PROFESSOR Sir Tom Devine seems to have taken his lectern out of the lecture theatre and set it up in front of the Scottish nation. At the age of 77, and several years retired from teaching at Edinburgh University, Scotland’s foremost public intellectual has never been more vocal about the political and social tumults shaping Scotland’s destiny. “I never approach the media; they always approach me,” he says.

There he was last week wading into the ferment caused by the prolonged and elaborate ceremonials of the Queen’s death. He lamented the historical inaccuracy of the BBC’s coverage when the Queen’s body was being borne from Balmoral to Edinburgh and then, in a letter to The Herald, rebuked some of his fellow Celtic supporters for failure to show respect at a time when the royal family was in mourning. “This wasn’t the time.”

He routinely steps from ringside to ring to hold forth on Scotland’s constitutional future. “I feel it’s my public duty to use my training and expertise – which I gained from the educational opportunities given to me by my country – to comment on those areas where I believe the governance of Scotland and the UK is out of step with the aspirations of the majority of the population.”

Sir Tom is perhaps the foremost authority on how much of Scotland’s economy in the 18th and 19th centuries rested on its involvement – at all levels – in the Caribbean slave trade.

Yet, this didn’t prevent him and other academics being criticised in the debate about altering the wording on some of our public statues and specifically the plaque for Henry Dundas in Edinburgh’s St Andrew’s Square. “They gave the impression they had become experts on this, despite not having any demonstrably historical expertise.”

Today we are discussing the UK Tories: “vindictive and cruel” and the Scottish Government’s own performance: “weak and tired”. First off though, he wants to address what he describes as the Scottish Government’s chaotic attempts to deliver an accurate census.

This has already been delayed by almost a year, owing to the pandemic. It was extended following a poor response with only 87.9% of Scottish households completing the census document against a stated target of at least 94%. The delay has cost Scottish tax-payers more than £20m and led to criticism of the National Records of Scotland by statistics regulators over a lack of transparency.

“The Scottish Census is an appalling manifestation of inefficiency,” he says. “How did England and Wales manage to produce an effective census and not us? If we hadn’t elected to delay it a year the profile and thus publicity would have been much higher and there would have been a far greater level of public awareness. It’s now obviously deficient as it is not complete.

“This affects both historical work and social science: the past and the present. Social scientists rely on it more than historians. For instance, one of its most important outcomes was the data which showed that Scotland’s Irish Catholic community – for the first time – were now equal in terms of employment status and occupation with their Scottish counterparts.

“The first state census was 1801 and, to my knowledge, this is the first imperfect census and part of this was because they didn’t employ census enumerators. Right up until the last census we had actual people going from door to door. Now, in a desperate attempt to recover the situation, they’ve returned to that to try to catch the waverers. It’s pathetic.

“One of the most basic and key tasks of government is to count the heads of the population; note their identifying characteristics and tailor services accordingly. The failure to do this will have profound and long-lasting consequences.”

The ability of the Scottish Government to both deliver independence and make it work also worries Sir Tom. He hasn’t altered his opinion that Scotland should be independent and that it has a mandate for a second referendum, but he doubts this will happen any time soon and that there is a far more pressing priority: to eject from office the UK Tories, who he believes have been responsible for egregious societal harm on the UK and in Scotland.

“There’s absolutely zero chance of a referendum happening under the current UK Government,” he says. “And there’s not a chance that the Supreme Court will agree to the Scottish Parliament holding a lawful, unilateral one. The fact that the polls indicate 50% support for independence – and rising – ensures that Liz Truss will never grant a referendum.

“Yet, the trend towards English nationalism and towards hard-right Conservative rule which are both distinctly anti-Scottish means that the moral mandate for a poll is overwhelming. This is underpinned by the cheating and betrayal of Scotland over the 2014 promise of remaining in Europe. The sheer crassness, irresponsibility, cronyism and lying of the Johnson regime mean that the prospects for a Yes vote would be high.

“But there’s a large stumbling block. If we become independent we’d be out of both the European and English markets for a period. This increases the risks of any emergent nation at any time let alone in the midst of this prolonged period of economic apocalypse. My own understanding of recent polls including many who would want an independent state is that they don’t think this is the time for a referendum.”

Sir Tom doesn’t spare the track record of the Scottish Government, which he feels partly undermines its case for a second referendum. This aligns with a significant strand of thought among supporters of independence that a sense of fin-de-siecle torpor has come to rest upon the day-to-day government of Scotland. That the SNP is merely going through the motions.

Various recent statements by Nicola Sturgeon have crystallised, for many, a suspicion that for some among the SNP high command their enthusiasm for independence is an ethereal concept made more attractive if it guarantees seemingly endless devolved power.

“There’s a big question-mark over their competence which didn’t exist in the Salmond era,” says Sir Tom. “What I couldn’t stand was Nicola Sturgeon’s series of performances at the Edinburgh Festival. That was unacceptable and little more than an absurd ego trip.”

He also believes that the obsession of the First Minister’s and her acolytes with gender reform and hate crime is a deflection from their failures in education and health. “These are political performance theatre saying ‘look at us, we’re the most progressive nation in the world’.

“Matters that the vast majority of the electorate really care about are not being dealt with by this Scottish government. Yet issues which are peripheral to the lives of ordinary families seem to attract an absurd degree of focus from this government. It’s not a good use of effective political power.”

“I came out for independence in 2014 at a time when there was optimism about the capacity of the then SNP Government not only to run a devolved nation but potentially to run a sovereign nation. There was freshness of policy; there was a sense that the government was going with the grain of what Scots wanted. There were the so-called ‘Salmond freebies’ like abolishing tuition fees and free prescription charges. It felt like Scotland could have a completely different, more imaginative and much fresher government than what we were seeing at Westminster.”

He feels that the Scottish Government now looks tired, even exhausted and that there are serious concerns about the current First Minister being a potential Prime Minister of an independent Scotland, mainly because of what he regards as her opaqueness and her controlling instincts.

“We are also held back by the Scottish quangocracy which holds sway over all of the state’s levers of influence. There are many people who have not been elected but who seem to play a significant role in policy development. The majority of them are unknown to the Scottish public.”

Yet, while being convinced that there is an “unquestionable” mandate for a second referendum on independence he believes that putting an end to Conservative rule must now take precedence. “The wounds inflicted upon British and Scottish society by successive Conservative governments are utterly unacceptable. The only party capable of removing them from office is Labour and so we need to ensure that nothing is done to prevent them in that endeavour. The independence issue can then take care of itself in due course.”