‘Brexit is not in­evitable’

His­to­rian Tom Devine

Sunday Herald - - FRONT PAGE - BY VICKY AL­LAN

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.”

Pho­to­graph: Julie How­den

Tom Devine has been un­afraid to put his head above the para­pet

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