Scottish voters are heading to the ballot box Thursday to vote on of the most important issues in the history of the United Kingdom. Among those watching the vote closely is Tom Holland, one of Britain's top historians and an avid backer of the "no" campaign. In an interview with The WorldPost the day before the referendum, Holland shared why this vote is so important in British history and why he thinks Scots should vote against independence.
How did you arrive at the Unionist perspective?
I had a youthful fling with Scottish nationalism and became completely seduced by it for a couple months, but then reacted against it. My experience of how exciting it is to be a Scottish nationalist kind of served as an inoculation and left me with an abiding fascination with the issue. So once the referendum was announced I was completely gripped and obsessed by it.
It forced me to define myself as being against it, and as someone who instinctively prefers to stand on the sidelines, it was quite uncomfortable doing that. I found that I really do as a principle think that the Union has worked successfully, and has the potential to work successfully in the future. Dividing up the island would in my opinion be a tragedy.
To what do you attribute the rise of the "yes" campaign in the polls?
I think you want to go back a bit to understand why nationalism has gone from being a kind of sideshow freak activity to very possibly sweeping to victory. I think in part it was the result of the trauma of the industrialization in the '80s.
I think more recently it’s the simple fact that the whole western financial system has gone through a massive aneurysm and everyone has been hurting. People look around for people or institutions to blame, and in Scotland people have tended to blame Westminster. When you throw into the mix a conservative-led government in London and an unbelievably skillful opportunist in Scottish parliament, you have the equivalent of a perfect storm.
I think of all the times to hold a referendum, the odds will never again be as heavily weighted in its favor as they are at the moment.
How do you view this in terms of British history?
I think it’s absolutely massive, I think it’s potentially the greatest constitutional upheaval that people of this island will go through since 1707. I think it’s very difficult to be a historian and not be completely obsessed with it, and the thing that’s wonderful from the historian's point of view is that it’s utterly rooted in history. I wish it hadn’t happened, I find it very painful, I find it hard to sleep at night, but it’s been the single most exciting political event in my lifetime.
How much of this referendum has to do with political discontent and how much has to do with a Scottish identity?
I think it’s a mix of both. One of the advantages the "yes" campaign has had is that the concept of an independent Scotland is a blank sheet onto which people of very different political and social aspirations can project their fantasies. The problem with the status quo is that you have to defend the system that by its very nature is flawed because all human political and economic systems are flawed.
But you feel given the alternative, the status quo is worth defending?
Well, I do. Looking at it in the historical perspective, England and Scotland achieved nothing comparable as distinct entities to what they achieved in the Union -- the Enlightenment and Industrial Revolution and victory over Napoleon, Kaiser, Hitler, and the establishment of the welfare state. All these great achievements worth celebrating.
But the greatest achievement of all is that two ancient peoples whose previous history had largely consisted of taking large chunks out of each other managed to come together and discovered that actually they were incredibly compatible. That their traditions were not so different that they couldn’t mix and mingle and achieve extraordinary things.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.