‘Arise Now and Be a Nation Again’: The neverending story of Scotland’s history

Gerry Hassan

Scottish Review, March 23rd 2016

Tom Devine has been a huge intellectual influence in Scotland in recent decades, having made major and thoughtful contributions to many important historical and contemporary debates.

His latest work, ‘Independence or Union: Scotland’s Past and Scotland’s Present’ is part a summary of his previous research, ‘The Scottish Nation’ and his work on Scotland’s Empire, seen through the prism of Scotland’s place and influence in the union.

This descriptive, wide-ranging book covers not only over 300 years of Scottish history, but huge changes, the rise and fall of ideas and powerful forces, along with this nation’s place in a wider context: most critically, its relationship with England, but also with its European neighbours, and Empire and Commonwealth. Devine, for much of this story has a real way of telling this, while giving a place for people, traditions and the many complexities involved.

Devine tells the story well of the Scotland pre and post-union, and the difficult dilemmas and competing pressures that parliamentarians and leaders had to weight up. There is a sense of balance and geo-political awareness for the Scotland of immediately before and the years after 1707, and the issues of Scottish autonomy in the union, London’s view of Scotland, the Scottish need for access to greater trade opportunities, the running sore of taxes and duties and the contradictory relationship between Jacobinism and the union alongside the role of Presbyterianism, which puts the 1715 and 1745 risings in proper context.

Devine draws on previous research to paint a picture of a fast changing society: emigration and immigration, the influence of religious faith, the importance of the Kirk, the role of the Catholic Church and place of Irish Catholics in society.

The emergence of industrial Scotland in the late 18th and 19th centuries is given its proper place: what can only be seen as a Scottish Great Leap Forward which turned upside down much of life. Devine emphasises the critical experience of Glasgow and the West of Scotland as ‘the workshop of the world’, but never falls into Clydeism, and also references many other parts of the country, such as Dundee’s ‘Juteopolis’ to the Borders’ textile industries. Similarly, later on in the book, the bitter, divisive, painful experience of deinsdustrialisation in the 1970s and 1980s is put into context.

Scotland’s global place is central to this. The experience of Scots leaving for new opportunities often because of bleak prospects at home, the role of the imperial warrior at war and the Scots who made the Empire, are all told well.

Where Devine is less convincing is the story of contemporary Scotland: the rise and fall of Scottish Labour, the emergence of the constitutional question, and the establishment of the SNP as Scotland’s leading party. This is reinforced by the structure of the book which is divided into two equal sections. The first, ‘Unionism Triumphant’ covers the first 250 years of the union. The second, ‘The Union Challenged’ covers the last 50 years and, despite its length, is more sketchy and impressionistic.

It is not surprising, but still nevertheless welcome, that the role of Scotland’s historians are given due importance. Devine writes that there was an absence of a proper narrative of historical development since the union until this began to change in the late 1960s and 1970s. William Ferguson, Chris Smout and the popular historian John Prebble amongst others are given due credit – the latter for giving voice to the palpable feeling of suffering, tragedy, loss and painful defeat which has been a large part of Scottish history.

Devine concludes that this amounts, in the words of the American writer Rogers Smith, to what can be called a ‘constitutive story’ – namely, an account of a political community which explains what they are and where they came from, and believes that historians played a major part in this.

This perhaps over-states the role of historians. But Devine also addresses the wider role of storytellers and gives due place to Robert Burns, James Hogg and Walter Scott. In a period of unprecedented change they provided a sense of continuity, reinvention and connection to the past. Not by accident were all three avid collectors of tales, songs and poetry – their motivation being that they didn’t disappear from the collective imagination. It would have been good to see this strand reappear in modern times with the work of Alan Lomax, Hamish Henderson and the likes of Norman and Janey Buchan in capturing the world of folk and vernacular music, and cast in the same tradition as Burns and others.

The power of patronage and successive leaders to strengthen Scotland’s claim, its influence and largesse similarly has a long lineage. The third Duke of Argyll, the Earl of Islay, was called the ‘King of Scotland’ and ‘Vice Roy of Scotland’ by King George II; similarly, Henry Dundas gained the nickname ‘Harry the Ninth’ and the ‘Grand Manager of Scotland’; and in the middle of the 20th century, Tom Johnston, earned the name ‘King of Scotland’ from Winston Churchill. This pragmatic strand could even be seen in more recent times in the style of Willie Ross as ‘hammer of the Nats’ and Alex Salmond who led the SNP to office and ascendancy.

There is an absence of women. The only ones who appear in the pages are some of the most prominent women who have shaped Scotland and the UK: Margaret Thatcher, monarchs such as Queen Victoria and Queen Elizabeth II, and SNP politicians such as Winnie Ewing, Margo MacDonald and Nicola Sturgeon. Labour through its history is seen as a very male party, Wendy Alexander and Joanne Lamont excepted (as are the Tories and Lib Dems). This of course until recently has been the reality of public life in Scotland, but it would have been good for Devine to comment on this, as well the changes which have seen women lead three of Scotland’s main political parties, reflecting wider changes in society.

Throughout most of the book, Devine portrays unionism and nationalism as polar opposites and either/ors. Thus, unionism and nationalism are seen as givens, and to take one example, the National Covenant of 1949 which proposed home rule described as not ‘a nationalist document’ because it wished to do so in the context of the UK, despite being imbued with nationalist sentiments. Yet late on, Devine, suddenly introduces the concept of ‘unionism-nationalism’ and cites that it has been one of the strengths of unionism, and that its decline, as unionism became associated with British nationalism under Thatcher, was a fundamental shift which we are still living with the consequences of.

For all Devine’s strengths, in the latter half of the book, there is much less of a feeling of sure-footedness. Revealingly, a host of mistakes appear. We are told that Willie Ross as Harold Wilson’s Secretary of State presided over a 900% increase in public spending, which is to buy into the Thatcherite ‘subsidy junkie’ view of Scotland a little too much. Thatcher’s Sermon on the Mound of 1988 is put on the same day as the Scottish Cup Final to emphasise how she alienated different parts of the nation, when in reality they weren’t – but seven days apart (and speaking as a Dundee United fan, it was United playing Celtic, not Dundee as Devine states).

The Sun’s famous 1992 front page coming out for independence is wrongly cited as ‘Arise and Be a Nation Again’, when the correct words (‘Rise Now …’) are seven of the famous words in modern Scotland. Several facts and figures are wrong. John Major did not become Prime Minister in 1992 but 1990; at one point the indyref is given as September 2015; and the Unionists and their allies did not win a majority of votes in 1951, 1955 and 1959, but as Devine’s next sentence acknowledges, only in 1955. There are other examples in a book claiming to be authoritative, which unfortunately gives the impression of being written in-haste and then poorly checked.

Devine’s account has been lauded by many including the broadcaster Andrew Marr who said the book ‘slays lazy myths’, while Alex Massie criticised it as presenting ‘an impeccably nationalist interpretation of Scottish history … [from] … the SNP’s court historian’. These are extreme statements of approval and disapproval and both are inaccurate, as the book is neither of these.

When interviewed by Magnus Linklater in ‘The Times’, Devine talked of the ‘hatred, envy and jealousy’ he has faced, or as ‘The family call it HEJ’. It was a revealing remark, for Devine’s odyssey is one which is representative of an important part of society. Born in the immediate aftermath of the Second World War in Motherwell, he grew up in an Irish Catholic working class community where discrimination was still rife. Devine’s story is one of the opening and leveling of post-war Scotland, of working class liberation from poverty and insecurity, along with dismay at Thatcher’s re-enclosure. Yet, for all Devine’s acceptance and honours, and the road from outsider to insider, there is still a palpable sense of still not being fully accepted, or of not being fully part of Scotland’s elites. It would be good at some point to hear Devine reflect on this, rather than just sweep it under the carpet.

Devine writes that: ‘Mythology is a core building block of any nation because it serves to develop collective consciousness and belief in a glorious inheritance from the past.’ The book’s title, ‘Independence or Union’ is a bit of a misnomer. Devine’s thesis is that neither independence or the end of the union is inevitable. Instead, Scotland has undergone a series of seismic changes, while also experiencing a number of constants. There are a number of unions: regal, political, social and European, and a continual balancing act of expressing Scottish interests and autonomy in these wider unions.

He cites Gordon Brown at a gathering in a Fife school in his constituency during the referendum. The school kids are piped in to the tune of ‘Highland Cathedral’, leaving Brown to muse that, ‘We could easily have been living in a post-independence Scotland’, such was the absence of any British references, from past or present. There is an awareness that Scotland has already in the realm of culture and ideas become independent, whether or not full statehood follows.

Scotland needs its interpreters, storytellers and myth debunkers, and historians are an important part of such sentiment, and Devine has proven himself time and again a first rate one who has contributed hugely to our growing awareness of who we are and why we are the way we are.

This is at its best a generous, generalist account of Scotland’s last 300 years, and in its accessibility and vast range provides a welcome service in opening up the flowering of history to a wider audience. However, there is a subtle tension in the book. Is the story being told a linear one with an ending, or one that by its nature has no ending? Devine does not seem sure. So we get an awareness of diverse Scotland, but a propensity to buy into the latest embodiment of official Scotland and ‘the danger of a single story’ account. It is a tension which has been evident in Scotland for as long as it has been in existence, and maybe it is hoping for too much, but it would have been enervating if Devine had brought this ambiguity and set of faultlines fully out.