Interview: Tom Devine on the end of Scotland’s long love affair with Europe
The National, by Hugh McDonald
It has all the anguish, financial chaos and emotional turbulence of the end of a love affair.
Sir Tom Devine, by both professional imperative and private inclination, knows Scotland’s alliance with Europe was not born out of any fragile sentiment but he is aware that it has caused a deeply personal upset throughout the continent.
“I am in regular contact with European academics and they are uniformly dismayed at the prospect of Scotland severing a relationship that has so many layers,” he says.
Professor Devine, these islands’ pre-eminent historian, describes Brexit as “a disaster”, adding of its significance: “It is definitely up there with the Union of 1707. This is enormous. Remember, 1707 was not a democratic vote. This is a unique experience in the history of Scotia.”
A historian lauded for his work on the Clearances, the fabric of a nation’s growth and the reverberations of its diaspora, it is personally fascinating to hear him trace Scotland’s relationship with Europe.
Like most things, this bonding started with money. However, it has deepened over almost 1000 years to something that touches every aspect of human experience. “It is wider and deeper than any economic considerations,” he says. “It covers matters academic, educational, religious, political, cultural. It was a total meshed experience.”
Before looking at the implications of Brexit, Professor Devine outlines the purely Scottish experience with Europe that had its roots in the 12th century.
“If you take mainland Britain, then Scotland has long been the less insular part,” he says. “The historical theory is that was because of Scotland’s relative poverty. People had to go abroad. A French proverb of the 12th century sates: ‘Rats, lice and Scotchmen, you find them everywhere’. The Scots were nomadic from an early age.”
He points out that between the between the 12th century and the 18th century the Scottish link with Europe was extraordinarily powerful.
“If you look from the 12th century until today and divide it up into centuries, Scotland’s linkage with Europe has been longer than its link with the Commonwealth, the Empire or with England.”
He believes that this experience before the 18th century allowed Scotland to be the most efficient traders with the New World.
“What happened in the mercantile sense is that the lessons Scottish traders had learned in trading with Europe were simply transferred en bloc to the transatlantic area,” he says.
It was economics that underpinned the relationship with Europe but this affair of the pocket became one of the heart, mind and even soul.
“Much of the emigration from Scotland is a matter of the scale of the poverty,” he says. One of the major exports were the “men of violence” who largely never came back, dying from wounds or illness on foreign fields. “The only nation that comes near the scale of this mercenary culture is Switzerland,” he says.
There were crucially less belligerent emigrants. Europe was populated by a class of educated Scots who informed the thinking, the philosophy and the very culture of their adopted lands.
“The University of Paris, the Harvard of its day, had 19 Scottish rectors between its inception in the late 11th century and the Reformation. We know Scots taught Ignatius Loyola, Erasmus and other notabilia,” he says.
These educated Scots were the product of the church in pre-Reformation days but had to go abroad not only to earn money but to develop their learning.
“They would not go to Oxford and Cambridge then because they were essentially ecclesiastical colleges. As late as the 1760s, Adam Smith went to Balliol on an exhibition and he wrote to his mother: ‘The professors here have given up even the smallest pretence of teaching’.”
Scottish education, in contrast, was a ‘’hothouse environment’’ where stipends were linked to class sizes so only the most efficient could survive.
But there was an originality in thought that was characterised by the Scottish Enlightenment and that, too, strengthened ties with Europe.
Professor Devine says: “Voltaire said: ‘We look to Scotland for all our ideas of civilisation’. But it was a two-way process. The Scots had an intellectual umbilical cord direct to the great European centre of learning which the English did not. England was a richer, more powerful society so had a degree of self-sufficiency that leads to insularity.”
These Caledonian bonds with Europe now are set to be severed. “It will be a disaster, if it happens,” says Professor Devine.
He adds: “I have been astonished by the uncritical acceptance of the national media that it is inevitable. How can it be inevitable when you think of the hurdles to be crossed? It could take 10 years. That is two General Elections.
“There is also the reality that every single one of the 27 states have to agree to their terms. I would say Brexit is 50-50.”
He is certain, though, about the problem faced by the Scottish Government. “It is in a much more difficult place in terms of an independence referendum than it was in 2014,” he says.
The Scottish Government has been “boxed in” by Westminster, he says. He adds of Nicola Sturgeon and the SNP: “They have this enormous choice; they have a referendum that they might not win, which will be the end of nationalism for the current generation or more. Or they don’t go for it and that will be worse than when Gordon Brown marched his party up to the top the hill and back down again, not calling an election and suffering the consequences. What an awful choice.”
He says: “The question remains: is leaving Europe – with which we have spiritual, cultural, economic, historical and political connections – a big enough a hook to lure the basis for an independence referendum victory?”
He points out that the SNP could find room for manoeuvre by exploiting the distinction between passing a bill announcing a referendum and triggering a referendum. “My view would be that the Scottish government makes a distinction between those formulations,” he says.
The love affair between Scotland and Europe is not yet over. But divorce with England still is far from certain.
Greatest European thinker?
I would certainly include Einstein, Leonardo da Vinci, Michelangelo and Mozart. This is a highly personal list but there is a range there of science, humanities and music
European writers who influenced you?
The early writers would be Petrarch, Cicero and then, going on to the Renaissance, Dante. I love Moliere because he has a deep insight into the comedy of human life.
The Annales school in Paris. Total history within a comparative framework of reference. Emmanuel Le Roi Laderie, Lucien Febvre, Marc Bloch were influential to me and, I believe, the Annales is globally the most influential school of the 20th century.
The two heartlands for me are France and Italy. France has a culture that respects the world of the mind. And it has brilliant cuisine.
The Shadows. Bury me to Hank Marvin playing
Going Home from Local
Hero on a