Beleaguered people who gave birth to a nation

The Scottish Nation 1700-2000
March 10, 2000

T. M. Devine's version of the bittersweet story of Scottish exceptionalism is the tale of a people with a distinctive history, reluctantly manoeuvred into a union that offered them the hope of economic growth in exchange for political independence. It tells of how the Scots created one of the most advanced economies in the western world and saved themselves from becoming an economic satellite of England. It shows how they adapted to the changing fortunes of the economy and coped with problems that were peculiar to the "second industrial nation".

But it is also a story of political loss; of English politicians who knew little and cared less about Scotland's problems, and a Scots' political nation that seemed incapable of generating a politics that was worthy of itself and its country's special needs. However, unlike most exceptionalist histories of Scotland, this ends on a cautiously optimistic note with the devolution debate and the meeting - or as Winnie Ewing would put it, the "reconvening" - of the Holyrood parliament. In Devine's cautious words: "When the first Scottish parliament since 1707 met in Edinburgh in July of 1999, the Scottish nation undeniably embarked on another exciting stage in its long history."

For Devine, the history of the Scottish nation has been shaped at every point in its history by the economy, and it should be said at once that the chapters on the economy are outstanding - learned, lucid and unfailingly intelligent: well worth the price of the book. Devine is excellent on the speed and thoroughness with which the lowland and highland economies were exposed to commerce in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. He is scarcely less good on the pace of urbanisation and its consequences. He opens up one of the great, neglected mysteries of Scottish history - the migratory habits of rich and poor and the effects of migration on the domestic economy and the empire. He has useful if underdeveloped notes on the "new Scots" of the 19th and 20th centuries: the Irish, Italians, Lithuanians and Jews - the English, interestingly, do not get a look-in. It seems to show that the Scots paid a fairly high social price for rapid economic growth and a correspondingly higher social price for the economic difficulties of the past century. How far those difficulties differed in kind from those of the English or comparable regions of Europe is a question of a kind not admissible in exceptionalist histories such as this one.

Devine seems to think that peculiarly Scottish problems - if they were indeed peculiarly Scottish - demanded peculiarly Scottish answers, and Devine is clearly distressed that Scottish inventiveness did not stretch to politics. He seems genuinely puzzled that the intelligent improvers of 18th-century Scotland were prepared to put up with the political corruption of the Whig state; disappointed that more Scots did not take to radical politics at the turn of the 18th and 19th centuries, to Chartism or to the visionary evangelical nostrums of Thomas Chalmers. He is saddened by the fact that in the past century the left has had so little interest in Scotland's special problems. He rather likes proconsular figures such as Henry Dundas (Boswell's "Harry the Ninth"), Tom Johnson (Churchill's "king of Scotland") and Willie Ross, who rooted for Scotland, and in Johnson's case had a taste for economic and social planning.

This story of a union that failed Scotland politically needs to be set against one that Devine ignores altogether and is, in its way, every bit as important to the history of the Scottish "nation" as the development of the economy. That is, the role of civil society in Scotland after the union and the part played by the landed and middle classes - particularly the professional middle classes - in ensuring its survival. It was the fact that Scotland retained a distinctive civil society and a motivated magisterial class that prevented it from turning into a political satellite of England. It was this managerial elite that developed and marketed that remarkable culture of identity that helped mould a distinctive Scottish nation. We need to be reminded that throughout the period of the union, the law, the kirk, the banks and the institutions of central and local government remained firmly under the control of landed and urban elites, tightly knit by kinship and culture and by a shared belief in the general beneficence of the union for themselves and their country. Devine fails to realise that Presbyterianism and Enlightenment had as much to do with training the minds of this magisterial class as with preparing the labouring classes for the market.

Presbyterianism and Enlightenment gave them a faith - at times visionary - in the civilising power of law, a somewhat austere sense of humanity and a stoic belief in the moral value of education and self-command.

This enlightened Presbyterian creed allowed the magisterial class to adopt a fine and occasionally contemptuous detachment from the hurly-burly of Westminster politics, in the belief that it was better to cut Scottish bargains behind the scenes, rather than on the floor of the Houses of Parliament. And while Devine would be right to reply that this was no way to deal with structural problems as large and distinctive as those that he thinks afflicted Scotland, it was a training that was to turn them into formidable civil servants and visionary planners of the early 20th century.

But what is of great relevance to Devine's story is that this was the class that developed that distinctive sense of national identity and that has turned the Scottish people into a Scottish nation. The evolution of the cult of Burns, Scott and tartan Balmorality, the historiography of Scottish exceptionalism - of which this volume is by no means the least distinguished example - was passed on to the Scottish people and used to construct one of the most remarkable of Scotland's contributions to the culture of the West: a sense of how a few beleaguered people could survive as a chosen people in a world in which small nations seemed doomed to extinction.

Nicholas Phillipson is reader in history, University of Edinburgh.

The Scottish Nation 1700-2000

Author - T. M. Devine
ISBN - 0 713 99351 0
Publisher - Allen Lane The Penguin Press
Price - £25.00
Pages - 696

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