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