Independence or Union: Scotland’s Past and Scotland’s Present

T.M. Devine

Allen Lane £20.00

Reviewed by Alan Taylor

THE most conspicuous consequence of the independence referendum is the avalanche of books it has provoked. Of course, many of these were of scant worth and had the shelf life of shell fish. Indeed, some were past their sell-by date even before they went on sale, such was the pace at which events unfolded.

As the nation’s foremost and most popular historian, T.M. ‘Tom’ Devine, cannot be accused of such meretriciousness. When he writes it is with authority and the accumulated knowledge of someone who, in 2014, was knighted for services to Scottish history. The past has been his lifelong obsession, the study of which he has used to inform the present.

Occasionally, however, he has been tempted to peer seer-like into the future. Thus, as he brings this latest opus to a close, he notes that “the promised Conservative plebiscite whether to be in or out of Europe” was planned for 2017. One is tempted to ask: by whom? For as he, and we, now know that this will happen in a few months’ time. And, depending on how the vote goes, the repercussions will be far-reaching, not least for Scotland.

But will the thumbs-down to Europe lead to the break-up of Britain? Devine is uncertain, citing Quebec where, after a knife-edge referendum in 1995, there has yet to be a reprise. Like Nicola Sturgeon, Devine – who in a personal if not professional capacity supports independence – is well aware that while nationalists may get a second chance, they are unlikely if there’s another No vote to get a third in the “foreseeable” future.

Independence or Union may be read as a synthesis of sorts of Devine’s own indispensable trilogy which began with The Scottish Nation and was followed by Scotland’s Empire and To the Ends of the Earth. It covers the same period, from 1700 to the dawning of the 21st century, and much of the same ground. What it offers in addition is concision, clarity, perspective and updating. Though not the most colourful of writers, he is never less than compelling, his story unfolding through accretion of detail. This is a book that owes a considerable debt to recent historiography to which Devine himself has contributed hugely. For whereas in previous generations what little we knew of our history was based more on myth and prejudice than forensic scholarship, today we have an embarrassment of riches.

At the book’s core is the Union’s formation. That this breathtaking episode is still a cause for fierce debate demonstrates its enduring relevance. The reasons why there was a merger between England and Scotland are complex and involve politics, trade and religion. Blackmail, too, played its part, as did bribery, or “patronage” as it is called by the weasel-worded.

The disastrous Darien venture in the final years of the 17th century had emptied wealthy Scots’ coffers and successive harvests had failed, throwing the country into crisis. Yet with the exception of a few grandees with vested interests there was amongst the general population no enthusiasm for union. Public opposition focussed largely on the Kirk, which “feared the contamination of Anglican influence”. But when an act was passed guaranteeing the Kirk’s rights, those in the pulpit who had been so vocal fell suddenly silent. Subsequently, the Act of Union was passed by a majority of 110 votes to 67. Thus a parcel of self-serving rogues sold Scotland’s independence for a few groats.

Over the centuries, love in Scotland for the United Kingdom has troughed and peaked and troughed again. This was – and by and large remains – truly a marriage of convenience. In 1713, Daniel Defoe acknowledged: “not one man in Fifteen” in Scotland was in favour of the Union. By 1745, the second Jacobite Rising produced the opposite result to that intended, binding lowland Scotland, which was opposed to the rebelling Stuarts, ever closer to England.

The rise of the British Empire further cemented the alliance. Many Scots prospered in the colonies and on their return built substantial estates and mansions and embraced the craze for ‘improvement’. The literati of the Enlightenment were virtually to a man in favour of the Union and Scots merchants took every advantage offered by their country’s association with its Auld Enemy. “By the early 19th century,” Devine writes, “unionism...seemed everywhere triumphant. The public buildings and streets of the new townscapes recorded names, memorial and statues commemorating British union, British empire, British heroes and British wars.”

It was not until late into the 20th century that nationalism began to be a factor. In part, Devine argues, this was because when Labour was in power it had canny operators, such as Willie Ross and Tom Johnston, who were adept at persuading the Treasury to finance major projects, including the provision of hydroelectric power in the Highlands.

What changed the fragile dynamic between north and south was the advent of Margaret Thatcher and her strident brand of Toryism. The miners’ strike, the Poll Tax, the closure of Ravenscraig, and her bellicose, antipathetical rhetoric angered many Scots and gave them a target at which to direct their discontent. That it was a Scot called Douglas Mason who invented the poll tax has been long forgotten in the rush to demonise Thatcher as a bogeywoman. Whatever the validity of this it was undoubtedly helpful in the SNP’s rise.

Tom Devine predicts that the party is “very likely” to prevail at the Holyrood elections in May. We shall see. In the meantime, Independence or Union, his best book to date, is required reading, a perfect example of why history matters.

T.M Devine is giving the Tannahill Lecture at Glasgow book festival Aye Write!, for which The Herald is media partner, on Sunday March 13. See