The past is an independent country: Interview with Tom Devine

by Jul 05, 2012 1 Comment

Scots suffer from “virtual universal historical illiteracy”, says Tom Devine. Perhaps that’s why they’ve struggled to engage with the referendum campaign

On Saturday 18 August, Scotland’s most celebrated historian, Tom Devine will join other academic and literary luminaries at the Scottish Parliament’s Festival of Politics in an attempt to distil Scotland’s history into a selection of the most important moments. Devine already has a shortlist committed to memory, from previous efforts to cajole Scottish Government ministers into reforming the history curriculum: the wars of independence, the Reformation, the Union of 1707, the Enlightenment, the British Empire, and the Great War would all be part of the programme that Devine envisages “that would at least give a sense of developing the Scottish past for schoolchildren.” Given the remit of the debate, however, Devine’s choice as the most important moment in Scottish history might not be admissible – it won’t happen until 2014.

“This thing that’s happening at the moment – shall we describe it as ‘devolution and independence, question mark,’ is “certainly the most significant moment since 1707”, says Devine. “Of that there is not doubt. We live, in that sense, in a historical time.” The extended timetable for Scotland’s independence referendum campaign may illicit groans from the Scottish public and political journalists alike, but Devine confides that the thousandday build-up has been “wonderful for trade”. Penguin, publishers of the books that planted Devine’s flag at the summit of Scottish historiography – The Scottish Nation, Scotland’s Empire, and To the Ends of the Earth – have decided to republish them in paperback and e-book formats as The Scotland Trilogy; the firm are set to market the hefty new tome as “the briefing kit for deliberation on the great decision of 2014”. The media requests have also rolled in. “The number of calls, emails and interviews, from print, TV and radio media from across the globe that I get, and especially since the beginning of this year, is quite extraordinary. No other event in Scotland’s recent history has ever attracted such attention.

“The thing you’ve got to remember is the quite remarkable impact of this small island, Great Britain, on world development, certainly from the 16th century up to the end of empire. Given its enormous impact in shaping various aspects of global change, from economy through to culture and language, it’s inevitable that the world is interested that we might be seeing the end of that particular project.” But would a domestic audience, particularly south of the border, recognise the referendum as an event of global historical importance? A recent IPSOSMori poll for the Future of Scotland campaign suggests that more than 70 per cent of Scots feel “shut out” of the independence debate, and only 16 per cent say independence is a priority. A slow start by the two official campaigns has barely registered in national media preoccupied with austerity at home and financial crisis overseas, and other surveys have revealed widespread ambivalence in the rest of the UK at the prospect of Scotland leaving the union.

Widely-acknowledged discomfort within the UK at Britain’s imperial past is one possible explanation for the disparity in interest at home and abroad; in Scotland, however, that discomfort is fed by ignorance, Devine suggests. “It’s still a curiosity to me that between 1936 and 2003, there was no academic analysis of Scotland’s role in the British empire. It’s not surprising therefore that we’ve suffered from amnesia on that. That is gone.” Scottish awareness of its past before the late 20th century lives on only in the “great cousinhood” that links virtually all families in Scotland with kindred in the United States, Canada or the antipodes.

In the absence of proper understanding of those aspects of Scotland’s history, a strand of revisionist anti-imperialism has crept into the pro-independence camp’s messaging largely unchallenged. Some nationalist rhetoric has sought to disown Scotland’s imperial legacy as purely British, when in reality Scotland was fully and willingly implicated in empire, at its best and worst. The latest historical research shatters any such illusions. “Our trade is to look at the past, warts and all – and there’s a lot of warts on the Scottish past, most of them having been discovered only quite recently.” Devine says that his most recent work in this area, looking at how sections of Scottish society enriched themselves from the slave trade, “could never have been published ten years ago.”

Other elements of Scotland’s forgotten past should be self-evident, not least in the midst of high-profile campaigns to preserve the nation’s historic regiments. Some of the names at the heart of that fight were also “at the cutting edge of empire”, particularly “in relation to native peoples”. “You can easily tell it by the fact that they then became the pall-bearers of empire,” Devine says. “In 1997 in Hong Kong, the garrison regiment were the Ghurkhas, so it was predictable that at the last minute, a kilted echelon would be flown in, and so it was that the Black Watch, at least elements of them, carried out the ceremonials – first in, last out. Yet in today’s Scotland, those who follow the SNP agenda would think that we had given up being a force like that in the world.

“It’s been said that very few nations in Europe are so mired in mythology about their past as the Scots are.” Devine says that “it doesn’t necessarily go down well” when he tells audiences that “the Scots until recently have been historically illiterate;” he tempers that by pinning the blame on education and not individuals. The history curriculum has too often been obsessed with “people who are not all that important”, like Charles Edward Stuart and Mary Queen of Scots, meaning that “the real issues are elided”. First year history students at university used to be so starved of history, the subject had a cachet laughably at odds with its modern image. “When I started teaching in 1969, when the irrelevance of Scottish history in schools was so deep, the kids used to say, ‘this subject seems exotic’; that made teaching Scottish history in university fantastically stimulating. I’ve got a visiting chair at Guelph in Canada and I know that a lot of people who have got to do Canadian history at university are bored stiff, because they’ve had it from the year dot, and that’s the other extreme.”

Away from the independence debate, Devine saw Scotland’s persistent historical funk at work in the big political wrangle of the last parliamentary session, the Offensive Behaviour at Football and Threatening Communication Act. Devine made his opposition to measures to criminalise sectarian behaviour clear in testimony to the Justice Committee when the bill was progressing through the legislature; his views haven’t softened now that it is law. “I think its a nonsense, except for the communications section, because that’s a modern development that probably had to be dealt with by an evolution of law. Addressing a meeting substantially attended meeting of sheriffs and judges on sectarianism, I don’t think anybody in the room approved of it; they have to work it of course because they’re servants of the Crown Office.”

Devine maintains that “in this area, the law is an ass”, and condemns the “anti-democratic” partisan politicking that was necessary to push it through Holyrood’s once rigorous committee system. “I don’t think that would even happen at Westminster, which is a terrible judgement because traditionally, external observers have said that one of the glories of the devolved settlement are the committees, and yet they were traduced on this particular occasion.” Yet it is the lack of historical context in the government’s attempt to legislate away a complex issue that troubles Devine most, with no consideration given to the regional character of Scotland’s perceived sectarianism problem, linked to movements of Catholics and protestants from Ulster in the 19th century, or the way that discrimination has lost its religious character and has morphed into a more symbolic tribalism. “If an immigration section of the curriculum dealt with these sort of things, it might provide what is missing, and that is understanding, because these things flourish in ignorance. It’s a much more long term approach than putting people in jail, but it’s probably going to be more effective.”

The story of how Scotland’s past was lost, forms part of a larger, more familiar narrative: that of the collapse in Scottish social confidence and economic certainty in the 20th century, whose rubble formed the fertile ground for a culturally and politically assertive devolutionera Scotland. “I remember a conversation I had with Don Dewar,” Devine says, “and we both agreed that if you could take the 1980s out of Scottish history, there would be no parliament in Edinburgh today. I used to kid him on about the ‘father of the parliament’ thing, and his retort always was: there was no father, only a mother, and her name was Margaret Thatcher.

“What happened was the movement away from a sense of almost self-satisfied arrogance before World War One, to a disintegration of confidence in the 1920s and 1930s when we saw the development of the so-called Scottish cringe. As a historian it is of interest to me that the great best-selling author of Scottish history [in the 1950s] was a Canadian, John Prebble, who wrote what I term ‘victim history’ – not that he consciously decided to write victim history – but his great series of books were all about tragedy: the Darien disaster, the Highland clearances, Glencoe, Culloden; and they sold in their thousands.” Prebble’s books, which Devine damns with faint praise as “very well written, although they were basically works of ‘faction’”, contributed to the growing sense amongst Scots at the time “that they had been colonised by England. The Scot as a downtrodden victim – that’s why I think Prebble’s books appealed.”

Given the current context, the 1979 devolution referendum is an apt choice as the expression of that lack of confidence. While today that vote is remembered for treachery of the Cunninghame amendment that made a ‘yes’ vote for devolution all but impossible, Devine describes it as it was experienced at the time: a “debacle” whose defining image was the editorial cartoon run by the Herald the next day. It depicted a cage, “with the doors of the cage flung open, and in the corners of the cage is the king of beasts as Scotia, cowering, and the line says – I used to always love to give this to American and Canadian audiences because I’d give it in the Scots and then translate it for them – ‘I’m no coming out because I’m feart’ – I am not coming out because I am afraid.”

The country was divided, with the south, northeast and Northern Isles refusing to endorse self rule. “It had a further, devastating effect on Scotland’s sense of itself – that even that minimal amount of self-government, Scots weren’t prepared to take.” The 1980s followed, with deeply unpopular Conservative rule and policies that transformed Scotland’s economic landscape. “The thing round the neck of Scotland since the 1920s – namely the great dinosaur industries which were supported by the state and the Second World War – they died sometimes within months and years of each other.” As suggested by Dewar’s quip, however, the destruction was also creative; Devine recognises “the pain, the terrible pain and agony in some communities, to some extent still with us, of deindustrialisation,” but adds: “what’s often forgotten is that alongside deindustrialisation went an enormous economic and social transformation.

“With that mix of economic and social transformation, you’ve got not only the development not only of a new confidence, but what I call ‘aspirational nationalism’,” Devine says. He links the “cultural renaissance” in Scottish literature, film and music in recent decades with the leap in personal wealth and living standards experienced by large sections of society with the shift to a service-based economy – not least financial services. “ The mind boggling fact that the RBS’ total bookline was twice the size of Scottish GDP – you were almost seeing a return to the great days of the global reach, at least of some Scottish companies.”

Personal and cultural wealth begat national confidence; Devine calls upon a review written by Alex Salmond for the Scottish Review of Books to illustrate how the democratisation of Scotland’s national dress mirrored the growth of aspirational nationalism. “It used to be that the only people you saw wearing a kilt in Edinburgh were Tory gentlemen, or an MP walking down Princes Street. [Salmond] recalled during the course of this review his invitation to the sixth year dance at Linlithgow High School, his old school, where he was surrounded by people dressed like Charles Edward Stuart – that is, the boys. He said that when he was there, it would be unusual to see somebody dressed like that at a final year dance, and if there was they’d probably have taken them into the boys’ toilet and beat them up. And now you’ve got the Tartan Army, it’s de rigeur at weddings and graduations – so higlandism has won, but it’s a reinvented highlandism. The way some of these guys wear a kilt, with the big tackety boots on and that sort of thing, it’s a much cooler version, and I think that’s a reflection of the much greater pride in Scottishness which has been demonstrated by all the psephology.”

There is little threat to the kilt’s popularity, but with unemployment peaking, almost a quarter of young people out of work, and with the eurozone crisis still looming large over the global economy, does Devine’s thesis still hold true? “One of the curiosities in this story is, aspirational nationalism should have collapsed because of the recession. It certainly hasn’t reached the stage where Salmond can be comfortable with the [referendum] result, but the core vote seems to be holding up, which is a puzzle.”

Other external factors are helping extend the shelf-life of aspirational nationalism, Devine suggests. “Maybe the reason why it hasn’t happened is because of the formula that I put forward in the first revised edition of The Scottish Nation, namely that the union will be further destabilised if there’s an economic crisis, a nationalist government in Edinburgh with considerable political muscle, and a right-leaning government in London. Then you might have a perfect constitutional storm. That hasn’t resulted in a majority for independence, but it has stiffened the independence vote at between 30-35 per cent of the electorate, and made the nationalists feel its all still to play for.”

Paris Gourtsoyannis Paris Gourtsoyannis

Paris joined Holyrood in September 2011, and became education correspondent in May 2012. Born in Canada into a Greek family, and raised in Belgium, he came to Scotland in 2005 to study at the University of Edinburgh, where he was involved with award-winning student publication The Journal. Before working at Holyrood, Paris contributed to the Edinburgh Evening News, the Guardian and Guardian Local, and interned at think-tank Demos. His beat takes in all areas of Scotland's education and skills sector, including early years, adult learning, and employability...

1 Comment

  1. Marace Dareau

    I live in France now so won’t be able to vote Yes in any referendum asking Scots if they want independence from the UK – as I surely would if I could. I still work for a Scots company though, and on material, the Scots language, as I have for 40 years, that means I have, if only incidentally, been exposed to a lot of the source documents of Scottish history. It has always been true that the ordinary punter in Scotland has wanted independence – from Wallace at the beginning of the 14th century to the citizens of my home town, Dumfries, burning the articles of Union at the beginning of the 18th. We still want that , to run our own affairs and be recognised as Scottish, not English or even British. In France the most commonly used term for ‘Great Britain’ or ‘the UK’ is Angleterre. Or even if the context means clearly England ‘Grande Bretagne’ may be used. Scotland simply doesn’t exist in the everyday terminology. These were our partners in the Auld Alliance – they don’t know what that means. I always say ‘no, I’m not English, I’m Scottish’ – and then the response is ‘oh yes of course you are different’ and one is then treated in a more friendly way! But I still say essentially we don’t exist. Nor does our language. For historical reasons, the Oxford English Dictionary incorporated Scots into its source material as if it were just a dialect of English – so that is how Scots is perceived worldwide. The following is an example of the data on http://archive.org/details/legendssaints02metcgoo… Google’s digitised texts:

    Author: John Barbour , William Musham Metcalfe
    Volume: 16
    Publisher: Printed for the Society by W. Blackwood and sons
    Year: 1896
    Possible copyright status: NOT_IN_COPYRIGHT
    Language: English
    Digitizing sponsor: Google

    John Barbour (author of The Bruce, which is always recognised as in Scots) is nonetheless catelogued as writing in English as the author of the Legends of Saints. What does this mean? That certain very well known artefacts (the kilt), writing (the Bruce) and so on are universally recognised as Scots (just as the language is a bunch o pawkie wee words we say in dreich days tae cheer oorsels up, I suppose) but otherwise for cateloguing purposes we are English. To free ourselves of this misconception we have to be politically as well as culturally and mentally independent. I’m afraid I have to say ‘its up to you – but vote Yes anyway, for, whatever the risks, they’re no real and you are worth it’.

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