The Road to Independence? Scotland since the Sixties

May 8, 2008

Murray Pittock is one of Scotland's most prolific academic authors, and he has long worked within and across the disciplinary boundaries of history writing and literary studies. His books are always worth reading, although they do not always convince. His objective in this volume is especially ambitious: to cover the political, economic, social and cultural history of Scotland over the past four decades or so of extraordinary change in all of these spheres.

Pittock's publishers wax lyrical about the book and stir expectations: it is "the only history of Scotland available with a truly contemporary focus ... remarkably comprehensive", covering everything from modern printing to political structures. The contents of the volume do not always justify these bold claims.

There are, however, some things of value in it. Pittock has interesting points to make about the complicated relations between England and Scotland in the post-devolution era, while nationalism, its rise, nature and impact are rarely far from the central focus of the discussion. He also spots yet another "Scottish renaissance" - they seem to come regularly at 40 to 50-year intervals - in national culture.

In short compass, some of the peaks of this new vitality are well described, although the reader would probably want more explanation of the reasons for these developments and their overall effect on the wider society.

Too often, modern Scottish literature in particular is seen through a parochial lens. An examination of where it stands internationally would not only be intriguing but an antidote to overenthusiastic navel-gazing. Surprisingly, however, in a history book, modern Scottish historiography receives scant attention, although the major advances in the study of the nation's past over the last quarter of a century are widely recognised as a key and influential part of the new creativity.

But these weaknesses are trivial compared with a more fundamental problem with this volume. Since the early 1980s, Scotland has been transformed to an extent unknown since the era of the Industrial Revolution. The nation of the 1950s was closer in overall economic and social structure to the Victorian Age than to the modern country of 2008. Heavy industry, the old backbone of the economy, vanished in the 1980s to be replaced by a new order dominated by services, oil, finance, tourism and public-sector employment.

Living standards for the majority rose as never before, but the social divisions in the big cities between the affluent and the poor became if anything more marked. Over little more than a generation there was a revolution in social and occupational structure, in gender roles and in the scale of social mobility.

These themes have to be at the very heart of any serious history of modern Scotland. They certainly deserve at least as much space as politics and culture. Yet here they are dealt with only fleetingly or not at all. It is even more worrying that the publications of those sociologists, economists and historians who have begun to document these vast changes do not even appear in the notes or the bibliography of this book.

This, then, is a partial and somewhat idiosyncratic overview of Scottish history since the 1960s, with much of the real meat left out and a gaping hole at its centre.

The Road to Independence? Scotland since the Sixties

By Murray Pittock
Reaktion Books
ISBN 9781861893659
Published 15 March 2008

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