Tom Devine: why I now say Yes to independence for Scotland

Leading intellectual Tom Devine with Alex Salmond at this year’s Edinburgh Book Festival. Andrew Milligan/PA

Tom Devine, Scotland’s most celebrated historian of recent years, sent shockwaves through the country when he revealed in a news report in The Observer newspaper last weekend that he intends to vote in favour of independence on September 18. Now, for the first time, the full text of Devine’s declaration, made on August 15, in the Grill on the Corner restaurant, Glasgow, is published by The Conversation. It was made in the presence of New Zealand academic Angela McCarthy and Observer correspondent Kevin McKenna.

My engagement in the Scottish independence referendum campaign before now has been restricted to impartial academic interviews. And although I’ve only come to a Yes conclusion over the last fortnight this has been a long journey for me. My preferred option would previously have been devolution maximus, but that’s not available. Moreover, even if there is not to be a Yes win, it’s imperative that the Yes vote is as high as possible in order to put pressure on the unionist parties to commit themselves to granting increased devolved powers, and as soon as possible thereafter.

I’ve never been a member of a party and am still not, so my position does not indicate support for the SNP; it’s simply in favour of independence. The SNP just happens to be a significant force in the campaign. The Yes campaign is now a widespread movement and that’s encouraging for me.

My journey with Scottish nationhood

I come from a Labour background that includes my grandfather, mother and father and I was very much anti-independence at the start of the campaign. For me, the catalyst for change has been how threadbare the union has become since the early 1980s and linked to that is the transformation of Scotland. I wouldn’t have voted for this in the Scotland of the 1970s or 80s. It’s the Scotland that has evolved since the late 80s and 90s that is fuelling my Yes vote. It now seems to me to be in a fit condition to run a successful economy. There is a list of reasons for this.

There has been a Scottish parliament which has demonstrated competent government and that parliament has also indicated, by the electoral response to it, that the Scottish people seem to be wedded to a social democratic agenda and the kind of political values which sustained and were embedded in the welfare state of the 1950s. In fact, you could argue that it is the Scots who have tried to preserve the idea of Britishness in terms of state support and intervention, and that it is England that has chosen to go on a separate journey since the 1980s.

There has been an enormous increase in a sense of Scottishness and pride in Scottish identity which has itself been sustained by an explosion in Scottish writing and creative arts since the 1980s, especially in relation to my own subject. We now have a proper modern history of Scotland which we didn’t have until as late as the 1970s and 1980s. We now have a clear national narrative sustained by objective and rigorous academic research. In 1964, one of my great predecessors Professor Hargreaves said that the history of modern Scotland is less studied than the history of Yorkshire.

Declining heavy industry such as Clydeside shipbuilding made independence a hard sell a generation ago. Marian Craig, CC BY-SA

There has also been a silent transformation of the Scottish economy. As late as early 1980s it was not sustainable owing to the continuing domination of the dinosaur heavy industries. The problem there was simply that labour costs not be sustained in an emerging global economy where goods and machines could be made cheaper elsewhere. Of course the process could have been managed much more sensitively and more thoughtfully by a Labour government, instead it was the radical surgery of Thatcherism and Toryism that had its way. What we have now – and this has been the case since the mid-1990s and de-industrialisation – is a diversified economy in which heavy industry, light manufacturing, the electronics sector, tourism, financial services have come together. And the vibrant public sector is important in terms of employment. We now have a resilient economic system.

We also have considerable reserves of one of the most important things for an independent state and that is power; power through the assets of oil and also through the potential of wind energy. Scotland is disproportionately endowed with these, compared to almost all other European countries. So, in other words, because of this economic transformation, which has undoubtedly led to social dislocation for many communities – and let’s not forget that – we now have an economy that can sustain itself in a resilient way in world markets.

The Irish Catholic dimension

One of the chief manifestations of that is the emancipation of the Catholic Irish working class. In 1901 their American cousins gained wage, occupational and educational parity. In 2001 the same thing happened here. So that tells us a substantial upward mobility has been going on in Scotland which took place between the early 1960s and the mid-1980s.

It’s important to state here that I reject the view, chiefly espoused by George Galloway and some others, that Catholics in Scotland would become more vulnerable in a smaller country. This is nonsense; George is, as usual, talking rhetoric. None of those assertions is based on any academic understanding or knowledge. The ordinary Catholic population of Scotland simply doesn’t share this view. Indeed the most recent data from the Scottish Social Attitudes Survey in 2012 demonstrated that, of the three main Scottish groupings – Catholics - Protestants and non-believers - the Catholic sample indicated that 36% were committed to Scottish independence; non-believers were about 27% and the Kirk 16%.

This, I think, demonstrated further that people of Irish Catholic ethnicity for the first time felt comfortable in their Scottish skins. This may also be attributed to the decline of Britishness, in a similar way to the experience of the Asian community. I think that Irish community finds it easier to identify with Scottishness rather than Britishness because the latter still has vibrations of former imperial power.

There has also been a transformation in Scottish higher education. As late as the 1950s, we were pretty second rate in research terms, but there has been a revolution here. Four Scottish universities are now in the world’s top 200. And in my own field of humanities, the University of Edinburgh is ranked 11th. In terms of citation indices, Scotland has regularly been in the top three and sometimes number one. We get 16% of the UK’s competitive funding despite having only 10% in terms of population. That means that, as long as we can get the application of research into industry and into the economy, the future, which will be all about brain-intensive industry, will be a bright one for Scotland which will have a significant head start. This also adds to the potential resilience of the economy.

Scottish universities like Strathclyde have become R&D leaders in recent years. Danny Lawson/PA

What we need to do much, much better in, though, is in the performance of our schools. We need to engage in long-term investment of the type implemented by Finland to bring them up to the models of the elite countries of the world because there is no doubt in my mind that the future lies in a highly educated workforce engaged in what you might call value-added activity and not simply routine activity.

So all of this means that Scotland is a much more resilient nation and this is underpinned by our proven track record since devolution. We can actually run a country effectively and the electoral record of the Scottish parliament over the last six or seven years shows that the Scottish people want a certain type of governance. They are also seeking a certain type of political approach which is different from that currently favoured south of the border.

The trouble with devo max

I’ve also come to the conclusion that even devolution max would just prolong a running sore. Even if you accept the positive spin of devo-max in terms of more powers granted, would that not make many English people unhappy? They’re already unhappy about the Barnett formula which they think favours Scotland. This is one of the other reasons why I think there has to be sovereignty. Only through sovereignty can we truly develop a truly amicable and equal relationship with our great southern neighbour in every possible field. This should include economic sharing, sharing of research support costs and it should also include close cultural relationships. The final legislative authority, in order to secure that amity, really has to remain north of the border.

Up until the early 1980s the relationship between England and Scotland, from the Jacobite rebellion of 1745, was stable. There was hardly any gross interference from the London governments in those areas we regarded as specifically Scottish. And when big government did happen after World War Two, Scotland probably gained in the birth of the welfare state. It also benefited from state intervention in the nationalisation of the big industries. There was also duality: Scottish identity was strong within the union. This was also manifested in the convergence of voting patterns. If England voted Tory, Scotland tended to vote Tory. If we voted Labour, ditto.

From about 1979 on, the cracks begin to appear. And here I don’t think we should get hung up on Thatcherism. The changes in our industrial landscape were almost an historic inevitability, though they could, perhaps, have been a little more benign under a Labour government. Whatever the reasons, there was now a structural gap in electoral behaviour between Scotland and England. In a highly centralised state, which the UK was before devolution, that’s a recipe for tension.

I think it’s also important to state here that there’s absolutely no evidence for claims that Scotland has become a divided society, as espoused by people such as the author Alexander McCall Smith at the Edinburgh book festival. What I see in families and in pubs and in the public debates that I’ve attended is serious, sometimes fierce, sometimes very strong, engagement. But I simply don’t see any evidence that the political division has caused the kind of societal division that McCall Smith talks about. Where do people like these, like George Galloway, get their evidence? My trade is based on generalisation and evidence and the teasing out of the tensions between the two. And unless they can come up with some data to support this it’s just whistling in the wind.

I also believe that because of all these changes in the nature of the union and Scotland’s cultural and economic re-emergence, not even the most enthusiastic unionist nowadays would seriously suggest that the Scottish nation cannot go it alone.

Worst of all worlds: a heavy Yes defeat

What I dread most in the referendum is the possibility of what happens in the event of a crushing defeat for the Yes campaign. I don’t think that would be a good thing for the collective psychology of the nation. I can remember what occurred after 1979 (the first devolution vote) among certain social groups. A crushing defeat could lead to a substantial portion of the population feeling very aggrieved, disappointed and, in some cases, distressed. I think it’s different for the No camp. I sense that the majority of them haven’t invested the same degree of emotional capital as Yes.

Beware the independence enthusiasts if they are badly beaten. Màrtainn MacDhòmhnaill, CC BY-SA

I’m not suggesting that this will manifest itself in any violence. But there’s a real political dynamic going on in the country over the referendum and that will, in my view, completely collapse, in the event of a heavy defeat for Yes. There has also been a huge degree of international interest in what’s going on here and in their eyes we may once again become merely a peripheral nation.

However, I also have a degree of sympathy for the No campaign in terms of its perceived negativity. It’s very difficult to support a negative with any enthusiasm. Many of these people are enthusiastic Scottish patriots but I also accept that they are at ease with Britishness and they see major risks in the collapse of the union. In the event of a No vote and after the Yes campaigners have recovered from the trauma, we’ll be back on to the same problem of destabilisation and tension within the union.

The reality of the union

The Union of England and Scotland was not a marriage based on love; it was a marriage of convenience. It was pragmatic. That’s why I don’t think there’s the same degree of interest in England about the possible dissolution of the union. To begin with, the union was very unstable between 1707 and the 1750s and was one of the main stimuli for the Jacobite risings. From the 1750s down to the 1980s there was stability in the relationship. Now, though, all the primary foundations of that stability have gone, or have been massively diluted: the empire; Protestantism as a unionist ideaology; the Church of Scotland, which has lost two-thirds of its membership since the early 1950s.

The English and imperial markets were once a great seduction for Scotland, but now Europe is of great importance. In terms of Scottish militarism we had 13 regiments as late as 1957 and now there’s only one. Then there has been the weakening influence of the monarch and the absence of an external and potentially hostile force which once would have induced internal collective solidarity. I refer here to the end of World War Two and the collapse of the old Soviet empire. There is no obvious other at the moment. When you put all of these together it’s possible to argue that there’s very little left in the union except sentiment, history and family. Most of the pragmatic reasons for the union which emerged in the 18th and 19th centuries are now no longer there. And alongside this weakening and in parallel to it you’ve got the emergence of a more powerful and more mature Scottish democracy and economy. It is an idea therefore, you could say, that’s time has come.

Has this “marriage of convenience” run its course? EPA

It’s these two factors coming together which has caused the destabilisation of the union. And this will never end – devo-max will just be a sticking plaster – until you get an amicable separation and a full set of equal relationships between the two countries after independence.

The great French historian Ernest Renan in the late 1880s denied that a nation was based on ethnicity and language or blood-and-soil nationality. His argument was that a nation consists of people who have a collective shared sentiment and that sentiment is based on myth and history and a series of symbols and markers of identity. There is a constant referendum going as to whether that sentiment still exists in the union. Renan’s concept of a nation is that it can be ephemeral; it’s not there forever, it is not a permanency as it varies according to circumstances. This is a very intriguing parallel with what’s going on in the UK today.