Book review: Independence or Union by TM Devine

February 18, 2016
Allen Lane, £30

“What on earth is going on in Scotland?” This question is eagerly asked when people find out you are Scottish. Well now there’s an answer—hand them a copy of TM Devine’s new book and say: “It’s quite complicated, but it started a while ago. Have a read of this.”

Devine, if he hadn’t already been knighted for services to Scottish history, would have been high on a list for preferment after this new work, which tells the story of Scotland from union in 1707 to the present day. Briskly, clearly and fairly, he sketches a complex and detailed history, bringing new life and fresh perspectives to old stories.

His aim was to write a history “with a commitment to impartiality, the use of representative evidence and the due respect for conflicting opinions.” This he has done brilliantly. The success of the union is well sketched. As is Scotland’s role in the British Empire—for good and ill, and the making and maintaining of a Scottish identity.

The rise of nationalism since 1960 and the SNP’s struggle with Scottish Labour take up more than half the book. Honours in that fight are more evenly divided in historical perspective than they seem now. On Labour’s side, the social, economic, physical and cultural transformation of Scotland culminating in the establishment of a Scottish Parliament. On the SNP’s side, nearly 10 years of government that delivered a lost referendum.

As for what happens next, Devine cannot tell us much and the book ends in the uncertainty of that future.