‘Brexit is not inevitable’
Historian Tom Devine
WHEN Scotland’s foremost historian Professor Sir Tom Devine first heard the results of the EU referendum his reaction was disbelief. “I thought the UK has taken leave of its senses.” Now, he argues in an essay in this paper, that Brexit may never happen.
When the country’s most popular historian speaks, people listen. We look to 72-year-old Devine, who charted Scotland’s modern period in The Scottish Nation, as a seer whose views on the future are informed by a lifetime of studying the past. This is the man who is, as one commentator once put it, “as close to a modern bard as the nation has”.
When our interview takes place over the phone, Devine is in the Highlands researching illustrations for his next book, Dispossession: The Scottish Clearances.
“I’m going to argue,” he divulges, “that the scale of dispossession in the rural Lowlands was even greater than it was in the Highlands. And this is going to create considerable controversy.”
Controversy, of course, is something he enjoys. “That’s what history is all about,” he says. “Argument, counter-argument.”
Indeed, Devine has been unafraid to put his head above the parapet in all matters. His coming out as pro-independence in 2014 was a significant moment. In March this year he warned that Nicola Sturgeon may have timetabled a second independence referendum too soon to win it.
He says now: “I don’t want to suggest in any sense ‘I told you so’, but I argued that the powder should be kept dry. I think my colleagues of the future looking back on this are highly likely to criticise the Scottish Government for going too soon and not awaiting events. Particularly not awaiting the possible shape of Brexit, or whether Brexit will take place at all.”
One of his biggest current issues with Scottish independence, Devine believes, is that the SNP has yet to make the intellectual case for it. He talks of a “yawning gap” in which he says what is missing is “a coherent and watertight currency plan” and “a specific and convincing strategy for economic growth”.
He describes the period we are living through as historical. “You could say that all times are historical. But this is historical in the sense that there are historical changes going on and you can be part of it.”
In these times, historians and other academics have a special charge, he maintains. One of his complaints is that too few are “putting forward arguments in the public domain”.
The grandson of Irish Catholic immigrants, Devine grew up in a housing scheme in Motherwell and went to a Catholic senior secondary after having passed the 11-plus. His father was a teacher. In the 1990s, Devine began writing The Scottish Nation, his groundbreaking popular history. He had long been conscious of the “treasure” that was being produced by his colleagues in terms of “a completely fresh understanding of how Scotland had evolved”, and felt it was a disgrace that hardly any of it was known to the public. “So I set out to write something that would make this material accessible. And lo and behold, for two weeks it outsold Harry Potter.”
Devine marvels at the extraordinary boom in his field over his career. “It’s amazing,” he says. “In the 1950s, there were probably about five members of staff in the Scottish universities teaching modern Scottish history. Now there’s a veritable army. It’s been an extraordinary experience to see it, a privilege to be part of it.”
Arguably, Devine is the figure who has done most to bring Scottish history to the public – as was recognised in his knighthood in 2014. So does he feel that he helped shape the sense of Scotland that is part of today’s political moment? “I would never claim that anything I’ve written has had any effect on those developments. All I can say is there has been a definite upsurge in the number of books published and bought on the subject of Scottish historical studies. That may have had some effect on the upsurge in Scottish identity.”
Devine retired from teaching at Edinburgh University two years ago, yet he seems to be producing more books — on independence, slavery, empire — than ever. I remember meeting him on the day of the independence referendum result and we discussed demographics. What strikes me is that, frequently, he sounds more in sympathy with the young than those his age.
“My generation’s had it,” he says. “The world is about those below the age of 70. Of course, I constantly think of my wonderful grandchildren and the world they’re going to enter.”
He and his wife Catherine have four children and eight grandchildren, from five to 14 years. “We’re a very tight family,” he observes, “partly because of the terrible bereavement we suffered in the late 1990s. We lost one of our twin sons in that period.” The Scottish Nation is dedicated to that son, John, who died in 1996.
“That sort of experience,” he observes, “can fragment a family or bring it together and in our case it brought us together. We constantly socialise. We go annually to our place on Mull, as an extended family. A place of magic.”
When asked what he mostly finds himself complaining about, there’s a long list. “Materialism, consumerism, individualism, egocentricity, the decline in neighbourhood, the vacuous celebrity culture.” His withering indictment of the modern age is that it “shows you that material progress is not necessarily the same as human progress”.
How, then, to counter these issues? “Family upbringing,” he suggests, “and education in schools in what I would call decent values. I have always believed that teaching in schools is by far the most important profession we have.”
Tom Devine has been unafraid to put his head above the parapet