Scotland’s ‘Velvet Revolution’

Carol Craig in conversation with Tom Devine

Published in Gerry Hassan, Eddie Gibb and Lydia Howland (eds), Scotland 2020: Hopeful Stories for a Northern Nation, Demos 2005.

CC: I would like to start with a general discussion about Scotland and transformational change. The author of The Tipping Point, Malcolm Gladwell, argues that people tend to see change as slow and incremental when in fact it is often rapid and transformatory. He argues that snow is a good example of this. When snow falls the temperature change is often minimal yet within minutes the world looks different. As a historian can you identify times in Scotland’s past when change happened quickly and peoples’ life changed dramatically as a result?

TD: There are several examples but I think the most cogent is the extraordinary period in the 18th and early 19th centuries – a period which is sometimes known as the age of improvement or the age of enlightenment. The reason why this is a very telling example of what you are talking about is because elites in Scotland consciously agreed on a formula of modernisation.
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CC: When you say elites do you mean the landowners?

TD: Correct. The landed classes. And it is one of the ironies of this story that the most progressive forces, at least in terms of material improvement, were the leaders of the old society.

CC: You said the elites were intent on a conscious transformation of Scotland. Were they deliberately trying to hold on to power or did they have a vision, or ideal, of a better society?

TD: These elites saw the process I am describing as a drive for ‘improvement’ – in our modern world we would call it a drive for modernisation. Whatever its name, it was a rejection of the past and an unalloyed and uncritical desire for a new type of future. Scholars regard the Scottish elites of the 17th and 18th centuries as a sordid bunch – this is what Burns meant when he talked about ‘sic a parcel o rogues in a nation’ – and undoubtedly greed, the desire for profit, played its part. Remember this is the beginning of the age of conspicuous consumption. It has been called a ‘revolution in manners’ and it cost money hence the elite’s interest in increasing revenue from their property. But the fascinating thing is this. Alongside this desire for increased profit were two other drivers. One you could almost call patriotism. A sense that Old Scotia had fallen markedly behind the power to the south – England. One part of this was not so much an uncritical admiration of England – by that stage the most dominant nation in the world – but a sense of inferiority and a feeling that Scotland had to catch up. Another driver, not directly related to profit, is the intellectual revolution which emanated from what we now call the Enlightenment. This led to the view that everything should be judged by reason. Remember a large number of the elite in Scotland went to university and this was unusual in Europe. This meant that as young men they had listened to lectures given by intellectual giants such as Francis Hutcheson, Adam Smith and David Hume. So when the type of orthodoxy started to develop which saw reason as the way forward, these elites looked round old Scotia, even their estates, and they saw chaos and anarchy.

CC: So are you saying that one motivation for their reforms were an attempt to impose order on the world round about them?

TD: Absolutely. They wanted reform and they wanted order. If you look round rural Scotland today – its neat hedgerows, roads and individualised farm houses – it is actually a product of that age. Another example can be found in the symmetry of Edinburgh’s New Town. These are concrete, tangible examples of reason in action.

CC: In The Tipping Point, Malcolm Gladwell makes much of the idea that in large-scale transformational change it is the activity of certain individuals which is critical. He calls this ‘the law of the few’.

TD: Another name for the same idea is the ‘theory of Cleopatra’s nose’ for if she had not been so beautiful the course of history would have been different.

CC: So thinking about the Scottish Enlightenment are there people who stand out as being ‘connectors’ who could get the message out to a much wider audience?

TD: The fascinating thing about that period, perhaps even more than our own when we have so much technology, is that it was not only a national but also an international network. So there was constant correspondence between these men particularly in the central belt and the cities of Glasgow and Edinburgh. The conviviality of this period is also striking. What made this possible is that it was really a tiny elite.

CC: But they must have had a way of connecting with ordinary people and therefore influencing them?

TD: Not necessarily. In Scotland the changes in the 18th century, in comparison with England anyway, were largely top-down. It is as if the elites in Scotland decided to grab society by the scruff of the neck and push it in a new direction.

CC: Were these elites just the landed classes?

TD: They were the power or the landed class and their relatives and associates in the legal class. We can also add in the university men, and some church-men, because they were part of Scotland’s educated elite. And so ‘the connectors’, from that elite down, especially in terms of pragmatic and practical changes, in agriculture for example, were the factors. These were men who had also been schooled in the university environment and they were often trained lawyers. In terms of my own research it is clear that this great crusade, especially for agrarian modernisation, came from above. And the irony about this is that one man’s agricultural improvement was another man’s clearances.  What’s striking about these elites is their confidence in their ability to deliver. Indeed because these people were so confident that they were right, in both the Highlands and the Lowlands, they were willing to strain the sinews of social stability. They also thought there would not be a reaction from the populace.

CC: So you are saying that the ‘age of improvement’ is a good example of a period of Scottish history when change was rapid and transformatory rather than slow and incremental. Could the same also be said of the Reformation or religious reforms in Scotland?

TD: No. Of course, the Reformation ultimately changed Scotland dramatically but many of the changes took years to come about. It was in many ways a gradual change. A much better example of rapid transformatory change can be seen in our own time – from the late 70s onwards into the 80s and 90s. Indeed I would say that in fifty years or so future historians, looking back, will see that Scotland took a decisive change of direction during this period and that the transformation was much more rapid than it was during the age of improvement. One way to think about this change is this: In terms of social structure and value system, 1950s Scotland had much more in common with the 1850s than with our own time.

CC: How would you characterise these changes?

TD: The change I am talking about is made up of economic, social, cultural and political manifestations. The economic one is perhaps the most obvious – it is literally the revolutionary development of an economic system which is quite different from the one which had sustained Scotland since the industrial revolution. The dynamo of the old economy was heavy industry – from shipbuilding through to engineering. That economy had literally melted away by the late 70s and 80s.  Perhaps the classic manifestation of the rapid decline of the old economy is the virtual disappearance of coal-mining. And we have to remember that these old industries were not just a source of wealth but also identity. In place of these old industries we now have finance, tourism, service industries, the provision of health and education services and the oil industry. When we put this together with the huge increase in affluence in this period; the emancipation of women; and changes in family structure, then it is reasonable to talk about a revolution in Scottish society.

CC: But are you not just describing a process all industrial countries have gone through?

TD: Of course it is true that a world economic revolution has moved developed economies away from manufacturing to service industries. But it happened particularly swiftly in Scotland for two reasons. The first concerns the activities of the Thatcher Government. You have to remember that the state had been bailing out Scottish industry from the period of nationalisation in 1945 on and the Tory Government pulled back on that commitment. Then when the same Government allowed interest rates to go through the roof in the early 1980s they effectively pulled the plug on the old economy. In other words, the result was melt-down. The second reason is the oil crisis of the early 1980s which had a similar effect.

CC: In Scotland Thatcherism is generally seen as an unmitigated disaster for the country but according to your thesis it has brought real benefit.

TD: We have an economy which is much more diversified and in tune with modern developed economies. What’s more we now have an economy which plays to Scotland’s strengths as it circles round our intellect, our abilities and the clear international fame of our institutions of higher education. But if we accept that we now have a better and more modern economy – one that can hold its own in the world – then it is time to revisit our understanding of Thatcherism. You are right in saying there’s a tendency in Scotland to see it as something which was unambiguously evil when clearly this is not the case. There is a caveat, however.  We have now moved into ‘the accreditation society’ with over 50 per cent going into higher education and there’s a great deal of social mobility. But this is terrible for those who are not able to penetrate this new economy because they do not have the qualifications. They are almost destined to be excluded and deprived  – after all so many of the old manual or semi-skilled jobs have gone. And there are other negative side-affects to the type of changes I am describing. The decline of neighbourhood and community, for example. The rise in individualism and the new impersonality of labour markets.

CC: There is little doubt that Thatcherism heightened inequality throughout the UK and Scottish poverty statistics make depressing reading, but can I just press you further on the nature of the revolution you think we are living through. Do you see it mainly confined to the economy and family structure?

TD: No because there has also been a transformation of cultural/political attitudes. Indeed I think the recent alienation, or indifference to politics, is an inevitable reaction to all this change. The respectable upper working and middle class do not have any big issues to be overly concerned about and I think this is one of the fundamental reasons why fewer people are voting. But alongside this, paradoxically, there has been a huge reassertion of Scottish identity and again this is totally new.

CC: Thinking about the argument I put in The Scots’ Crisis of Confidence, namely that confidence and a whole range of related attitudes such as optimism, are big issues facing contemporary Scotland, is there an argument that we are living in a new world, with a different economy and devolved politics, and yet our attitudes have not changed dramatically?

TD: I certainly agree that they have not changed in proportion to it. Indeed I think we could go even further than that. I do not even think there is a consciousness amongst the Scottish population of the huge change which we have actually come through. This was evident to me recently at the Edinburgh Book Festival. I was involved in a Radio Scotland discussion, on a panel with the novelist Ian Rankin amongst others, and it was clear from both the panel members and the audience that people seem to think we are somehow stuck in the past. Which therefore begs the question how have we managed to have a subtle or what I would call a ‘velvet revolution’? The second question is this: has the attitudinal change matched the material change?  And I think the classic demonstration that it has not is all the frenzied stupidity about the Scottish Parliament and the denunciation of devolution. So we still have some way to go.

CC: But the rosy picture you paint of the Scottish economy is at odds with how the media, many politicians and much of the public conversation, portrays it.

TD: I agree and I do think this negative view of the Scottish economy is not in line with reality. The Scottish economy has come through a really difficult time but it is now performing well. So you are right to point out that there’s a degree of pessimism in Scotland which is not really warranted.

CC: Thinking of the modern era and what you term the ‘velvet revolution’. Who are the Scots, and I am looking for specific names, who have driven, or even argued for, these changes?

TD: There aren’t any.

CC: But is not this staggering?

TD: No because this revolution which has occurred has not been induced by Scots, it has been induced by global wide forces and accelerated by developments in Westminster under the Thatcher Government. This is quite different from the Irish revolution which dates from about 1980. It has been hailed as an ‘economic miracle’ and it was put in place by civil society, trade unions and government. The Scottish revolution has been created by forces outside our control.

CC: So you say we have lived through a huge transformatory change in Scotland, which has brought some benefits, yet there is no single Scot who can really be credited with leading this transformation.

TD: There is a void of intellectual, political and indeed even you could say cultural leadership (even though lots of good things are happening in Scottish culture). It may well be that that epithet is still correct – No Gods and Precious Few Heroes. There was a time when, like many historians, I was fairly dismissive of the idea that individuals played an important part in history preferring instead to place much more emphasis on social forces and trends. But I have changed my views on this. I do now think that individuals play an important part. Just think about the role of Nelson Mandela and Bishop Tutu in South Africa. History would be different without the actions of these two figures. And, of course, with the mass media, individuals if anything can exert even more power and influence than ever before. The paradox here is that we have just gone through a huge transformation in Scotland and yet cannot attach the name of one Scot and say it was driven, or even substantially influenced, by his or her vision.

CC: So perhaps it might be helpful to contrast the transformatory changes of the Enlightenment era with the modern period you have described. In the age of improvement there was an elite who brought about a radical shift not just in living conditions, work and so forth but also in attitudes – the elevation of reason which you described earlier, for example.

TD: That’s right.

CC: But the current transformation is not only devoid of indigenous Scottish leadership but also, confined mainly to the economy – to a rise in incomes, a change in the types of jobs people are doing and an increase in poverty and inequality. In other words it is largely about material change rather than psychological change. Is it not the case, then, that somehow we have not embraced this new world psychologically and we are still stuck in past, outdated attitudes which are somehow inappropriate for the world we inhabit?

TD: But what you are ignoring is the tremendous vibrancy of culture in Scotland. Although I do think that the media have got it wrong. They seem to see a correlation between what we could call cultural virtuosity and large sales of books etc. But some of the best work which will be permanent and long-lasting is being done by people who could be described as ‘arcane’. Again if you try to quantify a whole range of cultural activities – film, music, painting, literature – there is no comparison between the Scotland of today and forty years ago. In other words, whaur’s your confidence problem the noo?

CC: I agree that the arts and culture scene in Scotland has been revitalised in recent years but there are whole swathes of Scottish life which have not.  As you know, I have worked in organisations for many years doing training and development work and there’s little doubt that organisations suffer in Scotland because people are not prepared to speak out, or even participate in decision-making. Indeed I would go so far as to say that in whole areas of Scottish life there is a ‘heads-down’ culture.  It is even acute in some universities. I was talking to an employer in Scotland only last week and he was complaining that his workforce here, in contrast with Manchester, is very passive. I regularly talk to people from abroad who are living and working in Scotland and one of the things which strikes them forcibly about Scottish organisations is how hierarchical they are. We might pride ourselves on egalitarianism and the democratic intellect but we do not tend to run our organisations in harmony with these values. Earlier you talked about the changes in the 18th and 19th century and said that, in comparison, with England they were very top-down. As a historian and a modern-day Scot would you say that for all the talk about equality and democracy in Scotland our society and institutions have been, and still are, hierarchical?

TD: It is not hierarchical in the 18th century sense. Inherited birth is no longer a factor and it has been replaced by a meritocratic system. But I think it is true that there is still a respect for authority in Scotland more than in other parts of the world.

CC: One of the things about hierarchy is that it is not good at instilling a sense of personal responsibility or confidence in people. And this might be one of the reasons why there is an issue about confidence in Scotland.

TD: I agree that individual Scots may have an issue with confidence but it certainly cannot be a crisis. The evidence of modern Scotland is against you here – just look at how dynamic it has become.

CC: But people living in Scotland do not experience that dynamism – they do experience the confidence issue. Talk to any foreigner in Scotland and while they will like lots of things about our culture most think it is bizarre that we apologise all the time, are embarrassed at personal success and do not like drawing attention to ourselves. Most Americans pick up within a week that it is unacceptable to say anything positive about yourself and are fairly horrified at how cruel our humour can be. At the Book Festival event you mentioned earlier was it not the case that most of the audience believed that confidence is an issue facing Scotland?

TD: The majority did. But that is, as I said earlier, because people wrongly believe we are somehow stuck in the past.

CC: What I am really struck by when I give talks is the great thirst for a real and meaningful change in attitudes. And this has surprised me. When I was in the process of writing my book, I felt very fearful of what the reaction might be. After all, I was taking some of the great sacred cows of Scottish culture – our collectivist values, our emphasis on equality and the importance we attach to Scottish identity – and I am questioning them. I am also giving weight to the importance of psychology and attitude change in a country where most people who have consciously tried to transform Scotland have viewed political change as the sole solution.

TD: So you are saying that most people who are disgruntled with Scotland tend to see constitutional change as the answer?

CC: Yes. So you can understand why prior to publication I really thought that I would be attacked vociferously for what I had written. I particularly thought I would be done in by ‘the wee hard men’ that Alasdair Gray so beautifully describes. But it has not happened. What I find instead when I give a talk, is that people listen intently and then agree wholeheartedly that some of our beliefs are self-defeating. Most of the Scots I have spoken too completely agree with my contention that there are two competing pressures within the culture. The first is to prove your worth. (In Scotland there is no automatic assumption of the worthiness of individuals. You have to prove it through your deeds and actions.) If you do not then you risk being seen as worthless. No doubt this is why the Scots can be very competitive. But the second pressure acts as a check on this. And that is the pressure not to stand out or get above yourself. If you obey the first pressure to achieve, there is someone holding on to your jacket at the back whispering in your ear ‘don’t think you’re anybody special’ and warning you of the all the problems which might ensue if you put your head above the parapet and then ‘get it wrong’. When Scots leave Scotland and are freed up of the ‘jacket pullers’ they achieve much more than they do if the stay at home. In fact, most Scots who have lived abroad for a while are horrified by the conformity of modern day Scotland. Part of my mission for Scotland is to contribute to the creation of a cultural environment in which people feel they can be themselves. I would like to see an environment where people feel it is easier to express their views and not feel afraid they are going to get ’it’ wrong. I would also like to see a much bigger political spectrum, with lots of different opinions and viewpoints being expressed.

TD: Of course, I accept that the transformation Scotland has gone through has not been root and branch – that it has transformed some areas more than others.  But I still think you are overstating your case and underestimating the change which has actually taken place.

CC: But does not it depend what we are looking at? If you are looking at the economy and incomes – yes. But the change is less profound if you are looking at attitudes to self and others – and confidence issues.

TD: So are you trying to say we are both right?

CC: Of course. I wholeheartedly agree that we have lived through a huge amount of economic and material change. I just do not think that there has been a concomitant shift in attitudes. But I think we are getting to the tipping point and that when attitudinal change happens in Scotland it will come quickly. And then you will really see a revolution in Scottish society. In fact, I might be able to say to you ‘whaur’s your velvet revolution, the noo?’

Carol Craig is author of ‘The Scots’ Crisis of Confidence’.

Tom Devine is Director of the Research Institute of Irish and Scottish Studies at the University of Aberdeen, and author of ‘The Scottish Nation 1700-2000’ and ‘Scotland’s Empire’.