Sir Tom Devine’s history of Scotland and the Union perceptive but not perfect

Sir Tom Devine. Picture: Greg Macvean
Sir Tom Devine. Picture: Greg Macvean
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SIR Tom Devine can’t quite keep his pledge to total impartiality in a perceptive new history of the Union, writes Stuart Kelly

Independence Or Union: Scotland’s Past And Scotland’s Present | by Tom Devine | Penguin: Allen Lane, £20

Given the high esteem in which Sir Tom Devine is held, I suspect that this book will, for some time, be the “official” history of the creative and contentious relationship between Scotland and England. As one would expect, it is thorough, readable and grounded in statistics rather than stories. There is, inevitably, some overlap with his trilogy, The Scottish Nation, Scotland’s Empire and To The Ends Of The Earth, but this is offset by material on the referendum and its consequences, as history shades into reportage.

One feature of Devine’s historiography is a scepticism towards the idea of single causes for complex phenomena; so, whether he is describing the situation leading up to the Act of Union in 1707, or the idea that a deep-seated resentment towards Margaret Thatcher was a motivating factor in the 1997 vote for devolution, he is averse to viewing events as triggers. Indeed, much of the best material here is on the “long view” that can be obscured by the gales and buffetings of “daily news”, even in the days before Twitter. Factors such as the decline of congregations in the Church of Scotland, the move towards a service economy and away from manufacturing, and the role of Scots within the Empire play out over decades, not days. This does not compromise caution towards such trend-based analysis. He is, for example, unconvinced by the thesis put forward in Tom Nairn’s The Break-Up Of Britain that the rise in calls for Scottish nationalism was aligned with the decline of the British Empire and decolonisation, and presents convincing evidence to that end.

There are, however, some problems. Devine begins, more or less, with the Union of Parliaments; so a great deal of the “history to the history” is underplayed. The Union of the Crowns in 1603 itself was preceded by dynastic alliances between Scotland and England: Henry VIII’s ill-fated attempt to marry Edward to Mary, Queen of Scots; James IV’s marriage to Margaret Tudor; right back to Alexander III’s marriage to Margaret, daughter of Henry III and Malcolm Canmore’s marriage to King Edgar’s sister.

There was a theory of Union as well, in such works as John Mair’s Historia majoris Britanniae, tam Angliae quam Scotiae of 1521. But the Union of the Crowns was crucial because it was also paradoxical. James VI and I may have ruled over a united land mass, but it was a country with two entirely different religio-political constitutions. In arguing for the legitimacy of overthrowing tyrants or the necessity for the monarch to be bound by the law, Scottish Protestant thinkers like George Buchanan in his De Jure Regni apud Scotos or Samuel Rutherford in Lex Rex had formulated an entirely different view of kingship from Plowden and Fortescue in England, and indeed, from James himself. The implementation of Knox’s Book Of Discipline meant that in matters of education, poor relief and some legal matters, as well as religion, this new Britain was not homogenous. It is telling that one of the demands Guy Fawkes and the Catesby plotters would have made had they succeeded was to halt any further union with Scotland.

Turning to the 20th century, things would have looked very different if the Government of Scotland Bill 1913 (oddly omitted here), which passed its second reading in the Commons, had not been suspended because of the outbreak of the Great War. In the aftermath of the war, with Scots suffering a disproportionate number of casualties, the calls for independence became stronger, but failed to translate into political power. What it did do was set the cultural temperature: the “national movement” was broad enough to encompass the Communist poet Hugh MacDiarmid and the Jacobite fantasist Compton Mackenzie.

One side-effect of Devine’s book is that no-one ought to be surprised at the current dominance of the SNP in the polls. The 20th century shows a Scotland curiously thirled to hegemony: the Kirk Party, the Liberals, the Conservatives (the only party to take more that 50 per cent of the popular vote, in 1955), then Labour, now the SNP.

In analysing the Referendum results, Devine – who for full disclosure says he voted Yes, but would have preferred Devo Max – drifts away from the “commitment to impartiality” he promises. Mentioning that the 430,000 “first generation migrants to Scotland from England, Northern Ireland and Wales” comprised a significant demographic given “the relatively small 10% difference between Yes and No” made me uncomfortable, especially coupled with the claim that the areas with the highest No vote – Orkney, Shetland, Dumfries and Galloway and the Borders – were “really marked out” by the “number of residents born outside Scotland but in the rest of the UK”.

That, to me, sounds perilously close to “we wuz robbed”.