Book review: Independence or Union - Scotland’s Past and Scotland’s Present

TM DEVINE’s new book is an excellent guide to how Scottish nationalism has revived to become a threat to the integrity of the United Kingdom. 

Devine supported a ‘yes’ vote in the Scottish independence referendum, but his book is balanced in its judgements on Scotland’s historical development and contemporary politics, as one would expect from Scotland’s leading historian, and a model of clarity.

Support for the 1707 Union of Scotland and England was initially patchy. Anti-Union rebellions by the Jacobite supporters of the Stuart claim to the Scottish throne in 1715 and 1745 showed how divided Scotland was over the question of Union.

These political divisions were only gradually overcome. The development of the British empire helped tie Scotland’s elites to the Union. Scots were overrepresented in the administration of empire and many made their fortunes in India. The Union protected Scottish Protestantism and gave Scots and English a common British identity as non-Catholics.

Gradually, the benefits of Union were dispersed more widely. Britain’s rise to global power helped fund economic development in Scotland.

Glasgow described itself as the ‘empire’s second city’ as the city expanded through trade and ship building. Culturally, Scotland’s identity was developed by Victorian patronage and romantic visions of Scotland’s past, and by pride in Scottish feats of arms in the imperial service.

The first half of the 20th century strengthened Scotland’s place in the Union.

Two World Wars and the development of a national welfare state cemented emotional and economic bonds. Strong support for the Scottish Labour Party and the Unionist Party (as the Tories were known in Scotland) meant that the vast majority of voters identified with unionist parties.

This all changed after 1960.

The Scottish National Party’s rise was not inevitable. Devine argues that there is no single cause for the weakening of unionist bonds.

The end of empire and Britain’s economic malaise played a part. Changing the name of the Unionist Party to the Conservative Party alienated some voters. More generally, social and demographic changes fed the rise of the SNP, as did a wider appreciation of Scotland’s history and culture.

Westminster did not deal with these changes well. Devolution was side-tracked even though it had majority support in the 1979 referendum. Margaret Thatcher’s election victory shortly after the referendum killed any chance of moving on devolution.

Thatcher’s economic policies hastened Scottish industrial decline. Her political persona alienated many Scots. Those not put off by her personality were offended by her testing the poll tax in Scotland before its introduction in the rest of the UK.

Thatcherism fed Scottish nationalism’s grievances, but New Labour gave the SNP the chance to flourish.

Tony Blair’s creation of a Scottish Parliament made the SNP develop as a more rounded party with a fuller policy agenda, and forced it to reach out to a wider circle of voters. New Labour’s mistakes — like the Iraq War and its inability to ease Scotland’s economic travails — propelled the SNP into power through Scotland’s parliament.

In office, the SNP began to look like a party that could govern an independent country. Calls for a referendum on independence were inevitable. The 2014 independence referendum saw independence rejected, but ensured the SNP’s political dominance: it trounced all comers in the 2015 Westminster election and ended Labour’s control over Scotland’s Westminster seats.

The SNP’s ascendancy means that Scotland’s place in the United Kingdom can no longer be taken for granted. London still has to come to terms with the problems that led to the SNP’s rise, and deal with them. Growing English nationalism and parochialism may revive Scottish calls for independence.

Devine is not hopeful that there is the wit or will in London to restore Scottish faith in the Union. If any Westminster politician wants to try, they should start by reading his book for some clues.

* Neil Robinson is professor of politics at the University of Limerick

Independence or Union. Scotland’s Past and Scotland’s Present

TM Devine

Allen Lane, £20


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