introduction that this text raises the debate to a different intellectual level altogether.
Maxwell has done his homework assiduously. The key historical, social science and political sources on the subject have been marshalled with skill and to good effect. But this is by no means an arcane, scholarly tome accessible only to the academic few. The author writes in coherent and lucid prose so even complex economic arguments can be readily understood and absorbed.
Above all, perhaps, the volume appeals because of Maxwell's intrinsic analytical honesty. He was a lifelong and committed campaigner for Scottish independence but his book is far from being a propaganda tract or an SNP manifesto.
He does, of course, argue his own position on the constitution eloquently and cogently. But this does not prevent him from commenting on the weaknesses and ambiguities of the nationalist case and the enormous challenge of convincing the electorate to adopt the independence option in a period of profound global uncertainty
The chapters of the book range across the central arguments for an independent Scotland: democratic, economic, social, international, cultural and environmental themes are all considered in turn. At the end there is also a guide for pro-independence canvassers on how they might answer the "Aye but" questions on the doorstep from sceptical voters. An especially interesting section considers the intriguing possibility of clandestine negotiations carried out by the SNP Government with London close to the date of the referendum in order "to blunt the edge of some of the more intractable questions raised by independence".
Candidates for such secret talks in the future might include a defence agreement to maintain UK bases in Scotland (including Faslane), continued Scottish membership of sterling, and a temporary sharing of North Sea oil revenues. Such formulations might help to convince the majority of Scots still deaf to the argument for independence, but at the same time would probably split the SNP asunder.
Maxwell is persuasive on a number of issues, including the mediocrity of much of the Scottish media; that independence would not insulate the country from the cultural hegemony of London; that no confident predictions can be made of the condition of a post-independence Scottish economy; the fact that the old argument that the nation could not stand alone is now discredited; and the threat of Westminster neo-liberalism to Scottish commitment to the Welfare State.
Less seductive, however, is the notion of a greater sense of "moral community" north of the Border, a myth flatly contradicted by the depth of social and health inequalities in Scotland, accepted by generation after generation, and much else in our history.
Perhaps there is also insufficient appreciation that so many of Scotland's current and deep-seated ills are the responsibilities of Scots and not necessarily the malign effects of the Union. The disastrous failures of RBS and BoS both occurred under the watch of Scottish management. Maxwell also postulates that shorter lines of internal communication in small countries such as Scotland enable the easier development of a "political consensus" on social and economic challenges.
I would have thought that small size could just as well lead to smugness and introspection. A full-frontal radical attack on orthodoxy and conventional wisdom is what Scotland badly needs rather than yet another dose of self-satisfying "consensus" politics.
These minor weaknesses apart, Stephen Maxwell's last book is a most fitting memorial to a man who contributed so much to the political, scholarly and civil society of his beloved Scotland. He will be badly missed within the ranks of the SNP, but his passing will also touch many who are not affiliated to his party.