Alf Young – Professor Sir Tom Devine: A Riposte

I have read and reread Tom Devine’s reasoned case for why our “most celebrated historian” now says yes to independence for Scotland. First revealed in The Observer on August 17, Tom’s “declaration” was delivered to a journalist and a New Zealand academic in the Grill on the Corner restaurant the previous Friday. If there is a yes vote, quite what a future Tom Devine will make of such a mundane setting for such a seismic conversion is anyone’s guess. You can read his full text here.

Yesterday the journalist – Kevin McKenna – duly committed himself to yes too. You could have knocked me over with a copy of The Celtic View, which he once edited, at that news. McKenna denounced the “raw corporate power” of the “massed ranks of the British and Westminster establishment” for making his choice so much easier. But wait Kevin, the declaration that got you sizzling in that Glasgow eaterie, was coming from a rising member of that British establishment.

Professor Sir Thomas Martin Devine became a Knight Bachelor in this year’s Queen’s Birthday Honours. Back in 2005 he had been made an Officer of the Order of the British Empire (OBE). I turned down an OBE in 1999. For two reasons. I don’t believe journalists, who value their credibility, should accept state honours.

I also think baubles celebrating the British Empire are so nineteenth century. For my pains I’m the one who for years, in this great constitutional debate, has been routinely branded a traitor and quisling by internet trolls just for asking difficult questions. I’ve been berated in Milngavie station car park, in the presence of my wife and two sons, by a drunk nationalist in a suit, banging on our car window with his fists, hurling a stream of obscenities through the glass. After one particularly nasty episode of online abuse I was told, by a mutual friend, that a member of the current Scottish cabinet, someone I’ve known for thirty years or more, expressed some regret but added, “It had to be done”!

But back to Tom’s reasoned case for yes. He bases it on two assertions. One is his claim that the present 307-year-old union has now become a “destabilising” influence across the archipelago we call the British Isles. The other is “a silent transformation of the Scottish economy”, whose sheer resilience ensures “not even the most enthusiastic unionist nowadays would suggest that the Scottish nation cannot go it alone”.

I’m puzzled. If the 1707 union has become such an undermining force in recent times, how has the Scottish economy, still dependent on trade with the rest of these islands for the vast majority of its activity, managed to pull off such a transformation, amidst all that constitutional turbulence? And in an increasingly digitally-connected world – where transnational corporate power has no end of ploys for by-passing the revenue needs of national treasuries – can any nation credibly “go it alone”?

As a journalist, I’ve lived day and daily with the evolution of the Scottish economy for three and a half decades. In economic terms, nations going it alone is no longer on offer anywhere in the developed world. It’s a concept utterly devoid of meaning in the 21st century. And, in their heart of hearts, the principal promoters of the choice Tom Devine is now advocating know this.

That’s why the SNP is advocating a continuing currency union with the rest of these islands. And it’s why they are already committing an independent Scotland to membership of the European Union whether people in the rest of what we currently call the United Kingdom decide to stay or go. If we do end up using the pound formally or informally, while simultaneously trying to renegotiate our independent membership of the EU, we certainly won’t be going it alone.

If Tom had spent as long as I have talking to businesses, large and small, in every corner of Scotland – writing literally millions of words about the competitive challenges they face – he would have thought twice about claiming, as he does, “The English and imperial markets were once a great seduction for Scotland, but now Europe is of great importance”.

I agree with the imperial bit. Tom devoted a whole book, Scotland’s Empire, to our considerable role in colouring so much of the 18th and 19th century globe red. As he put it there: “The Scots were not only full partners in this grand design but were at the very cutting edge of British global expansion”.

All true but all gone, except in the heraldic niceties of the British honours system. However his suggestion that England (or, more accurately, the rest of the UK) has lost its market seduction is, frankly, tosh. The rest of this archipelago remains, by far, the dominant market for Scottish goods and services.

And the relative seamlessness of the UK single market, built up over centuries, remains an object lesson to an EU for whom a common currency is still a work-in-progress. Only 18 of the 28 members states have adopted the euro. And its imperfect single market, five years on from the great crash, still struggles to rediscover growth and ward off deflation.

Tom Devine includes financial services in what he calls Scotland’s “resilient economic system”. Remarkably he has absolutely nothing to say about our two major banks – RBS and Bank of Scotland – whose near-death experiences were instrumental in triggering the 2008 crash. They only survive today because of massive UK state support.

And, since Tom made his declaration, five banks, including those two, and two major pensions and savings providers have all announced plans, in the event of a yes vote, to re-domicile south of the border. Some on the yes side, like their latest convert Russel Griggs OBE – yes, another officer of the Order of the British Empire – argue it will have no effect on jobs. But that’s not the point. Corporate control will move south. I repeat from my last post, an independent Scotland could be left with the Airdrie Savings Bank as its biggest indigenous bank. Resilient? Not a word I’d reach for if that happens.

Tom also argues that, only through asserting our sovereignty, “can we develop a truly amicable relationship with our great southern neighbour”. Another fine Scottish historian, Professor Colin Kidd of St Andrews profoundly disagrees with that conclusion. Were Scotland to “go it alone”, as Tom Devine would have it, Kidd senses trouble ahead.

There wouldn’t be a return to the warfare of the Middle Ages, he acknowledges. “But, after any divorce – as we know – there’s a bit of unhappiness and anger followed by paths diverging. Both sides increasingly pursue their own interests without reference to those of their former partner.” So where Tom Devine sees only sustained amity, Colin Kidd sees protracted division.

The Devine declaration has something to say about the kind of world Scotland, trying to go it alone, would enter. He notes that the end of the Second World War and the collapse of the old Soviet empire have ensured ‘there is no obvious other at the moment”, any geopolitical threat requiring heightened internal security. Is he seriously asking us to believe there are none?

What about the bloody Russian incursion into Eastern Ukraine, on the eastern flank of the European Union? What about the abduction to Moscow, from within Estonia, a full EU member state in the Baltic, of one of its officials on grounds of ‘spying’? With the European Union, the US and others ratcheting up sanctions against Moscow, are the provocative antics of Vladimir Putin not a more destablising threat to us all at this moment than a union that saw us through two world wars in the last century?

And what about that young Muslim woman from Glasgow, travelling to Syria to join Isil without her parents’ knowledge, and now preaching murder and hate against the culture she left behind. Or the aid worker from Perth, David Haines, so brutally beheaded in the Syrian desert? Is that not another deeply-troubling ‘other’ confronting us all right here and now?

Tom Devine is entitled to his judgement that the 1707 political union is no longer fit for purpose. In his declaration he chides both Alexander McCall Smith and George Galloway for failing to come up with any “data” to support their contention that this referendum is turning Scotland into a divided society.

But where is the hard evidence, data, call it what you will, to substantiate his own contention that the political union that is the United Kingdom is now undermining life on these islands so much it has produced a Scottish economy so resilient we can confidently go it alone? No matter how often I read his own declaration, I can find not a shred of hard evidence in it.

There’s a closing reference to the 19th century French historian Ernest Renan. Renan’s concept of a nation, Tom tells us, “is that it can be ephemeral, it’s not there forever”. He then uses that idea of lack of national permanency to insinuate that the union of 1707 is one “whose time has come”. Tonight Tom Devine is giving a lecture at Glasgow University entitled The Decline (and possibly imminent fall?) of the Anglo-Scottish Union 1950-2014.

But Renan was writing about the life spans of nations, not the endurance of political or trading pacts between nations. He was writing in the 1880s, before the Commonwealth of Australia had been formed from a collection of crown colonies. Or Canada or India had been granted independence. He was writing in the context of imperial ambitions and empire building, not in the era of global institutions, like the United Nations or the World Bank and regional trading and defence pacts. Where is the evidence that the nations of either Scotland or England are feeling remotely ephemeral?

Tom Devine claims McCall Smith and Galloway are “just whistling in the wind”. I trust he doesn’t have to do too much whistling tonight. And, of course we’ll all soon discover who’s whistling in what wind on Friday morning.



  1. Outstanding article If this is all about ‘us taking control’ – why does this not haunt the Yesparate?
    “… five banks, including those two, and two major pensions and savings providers have all announced plans, in the event of a yes vote, to re-domicile south of the border. Some on the yes side… argue it will have no effect on jobs. But that’s not the point. Corporate control will move south…” Ahem – Exactly!


  2. Very interesting article. As one of the no voting English (actually half Australian 3/8 English and 1/8 Irish – but I do also have a touch of Hamilton blood) I do have a question that I don’t know the answer to.

    RBS is 85% owned by the UK tax payer. If Scotland do vote Yes who owns them? If the rUK ends up owning most of it then would the rUK politicians really allow it to stay a Scottish business? I know this sounds like a troll and I may have missed something obvious but I really would be interested in knowing


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