A mere 18 words into the main narrative, Harry Reid announces his position when he describes Richard III of England as “wicked”; a few lines later, the hapless king reappears as “evil”. Well, up to a point, Lord Copper. Like so many of his predecessors, Richard was certainly a usurper in an age when kings had to be all-powerful to survive and he may or may not have colluded in the assassination of his nephews, but during his short reign it was not all bad. He ended the unpopular practice of seeking benevolences and there were reforms in the land tenure system and in the criminal justice system of the right to bail.

Reid also makes the mistake of supposing that the people of Lancashire did not support the Yorkists. Most did – the Wars of the Roses was not a cricket match – but all this is simply a prelude to his mighty argument: that, generally speaking, the Reformation was “a good thing”. Rightly, Reid begins his argument with the ending of almost 350 years of Plantagenet rule and the arrival of the Tudor dynasty in 1485. Rightly, too, he sees this as an important punctuation mark in British history, for the civil wars in England also affected events in Ireland, Scotland and Wales, as well as the wider world of European affairs. With the end of the dynastic conflict and the turmoil caused by the clash of rival magnates, a new age did eventually dawn, and the Tudors proved to be businesslike, efficient and capable rulers.

They created a strong and centralised state which was governed not just by all-powerful magnates but largely by professional men from middling backgrounds. Building on the foundations created by Edward IV, the Tudors were able to marry peace with prosperity, and in so doing transform late medieval doctrine into modern forms of ruling the country. It is hardly surprising that they have been credited with building a stable order in England, so different from the reckless turmoil of the immediate past.

By then, much else was changing in the world and horizons were expanding. As the century ended, the Renaissance was given new impetus by the advent of printing and by the expansion overseas of European commercial and territorial interests, notably Spanish and Portuguese, to create the first of the great modern trading empires. The Reformation was also in full swing as fundamentalist Christians began questioning religious doctrine and radical changes took place within the northern European community. All this is outlined by Reid by way of background, but the main impetus of this thought-provoking book is the way in which the Reformation paved the way for the creation of a state which combined the kingdoms of England and Scotland.

If some of Reid’s conclusions will set tongues wagging and raise temperatures (that surely is his purpose), he is remarkably even-handed in his treatment of the way the Reformation affected the two countries. Refreshingly, Reid is nothing if not decided in his views – the conditional is happily absent from most of his arguments – and he is unafraid of setting down markers. Having settled matters in England following the tempestuous reign of her sister Mary, Elizabeth moved quickly as far as Scotland was concerned by sending her armed forces north to extirpate the French. In so doing she cemented the Protestant revolution fomented by John Knox.

It comes as little surprise that Reid regards Knox as one of Scotland’s greatest creations, but he has good words too for Andrew Melville and George Wishart. On the other hand, he considers James VI something of a poltroon and self-server, and he is pretty waspish about the king’s mother and the deleterious effect she had on Scotland. All this is expressed in a rigorous narrative which is both stylish and convincing, even if there are a number of passages in which the author’s enthusiasm leads him to deploy unnecessary superlatives.

As befits one of our most distinguished journalists, Reid is a robust thinker and will not tolerate the lazy use of the word Calvinism to describe any restrictive aspect of Scottish life. His final chapter must surely be the last word on that particular issue. Regardless of what we in modern Scotland think about predestination, the truth is that there are few people who follow its precepts today. Better by far to accept the more benign aspects of this curious man of God who so affected Knox, and in so doing bequeathed to Scotland what Reid calls “the democratic egalitarian principle”.

Every so often an author finds a subject which fully suits their intellectual capacities, and the result is a stimulating and timeless book. Reid and the Reformation form that perfect match: there can be no higher praise.

Reformation: The Dangerous Birth of the Modern World, is published by Saint Andrew Press, priced £16.99