I’d ad­vise Ni­cola Stur­geon to make ex­ten­sive prepa­ra­tions in pri­vate or a se­cluded way to pre­pare for a pos­si­ble ref­er­en­dum

The Herald Magazine - - INTERVIEW -

Brexit. At the very men­tion of it he grows ag­i­tated. We both laugh out loud, how­ever, at the ab­sur­dity of my ask­ing what he thinks will hap­pen in the com­ing months.

“The fu­ture is not my pe­riod,” he an­swers. “But two months af­ter the Brexit vote I said it wouldn’t hap­pen. And I think the chances of it not hap­pen­ing are now greater than ever. I’m not say­ing it’s more than 50 per cent but there are pos­si­bil­i­ties. It will be a dis­as­ter for Scot­land – in­deed for the UK – if we have to leave with­out a con­sen­sual agree­ment.”

The pos­si­ble ram­i­fi­ca­tions for Scot­land’s con­sti­tu­tional po­si­tion are not lost on Devine, who wrote widely about and voted for in­de­pen­dence in the 2014 ref­er­en­dum. He has not changed his mind.

“The irony, if Brexit did hap­pen, es­pe­cially with no agree­ment, is that it would be a vi­tal force in mak­ing for a new vote for in­de­pen­dence. If [no deal] didn’t hap­pen, it would be much more dif­fi­cult to mount a chal­lenge to the Union.”

And does he have any words of coun­sel for First Min­is­ter Ni­cola Stur­geon as pres­sure mounts from more ea­ger el­e­ments of her party and the pro-in­de­pen­dence move­ment for an­other ref­er­en­dum as soon as pos­si­ble?

“If one could sug­gest ad­vice to some­one with so much re­spon­si­bil­ity, I’d say keep the pow­der dry un­til the sit­u­a­tion with Brexit is known and make ex­ten­sive prepa­ra­tions in pri­vate or a se­cluded way to pre­pare for a pos­si­ble ref­er­en­dum,” he says. “We saw that in some ways with [for­mer MSP An­drew Wil­son’s] in­tel­lec­tu­ally hon­est growth re­port. But if there is an at­tempt down this route over five, 10, 15 years and it failed, there won’t be an­other one for a very long time. There’s a much higher thresh­old of risk for the sec­ond at­tempt.

“I feel it is im­pos­si­ble to have a con­sen­sus on this in Scot­land – if there is a vote in favour of in­de­pen­dence there will al­ways be a very con­sid­er­able bloc of peo­ple who are pro-Union and can­not be shifted.”

Will he see in­de­pen­dence in his life­time? “No, I don’t think so.”

So what’s next on the agenda, other than en­joy­ing time with Cather­ine, his wife of al­most five de­vades, their four chil­dren and eight grand­chil­dren?

“I want to write some­thing but I’m not sure what it is. I could be a spent force. I’ve been writ­ing about his­tory for 48 years and, as some­one once said about a va­ri­ety of things, that is not sus­tain­able.”

He lets out a mis­chievous laugh and one gets the im­pres­sion he al­ready has some­thing up his sleeve. We’ll see. No mat­ter what he does, I can’t help think­ing his grand­fa­ther would be very proud.

The Scot­tish Clear­ances: A His­tory of the Dis­pos­sessed, 1600-1900, is pub­lished by Allen Lane on Oc­to­ber 2, priced £25. Sir Tom Devine will launch the book at an event in St Ce­cilia’s Hall, Ed­in­burgh, at 6pm on Oc­to­ber 6. Read Brian Mor­ton’s re­view of the book in to­mor­row’s Her­ald on Sun­day

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