Pets aren’t just for Christmas, as the animal charities remind us, they are for life. A bit of responsible foresight is required, to see beyond the delight the family gets from cuddling the puppy on Christmas morning to the wet evenings when somebody needs to put on an anorak and take the dog for a walk. Scottish independence, similarly, is for life. Once the link with the rest of the United Kingdom is broken, the street parties might last a day or two, and the warm glow a little longer, but thereafter Scotland – whose economy has been integrated with England’s since 1707 – will have to pay its own way in the world. For ever.
Given stakes as high as this, it felt irresponsible during the referendum campaign to let the academic commitment to impartiality entirely override my duties as a citizen. I tried as far as possible to do what a historian should do, to understand the motivations of people on both sides of the debate, including those who favoured Scottish independence; but the potential risks were so great, and the cheerleading for independence so loud among writers and academics, that it seemed imperative to speak out on behalf of the grey, inert Better Together campaign. Nevertheless, I felt – and still feel – dirty: a historian should not prostitute himself in this way.
It is reassuring to see an opponent anxious lest he too overstep the bounds which separate academic history from partisan distortions of the past. Sir Tom Devine, Scotland’s most high-profile historian, was also drawn into the fray. Devine confesses in the preface to his new book, Independence or Union: Scotland’s Past and Scotland’s Present, that he was part of Scotland’s great disenfranchised plurality: those who would have voted for ‘enhanced devolution’ (‘devo-max’) in the three-option referendum desired by Alex Salmond, but were forced in the two-option referendum permitted by David Cameron to choose between the stark alternatives of Union or independence.[*] In the latter stages of the campaign, as Devine warns his readers, he lent his name to the ‘Yes’ camp. But Devine is diffident about venturing into the political arena, and in his preface expresses the hope that, notwithstanding the ongoing contentions in Scottish public life, he has maintained rigour, professional decorum and integrity.
Devine almost entirely succeeds in his aims. There is much in this fearless book that will annoy nationalists, including arguments that appear to puncture the economic case for independence. Devine is, moreover, emphatic that the SNP’s successes are ‘not based on a national yearning for independence’. Independence is, of course, the fervent hope of a substantial minority, but it also draws reluctant support from non-nationalists disenchanted with the Tories, the Westminster system and the City of London. Conversely, there are those who see no contradiction between voting for the SNP and wanting to remain within the United Kingdom. Devine understands the ambiguities of Middle Scotland. Not until I came to the penultimate chapter, on the referendum campaign itself, did I find myself spluttering like a retired major in Somerset – and even then only at two or three sentences where Devine’s commitments seemed momentarily to have dazzled his judgment. Otherwise he is surefooted, balanced and reliable in analysis throughout; and, to be honest, nobody on the pro-Union side could have done any better.
Devine takes his story back to the parliamentary Union of 1707 which created Great Britain, though he knows that – Jacobitism apart – the two and a half centuries that followed constituted an era of shared British loyalties and growing Anglo-Scottish integration. Indeed, Devine rebukes the Scottish left for its ‘collective amnesia’ regarding Scots’ enthusiastic participation in empire. Scotland, Devine rightly insists, was not an oppressed colony, nor were Scots hapless victims of the British Empire.
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[*] Allen Lane, 320 pp., £20, March, 978 0 241 21587 6.