Scotland's Leading Historian Explains Why He Changed His Mind On Independence

A Yes poster displayed a house window in East Barnes, Scotland, Tuesday, Sept. 16, 2014. The two sides in Scotland's independ
A Yes poster displayed a house window in East Barnes, Scotland, Tuesday, Sept. 16, 2014. The two sides in Scotland's independence debate are scrambling to convert undecided voters, with just two days to go until a referendum on separation. Anti-independence campaigners are pushing home their message that a "No" vote doesn't mean the status quo. The three main British political parties are promising Scotland greater powers, including tax-raising authority, if it remains part of the United Kingdom. The Yes campaign says the promises are vague and reveal the No side's desperation, with polls suggesting the outcome will be close. Scottish Deputy First Minister Nicola Sturgeon said "the only way to guarantee the real powers we need in Scotland is to vote Yes." (AP Photo/Scott Heppell)

Renowned historian Sir Tom Devine has been a prominent voice for the pro-independence campaign in the lead-up to Scotland's big vote on Thursday. But the author and intellectual didn't always hold this view.

Devine tells the WorldPost of his journey from being pro-Union to backing independence. Rejecting the referendum as merely a symptom of nationalist fervor, he explains how frustration with the status quo and a historical perspective got him to 'Yes.'

What made you switch your mind on whether to vote "yes" or "no" in Thursday's referendum?

The first thing was the enormous error committed by David Cameron, the prime minister of the U.K., in not permitting three questions or options on the ballot paper: Status quo, independence and enhanced devolution. When Cameron made that decision the polls were suggesting that the no camp was very far ahead but that 80 percent of Scots would have preferred an enhanced devolution package. Cameron's decision showed the basic myopia and shortsightedness over the issue. Like so many other disenfranchised voters, I felt I had nowhere to go. I began to realize there were significant and serious problems in the union arrangement and even came to the conclusion that an enhanced devolution package would not solve the problem. Have many Scots followed the same path to the Yes-camp?

I think that this realization was actually not there previously to any significant extent, apart among zealots, but has developed during the campaign. That’s the reason why the no-vote has suffered over the last few months in terms of loss of votes -- if the current polls are accurate.

How did your position as a historian form the way you perceived this vote? Where does this place within Britain's history?

The extent of debate in pubs, among families, around the dinner table, on busses and trains is truly unprecedented. What we study as historians is change, and this is one of the most stunning and powerful and paradoxical changes that I can recall in European history over the last 200 years.

How much of this is about the unique character of Scotland and how much is political discontent?

It’s a long and complex journey and there are a number of reasons why this has happened. Fundamentally, however, and especially in more recent times, a political cleavage has occurred. While England seems wedded to a right-wing social and political agenda, people in Scotland overwhelmingly vote for leftist parties.

Do you think this is in some ways a backlash against measures like austerity?

I was asked by a journalist in 2002 whether there would there be an independent Scotland. Actually, the way he asked it was whether there "would there be a crisis in the union?"

As a historian, the future is not my period. I speculated, however, that the union could see a major crisis if the following four factors were in place: a left-wing nationalist majority government in Edinburgh; a right-leaning conservative government -- or in this case, coalition government -- in Westminster; an economic crisis either at the beginning, middle or early end; and finally a lackluster labor party, which would make the Scottish people doubt who would win the next general election and whether they would face another five years of rightist austerity policies. Lo and behold, that perfect storm is now in place.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.



Scottish Independence Referendum