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Last updated: 02 August 2019. sky thinking for an open and diverse left

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A Historical Magnum Opus?

Gary Fraser reviews historian Tom Devine’s The Scottish Nation: A Modern History


T.M. Devine’s The Scottish Nation:  a Modern History is a book that is already gaining a reputation as the definitive modern study of Scottish history. In regards to the referendum, this is a book that both sides of the debate should read. It is not a polemic but a careful exploration of the historical facts.

Of course, in a post-modern age, where 'only dogmatists believe in certainty', Robert Burn’s “facts are chiels that winna ding” is a problematic assertion to say the least, none more so than when analysing history in order to make sense of Scotland’s current historical moment. Devine notes, with a slight nod to post-modernism, that history is always an ‘interpretative process’.

This review is equally an interpretative process, focusing on the parts of the book that interest me, especially in relation to the referendum. Readers should note that Devine’s book contains a magnificent social history of Scotland, however due to space and purpose of focus there are many areas of the book not discussed in this review. 

The book starts in the late 17th century. Devine notes that in the two decades before 1707, various schemes of union had been proposed but all came to nothing, mainly due to English ‘indifference’ or ‘antagonism’. The path to 1707 is complex, but for Devine the economic seeds can be traced to 1695 and Scotland’s ill-fated Darien expedition. Even though it was launched against a back drop of famine related deaths which historians refer to as ‘The Ill Years’, Darien represented a period of national optimism amongst Scotland’s ruling elites. The Darien plan involved establishing a Scottish colony on the Isthmus of Panama which offered simultaneous trading links with the Pacific and the Atlantic. The Darien project would mark Scotland’s grand entrance onto the world’s stage as a serious imperial power. It ended in disaster. Although Devine explains that a true figure will never be known, Darien cost Scotland an estimated quarter and one sixth of its liquid capital. Faced with economic collapse, the then Scottish parliament which was made up of the nobility, barons and burgesses, (and based on corruption and bribes), voted to enter into an Act of Union with England. For England, who was fighting a major war in Europe, an Act of Union with Scotland was regarded as a vital national security measure. Devine explains how the Act of Union faced ‘overwhelming popular opposition in Scotland’ and how ‘uncertainty’ characterised the first few decades of the union.

For Devine it was not until the defeat of the Jacobite’s as a political and military force at Culloden in 1746, that the concept of Unionism began the process of establishing hegemony, although he notes that the Jacobite cause was unpopular in Scotland’s lowlands.

By the 1750s, the Act of Union had erected the biggest free trade zone in Europe with Scots merchants able to trade in profitable American commodities such as tobacco, indigo, and rum (trade links denied to Ireland) with the added protection of the Royal Navy. Devine argues that the Union was good for Scotland and by the mid-18th century it was clear that Scotland, unlike Ireland had not been converted into a colonial appendage of the England’s economic system. If the Act of Union is to be considered as a marriage as is often suggested, then Scotland was very much an equal and willing partner.

For Devine, Scotland’s Union with England was a dazzling story of commercial success – a success story which lasted well over two hundred years. The Royal Bank of Scotland was established in 1727 and by the 1750s Devine describes Scotland’s economy as ‘stable, dynamic and prosperous’. Scotland also maintained a distinctive national identity through its separate legal and education systems – the latter with its emphasis on speculative teaching contributed towards the Scottish Enlightenment.

The advent of the industrial revolution brought with it significant social transformation in Scotland. The country was fast becoming urbanised with people moving from the land to the growing towns and cities. Scotland’s rates of urbanisation were faster than anywhere else in Britain or the continent for that matter and by the mid-19th century Scotland’s central lowlands had absorbed more than one half of the country’s population. Yet, development, to use an economic term is ‘uneven’ and economic prosperity is often predicated on human suffering. Devine devotes a considerable section of the book to the Highland Clearances, and charts how these tumultuous events provided a vivid illustration of the subordination of the human factor to the ‘new needs of productive efficiency’. In one brutal telling, he documents how between 1807 and 1821 Lord Stafford removed between 6,000 and 10,000 people from their land. Scotland was experiencing the full impact of the new capitalistic social order and the message was clear – land was for making profit rather than providing a basic source of support for the rural population.

Despite the calamity that faced the Highlands or the poverty experienced throughout the rest of Scotland, Devine notes that in the 19th century political nationalism in Scotland remained an irrelevance and was ‘conspicuous by its absence’. The absence of political nationalism, Devine argues, placed the Scots ‘out of step’ with their continental neighbours as throughout Europe small historic nations were asserting their rights to independence. The absence of a nationalistic discourse can be partially explained by the ways in which cross sections of society supported the Union. If history, as Marx suggested, albeit crudely in the Communist Manifesto, is divided into an economic conflict between two classes, then the British Union survived in part because it achieved support from both spheres. For the ruling elites and significant sections of the middle class, Scotland benefited from being an equal partner in the British Empire. For Devine, the Empire did not dilute Scotland’s sense of Scottish identity but ‘strengthened it by powerfully reinforcing the sense of national esteem and demonstrating that Scots were equal partners’. Interestingly, just at the moment when Scotland became urbanised, Devine explains how its national identity became a rural one: ‘Highlandism’, Devine argues, ‘answered the emotional need for the maintenance of a distinctive identity without in any way comprising the Union’.

In regards to the labouring classes, the age of industrialisation forged a political union between the peoples in Scotland and England who were united via working class institutions such as trades unions and the Labour Party. Devine notes that by the 1820s, political rebellion in Scotland had been replaced with militant trades unionism. The construction of a ‘socialist consciousness’ would act as a social glue between the working peoples of England and Scotland and from the age of universal suffrage onwards, so long as both countries supported Labour Party the Union would be protected.

Devine argues that the era of class conflict is deeply mythologised by Scottish socialists and the idea of a ‘red’ or ‘radical’ Scotland is heavily imbued with idealised notions and selective readings of the past. When the Great War came in 1914 the working classes, including many trades unionists, supported the war effort. In fact, Devine notes that Scots provided more voluntary recruits proportionately than any other part of the UK.

For Devine, in the period between the wars, political nationalism in Scotland remained ‘irrelevant’. By 1922, Labour was the largest party in Scotland and in 1931 the STUC abandoned its support for Home Rule. The celebrated socialist, John Wheatley, argued that ‘only the power of the British state could protect the working classes from the predatory nature of industrial capitalism’; Wheatley’s was a view that would be hegemonic in the labour and trades union for at least another four decades. Devine argues that it was the British labour movement’s ambivalence towards Home Rule in this period which helped to cement the formation of the National Party of Scotland in 1928, which in 1934 joined with the right wing Scottish Party to create the Scottish National Party (SNP). But it would be a long time before the SNP made any impact. For Devine, during its’ early years, the SNP offered no ‘coherent alternative economic strategy’ and was not a serious political force in Scotland.

The establishment of a post-war cradle to grave welfare state made the Union in Devine’s words ‘impregnable’. The ‘spirit of 1945’ marked the zenith of British hegemony. Devine explains how the welfare state was made possible by the Second World War. He writes that ‘if state intervention could defeat the might of Hitler’s armies, then surely it was capable of tackling the evils of poverty, unemployment and social deprivation’. The welfare state was a thoroughly British project that unified citizens from across the islands, especially with the creation of a British National Health Service which came to be regarded as a national institution. Meanwhile, key British industries were ‘nationalised’, whilst a large programme of council house building was undertaken. In Scotland, between 1945 and 1965, 86% of all homes built, were built by local authorities, a figure that seems incredulous by today’s standards and one that is testament to the powers of municipal socialism - Scotland had the largest share of public housing of any advanced economy outside of the Communist bloc.

Socialism, it seemed, could be constructed within capitalism, creating what academics would later call a ‘social democratic consensus’, built upon the solid foundations of the welfare state and full employment. This facilitated the rise of a consumer society in Scotland. For example, in 1952, 41,000 Scots owned a TV – a decade later and the figure was over 1 million. The ‘social democratic consensus’ lasted from the mid-1940s until the late 1970s. In the first two decades of the ‘consensus’ Home Rule for Scotland, or independence, remained by and large irrelevant. In the 1950s, SNP membership was less than 1,000 and this small membership was prone to schism. Furthermore, in the post war period, the SNP suffered from the perception that nationalism was equated with Nazi ideology. In the discursive world of the left, nationalism was regarded as parochial at best, fascistic at worst. Moreover, in an era of class politics and state socialism, the Nationalists appeal to the interests of the Scottish nation, or to the myths of ‘Jock Tampson’s bairns’, or to a mythologised ‘democratic intellect’, were easily dismissed as ‘bourgeois’ or ‘romantic’ nationalism.

Devine pays close attention to the presence of Toryism in Scotland, particularly amongst protestant and ‘orange’ sections of the Scottish working class. Devine reminds readers that ‘Toryism’, easily dismissed today has deep roots in Scottish society and as recently as 1986 Devine notes that almost one half of all Church of Scotland members voted Tory.

From the late 1970s onwards, each of the central pillars of British unionism – the Empire, the welfare state, the Labour Party and trades unions - all experienced deep decline and in this period the SNP emerged as a credible protest party, especially in by-elections. Yet, although the decline of Unionism had started, support for the SNP did not equate with support for independence. In the 1979 referendum on Home Rule, less than a third of Scots voted for what was then billed as the most important constitutional change since 1707.

There is not the space here to go into detail here but the disintegration of the British Empire after the end of the Second World War ended Britain’s role as a great power and contributed toward a crisis in Unionism. Devine mentions Tom Nairn and his influential The Break Up of Britain; Nairn argued that the end of Unionism would be a necessary constructive response triggered by the end of Empire.

By the 1980s a new word entered the lexicon, that of ‘de-industrialisation’ which went hand in hand with the long decline in the politics of organised labour. In the first two years of Margaret Thatcher’s neo-liberal government, Scotland lost 11% of manufacturing output. Meanwhile, unemployment soared to levels not seen since the 1930s. In Glasgow, by the end of the 1980s, unemployment rates were said to be at 38%, fracturing further working class identity. Britain experienced de-industrialisation just at the moment when the Soviet Union was facing collapse and neo-liberal globalisation began its dominance. These two events might not have ushered in an ‘end of history’, as Francis Fukuyama proclaimed, but they certainly contributed towards twin crises in both revolutionary and reformist socialism and their more moderate counterpart, social democracy. The British Labour Party, one of the central pillars of Unionism, began a long and torturous journey to the right of the political spectrum, almost at the same time when a narrative started to be constructed in Scotland that the Tories had ‘no mandate’.

The more Labour drifted to the right the more the SNP occupied social democratic space. Moreover, the nationalist narrative extended (and extends today) well beyond the ranks of the SNP. Devine quotes Canon Kenyon Wright:

We realised that our real enemy was not a particular government, whatever its colour, but a constitutional system. We came to understand that our central need, if we were to be governed justly and democratically was not just to change the government but to change the rules.

The final section of Devine’s book ends in 2007 and he provides an assessment of the first decade of devolution. The rise of the SNP is well documented. He notes the mediocrity of Scottish Labour and in particular the poor performance of Scottish Labour leaders, who he compares in stark contrast to Alex Salmond, whom he describes as ‘one of the most accomplished politicians not simply in Scotland, but in the whole of the UK’. That he holds Salmond in such high regard is interesting, more so given the fact that since the start of the referendum a deliberate and somewhat contrived attempt to portray Salmond as unpopular and divisive has been undertaken; and whilst this narrative might be manufactured it is bearing fruit for the Unionists, because it appears to have marginalised Salmond from the campaign - whether this turns out to be a major tactical blunder remains to be seen. Interestingly, when discussing the early years of devolution Devine makes no mention of the Scottish Socialists electoral breakthrough in 2003, confirming Gerry Hassan’s point that the SSP’s influence was ‘episodic’ and ‘analysis too simplistic’.

Writing in 2007, Devine takes the reader through a journey that documents the deep changes that have occurred in Scotland – although we should note that this journey is a pre-financial crash one. He notes how the SNP broke Labour’s dominance in the working class central belt. He then details the changes in the workplace and the gradual disappearance of coal mining, steel making and ship-building – all of which contributed towards a sense of British national identity. This is an important point. The concept of Union was not based on an abstract notion of ‘workers unity’ but was grounded in actual institutional and cultural practices and once these institutions went into decline, sections of the working classes loyalty to Unionism, which had a material basis, was seriously undermined.

By 2007, manufacturing in Scotland accounted for less than a fifth of Scottish GDP. Scotland’s new economic pillars were financial services, oil and gas, tourism, light engineering, public services, retailing and bio-sciences. Devine discusses the fears that have emerged around a new ‘underclass’, ‘whose lives are blighted by poverty, low education and attainment, poor health, petty crime and drugs’, adding that an ‘intergenerational culture of worklessness’ has resulted in ‘personal dependency on the state’, which ‘far from declining, became a way of life in many working class neighbourhoods’.

Whilst much has been written about poverty and inequality in Scotland, Devine’s finishing section of the book highlights the rise of the affluent society. For Devine, ‘Scotland is a more middle class country than at any time in its history’. And whilst the term ‘middle class’ is problematic, we should not miss the more fundamental sociological points that Devine is making.

Take housing as just one example. Overcrowding, an issue as recently as the 1950s has disappeared. Scots are now more likely to own their own home than live in a council one, a process which leads not only to increased social segregation but a further fracturing of collective identities based around class. Between 1979 and 1989, 150,000 Scots bought their council homes – the Scots might not have voted Tory but they were pragmatic and self-interested enough to take advantages of Tory policies.

Devine charts how in the last four decades car ownership has risen by 200%. In 2001, 93% of the population had both their own shower and bath coupled with central heating – conveniences which for the current generation’s grandparents were the preserve of a rich minority. Devine notes that old industrial cities have been transformed; Glasgow for example is now after London the second biggest shopping centre in the UK, displaying crowded streets, restaurants, bistros and clubs. Scots today have more leisure opportunities than at any time in their history and enjoy eating out and regular holidaying overseas. In what he terms ‘prime Scotland’, the best 100 neighbourhoods have one of the highest rates of life expectancy anywhere in the world.

In regards to the referendum, it would appear from a cursory glance at polling data, that working class and poorer Scots are more likely to support independence. Yet, ‘middle class Scotland’, is a constituency with the power to determine the outcome of the referendum.

Devine reminds readers of British Unionism’s longevity (1603 – the Union of the Crowns is the real starting point). Devine comments that for a Union to last this long ‘is a rare thing in European history’. Yet today, Unionism, and I would say this regardless of which way the vote goes, is a project experiencing ideological crisis. Devine highlights the lack of a ‘credible or convincing case’ for the Union. This might explain why the Unionist cause lacks the street meetings, the mass canvasses, or why there is no Radical Unionist Campaign, galvanising a new generation to the Unionist narrative.

The defence of the Union appears to inhibit a world that speaks more to the past than it does to the future, and, content on attacking the SNP it makes few claims for itself. For the elites, who dominate the project, theirs is a world of nostalgia for Empire and for a time when Britannia ruled the waves.

At its core is the recognition that independence for Scotland would seriously undermine Britain’s place in the world. The existential crisis that would surely follow a yes vote would be profound and in that sense Britain’s ruling class stands shoulder to shoulder. For progressive no’s, and there are some, theirs is a world rooted in the class traditions and practices of old. And whilst the rhetoric is often socialistic, or the ‘singing the old songs’ to quote Jim Sillars, the proponents of this position seldom acknowledge any of the fundamental crises that have beset the socialist movement or socialist ideology in general; neither do they appear to accept the scale on which the collective institutions and practices that tied significant sections of the working class to the Union have been seriously eroded. Devine charts the rise in national identity in Scotland which correlates well with another variable – a general dislike in Scotland of the Tory Party. By 2004, surveys showed that three quarters of Scots felt ‘exclusively Scottish’. For Devine, Scottish identity has never been stronger since the 18th century.

In conclusion, T.M Devine’s book is a monumental achievement which will no doubt cement Devine’s reputation as Scotland’s most prominent historian for decades to come. This is quite simply one of the most important books ever written about Scotland.  

T.M. Devine’s The Scottish Nation: A Modern History is published by Penguin

External links:

Bella Caledonia

Bright Green

George Monbiot

Green Left


The Jimmy Reid Foundation

Laurie Penny

New Left Project

Newsnet Scotland

Richard Dawkins

Scottish Left Review

Socialist Unity

UK Uncut

Viridis Lumen

Wings Over Scotland

Word Power Books