Chris Whatley: why Tom Devine switch to Yes is confusing and short-sighted

The UK deserves one more chance. Danny Lawson/PA

Sir Tom Devine’s conversion to the Yes cause may seem like a road-to-Damascus event, but should occasion little surprise.

Most Scottish historians who have come out on the independence question are yes supporters. Their reasons for so doing differ from individual to individual but will owe at least something to their pioneering work in discovering aspects of Scotland’s history which for too long have been hidden, untold and unappreciated.

In itself this is uplifting and adds to a sense of pride and self-respect both on a personal level and for the nation as a whole. Sir Tom is right to point this out and can feel rightly proud of his own pre-eminence in the field – though it is worth remarking that the Scottish history project, which has gone from strength to strength since the 1970s, has been a collective endeavour that has involved many scholars. Unlike historians of some other nations that have been part of union states, in Britain they have been free to explore what they want and write without fear.

I too am a historian of Scotland and, like Sir Tom, my family’s roots lie deep in the traditions of the Labour movement. I agree with Sir Tom that since the devolved Scottish parliament was inaugurated in 1999, our MSPs have demonstrated that they are capable of governing and -– at times – of holding the executive to account. This was never seriously in question, it must be said, given the influence and high offices of Scottish politicians at Westminster and other key British institutions; and the remarkable achievements of Scotland’s local authorities (in the past – they have less autonomy under the present administration).

Nor do I have any doubt that an independent Scotland could be a success economically – though I suspect this will take time, due to the dislocation caused by breaking with the rest of the UK; the costs of setting up a new state (which the Scottish government has surely seriously underestimated); and finding a currency arrangement that has the confidence of savers, the financial markets and investors.

Curious timing

What is somewhat puzzling is why Sir Tom should have allied himself with the Yes campaign so late in the day. None of his new-found allies will mind, of course. A last-minute conversion is a lot better than no conversion and, given Sir Tom’s high public profile, might even cause a handful of voters to follow suit.

Yet few if any of the factors he presents as having led to his change of mind are of recent origin. Like Sir Tom was, I am still persuaded that what he terms the “devolution maximus” option is the best for Scotland. But unlike him I see nothing in his portentous explanation for his own changed position to persuade me to do likewise at this stage in the campaign.

It is difficult to follow the argument that the “catalyst” for his apparent volte-face “has been how threadbare the union has become” since the early 1980s – a point he links to the “transformation of Scotland”. It is not as if this transformation has just happened, even if few would disagree that it has taken place. It includes a more diversified economy, along with the employment generated by what Sir Tom calls the “vibrant” public sector. He argues that Scotland’s economy has become both resilient and independently sustainable, owing to its oil and wind power assets. It is no longer dominated by the “industrial dinosaurs” of the past (the decline of which, uncharacteristically for such a forensically-minded historian, he attributes at one point to the “radical surgery” of Thatcherism and elsewhere to “historic inevitability”).

Dundee is a city being transformed. Philip Milne, CC BY-SA

Most of this may be true, but the case being made here seems less compelling now than it was a few months ago. That Scotland’s economy is adjusting to its post-industrial status is undoubtedly welcome. Aberdeen is Europe’s oil capital. Dundee is reinventing itself from its days as the world’s jute-manufacturing centre to a city of learning and innovation, world-class scientific research, and creativity. The Commonwealth Games have been a major stimulus for Glasgow. But in both these former industrial powerhouses – as elsewhere – there is still a high level of dependence upon public sector employment and other state funding.

Nationalist cracks

Awkward questions have been asked, mainly by the UK treasury and Better Together (No) campaigners, about an independent Scotland’s currency arrangements. The first minister’s responses have hardly been persuasive, while his normally sure-footed finance minister has had to correct the understanding that the Scottish government and the Bank of England had been in discussions on the matter. Little wonder then that the Yes campaign has diverted attention to the NHS, although the grim picture painted in the event of a No vote of this entirely devolved organisation’s future smacks of desperation. It is hard to square with the seriousness of what is a debate about the future of a nation and its people.

Industry voices have been raised lately about the manner in which potential gains from North Sea and other oil fields off Scotland’s coast have been based on the upper end of what are estimated barrel numbers rather than geological certainty. Some energy experts have begun to visualise a not-so-distant future in which global demand for oil will subdue, with a consequent lowering of its price, owing to new discoveries of natural gas (including the shale revolution); more efficient oil-fuel usage (in vehicles for example); and scientists making substantial advances in solar power. In Scotland the wind blows, but intermittently and often at the wrong time.

None of this is to suggest that Scotland shouldn’t be independent or indeed that even diminished oil reserves aren’t a unique asset, as indeed is wave power. It does however raise the question of how well prepared those who are leading the Yes movement are for independence.

It’s difficult for a historian of the union like me – though not a unionist historian, as is sometimes alleged – not to offer the observation that those Scots who took the nation into the British union state in 1706-07 had a far more detailed knowledge of what was being planned than those who want to take us out of it today. Scotland was to adopt sterling, and the country’s share of England’s national debt and compensation for the Scottish losses incurred at Darien were agreed down to the last half-penny. Tax rates too were settled prior to ratification. True, today’s London-based ministers don’t want to talk divorce terms at this stage, but even so it should come as no surprise that the other party is not going to agree to give away the shared assets without a fight.

Don’t dismiss sentiment

Which takes us to Sir Tom’s reference to the union as forged in 1707. This he describes as a “marriage of convenience”. Maybe so – if we ignore the enthusiasm of Queen Anne and those (admittedly few) Scottish politicians who saw union as a means of preserving constitutional monarchy and other civil liberties hard-won at the time of the revolution of 1688-9. But there’s no doubt that for most of its 300-plus years it’s been a marriage in which both partners have been content – and at times, very happy. Now, says Sir Tom, all that’s left is “sentiment, history and family”.

Queen Anne: unionophile. Charles Jervas, CC BY-SA

But these shouldn’t be dismissed as irrelevant. Families spread across the current UK don’t want their members to become foreign nationals. The welcome ascendancy of Scottish history can’t erase the many generations of shared British history. The peoples of England and Scotland have lived in harmony for three centuries, whereas beforehand the two nations were often rivals, even resorting to war at times. There’s little likelihood of this recurring post-independence, but already we can see signs of the re-appearance of the inter-nation bitterness at a popular level that was a factor in persuading reflective people in the early 18th century on both sides of the border of the calming potential of closer union.

Similar to the position of the Scottish government, Sir Tom asserts that only through sovereignty “can we develop a truly amicable and equal relationship with our great southern neighbour in every possible field”. This should, he says, encompass economic sharing, including research costs and cultural relationships. But should is not will, and proclamation is not mutual agreement. If these things are in our former partner England’s interest, yes they’ll happen. But even if they do, that is no guarantee for the future.

The union as agreed in 1707 was also about defence – of Protestant Britain united against French aggression and resurgent Roman Catholicism. Happily, for all but a few die-hards, religion is no longer a pillar of the British union state. Yet Sir Tom is much more sanguine than I am about the external environment. He can see no “obvious other” threat that has galvanised and united the British people in the past. Yet Russia under President Putin seems to be on the march again, posing a grave threat to those smaller states on its borders. The emergence of Islamic states in Iraq and Syria, Jihadism, political turmoil in Libya, the conflict over Gaza, and Chinese expansionism in the east represent potential challenges to the west. Arguably they would be best countered if necessary by the greater strength of a British military force as part of NATO, which is currently over-dependent upon the United States.

Putin: underestimated? Peter Muhly/PA

It seems to me that rather than walk away from a marriage that has lasted for so long, we should explore first what’s not working, whether it can be saved, and whether indeed it can become harmonious once more. Is the prospect of a finding a new partner – or maybe a number of new partners – so attractive that the price and pain of permanent separation are worth enduring? (Committed nationalists will answer in the affirmative – an honest position for which I have every respect, but the current campaign for independence is premised on little cost and greater prosperity.)

Only two years ago, it would seem, this was Sir Tom’s position. He’s now anxious that as many people vote Yes as possible so that in the event of a No result, pressure will be put on the pro-union parties to deliver on their assurances of greater devolution. I share the aim but the tactics are risky. With a Yes vote there is no way back. The marriage is over.

The real risk on September 18

Unlike Sir Tom, my concern isn’t about the consequences of a crushing No vote (which is highly unlikely), but of a narrow No victory. My guess is that a greater sense of grievance, disappointment and distress would follow. It could conceivably turn into a witch-hunt against the “guilty” men and women who allegedly “betrayed” Scotland. This is hinted at in one of the comments beneath Sir Tom’s piece, which refers to the prospect of Scotland “once again” becoming a peripheral nation in the eyes of an unspecified “international interest” if there’s a No vote. (An independent voice may be louder but on the European or world stages there’s no certainty that it would have greater force than it does as part of the UK – a reason why some Scots wanted the union in the first place.)

Essential then in the event of a close No vote would be delivery of the promises on further powers for the Scottish parliament made recently by the Conservative, Labour and Liberal-Democrat parties. Supplemented by pressure from the English regions, there should also be a serious examination of the prospect of a federal Britain. This would require a series of parliaments with economic powers to spread the advantages of London’s success but also to counter its adverse effects, operating with the levers required to implement policies according to local needs.

The union, for many of the reasons Sir Tom Devine articulates, is seriously at risk and has been for some time. There are moments when I’ve been tempted to opt for independence. Having read much European history I can’t but concur with him that neither nations nor union states are forever. But contrary to Sir Tom, I’ve been struck in recent weeks by the growing determination of pro-union politicians to make the union fit for purpose in the early 21st century. If there’s a No vote and they don’t deliver quickly and with enthusiasm and genuine recognition of Scotland as a nation within a restructured union state, it could well implode. And I for one would then be for going it alone.

Now, read this: Tom Devine: why I say Yes to independence for Scotland