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Scotland

For better or for worse?

Scotland Transformed 1980-2008

The following article features extracts from a lecture given by PROFESSOR TOM DEVINE of the University of Edinburgh at a special event organised by the EIS. In his lecture, Professor Devine charted the transformation of Scotland over the past quarter century. The lecture was delivered during a week of sharp falls in the Stock Exchange and crisis in the international banking sector.

T

he question which is uppermost in my consciousness is to what extent is the intellectual architecture of what I’m about to say to you disturbed, destabilised or perhaps even deconstructed because of ‘recent events’, the maelstrom of the financial world that surrounds us.

What I’ve intended to do, for better or for worse, is to adhere to my original thesis, but to make some comments at the end, about the relationship, particularly in the last quartile of the century and the situation that we see today. I begin with some perceptions, emanating from the years

2004 -06, which I think are quite intriguing.

In the spring of 2004 the then Chair of Highlands and Islands Enterprise, in giving a pretty positive report to what was going on in Gaeldom for the Scottish Parliament, said that there is a kind of unremitting pessimistic commentary or narrative in this nation, especially among some of the commentariat. If I quote him correctly he said that we used to pay Ministers pittances, centuries ago, to tell us ‘that we are no bloody good’ and we now pay media persons and journalists in particular substantial fortunes to do the same thing.

Almost on cue, on New Years Day, 2006, Professor Niall Ferguson, a graduate not of a Scottish University but of one south of the Cheviots, and a former pupil of The Glasgow Academy, penned an extraordinary feature in the Daily Telegraph, arguing that Scotland should cease to be Scotland, should become North Britain, its assets sold off and liquidated. The “County Council” is what he described [the Scottish Parliament], should become “a shopping mall or a cinema complex”. He also argued that Scotland was “the Belarus of the West”. And then you go on to the Irish Times at the height of the arrogance of the “Irish tiger”. In 2005, an Irish Times journalist argued that Scotland was in a state of chronic dependency yet to be released by the kind of entrepreneurial stamina and energy so characteristic of Ireland.

14 Scottish Educational Journal December 08

I certainly want to refute some of these extraordinary claims. In fact, I would regard them not simply as claims, but as belonging to the realm of fantasy even in terms of opinioned fact, because there is no evidence in these claims. This nation has undergone a transformation in speed and depth and range which is not only unprecedented since the classical industrial revolution.

There is, to some extent, room for pessimism, room for negativism, room for Private Fraser – “we are doomed”. Is this characteristically Scottish? It seems certainly to be a stereotype. There does seem to be room for negativism as we move back to the late 1970s, early 1980s which is the beginning of my analysis. Humiliating defeat for the standard bearers of Scottish football at Argentina began the awful spiral downwards and perhaps that was more significant for most Scots, particularly Scottish men, than what was to follow. And then the debacle, depending of course, on your point of view, but certainly in terms of prodevolutionists and the debacle of the first devolution referendum. In a sense a narrow victory but not within the rules of the game. The nation split asunder in terms of its desire for such a change.

And then of course, in a sense the decisive change of direction for modern Scottish history – the election of a Conservative Government, in the middle of a major international economic crisis, a major hike in oil prices and the intimidation which had,

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