Taking the long view


Taking the long view

One of Scotland’s best known historians shares his thoughts on Scotland, Brexit and the lessons of history.

The Open House interview (this is the third which makes it a tradition) is always tinged with self-indulgence in so far as it has to be of primary interest to the interviewer.  Professor Sir Tom Devine was admired by me of course through his best-selling histories of Scotland, media appearances, and cultural icon status. I was therefore eager to meet him in person for what would be the first time. We met in Glasgow city centre in the late afternoon, early July rain stoating off the pavements as we sorted out a mix up about times (my fault), and engaged immediately over refreshment. It should be said at the outset that what followed was more interplay than interview and two hours later I drove home with the over-stimulated happy energy that used to follow Christmas Eve at the shows. He is GREAT company!

My questions centred around his latest publication Independence or Union (reviewed in this edition by Dan Gunn); his views on Scotland’s relationship with Europe and the UK in light of the European referendum result; and the place of historical perspective in current social and political discourse. (I do try not to let you down).  Off we went. Nearly.

Alan Taylor, in his Herald review, had described Independence or Union as Sir Tom’s best yet.  I didn’t agree.  Did he?   Probably not, as it turned out, but first we had to clarify something else.  Was I the Lynn Jolly who comes up on Google as a journalist working in Paisley?  No.  And what did I know about interaction among the Scottish Bishops?  Nothing.  Hoping my Glasgow University graduate credentials would gain me some lost ground I offered them up. They didn’t.  Of course not.  He began his academic career at the University of Strathclyde and has held the Edinburgh University chair in what he lovingly refers to as ‘the Queen of Disciplines’ since 2005.  As professorial chairs in history go it’s the oldest and the most distinguished.  And it’s in Edinburgh.  I regrouped.  So what about the book then?  He waved a hand at it lying on the table between us and cited instead his more formal academic works.  Had I read Clanship to Crofters’ War: The Social Transformation of the Scottish Highlands? Or The Great Highland Famine for which he won the Saltire Award in 1989?  Or indeed, The Transformation of Rural Scotland: 1660-1815?

At this point I forbore to tell him that I had more or less freelanced through a first degree, attending the Grosvenor Cinema and reading little more than Alice Walker.  By now I was almost wishing I WAS that journalist in Paisley and had never heard of Open House.  Except that none of this was delivered with a grain of pomposity or condescension, so that I felt quite flattered that he might even pretend to wonder if I was in a position to compare his popular publications with the work of which he, clearly and justifiably, is most proud.  By these gracious means we established that the popular stuff constituted my knowledge base when, suddenly, I realised he was addressing a better question, in full erudite flow:

‘Scotland has never been insular.  For reasons of poverty, necessity, trade and culture we have always looked outward, often to continental Europe, and sought to establish links and lives of greater prosperity elsewhere in the world.  (In what IS my favourite of his Scottish trilogy, To The Ends of the Earth, he tells this story of diaspora.)  What’s more the close Irish/Scottish relationship and the cultural and social impact of Catholicism provides a further natural and empathetic connection to the rest of Europe, beyond the United Kingdom.  The historic trade links with France and Spain are cases in point and Italian and Polish migration into Scotland has enhanced it further. (He co-edited Scotland and Poland: A History, 2011). It would have been very surprising therefore if Scotland had voted to leave the European project, not because many concerns don’t abide here, but simply because those connections and aspirations are still quite real.  They are historical but also embedded’.

This is interesting, of course, and I ask him if he thinks Scottish independence is now more likely following the European referendum.  He ponders.  Hesitant, I think, after reflecting long over his public support for a Yes vote in 2014, and perhaps reluctant to be pinned down to outcome predictions.  Not a bit of it.  While I’m busy projecting my own ambivalence he has flagged down the waiter, assured himself of my comfort, and is a paragraph into another diverting response:

‘Much of what’s happening today socially and politically embodies the opposite of enlightenment values.  Scotland didn’t have a monopoly on the enlightenment but we were instrumental in it.  The importance of critical, evaluative thinking was given a status here that until recently was still very evident.  A politician like the late Donald Dewar embodied what I mean: someone in public life who was clearly in it out of principle and because of a motivation to change things for the better for other people.  Crucial to that was his intellectual and moral hinterland.  He had a wealth of learning and thought on which to draw and into which he could retreat.  And he wasn’t alone.

‘It’s disturbing how that seems to be so absent now.  I have the sense that our current leaders would rather relax in front of a soap opera than read a book.  That might be unfair but there is a shallowness about our culture that politics is doing nothing to counter.  Actually it buys into it.  I’m perplexed by all the cult around celebrity for example, the media time given over to the deaths of celebrities is quite bizarre.  Some of this has to do with that abandonment of enlightenment values but it is also linked to a loss of religion.  I’m not especially devout but religion gave us a framework that encouraged altruism, a sense of common good, community.  It gave us some less appealing things too for sure, but its loss is leaving a gap in which a lot of disturbing stuff can flourish.  Its ultimate loss allowed for Nazism of course which is its polar opposite……Scottish independence is now more likely but timing is important’.

I have the sense that he’s gifting me more interesting answers than I deserve so I ask if he thinks, therefore, that what passes for current political debate is too overlaid with easy emotion for us to be assured of ANY desirable outcome?  And, if so, what hope can we find in history?

‘Well, yes. (Obviously!?)  The European referendum debate was fed by emotion ridden xenophobia so it was hard to hope for anything good.  Although that was thankfully less true in Scotland.  The SNP are currently providing an alternative WITHIN a system rather than an alternative TO it and so far that’s probably wise.  But we’re not free of the pitfalls I was talking about it.  There’s a shallowness at the top too that needs to be addressed and needs time.  It needs to mature.

‘Brexit has changed everything in the political landscape, but history, and certainly Scottish history, tells us that ‘everything’ changes a lot of the time.  This is a big one but not unparalleled.  What’s important to learn from history is to allow it to unfold a little before acting, or RE-acting, which never makes for a good outcome.  That’s the trick and it’s a difficult one. To judge when to act in response to events.  For all that, I also find some hope among ordinary people.  I think people are still, mostly, willing to be generous and decent.  They want something better.  That in itself is hopeful’.

We’ve been at it for over an hour.  My notes are indecipherable scribbles on which I’ve more or less given up.  Listening to him is like turning up at one of those lectures you go to just out of interest and find yourself utterly absorbed.  It’s also in a way like talking with a much cleverer, kindly relative who refuses to patronise or sanitise, but simply enjoys sharing with you a fraction of his thoughts and leaves you to make what you will.

In concluding we touch on other such men: Tom Winning; his own hero James Black, the Uddingston boy who won the Nobel Prize for Medicine; and, with an instinct I’m grateful for, I ask him about one of mine, who I’m sure he must have known: William McIlvanney.  His whole demeanour, already warmly relaxed, softens further and he regales me for another twenty minutes with stories of his friend.  I tell him that Docherty was the first work of fiction I read that sounded like the voice of my own childhood.  As he nods sadly it feels like one of those moments of mutuality that bridges all sorts of difference.

We leave into the bouncing rain, still talking.  He asks me how Open House is received by the Catholic hierarchy. ‘With caution,’ I say, after some thought.  He’s laughing as he heads to the station. ‘That’s very reassuring!’

Lynn Jolly is arts editor of Open House and works with people with learning difficulties in the prison system.


Feb/Mar 2020

In June 2019 Open House held a conference exploring possible new directions for the Catholic Church in Scotland. See conference papers.

Open House also held a conference on the role of lay people in the governance of the Catholic Church in November 2013. See conference papers.