Tom Devine, the Indy Ref and the Myths of Modern Scotland

Gerry Hassan

Scottish Review, August 20th 2014

The independence referendum to some is their lifeblood; to others it is a distraction; but what it inarguably has done is to reveal much about what Scotland is, thinks and feels.

Something interesting happened this week when respected historian Tom Devine came out for independence. His reasoning was, he said in an interview in ‘The Observer’ that, ‘It is the Scots who have succeeded most in preserving the British idea of fairness and compassion in terms of state support and intervention’.

The above says many things about Scotland and Britain. The British idea of ‘fairness’ is close to a foundation story: from the British gentlemanly code of conduct which was meant to inform the establishment, to the Whig view of history, and Empire as a supposed civilizing force for good the world over. It was also meant to have informed, once the plebs proved rebellious, the basis for the post-war welfare state.

Alongside this is the idea of a Scottish expression of the post-1945 British dream that we have somehow remained faithful to, while according to Devine and many others, England has increasingly rejected such values. ‘Fairness and compassion’ are to Devine what characterise modern Scotland.

Scan the horizon of today’s society. First, let’s acknowledge and celebrate the positive, for there are many reasons to be cheerful about this nation. There is an increasingly distinctive Scottish political landscape; a confident, vibrant cultural environment; while Scotland has the most dynamic economic growth anywhere in the UK outside of London (with the fastest private sector job growth in the last four years of anywhere bar the UK’s capital).

Scottish public opinion has consistently opposed the marketisation of public services. A recent poll showed 57% of those expressing an opinion citing English NHS marketisation as making them more likely to vote Yes; surveys have shown long-term majorities for welfare policy (64%) and taxation (56%) being ‘made in Scotland’. There is a widespread consensus that Scots should decide all domestic issues which affect them; that is a transformation in our public life compared to a few decades ago.

All of this is to the good. Yet Scotland is also defined by some powerful myths which shape much of modern public life and how we think of and see ourselves. In ‘Caledonian Dreaming’ I identified six influential myths that shape society. These range from the myth of egalitarian Scotland, to the land of educational opportunity, that we collectively challenge and hold power to account, that we are a democracy, centre-left and embrace the notion of an ‘open Scotland’ – a land of diversity, friendliness and welcoming visitors.

The independence referendum has had many positives, blowing a powerful gale through public life energising new voices and disorientating some of our most complacent institutions (for example CBI, BBC). However, it has also in many places reinforced these pervading myths which have so defined our society, and given them new validation and legitimacy.

Some of the constantly recited statements in the referendum include that Scotland is inherently progressive, even social democratic; that middle class benefits such as ‘free tuition fees’ and ‘free care for the elderly’, along with the council tax freeze are somehow proof of being progressive (when they are all regressive, putting money in the pockets of the middle class); and that all we need to do to improve our public services is defend them against privatisation, management consultants and the cuts.

This mindset believes that the main challenges and threats to Scotland come not from within, but without: that any ‘enemies’ are gathered on the border, and not here already, and are manifested in the form of the Tory Party, Westminster political class, and those who appease corporate crony capitalism. Such an attitude makes the mistake of thinking that the values and practices of the latter are not here already, deeply embedded in government and public bodies: for example, Serco, G4S and other outsourcers do rather well from Scottish contracts.

The independence debate offers two clear roads. One stresses that we should tell ourselves comforting stories which say that everything is alright north of the border, and will be even more alright if we become formally independent. The other entails looking at our myths and recognising them for what they are, examining the details and then discussing whether we can and want to collectively mobilise the resources of our nation to do something about them.

So far the dominant narrative of the SNP and most of the independence movement has been to choose the former. This is a ‘Back to the Future’ outlook grounded on the allure of the supposed ‘golden age’ of Britain 1945-75 and dream of a ‘New Jerusalem’ Scottish vision.

This is the mindset of Tom Devine, Joyce McMillan and Iain Macwhirter and large parts of ‘civic Scotland’ who are pro-independence or supportive. It is a yearning for a simpler, less complex world, one where change and its pace are less frenetic, and society and life is more ordered, tidy and frankly, hierarchical. There is in this an elegiac quality and even a palpable feeling of loss, bewilderment and anger at how the modern world has turned out.

This is Tom Devine’s take on contemporary Scotland: ‘The Scottish Parliament has demonstrated competent government and it represents a Scottish people who are wedded to a social democratic agenda and the kind of political values which sustained and were embedded in the welfare state of the late 1940s and 1950s’.

This is what the Scottish debate is to Devine and others: a social democracy that is in effect a mirage and a middle class preservation society. This is stasis and the closed Scotland known down the years where enlightened professional opinion tell you what is good for you because they know best (eat your greens, cycle or keep fit and don’t talk back!).

The case that the welfare state of the 1940s and 1950s is the pinnacle of human ingenuity and the best we can do is profoundly pessimistic and conservative. Such nostalgia willfully chooses to ignore the deep-seated gap between social democratic rhetoric and practice today – a chasm between words and deeds which diminishes so much of our public life. Remember Scotland is not a social democracy for most of its people: one-fifth of all our children live in poverty, and a child born last year in Glasgow’s East End has a life expectancy of 28 years less than a child born in Lenzie. That doesn’t happen in a social democratic country.

There is a different route. This debate is about more than independence, statehood or sovereignty. It is about how you nurture and nourish the kind of society we want to be and how you best do social change to get there. Do we want to do it by holding the line, being defensive and resisting change, reinforcing our myths? Or do we embrace an age of flux and fluidity, uncertainty and increasing diversity, and use these to create news forms of co-operation, collaboration and connectedness?

This is a fundamental choice: the Scotland of seeing authority and power reconfigurate and increasingly come under scrutiny and challenge; or the nation of Tom Devine and others which emphasises stability and continuity and in so doing gives voice to what are in effect comforting tales which are meant to reassure us.

Two months ago the UK’s foremost expert on inequality Danny Dorling gave a public lecture in Edinburgh on inequality. When he reflected on Scottish independence he stated that the question we should ask ourselves is the following: ‘Do we really believe we trust each other?’

That soft, very human question goes to the core of what the current debate should be about. If you happen to doubt the capacity of your fellow Scots to grow, mature and take difficult decisions, or prefer the ‘protection’ and comfort blanket of being part of the UK, then you will be anti-independence. But if you choose to believe that Scots collectively can learn, adapt and face up to the huge challenges of the future, and do it better than the current arrangements, you will be pro-independence.

All of this comes down to trust, how you see your fellow human beings and fellow Scots, and whether you want to mature, grow up and take responsibility. I would like to think in his heart that Tom Devine agrees with that sentiment, in fact, I am sure he does. But that is a very different language to talking about Scotland’s ‘social democratic agenda’, the welfare state of the 1940s and 1950s, and ‘the British idea of fairness and compassion’. This debate has to be about embracing and shaping the future, and not clinging onto the wreckage and nostalgia of the past, whether British or Scottish.