Written by Felix Carpenter.
A review of Professor Sir Tom Devine’s lecture ‘Scotland and Europe: The past shaping the future’, September 2016.
Sir Tom Devine enters the stage, introduced as the foremost historian of modern Scottish history. Professor Devine is that unusual thing: an establishment figure who in 2014 supported Scottish independence, at the cost of – he would later remind his audience – the friendship of our last Labour Prime Minister. While this lecture more directly pointed itself towards the realities of Brexit Britain rather than the Neverendum, the two naturally conflated as the hour drew on. Whatever the politics at hand, Professor Devine has a rare grasp of Scottish political and social affairs of the past few centuries. Among his first remarks, ‘the future is not my period’.
It is a peculiarity of British Imperial history that Scots were so overrepresented in colonial pursuits of all kinds. During the nineteenth century, between a quarter and a third of all posts in the Empire were filled by Scots, even though their number made up only a tenth of the United Kingdom’s population. Today, when Scots think of their role in the past internationally, it is this phenomenon that is most striking. But Professor Devine’s thesis requires us to delve back deeper, to an ‘old Scotia’ obscured by amnesic clouds. A picture is painted of Scots as a nomadic people; restless, transient, mercantile. During the seventeenth century it is estimated up to 60,000 Scots descended onto the European continent in search of prosperity. Professor Devine inserts his eponymous ‘Devine Paradox’ theory, that by 1851 Scotland was the most industrialised country per capita in Europe, yet had almost the highest levels of emigration.
A series of politically potent historical curiosities are brought up. Scots colonising Poland, with 400 merchant communities lining the Vistula. The phrase ‘as mean as a Scot’ emerged from this, describing a certain Thomas Chalmers, known for his ability to undercut Polish rival businesses due to his unscrupulousness. These Scots were also nicknamed ‘the Jews of Poland’ for this tendency. After the Reformation, the Act of Union of 1707 and the Jacobite rebellions, political refugees fled south to the low countries, and in turn brought back the intellectual European idealism that would flower into the Scottish Enlightenment. Non-industrialised nations, such as the Russia of Peter and Catherine the Great, sought highly trained Scottish engineers and doctors to boost society – Professor Devine offering the truism ‘Beam me up, Scotty!’. By 1760 Scottish banks were owed a non-inflation adjusted £2.6 million across the globe, due to their ambitious global credit schemes.
In the pre-Empire era, it was Europe that dominated Scottish internationalism, but it was these internationalist forays that positioned Scots so naturally to assume the imperial banner and lead Britain’s exploits in the following century. Professor Devine notes that £10,000 worth of that total of Scottish loans was to a certain George Washington of Virginia. Scotland was already looking beyond the European continent. Concluding, Professor Devine refers to former US Secretary of State Dean Acheson’s phrase, ‘Great Britain has lost an Empire and has not yet found a role’. His parting question: whether Scotland will find its role either in Europe or as part of the UK? Brexit is mentioned, but doubt is cast on its materialisation.
In the question and answer session, I go back to a point made in the lecture about the lack of pro-Brexit voices in mainstream Scottish politics – particularly the Scottish National Party – and whether this is due to a genuine pro-European sentiment or politicised anti-Englishness. The response points to polls showing more violent opposition in Scotland to the perceived unreformed, opaque European bureaucracy than even in England, as well as to a general lack of knowledge about European institutions or European representatives among Scots; tellingly, anti-Englishness is not addressed. The last question of the evening asks whether the hypothesised European connection is overshadowed by the Anglo-Scottish relationship, and union. Professor Devine fumbles momentarily, and then offers wryly ‘when you are in bed together you get the warmth, but it can be too warm.’